Organic Prose: (Post)Modern Persian Fiction and the Idea of Iranian Literary Modernity

As part of a series of three panels and a roundtable session on the topic of Iranian literary modernity, this panel’s central theme is the line that both divides and connects modern Persian literature with its postmodern outgrowths. It deals in the main with treatments of twentieth century Persian literature that seek to destabilize analytical accounts that discount organic developments as they emerge from the porous foundations of indigenous fiction writing. In this vein, a major impetus behind the creation of this panel was to generate interest in tracing epistemic transformations through intensive primary source investigation and in view of local and regional linkages.

The panel seeks to reveal the nuanced relationship between traditional, modern and postmodern categories, thus penetrating through narratives that package each pivotal moment in modern Persian literary development as decisive breaks with the past. This critique is presented with gravitas in Hamid Rezaei Yazdi's "Looking Back at the Future." His paper offers an alternative paradigm for historicizing Iranian literary modernity through an examination of the internal literary traditions that informed Jamālzādah's modernity. Of particular importance was Jamālzādah's recasting of the classical genre of munāzirah (debate) as a contestation between the new and old rather than the moral question of right or wrong. In "Ahrīman in Iran's Embrace," Arshavez Mozafari demonstrates how the nationalist romanticism of Sādiq Hidāyat (1903-1951/1282-1330 sh.) and Buzurg 'Alavī (1904-1997/1283-1376 sh.) should not be reduced to a crude and perfunctory anti-Arabism, but a revitalized reflection on the Iranian demonological tradition. Through the collusion of demonic amorism and secularist polemics and other themes, the nationalist romanticism of both authors interacted with and advanced prevailing demonological norms in Iranian society. In "Historical Meta-narrative and Perception of Time in Iranian Postmodernist Literature," Ingrid Naumann discusses the characteristics of Iranian postmodernism as an idiosyncratic phenomenon determined by a return to the roots and sources of Persian culture, space and time as a discourse with one's own cultural identity and past. Closely related is Imad Khalaf's Persian paper, "A Look at Contemporary Persian Novel Titles." This work analyzes postmodern novel titles as not only representatives of content and devices of marketability, but also expressions of an internal logic and dynamism that can be traced back to distinct historical conditions of emergence.


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A literary work comes into being with a title of its own. It is usually recognized, admired and remembered in the readers’ world by means of its title. Hence the title of a literary work performs some important functions. First, it reflects and represents the textual content of a literary work. Second, it endows an identity to a literary work. Furthermore, it persuades readers into purchasing a literary work, or borrowing it from a library. In other words, it serves to entrap readers into reading a literary work. Therefore, one must unravel and explore the internal dynamics and diversity of literary titles in the history of Persian literature.
The current research examines the titles of novels in contemporary Persian literature by following the methods of ‘literary dynamism’ (pūyish-shināsaneh). It identifies significant titles from different historical periods of novel writing in Iran, and it undertakes a critical appraisal of these titles. This study benefits from the insights of Gérard Genette who made foundational and original contributions to the theoretical exposition of literary titles. It is also informed by Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive approach, particularly his formulations of ‘binary opposition’ and ‘différance’.
The text cannot come to the world without a title. Therefore, even though a title is on the periphery it is no less important than the text/center; this is what is meant by using ‘binary opposition’ in this context. ‘Différance,’ on the other hand, implies that the meaning of the title of a literary work, in spite of its brevity and variety, is potentially infinite and constantly deferred.
In this context, it is important to pay greater attention to the attributes of the titles than to the demands of a theoretical approach. Instead of subjugating the titles of novel to the demands of a specific theory or approach, this study believes that the titles of novels are capable of both guiding current investigation and providing clues for theoretical extrapolation. Like an honest guide, the titles of novels help us find our way in the deep night of literary texts, and they eventually direct us to the shore of wellbeing. Like a firm anchor, they safeguard novels from the throes of waves in the sea of literary texts, thus saving them from getting submerged and destroyed.

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Placed in evaluative rather than historical terms, Mohammad Ali Jamalzadeh’s collection of short stories Yakī Būd Yakī Nabūd (Once Upon a Time, 1921) is said, in standard accounts of modern Iranian literature, to have marked the decisive break with traditional modes of writing and initiated “modern” prose literature in Iran. The latent sense of belatedness in the ideological and ahistorical paradigms which inform such accounts (advent, founder, imitation/translation of an idealized Western form) derive from the underlying assumption that there is a temporal distance between the time of tradition and the time of the modern, collapsing the many temporalities of modernity onto a calendrical vision of history. Placed in its historical context, however, Jamalzadeh’s Yakī Būd Yakī Nabūd emerges as a narrative of various temporalities (the traditional, the contemporary, the quotidian), of various genres (the inshā’, the hikāyat, the novel, the proverbial, the scriptural, the poetic), of various localities (the national, the transnational, the regional, the global), and of various ideologies. The coexistence of these diverse accounts of identity in Yakī Būd Yakī Nabūd disrupts the alleged temporal difference between the traditional and the modern and instead creates a narrative of simultaneity where multiple ideologies and their attendant temporalities vie for expression, informing, contesting, and re-appropriating each other in the process. The narrative structure and rhetorical strategies that enabled the inclusion of multiplicity and simultaneity in Jamalzadeh’s collection were those of the munāzirah (debate). Itself re-appropriated from its classical literary-religious form and function into a narrative sphere for dialogue, the munāzirah had been used for over half a century (dating at least to the 1860s) prior to Jamalzadeh as a narrative of contestation and adaptation where rival discourses engaged in debating competing notions of modern Iranian identity. The dialogical potential of the munāzirah unleashed an impetus for debate which transcended narrative (or merely literary) productions and entered the sphere of cultural and discursive practices. Far from being the initiator of modern prose literature for “introducing” a Western genre into Iran, Jamalzadeh’s Yakī Būd Yakī Nabūd falls along the continuum of this culturally specific, locally determined, historically situated, and dialogical tradition of Iranian literary modernity.

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In this paper, it is argued that the nationalist romanticism of Sādiq Hidāyat (1903-1951/1282-1330 sh.) and Buzurg 'Alavī (1904-1997/1283-1376 sh.) during the interbellum years should not be reduced to a crude and perfunctory anti-Arabism, but seen as a revitalized reflection on the Iranian demonological tradition, particularly as it was taking shape during the 1920s and 30s.

By way of 'Alavī's short story "Dīv! ... Dīv!" (Demon! ... Demon!) and the moment when the warrior protagonist embraces the unsuspected demono-Semitic child in an act of trust, the paper foregrounds the shift from liberal pronouncements of demonization and the nationalist narrative of barbaric Semitic marauders sweeping through Sasanian domains to the implicit but haunting question: How could ancient Aryan morality, with its altruistic commitment to charity and the fulfillment of trusts, be so easily susceptible to demonic invasions?

Beyond this question, the encounter between the protagonist and the demonic spawn is argued to be the result of the convergence of two distinct genres: love poetry (the locus of an amoristic demonism) and secular nationalist polemics (the site of a racialized demonism). Moreover, the consecrated unity with the demonic described in "Dīv! ... Dīv!" reflects the unacknowledged miscarriage of voluntarism experienced particularly during the reign of Riz̤ā Khān (later Riz̤ā Shāh Pahlavī, 1878-1944/1295-1363 gh./r. 1925-41/1304-20 sh.).

This investigation partly subverts the commonly held claim that 'Alavī was insurmountably indebted to Hidāyat's literary genius. I argue that though 'Alavī's "Dīv! ... Dīv!" was inspired by Hidāyat's Parvīn Dukhtar-i Sāsān (Parvīn, Daughter of Sāsān), the latter was impeded by the constraints of the prevailing ideological terrain. For instance, a deliberate attempt is made to avoid the sublimity of the Arabs and the corruptibility of the Aryan caste, and instead of analyzing how their nightmares have come to fruition, Iranians in the story only express grievances and rhetorically inquire into redundant theodical matters.

However, in 'Alavī's "Dīv! ... Dīv!," romantic nationalist demonology is presented in a more nuanced and complicated manner. Through Iranian misrecognition, demonism comes to be embraced as a consequence of applied Aryan morality and is cultivated as if it could be rehabilitated. This reflects the incoherence of the general ethos of the early-Pahlavī state and its approach to voluntarism, human nature, education, national identity and historical mythology.