Fictions of Modernity: A Postcolonial Reading of 20th Century Iranian Novels

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University of Toronto
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BA in English Literature from Iran in 1994 (Azad University, Karaj); MA in English Literature from Acadia University in 2001 (Nova Scotia, Canada); MA in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations from University of Toronto in 2005 (Toronto, Canada); Presently PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations.

The almost-standard axiom in literary histories of modern Iran asserting that Sadeq Hedayat’s The Blind Owl is “the first modern Persian novel” (most recently in Sad Sal Dastan Nivisi-i Iran, Abedini 107, for example) is symptomatic of a historicist approach to modernity. First, such linear staging and universalizing of history overlooks the latent politics of temporal hierarchy. It further de-historicizes literary modernity by presuming an inherent property in the concept “modern,” an “origin” with a belated arrival in Iran. Finally, it presupposes modernity as a static (Western) construct whose aesthetic system of valuation is all-inclusive. Conceived as contextual and representational, however, cultural productions (such as literature) demonstrate the situated-ness of modernity and point us toward an understanding of the different ways of inhabiting the modern. The aim of this paper, therefore, is to historicize representatives of popular novels of the 1900’s to the 1970’s in Iran as imaginings of modern subject formation within the context of the Iranian society. As testimonies to the Iranian awareness of itself as modern, these narratives continuously exhibit a consciousness of two contending character-symbols in modern Iranian politics of social identity, two strategies of societal development. Set primarily in urban contexts, these two archetypes, as the quintessential polarities of contemporary Iranian character, are engaged in continuous disciplining and counter disciplining within a site of contesting narratives of identity. These two character-types are the figures of the Jahil and the Fokoli. While these two extreme polarities are exaggerated caricature types – with several variations such as Haji, Roshan-fikr, Gharb-zadah, etc. – their contestation is a multi-faceted and overlapping rivalry for identity formation. At times in stark contrast, at times nuanced expressions of the same figure, the two types become the alter(ed) egos of modern Iranian consciousness. They embody the anxieties, fears, and hopes of a nation that seeks to find a balance between its Perso-Islamic traditions and its modern-ness. Their cosmic confrontation within the urban context becomes the setting of modern Iranian identity, a contestation that continues to characterize Iranian society to this day. Such an approach, I believe, will de-canonize and de-colonize modern Iranian novel and will situate literary modernity within its appropriate Iranian context.

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Middle Eastern Studies
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