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Kamin Mohammadi: My Favorite Books on Iran


27 Aug 2011 20:00Comments


A personal selection to paint a richer picture.

[ feature ] Iranian literature is as rich and varied as the rest of our millennia-old culture, but only a few works are known in the West, particularly when it comes to our modern literature. Indeed, it can be hard to wade through the shelves of "misery memoirs" and sensationalist blockbusters about Iran's terrorist threat to the world to get to anything more nuanced or real -- one of the motivations behind the writing of my own book The Cypress Tree. In The Cypress Tree, I wanted instead to recount tales of the beautiful country I grew up in, which has a rich history that has influenced so much in Western culture, where love and belly laughs were plentiful, where turquoise tiles glittered on walls, and where there was jasmine on the breeze and ruby-red pieces of pomegranate lovingly peeled by an army of aunts. I wanted to provide a little balance to the books that normally get published about Iran, which tell of jailings, beatings, brutality, and ignorance -- this is just a little (although terrible) part of life in Iran, and I tried to paint a truer and richer picture of my country and our modern history. The books below are my picks of the best of Iranian literature -- with a few books not by Iranians that also illuminate Iran itself and are vital in understanding our country. Although they don't begin to do justice to our greatest poets and literary works, they provide a starting point for those interested in knowing more about this great country of ours, Iran.


Shahnameh (The Book of Kings) by Ferdowsi

Written in the tenth century, this is our Iliad and Odyssey rolled into one. More than 30 years in the writing, this epic poem contains 60,000 verses and tells the mythical -- and actual -- history of Iran, from the Creation up until the Muslim conquest of Iran in the seventh century. After the invasion, as the Arabs burnt our books and attempted to destroy our culture, this work saved and recorded for posterity the Iranian national identity, and was responsible for keeping our language and culture distinct from the Arabs'. It contains not just heroic tales of battle but also love stories and philosophical tracts. This is our reference to all things pre-Arabic -- and a favorite place from which to pick a baby's name.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood and Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi

These graphic books are splendid, not just in their deceptively simple black and white drawings, but in the way Satrapi manages to tell the story of the Revolution in Iran and her subsequent exile and return from the irreverent point of view of the rebellious child that she was. The visual storytelling gives the books an immediate appeal and places them very much in the mainstream, accessible to many who would not normally pick up a book on Iran. The history of Iran presented in her book is not exactly objective, but no matter; these books are funny, poignant, and moving, and the film that she painstakingly made herself was, if anything, even better, with beautiful animation.

Lonely Planet Guide to Iran by Andrew Burke

I must confess that I contributed to the "Arts" and "Culture" chapters of this book. My own involvement notwithstanding, this is the best travel guide on Iran, mostly because writer Andrew Burke is a passionate lover of all things Iranian, speaks Farsi fluently, visits Iran frequently, and is not afraid to actually go all around the country in his quest for an interesting recommendation. Belying the perception that Iran is remote and hard to visit, this book dispels any notions of hostility and gives some good practical information.

The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran by Roy Mottahedeh

First published in 1985, Harvard professor Mottahedeh's book is a must-read for anyone interested not just in Ayatollah Khomeini, the roots of the Revolution, and the origins of the Islamic Republic, but for fans of a gripping story as well. It's written as compellingly as a good thriller. He sets the biography of Khomeini against the backdrop of Iranian religious thought, from Zoroaster to key modern-day Islamic thinkers, contextualizing our modern history. His style makes it a pleasure to read.

Persia: Bridge of Turquoise by Seyyed Hossein Nasr

A beautiful coffee-table book that was commissioned in the 1970s by then Empress Farah Pahlavi. This book shows the many facets of Iran, our rich heritage, the splendid architecture, the intricate decorative arts, the diverse and heart-stoppingly gorgeous landscapes -- from the dramatic mountainside setting of Tehran to the vast plateaus on which shepherds tend their flocks to the shimmering tracts of desert. This is still the most wonderfully shot and realized book on Iran, showing the beauty and diversity of our country, and it is the book that began my own pull to visit Iran after nearly 20 years away.

The Conference of the Birds by Farid ud-Din Attar

In Iran there are a whole host of mystical medieval poets and thinkers -- Rumi, Hafez, Saadi, Khayyam -- each one a Shakespeare in his own right, making it hard to pick just one. The Conference of the Birds is a 12th-century masterpiece, written by another Persian Sufi, Attar. It is an allegorical 4,500-line poem that relates the tale of when all the birds of the world gathered to try and find a just ruler. It is one of our finest allegorical works, describing the seeker's journey toward God, in rhyming couplets setting out the mystical doctrine of the Sufis. A deeply spiritual piece of work that can also be enjoyed as pure literature, it helps give a glimpse into the particularly mystical nature of Iranian religious devotion.

The Story of Leyla and Majnun by Nizami

This celebrated love story, which was most famously recounted in epic poem style by 12th-century poet Nizami, is thought to have inspired everyone from William Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet) to Eric Clapton (Derek and the Dominos' Layla). Of course, in the great Iranian mystical tradition, it is also an allegory of the soul's search for God.

Sin: Selected Poems of Forough Farrokhzad

Our most significant female poet, Farrokhzad broke conventions and taboos when she started publishing her verse -- full of sensuality, desire, and longing -- in 1950s Iran. She suffered for her frank outspokenness: her only child was taken away and she spent time in mental institutions. Nonetheless, she is an inspiration, and not just for her poetry. Her 1963 film The House is Black, about life in a leper colony, is the forerunner of the realist style of Iranian cinema popularized by the likes of Abbas Kiorastami more than 20 years later.

The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat

A classic of modern Persian literature, Hedayat's small novel is allegorical and dream-like, its hero demented and delusional -- not unlike a protagonist from Poe. Persian literature has always depended on allegory, but where poets like Nizami used it as a means to bring people closer to God, modern Iranian writers use it to protect themselves from the punishment of the state. This was as true when Hedayat was writing this book (1937, under Reza Shah) as it is today.

All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle Eastern Terror by Stephen Kinzer

Kinzer's easy-to-read account of the CIA's coup in Iran in 1953, the overthrow of beloved Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh who nationalized the oil industry, and the return to power of the Shah by the hand of the United States and Great Britain illuminates a vitally important piece of Iranian modern history unknown to many Westerners. Given that this episode contains the roots of the corruption of the Shah's regime, Iran's colonization by America in all but name, and ultimately the roots of the Revolution itself, it is vital reading.

Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuscinski

Legendary Polish foreign correspondent Kapuscinski was in Iran throughout the Revolution and his pared-down account of the events of those days is gripping and insightful. His style is eminently readable, he has enormous understanding and the ability to tell a harrowing story in the most graceful way, while also preserving a delightful sense of the absurd and terrific humor. He is unusual in not subscribing to an Orientalist point of view and so is able to comment on the events of the day and the peculiarities of the Iranian character and system with objectivity -- even affection -- and without the usual implicit sense of superiority that Western writers tend to slip into when writing about Iran.

Daiey Jan Napoleon (My Uncle Napoleon) by Iraj Pezeshkzad

First published in 1973 in Tehran, this rambunctious novel entered the national psyche when it was turned into a television series a couple of years later. Set amid the Allied occupation of Iran during World War II, it concentrates on the antics of an extended family who all live in an old-fashioned compound, ruled over by a paranoid patriarch, the Uncle. Lively and funny, the novel often plays on the Iranian tendency to imagine that the British are behind everything that happens in Iran. It became a cultural reference point in prerevolutionary Iran and both the book and TV series were so iconic that postrevolutionary attempts to ban it have proved unsuccessful in removing it from the national psyche.

Gardens of Persia by Penelope Hobhouse and Jerry Harpur

One of those wonderful books that surprises, informs, and delights in equal measure. Gardens are very important to Iranians -- the old Persian word for "garden" was paradaiza (literally, something surrounded by a wall) from which our own word for paradise derives. This should give at least a clue to the importance of gardens in Persian culture, and in this book, Hobhouse reveals the history and splendor of Persian gardens from the magnificent one created by Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae more than 2,500 years ago, to 19th-century paradise gardens and the modern Islamic designs of the 21st century. Along the way she lays bare the great influence Persian gardens have had on Western garden design -- almost always unacknowledged -- and relates them back to our history and religion too. A gem.

New Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies by Najmeh Batmanglij

Iranian culture, ritual, and ceremony is woven around food, the sofra, and the seasons. Not only is Persian cuisine one of the oldest recorded in the world (recipes can be found on 4,000-year-old cuneiform tablets), it is also one of the most healthy and delicious. This masterful book makes ancient recipes easy to learn, as it relates reams of stories from our culture, with history lessons, explanation of rituals, and even the humor of Mullah Nasruddin. Beautifully illustrated, this coffee-table book opens up the Persian kitchen to all.

Kamin Mohammadi is a widely published journalist and magazine editor. She was nominated by the American Society of Magazine Editors for the prestigious National Magazine Award 2011 for an essay on Iran published in the Virginia Quarterly Review. Her family memoir The Cypress Tree was published by Bloomsbury this summer.

Copyright © 2011

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