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Reading Iran in Poetry, Literature, Essays and Images

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With the re-election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate and a reformist, Iranians breathed a sigh of relief. It is, however, a stark reminder that it has been nearly 40 years since the Iranian Revolution took place, ousting the US-backed, much-reviled regime of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, and resulting in the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has had profound and conflicting consequences for Iranians. While Iran has always been steeped in culture, contemporary creativity in Iran, whether in film, art or literature has been compelling and innovative despite the repressive power of the Islamic Republic and the crippling Iran-Iraq war. Below is a reading list, by no means comprehensive, for those who wish to get to know Iran a little better. It is wide-ranging in genres, though, beginning with a classical 12th century poet whose prose is absolutely contemporary, moving towards contemporary literature via graphic novels and a book of photography but also non-fiction, including a collection of essays and images that bring to life contemporary Tehran. 

The Conference of the Birds

Peter Sis is an award-winning children’s book author and illustrator, whose first book for adults is an adaptation of an epic 12th century Persian poem. His breath-taking signature pen and ink drawings grace the mystical and allegorical verses from The Conference of the Birds, composed in the 12th century by Farid ud-Din Attar. Considered to be of the most significant works of Persian literature, inspiring Rumi and many other Sufi poets, Attar had sought his wisdom during extensive travels to Egypt and India and in the cities of Damascus and Mecca. Sis took inspiration from translations from both the 1984 Penguin edition and the 1998 Cambridge Islamic Texts Society edition to tell the tale of thousands of birds who decide to embark on a perilous journey over mountains, oceans and deserts in search of a king. Ultimately the birds discover that the leadership they yearn for is lies within each of them. Sis, who grew up in communist Czechoslovakia has said that birds were always symbolic for him representing free movement unhindered by borders.

Attar’s texts are absolutely contemporary:

“Birds!

Look at the troubles happening in our world!

Anarchy-discontent-upheaval!

Desperate fights over territory, water and food!

Poisoned air! Unhappiness”

I fear we are lost. We must do something!...”

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Forugh Farrokhzad

The renowned poet and filmmaker Forugh Farrokhzad is one of Iran's most original, creative and tragic figures, whose poetry was innovative and audacious. Born in Tehran in 1935 she died (many believe it was suicide) in a car crash at age 32. Another Birth is considered the pinnacle of her poetic work. Published over fifty years ago, it not only modernized Iranian poetry but scandalized people with its radical feminine voice. This edition includes an introduction, letters, interviews and a timeline of Farrokhzad's work. 

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Kaveh Golestan

On April 2, 2003, while on an assignment for the BBC in northern Iraq, the Iranian photographer Kaveh Golestan stepped on a land mine and was killed. A photojournalist since 1972, Golestan had witnessed the recent history of his country like no other and had been a tireless chronicler of its conflicts: he documented eight years of war with Iraq (including Halabjeh in 1988) and the repression of the Kurds in both Iran and Iraq. Of his aims, he once declared, "I want to show you images that will be like a slap in your face to shatter your security," an approach that increased both public awareness and public discomfort, at home and abroad. Golestan photographed for Time magazine and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Islamic revolution. He was also honored with the Robert Capa Gold Medal in 1979 (although, because of Iran’s political climate, he was unable to collect this prize until 1992). Recording the Truth in Iran shows a collection of  Golestan’s powerful images.

The Complete Persepolis

Marjane Satrapi's best-selling, internationally acclaimed memoir-in-comic-strips which was also made into a film is one of the most accessible introductions to the Islamic Revolution. Satrapi recounts with insight and humor her coming of age in an upper middle class family in Teheran, and the high hopes Iranians had for their revolution in 1979 and their subsequent disillusionment. She describes her experience as an exile in Europe, and her return to Iran once the Islamic government was in place. 

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Censoring An Iranian Love Story

Shahriar Mandanipour, who was a well-known author in Iran, moved to the US in 2006 where he wrote Censoring an Iranian Love Story, his first book to be translated into English. This is a true novel for literature buffs-it is a playful tale about lovers who meet in a public library—throughout the book references to literature are made and the history of censorship in Iran is evoked. The book around which Dara and Sara meet could also be on this reading list: The Blind Owl, by the celebrated author, Sadeq Hedayat. They go on to take out books such as Antoine de St. Exupéry’s The Little Prince, Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being or Bram Stoker’s Dracula from the library as they leave each other messages in code in the books.  

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Strange Times, My Dear

Over forty writers and poets from three generations contributed to this varied collection, which, ironically, the US Department of the Treasury tried to censor, as it was a publication of works from a country on the US’s list of “enemies”. The publisher, Arcade, along with the PEN American Center, the Association of American Publishers Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division, and the Association of American University Presses, filed a lawsuit in federal court against the United States government. Their landmark case forced the Office of Foreign Assets Control to change their regulations regarding editing and publishing literature in translation, and Arcade reissued this anthology that showcases the developments in Iranian literature over the past quarter-century.

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Transit Tehran

Like other international cities, Tehran is filled with the religious, the irreligious and the indifferent. However, for a capital much in the news, its secrets are well-guarded - parties where the kids let rip; falling in love with someone whose face is never seen; random breath-testing of pedestrians for alcohol; religious acceptance of transsexuals; needle exchanges in public parks; and, martyrdom demonstrations. In Transit Tehran, city-insiders, rappers, artists, writers and photo-journalists provide essays and picture stories to bring the city to life. Contributors include Newsha Tavakolian, named Best Young Photographer of 2006 by National Geographic, Abbas Kowsari, Javad Montazeri and Omid Salehi, who have continued to document the social transformation of their country in the face of mass closures of newspapers and magazines by the government. Things are never what they seem in the art of Sadegh Tirafkan, the new feminist journalism of Asieh Amini, and the romance Shi'a-style by new fiction talent Alireza Mahmoodi-Iranmehr. Above all, Transit Tehran celebrates the country's long tradition of artistic and cultural resistance that has influenced young Iranians. 

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Zahra's Paradise

In another graphic novel, contemporary Iran is seen through the eyes of writer/filmmaker Amir and illustrator/political cartoonist Khalil. Zahra's Paradise is about a young protestor, Mehdi, who goes missing during demonstrations that took place after the fraudulent elections in 2009 and the search for what happened to him. Amir and Khalil's graphic novel began as a web series on a blog in 2010 with the authors relying heavily on social media to complete each chapter, often integrating suggestions and descriptions from people living in Iran who were following the series. 

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Then They Came For Me

Tehran-born Canadian journalist and documentary filmmaker Maziar Bahari travelled to Iran in June 2009 to cover the presidential elections. Instead, he found himself incarcerated in the infamous Evin prison under false charges of espionage. He was released four months later following a global campaign of support. Then They Came for Me tells Bahari's family history, his arrest, and his 118-day imprisonment. He continues to challenge the Iranian government and runs IranWire, a news site in Farsi and English linking citizen and professional journalists in Iran. Bahari's story was also made into a film directed by Jon Stewart. 

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The Age of Orphans

Author and filmmaker Laleh Khadivi was born in Esfahan, Iran and lives in the US. Her debut novel, The Age of Orphans, follows a Kurdish boy from a village in the Persian mountains who lives through the upheaval of the first Shah of Iran ousting the Qajar dynasty. The boy is captured by the Shah's army in 1920s Iran and given a new name, Reza. He will eventually return to his village under very different circumstances.

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This reading list is wide-ranging in genres, for those interested in learning more about Iran, beginning with a classical 12th century poet whose prose is absolutely contemporary, moving towards contemporary literature via graphic novels and a book of photography but also non-fiction, including a collection of essays and images that bring to life contemporary Tehran 

Olivia is a journalist and editor and manages the editorial content for Bookwitty in English. She is based in Paris.

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