About the Book
Savushun chronicles the life of a Persian family during the Allied occupation of Iran during World War II. It is set in Shiraz, a town which evokes images of Persepolis and pre-Islamic monuments, the great poets, the shrines, Sufis, and nomadic tribes within a historical web of the interests, privilege and influence of foreign powers; corruption, incompetence and arrogance of persons in authority; the paternalistic landowner-peasant relationship; tribalism; and the fear of famine. The story is seen through the eyes of Zari, a young wife and mother, who copes with her idealistic and uncompromising husband while struggling with her desire for traditional family life and her need for individual identity.
Daneshvar’s style is both sensitive and imaginative, while following cultural themes and metaphors. Within basic Iranian paradigms, the characters play out the roles inherent in their personalities. While Savushun is a unique piece of literature that transcends the boundaries of the historical community in which it was written, it is also the best single work for understanding modern Iran. Although written prior to the Islamic Revolution, it brilliantly portrays the social and historical forces that gave pre-revolutionary Iran its characteristic hopelessness and emerging desperation so inadequately understood by outsiders.
Note: The original Persian edition of Savushun has sold over half a million copies. The German language edition is available from Amazon.de (Amazon.com’s German branch)
“An engrossing chronicle of life in Persia-just-turned-Iran by Simin Daneshvar. Her compassionate vision of traditional folk ways surviving amid the threats of modernity (including Allied occupation) give her work a resonant universality. Recent events only strengthen her position as a writer deserving a wider audience.”
– -USA Today
“Daneshvar lovingly details the old Persian customs and way of life. And the conflict between an understandable yearning for peace and tranquillity in the face of change and tragedy is movingly evoked. It is a sympathetic but never sentimental account of one woman’s rite of passage.”
– -Kirkus Reviews
“For Western readers the novel not only offers an example of contemporary Iranian fiction; it also provides a rare glimpse of the inner workings of an Iranian family.”
– -Washington Post Book World
“Folklore and myth are expertly woven into a modern setting in this powerfully resonant work.”
– – Publishers Weekly
Published in Persian in 1969. Savushun was the first novel written by a woman to appear in Iran. Its protagonist, Zari, desires chiefly to care for her husband, raise her children, supervise the kitchen and tend the garden. “If she weren’t so attached to her children and husband, things might be different. The first pick of the fruit, caresses, conversations. affectionate gazes . . . such a person could not take risks.” Simin Daneshvar creates a paradise out of the evocations of the smells and sights of flowers, herbs, Iotions and nuts. Zari’s garden is an enchanted place and she rarely ventures beyond its confines save to do charitable work in nearby hospitals.
Rumours of politics and battles are brought to her by gossiping visitors and she gathers more by eavesdropping on her husband, Yusof, and his guests as she brings them their food and their opiumladen hookahs. At first, most of this talk seems distant and uninteresting. but Savushun is a historical novel. though one about recent history, and in time the peace of the garden will be breached and the lives of Zari and everyone she knows will be affected by violent events. Indeed, they will be actors in these events. The setting is Shiraz, in southwestern Iran, in the 1940s. In 1941, Britain and the Soviet Union, concerned by Reza Shah’s pro-Nazi sympathies and worried too about the supply lines to Russia, occupied southern and northern Iran respectively. The demands of the occupying troops for food and other commodities forced up prices and encouraged hoarding. Famine was widespread in 1942 and 1943. Outbreaks of typhus in southern Iran were blamed on the British Indian garrisons. Banditry became widespread in the countryside. All this features in the novel. Above all, the arrogance of the occupiers was resented, and Zari sees that the “civilization” their schools teach is hostile to traditional Persian values. She and her husband listen to Radio Berlin, and there are others in Shiraz who believe that Hitler may be the expected one, “the Imam of the Age”.
Daneshvar grew up in Shiraz and doubtless there are elements of autobiography in the story she tells. In 1950 she married Jalal Ali Ahmad, one of Iran’s leading novelists and intellectuals, best known for his polemical essay, Gharbzadagi (“Occidentosis” or “Weststruckness”), a hymn of hatred and a bitter account of the way Iran was being ruined by the import of Western commodities and ideas. Ali Ahmad died (or was he murdered by Savak?) in the year of Savushun’s publication and the novel gives fictional form to some of the concerns of Gharbzadagi. Ali Ahmad had urged his fellow intellectuals to turn away from Europe and find in Iran’s own culture sources of selfrespect. He was inclined, though only halfinclined, to look for future salvation in the religious establishment and traditional Iranian Shi’ism . Daneshvar too seems to be advocating a return to traditional roots, though not to a rigorous religious fundamentalism. Savushun affectionately evokes the old folkways. Zari and her friends keep themselves busy, interpreting dreams, practising bibliomancy with the poems of Hafiz of Shiraz, averting the evil eye with wild rue and concoctingfolk medicines. The title of the novel itself refers to an ancient ritual of mourning in which the participants lament the betrayal and death of Siyavush, a sort of Adonis figure from Iran’s legendary prelslamic past. Just as the hero Siyavush passed through an ordeal of fire, so Yusof, Zari and their country must pass through such an ordeal. Just as Siyavush was betrayed and killed by foreigners, so Iran has fallen among toreign thieves.
Yusof is a reincarnation of Siyavush, but he is also, in some respects at leasts Ali Ahmad. Yusof argues and negotiates with tribal leaders, communists, quietists and collaborators. It is clear that he has found his own way, but what that way is (apart from resistance to foreign humiliation) is not so clear. His rather vague ideas on social and economic problems have a fortuitous similarity to those of the Young England group who gathered round Disraeli in the 1840s. Yusof. the romantic traditionalist, is a benevolent landlord to his peasants. He extends a similar protective paternalism to his wife. Zari never ceases to love and revere her husband, but she will in the end break free from the garden in which he kept her captive.
Savushun is not the sociopolitical treatise that some of the above may suggest. It is a meandering novel about fallible human beings, who are confused about what is happening and confused, too. about their role in a country which in 1940 (and in the 1960s) had lost its sense of direction. At first, incident follows incident as in an unedited diary. Threads of plot are picked up and dropped, but slowly those threads are drawn together in a phantasmagoric moderndress version of the betrayal and martyrdom of Siyavush.
– -Times Literary Supplement (March 1, 1991)
Introduction to Savushun
by Brian Spooner
First published in 1969, Simin Daneshvar’s Savushun has gone through sixteen printings and sold half a million copies, a record for a work of literature in modern Iran. The reason is not obscure. Daneshvar’s style is sensitive and imaginative. Her story follows basic cultural themes and metaphors. It goes straight to the hearts of a generation of Iranian readers, striking special chords of emotion and memory of the recent past.
Savushun enriches a generation’s understanding of itself. It encapsulates the experience of Iranians who have lived through the mid-century decades which led up to the 1979 revolution. They feel immediate identity with the major characters, each of whom struggles in their own daytoday lives with the social and historical forces that gave pre-revolutionary Iran its characteristic hopelessness and emerging desperation so inadequately understood by outsiders.
The work of translation is long overdue, but may in fact be more successful with Western readers now than earlier. In the 1970s we were too confident in our outsider’s view of Iran to appreciate its full significance. The revolution shattered that view and brought home to us the extent of our outsiderness. Iran today seems incomprehensible to outsiders. This novel helps us to reconstitute our earlier view, to rebuild our dialogue, and to trace the historical and cultural continuity through the 1979 revolution into the present.
The translation of such a novel into English presents special problems. If it means so much to Iranians, will the Western reader understand it? Should we expect that any novel could convey a single package of meaning to two culturally distinct readerships especially when it deals with historical events and interests that have recently separated them? Though the work of translation was unusually challenging, I think its success is facilitated, perhaps even ensured, by the humanity of Daneshvar’s central characters. This humanity shows irrepressibly through several passages that are not otherwise directly translatable from one cultural discourse to the other. Although the lives in the novel are so obviously different from Western lives, as non Iranians we also can relate to them immediately and unconsciously to the underlying human nature we share with them, and which the author so sensitively develops in the course of her story.
Most of the action takes place in a middle class, landowning household in the town of Shiraz in southern Iran. The events as they unfold are seen through the eyes of the young wife and mother, Zari, whose first concerns, whether unconsciously or consciously, are her children, her husband and the security of her family and household. Much of what she does not experience herself is narrated to her by visitors participating in family situations. The centrality of the life of the family and of Zari within it is a major factor in the book’s appeal. Using the household as a stage, the author weaves a narrative of steadily increasing complexity, involving a variety of situations and personalities that work through the gamut of Iranian collective concerns. The household includes Zari’s maturing son, her twin daughters, her widowed sisterinlaw, and devoted servants. Her principled husband spends extended periods away in their village. Frequent visitors to the household include her ambitious brotherinlaw and headstrong tribal leaders who are in rebellion against the government. Other significant characters include the governor and his family, officers and policemen, and the British (including Scottish officers and an Irish correspondent). But the essential field of action is Zari’s evolving sense of herself and her vacillation between her fears for herself and her family and her respect for her husband’s ideals. She works these out in her personal experience of childbirth and charitable work in a mental hospital and through participation in weddings and contact with disease. The narrative is developed within basic Iranian paradigms of womanhood and married life. Each character plays out the role that is inherent in their personalities. Even divorced from its essential historical context this makes for an unusually good novel. But understood in its context it is a unique piece of literature that easily transcends the boundaries of the historical community in which it was written.
Nevertheless, the more we know about the historical web in which these characters live which is an integral part of the consciousness of the Iranian reader, but alien or unknown to us the better we shall be able to appreciate the novel. The major strands of this web are the interests, privilege and influence of foreign powers, corruption, incompetence and arrogance of persons in authority, whether in national and local government, the army or the police, the paternalistic landownerpeasant relationship, tribalism, the fear of famine, and the intellectual appeal of Sovietinspired communism as a way to escape from hopelessness. Other important strands include the implications of the author’s choice of location in and around Shiraz during the Second World War, opium addiction and the interplay of Islamic and pre Islamic ideas and rituals.
The story’s main concern are the years between 1941 and 1945. Iran had been occupied by the British and the Soviets, joined later (in 1945) by the Americans, because it sat astride the supply lines from India and the Middle East to the Soviet Union. The Allies considered the occupation necessary because they could not afford to allow the possibility of German activity in the area. Many influential Iranians were ready to collaborate with the Germans in order to counteract the suffocating dominance of British and Russian interests that had become a fact of life.
The Russian expansion through the Caucasus over the past hundred years had become a threat to Iranian interests towards the end of the eighteenth century under Catherine the Great. Later, in 1828, the Treaty of Turkmanchai set the tone for the next 150 years by forcing Iran to cede most of her Caucasian territory and to grant extraterritorial rights to Russians on Persian soil. Meanwhile, the British were anticipating the extension of Russian interests towards India and from the beginning of the nineteenth century actively sought to dominate Persian foreign policy and to influence the Persian economy. Since then competition between Russia and Britain (since 1947, between the Soviet Union and America) has dominated Iranian political life. All the modern borders of Iran were drawn by Russian and British teams during the nineteenth century, with only minor revisions since. In 1907 Britain and Russia concluded an agreement whereby they avoided direct competition with each other by dividing Iran into zones of influence for the purpose of commercial development. This caused outrage in Iran, although it made little difference to the existing state of affairs.
In 1941 Britain occupied the south while the Soviets occupied the north. Reza Shah Pahlavi, who since 1925 had achieved a measure of success in extricating the country from its economic and political dependence, was forced to abdicate in favor of his son (who reigned until 1979). From 1941 to 1945 Iran was reduced to the most abject state of dependence of its modern history while still nominally retaining its own independent government under the young Shah. The occupying powers subordinated everything to the economic and political objectives of supplying the eastern front and winning the war, with disastrous results for Iran’s small economy. The worst of the results was widespread famine, especially in 1942-1943, triggered by a poor harvest the previous year. Existing extremes of poverty were exacerbated, disease rates increased, and typhus became a chronic problem. Corruption, incompetence and arrogance characterized almost anyone in authority, in national and local government, the army and the police. The influence of the occupying powers had a Christianreligious extension in the south, and a communistideological extension in the north, both of which were socially disruptive. In particular, the Soviet presence encouraged the formation and development of the Party of the Mass (Tudeh), a political party which found appeal among middle class urban intellectuals. All of these factors are significant in the novel.
Apart from these results of external influence, the author makes excellent use of purely internal factors. The southern town of Shiraz, which provides the setting for the story, is more than any other town central to Iranian historical identity. It evokes images of shrines and Sufis, of the tombs of the great poets, of Persepolis and the great monuments of preIslamic Iran, and, in the hinterland, of the nomadic tribes. It is not easy to convey in a few sentences the significance of tribalism in the Iranian consciousness. Iranian writing has exaggerated the fear and dislike of the city dweller for the “uncivilized.” This is somewhat overcompensated for by the work of anthropologists, who have provided monographs on particular aspects of the tribal experience, but none summarizing the significance of this other way of living for the society as a whole. Historically the tribes have represented the spontaneous organization of populations that were not controlled by any central or urban government. When the government was weak tribes often terrorized the countryside. In the early part of this century tribal leaders played a significant role at the national level. However, since they are essentially the antithesis of strong government, Reza Shah made a special point of bringing them under control. He did this by depriving them of their economic resources, and by forcing them to settle. On his abdication the leaders escaped and within weeks the tribesmen were back on the migration trail. The Qashqa’i confederacy, which was the most powerful in the Shiraz area, was proGerman and kept a German military adviser for a while until they found that he could not deliver the arms they wanted. There was sporadic fighting throughout the period of the Allied occupation. All this is there in the novel.
Against this background–corruption, disease, famine, insecurity, and foreign dominance–provincial life continues. Everyone works out their own daytoday lives. The demoralization is evident in the exploitation of any position of power, by the governor and his family, by petty officials, in the arrogance and incompetence of army officers and of the paramilitary gendarmerie. Socialist ideas provide hope for the young. Opium offers an option for the old. But Zari’s husband, Yusof, who is the hero of the work, displays a calm, responsible, human decency. He is accused of idealism, but is never fanatical. He is a landowner but treats his peasants fairly and with no more paternalism than is inherent in the system. He is frustrated by the indecency and injustice around him, but he stands firm against the timeserving maneuvers of his brother and others, who see no point in making things worse for themselves for the sake of abstract principles and with no prospect of any return.
Savushun, the title of the novel, is a folk tradition, surviving in southern Iran from an undatable preIslamic past, that conjures hope, in spite of everything. It is evoked in some detail in the final pages a metaphor for the flame of idealism against a backdrop of hopelessness and helplessness, a basic metaphor that is found in many traditions, religious and secular. In Iran over the centuries it has become entangled with the Shi’a Muslim passion of Hoseyn, the Prophet’s grandson, and the tragedy of Karbala. It suggests the transformation of hopelessness into salvation. This is the essence of Iran, with no compromises, in a novel of universal appeal.
Chapter One of Savushun
It was the wedding day of the Governor’s daughter. The bakers had put their heads together and baked a loaf of flat sangak bread the likes of which had never been seen before. In groups guests came to the wedding room to see the bread. Khanom Zahra and Yusof Khan, too, saw the bread up close. When Yusof’s eyes caught sight of the bread, he said, “Stupid cows! How they kiss their butcher’s hand! What a waste! And at a time like this . . .” Those nearby who overheard Yusof first edged away, then left the room altogether. Zari stopped herself short, took Yusof by the hand and, with pleading eyes, said, “For God’s sake, can’t you let me breathe in peace, at least tonight?” Yusof smiled at his wife, as he always did, spreading his pursed purled lips to show his once sparkling white teeth, now stained by years of smoking the hookah. Yusof walked away, but Zari stood there, staring at the bread. She leaned over and lifted the corner of the handprinted tablecloth, which hid two wooden doors stuck together. Around the borders of the cloth, in floral and paisley patterns, were trays of wild rue and figures of the legendary lovers, Leyli and Majnun. In the very center sat the reddish loaf of bread, decorated with a poppy seed inscription: “To our benevolent Governor-from the Bakers Guild.” Along the sides of the bread, “Congratulations” was written over and over in saffron and nigella seeds. What an oven they must have needed! Zari thought. What a mound of dough! How much flour they must have used! And, besides, as Yusof said, “At a time like this!” At a time when this single loaf could make a whole family’s evening meal. At a time when to get bread from a baker you need to be a hero like Rostam. Lately the rumor had spread through the city that the Governor had threatened to throw a baker into his oven, to set an example for the other bakers. Anyone who bought bread from that baker came down with severe stomach cramps, writhed in pain like a wounded snake, and vomited as if stricken by the plague. They said that his wheat had so much darnel in it that his bread was as black as ink. But then, as Yusof said, “Were the bakers to blame?” The city’s food supplies, from onions to wheat, had been bought up by the occupying army, and now . . . How can I ever convince those who heard Yusof to pretend they didn’t . . . ?
She was still lost in her thoughts when a voice broke in, “Hello.” She raised her eyes from the bread to see Khanom Hakim, the British doctor, standing next to Sergeant Zinger. They all shook hands. Both the foreigners spoke Persian, although a broken Persian. Khanom Hakim asked, “How the twins have been?” and explained to Sergeant Zinger, “All three children by my hands have been delivered.” The Sergeant retorted, “I could never have doubted that.” Then she asked Zari, “The child still has been on a pacifier?” Khanom Hakim said so many “have beens” and “had beens” that she even wore herself out. Afterwards she said some things in English Zari did not follow, even though she had studied at the British school and her late father had been considered the best English teacher in the city. Her mind was elsewhere.
Zari had heard it but couldn’t believe it, until she saw it with her own eyes. The present Sergeant Zinger was none other than the former “Mr. Zinger,” the Singer sewing machine salesman. He had come to Shiraz at least seventeen years ago, and still did not speak good Persian. With every sewing machine he sold, this giant corpulent man gave ten free sewing lessons. Maneuvering his weight behind the sewing machine, he would teach young girls the fine points of embroidery, eyelets, and double pleats. Curiously enough he never once chuckled at the figure he cut. But the girls learned well, Zari too. When the war began, Zari heard that Mr. Zinger had overnight donned the braids and stars of an officer’s uniform. Now she saw that his sergeant’s uniform suited him well.
She thought, What self control he must have had to live with these lies for seventeen years. A fake profession, fake clothes, all lies, from head to toe. And how skillful an impostor he was at his job. With what cunning he made Zari’s mother buy a sewing machine. Other than her husband’s pension, Zari’s mother had no other income. Mr. Zinger had told her that a girl with a Singer sewing machine in her dowry needed nothing else. He said anyone who had a Singer sewing machine could even make a living with it. He claimed that the rich and the noble in the city had all bought Singer sewing machines as part of their daughters’ dowries and then showed Zari’s mother a book in which he had recorded the names of his most noteworthy clients.
Three Scottish officers with pleated kilts and women’s stockings joined them. Then, Yusof’s friend MacMahon, whom Zari had seen many times, came in. MacMahon was an Irish war correspondent who carried a camera around. He asked Zari to explain the wedding layout, and Zari launched into a description of everything: the silver flower vase and the candelabrum and mirror; the shawl and ring wrapped in cashmere, the bread and cheese, the green herbs and wild rue . . . and the two large sugar cones placed at each end of the tablecloth, which were especially made at the Marvdasht sugar factory for the Governor’s daughter’s wedding. One sugar cone was dressed in a bridal gown, the other in a groom’s outfit and a top hat. In the corner of the room was a baby carriage, covered inside with pink satin and filled with candy and coins. Zari lifted a cashmere cloth from the horse’s saddle and said, “The bride sits on the saddle so she will always be riding her husband.” Everybody laughed and MacMahon clicked pictures.
Zari noticed the Governor’s younger daughter, Gilantaj, motion to her. She excused herself and walked over to the girl. She had honey colored eyes and straight brown hair that touched her shoulders. She wore short stockings and a skirt that reached above her knees. She must be the same age as my Khosrow, no more than ten or eleven, thought Zari.
“My mom asked if you could please lend us your earrings,” Gilantaj said. “My sister will wear them just for tonight and tomorrow they will be returned to your house . . . It is Khanom Ezzatoddowleh’s fault; she brought a green silk braid for the bride to wear around her neck. She says green brings good luck. But my sister has nothing green to go with it.” Gilantaj recited her lines like a school girl. Zari was stunned. How were her emerald earrings spotted and singled out? Who ever thought of mixing and matching apparel for the bride in the middle of all this commotion? Probably something Ezzatoddowleh cooked up. With those crossed eyes of hers, she spies on everyone in the whole city and keeps track of what they own.
Her voice trembling, she replied, “These were a gift on my wedding night, a memento from my motherinlaw.” She remembered the night in her bridal chamber. Yusof put the earrings on her ears with his own hands. Amidst the hullabaloo and the commotion, before the eyes of all the women, while sweating, Yusof had trouble finding the holes in her earlobes. The crude women had jumped at the opportunity to repeat the proverb about ears being pierced in the father’s home and what happens in the husband’s home.
Impatiently, Gilantaj said, “They’re playing the wedding song. Hurry up. Tomorrow morning.” Zari removed her earrings. “Be very careful with them. The pendants might fall.” If hell froze over she would see her earrings again. She knew all right, but how could she refuse to hand them over?
The bride now entered the room for the wedding ceremony. Ezzatoddowleh was holding her arm. It was amazing how every time a new governor came to the city Ezzatoddowleh wormed her way into the family as a friend and adviser. Five little girls in frilly dresses looking like little angels, each carrying a bouquet of flowers, and five little boys in suits and ties followed the bride. The room was packed. Ladies applauded. The foreign officers were still in the room. They too applauded. After all, the show was put on for them. For Zari, this pageant was like a procession in a passion play. The wedding song was being played. The bride sat on the saddle in front of the mirror, and Ezzatoddowleh rubbed the two sugar cones together over her head. With a needle and red thread, a woman pretended to sew up the lips of the groom’s relatives. The foreign officers chuckled. A black maid like a genie appeared in the room, carrying a charcoal brazier in which wild rue seeds were burning. But the room was so crowded that no genie would have fit in. All the villains of the passion play are here, thought Zari. Marhab, Shemr, Yazid, The Frank, Zeynab the Unwanted, Hend the Liver Eater, Ayesheh, and this last one, Fezzeh. Suddenly it dawned on her: I’m beginning to sound like Yusof.
The room was warm and permeated with the smell of wild rue, tuberoses, carnations, and gladiola, which could been seen in large silver vases here and there between the ladies’ skirts. The flowers were brought from the Khalili Garden. Zari did not hear the bride say, “Yes,” giving her consent. Gilantaj touched Zari’s arm and whispered, “My mom said thank you. They look good . . .” The rest of what she said was lost amid the cheers and the loud and discordant military march which followed the wedding song. It sounded like battle drums were being played. Ferdows, the wife of Ezzatoddowleh’s doorman, elbowed her way up to her mistress. She handed Ezzatoddowleh her purse. The mistress opened it, pulled out a bag of candy and silver coins and showered them over the bride’s head. And, so that the foreign officers would not have to bend over, she handed them each a coin. She also gave one to Khanom Hakim. Up until then, Zari had not noticed Hamid Khan, but became aware of his presence when he began to talk. Addressing the foreign officers, he said, “My mother’s hands will bring good fortune and luck-” Then, turning to Zari, he asked, “Khanom Zahra, please translate for them.” Her former suitor! You wish! Zari thought. I had enough of you when the history teacher dragged all the ninthgrade school girls to your house under the pretext of showing them a historical monument, and you checked us up and down with your lewd eyes and showed us your bathhouse and exercise room, constantly repeating that your grandfather, the grand police chief, built the mirror hall, and Lotfali Khan had the mirrors painted . . . And then how rudely your mother came to the Shapuri public bath on our bath day, intruding in our private cubicle, to look at my naked body with those crossed eyes of hers, checking me over. Luckily, though, Yusof had already asked for my hand. Otherwise, my mother and brother may have been fooled by your pretentious lifestyle.
Following the wedding ceremony, the celebrations began in the courtyard garden and on the front veranda. They had decorated the cypresses, ornamental palms, and sour orange trees with lights, each tree a different color. Large trees with large light bulbs and small trees with small ones. Just like stars. Water flowed down the two sides of the stairs leading into a pond. A roseshaped light glowed in the middle of every step and water passed over its red reflection and poured into the pool. The large garden patio was carpeted for dancing. Zari figured that the wiring for the lights in the waterscape was hidden under the carpets.
Large, ornate china bowls full of fruit, candelabra with three branches, and baskets of flowers were arranged alternately all around the pool. The candles on the candelabra were lit, and as soon as one was blown out by the breeze, a servant would immediately relight it with a shorthandled torch.
The Governor himself, tall and broadshouldered with a white beard and mustache, stood by the side of the pool welcoming the guests. The last to arrive was a crosseyed British colonel, who entered hand in hand with Zari’s former headmistress. They were accompanied by two Indian soldiers bearing a basket of carnations shaped like a ship. When they reached the Governor, they put the basket down by his feet next to the pool. The Governor, who was busy kissing the British lady’s hand, did not notice the flowers. He shook hands with the colonel a second time and then stretched his hand to the Indian soldiers, who clicked their heels, saluted, turned about, and left. The military band was playing a march.
Then the other musicians arrived. Ne’mat played the zither, a potbellied man played the tar, and a boy who had plucked his eyebrows sang, “My flower, my flower, my silverbraided beloved,” and danced. Afterwards he sang, “My darling, you are a willow leaf, a willow leaf.” Then they played the drums and a few men and women in borrowed Qashqa’i costumes did a poor imitation of a handkerchief dance. Zari had seen all sorts of fake things but had never in her life seen counterfeit Qashqa’is.
Now the musicians, who had come all the way from Tehran just for this wedding, had their turn. To Zari’s ears, their tunes sounded all muddled. The mere sight of the large platters of cookies and pastries and bowls overflowing with mixed nuts made her stomach turn. It dawned on her that the first platter had probably been sent by the pastry guild and the second by the nutsellers guild. The fivetiered wedding cake, flown in by an airplane, was a gift from the Head Command of the Foreign Troops. The cake was placed on a table on the veranda. A bride and groom were standing hand in hand on its top layer. Behind them was a British flag. Everything was made of pastry.
The whole scene seemed like a movie, especially with all the foreign officers in uniforms adorned with braids and medals, Scottish soldiers with pleated kilts, and several Indian officers with turbans. And if Zari hadn’t lost her earrings, she may have even enjoyed the spectacle.
First the bride and groom danced. The long train of her gown dragged over the carpet like the tail of a shooting star, the stones, glass beads, and pearls sparkling in the lamplight. But she was wearing neither the green silk braid nor the bridal chiffon. Only the earrings were in place. The bride danced once with the British colonel and then with Sergeant Zinger, in whose arms she looked like a vulnerable little creature. It seemed that he even stepped on her feet a few times. Then the foreign officers approached the other ladies. The women, in their colorful dresses, were dancing in the arms of strangers, the officers, while their husbands sat on the sofas and watched. The men looked like they were on pins and needles. Perhaps they were happy. Or maybe they were mad as hell. You never know what is going on inside somebody else’s mind. At the end of every dance, the officers brought the ladies back to their places, as if they couldn’t go back on their own. Some officers clicked their heels and kissed the women’s hands, which prompted their husbands to jump up and quickly sit down again-somewhat like a spring that had been wound up. MacMahon was the only one who didn’t dance. He just took pictures.
Sergeant Zinger walked over to Zari, clicked his heels loudly, bowed, and said, “Shall we dance?” Zari excused herself. Zinger shrugged his shoulders and went to Khanom Hakim. Zari looked at her husband, Yusof, who was sitting a few chairs away. Yusof’s eyes, darker than the clear sky of these spring days, were fixed on hers. He winked at her and made her feel warm inside. Yusof always seemed to have a teardrop hidden in his eyes, like two moist emeralds, like the emeralds in her earrings.
The Colonel and Zinger, sometimes together and sometimes alone, took some of their men to the end of the garden, returning in a few minutes straight to the bar, where they drank to each other’s health. Zari saw Zinger whisper something in her husband’s ear. Yusof got up and accompanied Zinger past the decorated cypress and sour orange trees to the end of the garden. They returned quickly and did not go to the bar. Sergeant Zinger signaled to the Colonel, whose eyes became even more crossed as he scowled. Yusof sat down next to Zari. His face was flushed and his blond mustache trembled. He said, “Get up, let’s leave quietly.” Zari brushed her hair over her left ear, which was visible to her husband and said, “As you wish.”
She was getting up when MacMahon appeared, goblet in hand, and sat next to her. He took Yusof’s hand. He had had so much gin that he could barely keep his eyes open. He asked in English, “Did you lock horns with the tailor general again?” He sighed and continued, “It is more difficult for you, not that it will be easier for us. Did you like the poem that I read to you early this evening? Did you? Now, I’m considering writing a poem about your city.” He pointed to the slice of lime in his goblet and said, “The lime, with its delicate green skin and odor that combines all the scents in the meadow, and the cypress, so freespirited and restrained, are among the major plants in this city, and humans must naturally resemble the plants of the region in which they are born. Delicate and restrained. They have sent me to ask you why you are not delicate and moderate. I am making good progress, Yusof, even though I am dead drunk! How well you accomplished your mission, oh Irishman, everdrunk poet!” And looking at Zari, he said, “To your health.” He took a sip and placed the goblet on the table.
“Get up,” he continued. “Let’s go over there and sit on that bench next to that ship of flowers which has anchored at the grassy shore. Zari, you come too. The presence of a beautiful woman is always exciting. This warship with its cargo of flowers is a gift from the General Command of our troops.
“Now that’s better. Where is my glass? Zari, fill our glasses.
“We are kin, aren’t we, Iran and Ireland? Both are the land of Arians. You are the ancestors and we the descendants! Oh, our old, old ancestors. Give us solace. Give us solace! Oh, Catholic Irishman, the patriarch, the ever drunk! I know that in the end, one day, on a lousy rainy day, you will fall into a ditch and die, or in a poorhouse look for an old woman to call “mother!” Well, your mother and the neighbor girl who brought your mother a glass of warm milk . . . your mother was knitting woolen argyle socks for her son at the front . . . like the ones I have on. Your father was a night watchman in charge of the bomb alert siren; he knew that airplanes drop bombs in our neighborhood, and he knew that our house was about to be hit by a bomb and knew that mother was knitting woolen argyle socks for her son at the front. When they pulled her out of the rubble, she was still holding her knitting needles, and now father has sent a letter. He has written that he is sorry that . . . he is sorry that . . .
“Now, oh patriarchal Catholic family, by confessing and other such absurdities you got up and migrated to London, for what? Had you stayed home and fixed up your poor, miserable Ireland, liberated it, you would not have lost so many to migration. In exile, I remember, you told tales about Ireland, you boasted of its abundant poets and sighed for your poor country. I remember you said there was no corruption among the youth of your country, and your audience would retort, `Is it not so in England?’ Who were you trying to fool? You had forgotten the drunkards of Ireland. You had forgotten that every week a ship would arrive and, in exchange for its cargo, load up the girls and boys of your country to take to America. And they pretended not to notice that they were sending their criminals to the colonies. Just like our tailor general. The tailor general is upset with you. He can’t stand the sight of you. He feels the same way about me. Yesterday, I told the Consul to forget about Yusof. The tailor general wouldn’t hear of it.” He drank again and continued:
“Some people are like rare flowers; others are envious of their splendor. They imagine this rare flower will absorb all the earth’s energy, devour the brightness of the sunshine and the moisture in the air, and usurp their place, leaving them no sunshine and no oxygen. They are jealous of it and wish it did not exist. Be like us or don’t be at all. You have a few rare flowers here and there, you have oleander, which is good for repelling mosquitoes, and fine herbs, which are good for sheep. Well, it’s always the taller and more fertile branch that becomes a tree, and now this taller tree has its eyes peeled, ear to the ground, and can see well. It is being told, `Don’t look, don’t listen, don’t talk.’ And the everdrunk Irish poet, the war correspondent, is sent to him to soften him up, and this correspondent has his father’s letter in his coat pocket, right here, and his father has written, `I am sorry that . . . I am sorry that.’ Well, if you give in, it will all be over.”
He took another sip. His eyes now only slits, he said despondently: “Oh Ireland, oh land of Arian descendants, I have composed a poem about a tree that must grow in your soil. This tree is called the Tree of Independence. This tree must be irrigated with blood, not water. Water will dry it up. Yes, Yusof, you were right. If independence is good for me, it is good for you too. And the story you told me was very useful to me. You told me about the tree in your legends, whose leaves when dried and applied to one’s eyes like kohl, can make one invisible and capable of doing anything. I wish there were one of these trees in Ireland and one in your city.”
He paused to light a cigarette and continued, “I’ve said all this nonsense to soften you up. When my father’s letter came-`I am sorry that, I am sorry that’-I sat down and wrote a story for your twins . . . for Mina. Well, Mina and Marjan are the twins. Where is my story? I put it next to my father’s letter. I want to build an airplane that drops toys for children . . . or pretty stories. Once upon a time, there was a little girl whose name was Mina. This girl was the only girl who cried for the stars when they were not in the sky. In all my life, I had never seen a child who cried for the stars. Only Mina. When she was younger, her mother would pick her up, show her the sky and say, `Moony, moony, come, come; go into Mina’s chest,’ or something like that. That’s how Mina fell in love with the sky. Now, every night when it is cloudy, Mina cries for the stars. I hope their maid will sweep up the sky; she is a slob. She only displaces the dust, scattering it in the sky. On the nights that the maid has done the sweeping, at least some of the stars are visible. But what a treat when mother sweeps; she sweeps the sky clean, collects the stars and the moon, puts them in a gunnysack, sews up the top, and locks the gunnysack in the cupboard. Now, Mina has found a way. She teams up with her sister and steals mother’s keys, and goes to sleep hugging the keys. Without the keys, they can’t sleep at all. I have never seen another girl who thinks as much about the stars, and I have never seen another city in whose cupboards you can hide stars.”
MacMahon took another sip, and said, “This is the end of Mina’s story. Say, `Well done,’ Yusof. What a story I’ve made from a few fabricated and real things you reported from your twins. You said the people in your city are born poets. You can see that the people of Ireland are the same.” And he became silent.
Zari did not notice that her brotherinlaw, Abolqasem Khan, had suddenly appeared before them. MacMahon got up, took his goblet and left. And Khan Kaka sat down. He blinked and asked, “Are you drinking whiskey?” “No, it’s gin,” Zari answered. “Would you like me to pour you some?”
Khan Kaka said quietly, “Brother. You’re being stubborn for no reason. After all, they are our guests. They won’t be here forever. Even if we don’t give it to them willingly, they’ll take it by force. They’re not deterred by the locks and seals on your warehouses. And besides, they don’t want it for free. They’ll pay cash for it. I’ve sold everything in my warehouses in one shot. I’ve even collected a down payment on the wheat that is just sprouting. After all, they are in charge.”
“There is nothing surprising and new about the foreigners coming here uninvited, Khan Kaka,” Yusof replied. “What I despise is the feeling of inferiority which has been instilled in all of you. In the blink of an eye, they make you all their dealers, errand boys, and interpreters. At least let one person stand up to them so they think to themselves, `Well, at last, we’ve found a real man.’ ”
Dinner was announced, and the guests started toward the building. Zari, her husband, and her brotherinlaw only pretended to join the others. Khan Kaka turned to Zari, blinked and said, “Sisterinlaw, say something. See? How easily and openly he insults his elder brother.” And Zari responded, “What can I say?”
Khan Kaka turned to Yusof and said, “My dear friend, dearest, you are young and do not understand. You are risking your own life and creating trouble for all of us by being so stubborn. After all, they have to feed that big army. You know yourself that an army that big can’t be kept hungry.”
“But my peasants and the people of my city can be kept hungry,” Yusof said bitterly.
Khan Kaka said, “Look, my friend, last year and the year before that you got away with it and didn’t give anything, which we somehow made up for. But this year, that just won’t do. Now, they need food and gasoline more than they need cannons and rifles.”
Gilantaj approached them and said, “My mom says please come to dinner.”
They began to walk toward the table. Abolqasem Khan whispered to Zari, “I hope he doesn’t get some crazy notion not to come to the celebration tomorrow afternoon. They have invited Khosrow, too. I will personally come and pick you up.”
Zari said, “Tomorrow is Thursday, and you know that I have to keep my charity vow.”
Abolqasem Khan blinked and said, “Sisterinlaw, I beg you.”
When they got home, Zari sat on the bed. She took off her shoes. Yusof was straightening his pants on the bed to put them on the clothes hanger. After he put on his pajamas, he went to the next room, which opened to their bedroom. Zari could see him from where she was sitting. He was standing by the twins’ bed, watching them. Then he moved out of sight, but she knew that he was straightening the pillows. He would take Zari’s keys, which they had hidden between their pillows. She knew that he would kiss them and that he would say, “My cutie dolls.” When she heard the door, she knew that Yusof had gone to Khosrow’s room. She knew that he would pull up his cover, kiss his forehead and say, “My son, if I don’t succeed, you will. You are dearer to me than my life. If I don’t see you one day, I’ll feel like a chicken with its head cut off,” or words to that effect.
Yusof came back to their bedroom. Zari had not moved from where she was sitting on the bed. Yusof asked, “Aren’t you going to sleep?” and gave her the keys, laughed, and said, “Those two little devils are really something, the cutie dolls.” And sitting next to her, he said, “You probably want me to help you with the buttons on the back of your dress. I’m sorry, I forgot.” Without turning her back to him, Zari said, “What a pretty story MacMahon has written for them.”
“Did you understand it all?” asked Yusof.
“Yes, I’ve gotten used to his Irish accent,” she replied.
“Do you know what Mina told me today? When I tossed her up in the air and caught her in my arms, she asked, `Daddy, has Mama given you two stars? I can see them in your eyes.’ ”
Zari laughed. “The child is right. Two stars shine in the depths of your eyes. Your eyes . . . God protect them, are like emeralds.” She couldn’t finish the rest of the sentence.
Yusof began undoing the buttons on her dress, and said, “Good heavens, what are all these buttons for?” He continued, “Early this evening, I said things to MacMahon that will be the end of me if Zinger hears them.” He undid all the buttons and her dress dropped to her waist. He began to undo her brassiere and said, “I told MacMahon, `Yes, friend, the people of this city are born poets, but you have stifled their poetry.’ I said, `You have emasculated their heroes. You haven’t even left them with the possibility of struggle so that they can write an epic and sing a battle cry.’ I said, `You have made a land devoid of heroes.’ I said, `You have turned the city into a graveyard; the most thriving part of the city is the Mordestan District.’ ” He undid the brassiere, put his hands on her breasts and said, “I feel sorry for your breasts, how tightly you bind them.” Zari felt a shiver shoot through her breasts. Her nipples became ever more firm. Yusof kissed her shoulder. His lips were hot. Zari said, “Didn’t he ask where Mordestan District was?”
Yusof said, “Yes, he did. I said, `It is the district whose inhabitants are for the most part unfortunate women who make a living by selling their bodies; and you send the Indian soldiers to them. As for yourselves, you have it made.’ I said, `You have stifled poetry, and in its place, the droshky drivers, whores, and dealers have learned a few words of English.’ All MacMahon had to say was, `Don’t tell me these things. I, for one, have a heavy heart because of this war.’ ”
Yusof stroked his wife’s hair and reached to kiss her behind her ear. Zari turned, putting her arms around her husband’s neck as tears began to flow down her cheeks. Yusof asked with surprise, “Are you crying because of what I’ve done? I can’t be like everybody else. I can’t watch my peasants go hungry. A country can’t be completely without men.”
Zari said, crying, “Let them do whatever they want, except bring the war to my nest. What business is it of mine that the city is like the Mordestan District? This home is my city, my country, but they even drag the war to my home.”
Yusof held her face in his hands, kissing her tears. “Get up, wash your face,” he said. “Now is no time for this kind of talk. Your face is all puffed up like one of the faces they mold onto mud bricks. I swear to God you are a thousand times prettier than those puppet faces you put on. Get up, dear, I want you.”
She turned off the light so Yusof couldn’t see the scars on her belly. Yusof said these scars looked like a map. He would kiss the stitch marks and say, “You have suffered all this for me.” Khanom Hakim had stitched up her belly like a wrinkled tablecloth.
When she came to the bed, Yusof’s warm, hairy legs touched her own cold legs. His large hand caressed her breasts, and as it reached lower, she forgot everything-the earrings, Sergeant Zinger, Khanom Hakim, the bride, the marchers and the drums . . . the crosseyed and the bald in the wedding ceremony . . . she forgot them all. But in her imagination, she could hear the quiet flow of water from a waterscape over bright red flowers, and she could see a ship full of flowers which was not a war ship.
About the Author
Among contemporary writers of Iran, the majority of whom are men, one woman stands out: Simin Daneshvar. Her work has developed and matured since the late 1940s, and today she is known as one of Iran’s best fiction writers. Her masterpiece novel Savushun (Mourning for Siavash), published in 1969, is considered the climax of Persian novel writing. Daneshvar, like most contemporary Iranian writers, came from a middle-class family. Born in 1921 in Shiraz, she was educated in a missionary school and became fluent in English. She began her writing career as early as 1935, when she was still an eighth-grader. Her first article, “Winter Is Not Unlike Our Life,” was published in a local Shiraz newspaper. She entered Tehran University and majored in Persian literature.
When her father, a physician, died in 1941, Daneshvar was forced to find a job, as the family’s only source of income had been her father’s salary. She was employed at Radio Tehran, where she wrote a series of programs entitled “The Unknown Shirazi,” for which she received scant pay. In acute need of money, she even wrote articles on cooking. Eventually, her fluency in English enabled her to become assistant director of foreign news. But she soon became dissatisfied with the routine nature of this job and left Radio Tehran for a newspaper called Iran, for which she wrote articles and did translations. The relaxed social and political environment of the forties, marked by some degree of democracy and freedom of speech, prompted Daneshvar to choose journalism as a potential career. During her year at Iran (1941-1945), she decided to try her hand at fiction writing. Later, without prior knowledge of story-writing technique, she wrote Atash-e Khamoush (The Quenched Fire) in 1948, at the age of twenty-seven. Although seven out of sixteen stories are O. Henry inspired, and Daneshvar had the book published in first draft form, the major elements of her style are evident. Daneshvar had become familiar with O. Henry as a student, and like him she deals with the basic issues of life, death, love and self sacrifice.
Typical of writers of the 1940s, Daneshvar dwells on issues within Iranian society. She juxtaposes the opposing values of right and wrong–such as poverty versus wealth, or the carefree life of the rich versus the sorrow of the poor–and for moral reasons condemns one while praising the other. Daneshvar’s characters in The Quenched Fire are generic types like “professor,” “mother,” or “daughter,” characters without time, place or class who hardly possess a personality. Her lifelong concern with women and their place in society is apparent in her narrative as early as The Quenched Fire. However, at this early stage, Daneshvar does not analyze the socio-economic dependence of women; rather, she is concerned with the general position of women in society. Technically, Daneshvar’s major preoccupation at this time was her conscious distinction between the “I” of the author and the “I” of a character. Dual narration in some of her stories made them technically weak. The Quenched Fire, however, was well received, despite its shortcomings–perhaps because it was the first collection of short stories published by an Iranian woman. Later, Daneshvar refused to have the book reprinted, stating that she would never again turn in a first draft to a publisher. The year following the publication of The Quenched Fire, Daneshvar received her Ph.D. in Persian literature from Tehran University.
Subsequently, she became acquainted with Jalal Al-e Ahmad, the famous contemporary writer and social critic, during a trip from Isfahan to Tehran. They were married in 1950. Two years later, Daneshvar received a Fulbright scholarship and left for Stanford University for two years. During this time, she published two short stories in English in The Pacific Spectator. Upon her return to Iran, she joined Tehran University as an associate professor of art history, a post she held for twenty years. Daneshvar was never granted a professorship–not for the lack of credentials, but due to the influence of SAVAK, the secret police, as she would learn later from the president of the university. She had always been an outspoken and articulate lecturer who believed that her primary responsibility was to her students. Precisely for this reason, she would have many confrontations with the SAVAK throughout her years at the University. Daneshvar published her second collection of short stories, Shahri Chon Behesht (A City as Paradise), in 1961.
Meanwhile, her translations of Chekhov, Shaw, Hawthorne, Schnitzler and Saroyan had become a valuable addition to the collection of foreign works available in Persian. In A City as Paradise, Daneshvar’s prose style had matured considerably, coming closer to the language of the people, no longer as formal as it had been in The Quenched Fire. Instead she had developed a short, clear and concise sen- tence structure. It was from this time onward that she tried to bring her writing closer to cinematographic realism. Her earlier preoccupation with the presence of the “I” of the author is, however, still present in some of the stories in this volume. It is only in The Playhouse, the last story, that she finally succeeded in freeing her prose of this distracting element. Her other preoccupation, which began at this stage, is with the concept of time. Similar to Al-e Ahmad and Sa’edi, she felt the need to remind her readers constantly of the passage of time in the form of days, weeks, months or seasons. In The Accident, the length of the argument between the husband and wife over the purchase of the car is made clear by: “It took three weeks for me to surrender,” or “In three months and eleven days my wife . . .” Daneshvar asserted her devotion to recording women’s conditions in Iranian society in A City as Paradise. Here she no longer dwells on the general characteristics of women; rather, she assumes a neutral position and avoids passing judgement on them; she merely portrays the women and their lives as she saw them. Her characters are able to speak for themselves and demonstrate where their major strengths and weaknesses lie. She is also quite successful in creating the real, as well as the imaginary, worlds of her characters. In Bibi Shahr Banu, Daneshvar cleverly depicts the actual lives of her characters, juxtaposed against the lives they wished they could have had.
In The Playhouse, her handling of Siah’s character and his secret love for the girl is subtle, yet far-reaching. In her portrayal of the girl as a victim of society and of her own ignorance, Daneshvar surpasses all of her prior stories. At the time A City as Paradise was published, Daneshvar was still under the shadow of her husband, Al-e Ahmad, who was an imposing figure in Tehran’s literary circles. Al-e Ahmad had begun writing in 1945 and by 1961 had published seven novels and short story collections, establishing himself as a notable writer and critic. It was not until the publication of Savushun, Daneshvar’s masterpiece novel, in 1969, that she attained recognition as an indispensable writer of modern Persian literature, surpassing even Al-e Ahmad in literary importance. Savushun was the first novel written by an Iranian woman and from a woman’s perspective. The book has been reprinted sixteen times and to this date remains the single most widely read Persian novel. In Savushun there are no longer traces of weak technique, structure, or style. The story, told from Zari’s perspective, depicts a Shirazi landowning family which has become entangled in the dirty politics of the 1940s, instigated by foreign intruders and local opportunists. The hero, Yusuf, Zari’s husband, resists the foreigners’ demands that he turn over his crop to feed the occupying army. To do so would result in the starvation of his own peasants. He pays for his stubbornness with his life. The last scene of the novel is that of Yusuf’s burial procession, which is on the verge of turning into a mass demonstration. However, government troops disperse the demonstrators, leaving his body to be carried by his brother and Zari. This scene is among the most moving and well written passages in Persian literature. In Savushun, Daneshvar integrates social events, traditional customs, and beliefs, creating a beautifully narrated story.
Daneshvar’s husband died a few months before the publication of Savushun. After Al-e Ahmad’s death, Daneshvar continued her involvement in the activities that had been important to her husband. She assumed a leading role in the Writers’ Association, which Al-e Ahmad had helped to found, encouraging young writers in their efforts. In her understated yet resolute way, she provided moral support for intellectuals and dissidents opposing the Pahlavi regime. She specifically concentrated her efforts on assisting her students financially and academically. When she refers to political issues in her writings, it is within the broad context of unjust political systems, for Daneshvar never adhered to a particular political ideology. During the mid-1970s Daneshvar kept a low profile. She maintained her position as associate professor and became the chairman of the Department of Art History and Archaeology. In addition to her work at the University, she wrote a series of short stories. A few of these were published in magazines and finally compiled in 1980. To Whom Can I Say Hello? established Daneshvar as a good short story writer, as well as an able novelist. In the stories Traitor’s Intrigue, To Whom Can I Say Hello?, and The Accident, Daneshvar upholds the standards of excellence she had attained in Savushun. In this last collection, Daneshvar expands her earlier convictions. The diversity of her characters and her choice of themes reflect her thorough understanding of the multi-faceted Iranian society. She captures the mentality, the ideals, aspirations, lifestyles, manner of speech, and popular expressions of Iran’s various social strata. Her well-rounded characters are representative oftheir time and place, presenting a colorful view of Iranian behavior. This quality in her writing affirms the faithfulness of her work as being a true mirror of society. Daneshvar’s stories reflect reality rather than fantasy. They contain themes such as child theft, adultery, marriage, childbirth, sickness, death, treason, profiteering, illiteracy, ignorance, poverty and loneliness. The issues she deals with are the social problems of the 1960s and 1970s, which have immediacy and credibility for the reader. Her inspiration is drawn from the people around her. In her own words: “Simple people have much to offer. They must be able to give freely and with piece of mind. We, too, in return, must give to them to the best of our abilities. We must, with all our heart, try to help them acquire what they truly deserve.”
Daneshvar depicts the lifestyles of the lower classes, the traditional middle class, and the bourgeoisie with equal clarity. Through her characters one becomes familiar with these various classes. A few examples will help illustrate the diversity of her female characters. Nadia in The Accident is a bourgeois woman who sacrifices her marriage (and potentially the happiness of her children) to further her desired social image. On the other hand, Zari inSavushun is a traditional middle class, educated woman from a feudal family. She nobly accepts her husband’s self-sacrifice, devoting herself to carry forth his principles of justice and humanity. In contrast, the protagonist in another story, Anis, is a lower middle class woman with aspirations of social mobility. A maid who has come from a village to Tehran, she is impressed by the bourgeois lifestyle. Seeking to emulate it, she abandons her self respect, individuality, and economic independence. Marmar in Vakil Bazaar is a careless maid who foolishly loses her master’s daughter because she cannot tear herself away from a shopkeeper’s flirtations. Daneshvar does a brilliant job reproducing Marmar’s language. The expressions and idioms Marmar uses are common among the women of her class. Bridging the gap between the spoken and written language has been a major preoccupation of contemporary Persian writers. It is mainly through dialogue that a writer can exercise this practice. Daneshvar, however, is successful in reproducing the cadence of spoken language throughout the whole text, not merely in the dialogue.
Daneshvar is particularly concerned with elderly single women who have worked their entire lives to earn a living, but find themselves poor and broken-hearted in their final years. In To Whom Can I Say Hello? Daneshvar sympathetically depicts Kokab Sultan, a hardworking woman who raises her daughter with great difficulty. Having devoted herself to creating the best possible life for her child, she is forced to sell her daughter into marriage when her only source of income is taken away. Daneshvar, who has adopted the plight of the lower classes, especially that of poor women, considers their economic dependence on men as the source of all their misfortune. She largely blames the structure of society for this condition. Muhtaram, the daughter of a poor cobbler in The Man Who Never Came Back, marries Ebrahim, a peddler. She is so thrilled with the few extra material things she finds at her husband’s house that she does not realize that she is still living in poverty. She becomes aware of the desperation of her situation one day when Ebrahim does not return home. Left with little money, no skills, and two small children, she is forced to acknowledge her complete dependance on her husband. This time, though, Muhtaram is lucky and Ebrahim returns home unharmed, saving them from starvation.
Although Daneshvar underscores the social factors contributing to the unfortunate situation of women, she nevertheless maintains her objectivity, at times turning her critical eye upon the individual. Her characters provide role models that are both positive (Zari in Savushun, Maryam in Bibi Shahr Banu, Kokab Sultan in To Whom Can I Say Hello?), as well as negative (Nadia in The Accident, Anis in Anis, the girl in The Playhouse). Out of the changing social milieu of the 1960s and 1970s, writers found it far more difficult to develop believable, progressive characters than to recreate negative characters that were easy to mock. For instance, in The Traitor’s Intrigue, one observes the colonel’s character development. An unsympathetic charac ter at the start, he evolves into a positive model by the end of the story. He finally stands on his own two feet, asserting his individuality in the face of the regime, disrupting the old order. Folklore and traditional Persian customs preoccupied writers in the 1960s and 1970s.
Much of Daneshvar’s work encompassed traditional customs and rituals. She reminds the reader of the virtues and vices of such traditions. Her fiction details superstitions that have survived for centuries, embedded in the extreme religiosity of the lower classes. The common practices of casting away evil spirits and unlocking misfortunes by resorting to magical prayers and witchcraft appear again and again in her stories. Kokab Sultan in To Whom Can I Say Hello? wants to learn the infamy prayer so that she can curse her son-in-law and win her daughter back. The family of the mullah in the Vakil Bazaar want to save their son from the evil spirit which has taken over his body by exorcising him, and offering ablutions and prayers. Daneshvar has no qualms with traditional religious ceremonies and rituals like visiting holy shrines, baking Nazri (an offering of food to the poor), and performing the daily prayers. She does, however, oppose religious superstition, which can brutalize people’s lives. In 1979, Daneshvar retired from her post at the University, and in the following year published To Whom Can I Say Hello?
In 1981, she completed a monograph on Al-e Ahmad, Ghoroub-e Jalal (The Loss of Jalal). This is the most moving piece she has written, as well as the best descriptive work on the personality of one of Iran’s literary leaders. Daneshvar relates her last days with Al-e Ahmad with great detail and emotional understanding. Her prose is formal, proving her mastery of Persian classical literature. Daneshvar currently resides in Tehran and has recently completed a new novel, Jazireh-ye Sargardani (The Wandering Island). Until the appearance of Daneshvar, contemporary Persian literature could boast of only two able women writers–Parvin E’tesami and Forough Farrokhzad–both poets. Daneshvar proved that women could also achieve excellence in prose. Her works stand as precious contributions to the world of fiction in Iran. As a woman and as a writer, she is a model of the up-and-coming women authors who want to address social concerns. Persian literature today has considerable value, especially when viewed as a mirror of society as well as a medium to influence it. Contemporary Iranian writers like Daneshvar have taken it upon themselves to create a link between literature and social change.