“When I am shivering from the cold, and darkness envelops me due to the scarcity of fuel and electricity brought on by Iraqi bombings of our towns and main centers of energy, I start dreaming about the future. I dream of a universal reconciliation. I dream that all nations have become one state. I dream that all money, wasted armaments, propaganda, hot and cold wars, is spent for the welfare of humanity. I dream that all the minds from all over the world have been drawn together, led by retired professors in both science and humanities, who can still think and work, and all of them, hand-in-hand, guiding us through wandering paths, blind alleys and winding roads. I dream that they are finding a new and sure highway that leads to the freedom and the well-being of mankind. I have great hope that my dreams will come true, if not for my generation, then for the next.”
~Simin Daneshvar, Tehran, January 1988(DP 170)
Simin Daneshvar’s writing allows us into a world many of us in the west have never had an opportunity to access. Her short stories, collected in Sutra and Other Stories and Daneshvar’s Playhouse, open a door to life in Iran, showing and revealing the truth of the life she lived and witnessed as well as many of her varied characters.
There is an objectivity in her writing, a recording of events that play out when certain characters are in particular situations that allows the reader in. The portrayal of Iranian women’s lives, options, how they behave under certain conditions, offers the reader an intimate experience of lives before unknown. Daneshvar also writes of revolutionaries and what we may consider “religious zealots”, revealing the reality of people we have come to stereotype and perhaps misunderstand because of our own ignorance. To these flat stereotypes she offers complexity and depth, enriching the reader’s vocabulary of Iranian culture and Persian identity. Daneshvar, through her writing, is willing to lead us along, to help us understand.
First and foremost a feminist writer, Daneshvar was born in Shiraz in 1921. She received a Ph.D from Tehran University, majoring in Persian literature. In 1952 she received a Fulbright scholarship at Stanford University and studied under the mentorship of the American author Wallace Stegner. Their relationship endured and he continued to mentor her, even visiting her in Tehran. Daneshvar also became a well-known translator of Chekhov, Shaw, Saroyan and many others.
In the introduction to Daneshvar’s Playhouse, translator Maryam Mafi writes that “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“(178 ).
Savushun, published in 1969, and subsequently in English with the title, A Persian Requiem, is an epic masterpiece, rich with imagery and characters of a time gone by, leaving the reader dizzy with nostalgia and longing.
The novel tells the story of a woman named Zari, and her awakening during the allied occupation of Iran during and after the Second World War. This novel examines choices that people make when colonizers arrive, unfortunately none of them good options. Zari’s husband, Yusef, becomes radicalized to fight against the occupiers and help the local people, including the peasant class. His brother decides to befriend the “enemy.” Neither come out unscathed. Meanwhile Zari is left to feel her own disempowerment, not only under colonialism but the patriarchal structures that have been present in her culture for a long time. Overhearing a conversation while serving lunch to her husband and a group of men planning a revolt one day, she thinks to herself:
“Oh Lord, what kind of men are these who know that what they’re doing is no use, but just to prove their existence and their manhood, and just so their children won’t spit on their graves, go ahead and actually dig them—God forbid—with their own hands… She bit her lip.
And what odd things women remember at the strangest moments, Zari thought, as her mind jumped back to one night when Yusef had sighed in his sleep, and she had woken up and put on the bedside lamp, only to gaze for the longest time at the soft down on his earlobe which had looked just like pink velvet brushed the wrong way…”(PR 179).
The novel unveils stories of women, women’s lives, some forced to wear veils, others forbidden to when they wish to. Zari’s sister-in-law who lives in Zari’s household, a constant support and companion, addicted to opium, perpetually at the brazier and hookah, offers this eloquent love-hate passage:
“What good opium! Where do you get it? It brings the scent of the poppy-fields right to my nostrils! How often I used to ride around those fields! Field after field of poppies, and each one a different shade. . . the scent of it at sunset intoxicated both me and my horse. When the flower-petals have fallen, the yellowish, moss-green seed-heads nod in the breeze as if to talk to you, and you’re certain they’re alive. They have something no other flower in the world has. At sunrise, they come to cut them. The dew is still sparkling on the seed-heads, and drop by drop the pretty sap oozes out.
…Curse the devil! Even if it kills me I’m going to give it up. The beauty of the poppy-fields is quite different thing from its poison”(PR 154).
Then there is the story of Zari’s mother, forced to leave her village because of her husband’s embarrassing and flaunted affair with a younger, flamboyant woman, who dies alone, far away, never admitting the truth to her children the devastating conditions her life has been reduced to out of shame and humiliation.
Zari herself, though “happily” married and in love, begins to feel the chains of her own enslavement, even though she is one of the lucky ones who is of a class high enough to have servants. The women’s stories, though embedded within this tale of war, occupation and oppression of a people, where the men are in charge, are the center of the novel. The truth of the women’s lives spills across these pages in every variation complete with all the pain, beauty and sorrow.
“If only the world were run by women, Zari mused, women who have given birth and cherish that which they’ve created. Women who value patience, forbearance, the daily grind: who know what it is to do nothing for oneself. . . Perhaps men risked everything in order to feel as if they have created something, because in reality they are unable to create life. If the world were run by women, Zari wondered, would there be any wars? And if one loses the blessings one has, what then”(PR 176)?
At a crucial point in the novel, in the middle of a heated argument where Zari’s husband is attacking her for not standing up to the occupying government and their demands on her household, Zari blurts out:
“Shall I tell you one more thing? You are the one who took my courage away from me…I’ve obeyed you for so long that subservience has become habit with me”(PR 119).
It is a shocking moment to have this voice emerge from Zari. After that she is not the same. She begins to speak her truth and even more, feel her truth in a more conscious way.
“In bed under the mosquito net, despite Yusef’s cool hand caressing her warm abdomen, despite his kisses, Zari seemed to have forgotten all sexual response. Instead, she kept thinking about her past, and wondering whether she had always been a coward or whether she had become one. Was Yusef really to blame? For one instant she even concluded that marriage was wrong at its very basis. Why should a man be tied for a lifetime to a woman and half a dozen children…or conversely, for a woman to be so dependent emotionally and otherwise on one man and his children that she couldn’t breathe freely for herself? It had to be wrong. Yet she knew that all the joys of her own life stemmed from these very attachments”(PR 121).
The beauty of Persia and the love for that which was at this time disappearing is gorgeously portrayed. The images of this novel are so potent and descriptive they make the reader ache for this time gone by. One can smell the fragrance of the world depicted in this novel as in the following passage when Zari enters her neighbor’s distillery to gather rose water:
“She took the pitchers and went to the basement. An intoxicating fragrance permeated the cool air of the cellars. The covers of the stone vats made especially for boiling flowers had been removed and leaned against the walls. The bamboo pipes leading from the vats to the tanks were dry and, unlike the last time she had brought the twins to watch, were not dripping with thin streams of fragrant essences. Of the two tanks, one was full and the other half-full with rose-water. Flasks of rose-water were stacked neatly around the store-room. She opened a small door and went to an adjoining cellar. She dipped her pitcher in the first tank there and filled it with betony extract. How she longed to lie down right there on the cool, most earth of the store-rooms, next to the sweet aroma of those tanks!”(PR 128)
A Persian Requiem reveals a pattern and story told all too often in our modern history: colonization, revolution, hope, betrayal and more revolution, until no one knows what they are fighting for any longer, except for their humanity and self-respect. This is a novel of our modern, global crisis.
Simin Dansehvar remained living in Tehran all her life, committed to her people and telling their stories. She was a professor in the art department of Tehran University for many years, and published three more novels: The Island of Wandering(1992), The Wandering Cameleer(2001) and Selection(2007).
In her “Letter from Simin Daneshvar” written in 1988 and published in Daneshvar’s Playhouse, she writes of:
“mourning the disasters that have befallen the Iranian nation through almost twenty-five hundred years of despotic regimes. Western exploitations started during the renaissance, with “Humanism” being the main basis of this wonderful revolution the West!
As an Iranian I have suffered and I have been patient, but I endure and have great hope and faith in the future for all nations—including Iran….As an Iranian woman, I have suffered from despotism of the grim, the exploitation of East and West, the limitations of a male-dominated culture, and a patriarchal system. But I have never lost hope”( 156).
Simin Daneshvar is a #NastyWomanWriter.
©Theresa C. Dintino 2019
Daneshvar, Simin. Daneshvar’s Playhouse: A Collection of Stories. Washington, D.C.: Mage Publishers, 1989.
Daneshvar, Simin. A Persian Requiem, London: Peter Halban, 1969, 2002.
Daneshvar, Simin. Sutra and Other Stories. Washington, D.C.: Mage Publishers, 1994-2008.