Today's date:
Summer 2007

Iran Is My Demolished Homeland

Goli Taraghi is an Iranian short-story writer and novelist. Her works include The Great Lady of My Soul and Winter Sleep. Taraghi now lives in Paris, where she spoke with NPQ editor-at-large Michael Skafidas.

NPQ | As one of the most popular Iranian authors, in the West and at home, you represent a generation of intellectual fugitives who found their place abroad but kept their language as the most cherished talisman of their culture. How do you see the evolution of your identity, first living in America and then France?

Goli Taraghi | I had grown up in Shemiran, an area in the north of Iran, happy and secure with 1,001 cousins. I was reborn, though, in Des Moines, Iowa, where I had moved with my father, a self-made man who admired America. I had never heard anything of Elvis Presley until I went to the cinema when I was 15. I couldn't understand why everybody was crying and screaming; I thought the cinema must have been on fire. That was my baptism into Western culture.

After a year, I thought I really had become sort of American. That was 1956. The 1960s got even better with Kennedy and then the hippies. I was paralyzed after the death of Kennedy. Now that I look back, I was really Americanized, albeit on the surface.

In reality, I had two identities by then—Iranian and half superficially American. But as soon as I went back to Iran, this kind of superficial identity flew away. It's still there partially, but once you're away from it, it does not exist anymore. Like a perfume, it wafts away after a while.

Meanwhile, I got married and divorced, had three children, taught analysis of symbols at the department of dramatic arts in Pahlavi University. Then revolution came.

I must say that I really believed in this revolution. I was on the streets marching with my students. The day I heard a speech from Imam Khomeini I was shocked, because it was not up to my expectations. Then the university closed and many intellectuals were arrested.

I decided to leave for France. I said to myself, "I'll leave for one year and by then things will go back to normal." Things were so chaotic. Then, a year after the revolution, the war started with Iraq. And almost 30 years later, here I am still in France!

NPQ | Your short story "The Bizarre Comportment of Mr. Alpha in Exile" is about a teacher who is forced into exile after a rock-throwing incident in which he receives a severe blow to his head. Did you face a similar incident?

Taraghi | No, not that. But there were a lot I've heard about, of professors being mistreated or rejected. In my case, my head was not broken but my heart was: I was rejected by many of my students and could not understand why. I did not know which way to go because I did not know what was happening. I expected absolute freedom. Instead, there was so much restriction and segregation and all this talk about women wearing the veil! I could not believe it. Now it's been about 28 years since I left.

Of course, exile has its own suffering and pain, but it also means you enter into the new territory of another culture. You have to learn another language. The world becomes richer and much bigger. As a writer, if you stay in your own country, you become very local. Exile can have a very positive creative dimension in this sense.

What is most painful about exile for many is that they cannot go back. I took the risk and have gone back every year, so at least I have kept my physical connection with Iran.

Going back and forth, though, I realized that geographical displacement is also existential. If you go to Paris from Spain, or if you go from Paris to England, or anywhere else in Europe, you are still on the same planet. But if you come to Paris from the Middle East, or from China, you will soon realize that East and West are really two entirely different planets. Culture, language, rituals, thinking, conceptions, logic—everything is different.

Every time I go back to Iran it becomes like a double exile. I don't understand the logic of Islamic people, I really don't. Sometimes I try to think like them, to see what they see, and it's impossible.

Indeed, most writers who talk about home are exiles. So, if you are one of them like me, literature becomes your home. In my case, it's half true because even though I was born in Iran and live in Paris, neither is my home.

I ask myself: "Is Paris really my home after 28 years? Definitely not. I am not even a bit Parisian! Am I American? Who, me? E.T. phone home? How can I be American? How about Iran? How about Tehran? Am I Iranian?"

At first, it occurred that "of course I am Iranian and with a lot of pride." The great civilization and all that. But then a voice in me said, "No, stop it! When you go to Tehran, do you really feel at home?" I had to answer an honest "no." The voice inside kept asking, "If Iran is your home, then why did you leave? Why don't you go back again?" Then I realized that even though I am Iranian, still my home is imaginary because it is lost. Iran is a demolished homeland. Writing in Persian and publishing in Iran connect me with the thousands of my readers. I receive endless e-mails and letters, and people come to see me all the time saying, "We love your stories because we see ourselves in them." That is a wonderful invisible connection. I don't feel alone, and maybe that is something I could call home, my readers.

NPQ | After 28 years, do you have voting rights in France?

Taraghi | Yes, I have a French passport. I was really hoping that Segolene Royal would win because (Nicolas) Sarkozy is very bad news. We are all afraid of him because he's too tough. I don't want to go as far as to call him a fascist, but he has said some unbelievable things. He's ambiguous and ambitious.

My 32-year-old son, who is French, told me the other day, "Mommy, if Sarkozy wins, France will become a big prison." And that's the average perception of him, even of people who mysteriously voted for him even though they despise him. Unfortunately, the trend of women getting into power did not catch on in France. Perhaps it will in America. Why not? The world needs a change; put it in the hands of women, maybe something new will happen. After all, at the very beginning of civilization, goddesses ruled, not men. Men were only the worshipers.

NPQ | Interestingly, in your early works you have captured the uncertainty of Iranian modernity through the failures of its men. Your pre-revolutionary fiction revolves around or reflects a world of bourgeois men seized by inertia. No wonder your most well-known novel of that time is titled Winter Sleep. How come the typical character of your early fiction is the male urban dweller who lives and thrives in a state of moral entropy?

Taraghi | I have always liked or chosen to speak as a man. Maybe I hide myself behind the mask of a man. Even in my first book most of the main characters are men. In Winter Sleep, you can see something is going to happen, there is a premonition, something boiling underneath this deadly paralysis. When I lived in Iran, I really suffered from this kind of situation. Even though we had more freedom at the time of the Shah, still that was a very closed society that needed a change. But nobody dared to say anything, even though we resented the repression.

This kind of inertia just came up in my story. I worked briefly at the time for an organization where I was surrounded by middle-aged men all extremely unhappy and frustrated but unable to change their lives. It became a very important theme for me: Can we change our lives or are we hostages of destiny?

In Winter Sleep, one of the male characters admits that "No, you can't change your life even if you die and come back for 100 times." Then, of course, the revolution came and things did change—for the worse, it turns out, but for me it felt at first like liberation. My post-revolutionary work does reflect a certain kind of liberation from the inert male world I knew. Coincidentally, on top of it, I got divorced. Like the main character in my novel The Great Lady of My Soul, I became a woman who tried to reclaim her life.

NPQ | Democracy is not a commodity that can be exported to the Middle East. It's a long-term process that needs people who understand its values. Could it be that you are one of those people?

Taraghi | Absolutely. But I can't go back now. How can I? People are going to jail for trying to open up people's minds in Iran. Look what happened to the Iranian-American scholar Haleh Esfandiari (the director of the Middle East program at the nonpartisan Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington, D.C.) the other day; she was arrested and jailed during her visit in Iran. It's despicable what's going on. I don't want to go to jail. I'd be useless because then I won't even be able to write. My only contribution is to write. Writing can bring some change.

NPQ | Iranian censorship is at a record high. It's been reported that there are at least 10,000 new titles waiting for approval to be published.

Taraghi | Perhaps more than that, at least 15,000. I've been waiting for two years for my last book to be approved. They just don't answer. At least, before there was a "yes" or a "no" after two months. They hold so many titles from publication, I guess, because they don't want to read them. They have their own writers and their own list and they only read religious books. Those like myself who have been best-selling authors are on the blacklist.

I have long been personally attacked by the head of the official journals who has now became the minister of Islamic orientation, which is responsible for censorship. So you can understand my chances!

NPQ | Your compatriot Azar Nafisi says the spirit of dissent has moved from Eastern Europe and South Africa to Iran. It is Iranian civil society, she argues, that will ultimately prove to be the Achilles' heel of the theocratic regime in Iran. Do you agree?

Taraghi | I totally agree. To be sure, there is a lot of conflict within the system; it is not monolithic. Not everybody within this system agrees with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's hard and fiery statements or actions. At the same time, Iranians are extremely patient. Our history of the last 2,500 years has always been underlined by passiveness, the notion that, if we wait long enough, in the end we will be winners! At a very high cost, of course. When the Arabs came, we waited for 400 years.

What will happen today? It's so hard to say. Maybe because the economy is in such a bad state—it's never been this bad ever before—people will react. Ahmadinejad promised so many things. At one point, he said, "I'll (put) the money from petrol on your table." Now even the bread that was on the table is gone.

In the recent municipal elections, he lost and that already is a big change. But at the same time, the big question that should concern us here is who will come after? This is the problem. In Eastern Europe and in South Africa, there was Havel and Mandela. We don't have any of them! And people don't want another revolution; they want changes within that will take a long time. It's much better than another radical change. What is a radical change? That America should attack Iran the way it did Iraq? God forbid. That would be a disaster.

NPQ | How come in a country like modern Iran with so many irresolvable political and religious issues, poetry remains the highlight of its culture? Even your stories read like poetry, as in "The Shemiran Bus," where you write that the heavy snow is falling because "angels are cleaning the house...they're dusting the clouds and sweeping the carpets of the sky."

Taraghi | Even during the four centuries of Arab domination our only identity remained our language. Religion was not as crucial as language; somehow Zoroastrianism was very close to Islam because it contained as many taboos as Islam. But our big pride was and still is our poetry and our language. Not a single word was changed from that language through the centuries.

This language is our heritage; it remains sacred for all of us. We are the country of poetry. We have some of the greatest poets in the world. That is perhaps because the Persian language is so poetic, as though it was made for poetry. One hundred to 150 years ago, Iranians wanted to start writing novels and it was very difficult for them. They did not know how to do it.