In Iranian prose literature, the modern era began in exile with works that are extremely dark and critical of Iranian society.
The first major Iranian novel often mentioned is actually a Persian translation of James Morier’s The Adventure of Hajji Baba of Ispahan (1824). A British diplomat, Morier introduces his book as if it were a manuscript passed on to him by an Iranian, Hajji Baba. Abbas Amanat in Encyclopaedia Iranica describes Morier’s book as “the most popular Oriental novel.” He writes, “Hajji Baba lampoons Persians as rascals, cowards, puerile villains, and downright fools, depicting their culture as scandalously dishonest and decadent, and their society as violent.”
Mirza Habib Isfahani (1835-93) translated the work as Sargozasht-e Haji Baba-ye Isfahani, probably around 1886, while living in exile in Turkey, though the manuscript wasn’t published until later in 1905 in Kolkata, India. What makes his work important and influential in Persian literature are the quality of the translation and a new writing that employs vernacular and accessible prose. Mirza Habib “domesticates” the text with embellishments and by using culture-specific items as well as regional and idiomatic phrases—making the work appear as if a modern Iranian wrote it.
During the Constitutional Revolution period of 1906-11, his translation was seen as a critique of Persian backwardness and participated in the discourse of anti-colonialist and constitutional reform. You can read more about the fascinating history of the work as it passes through lands, translators, and editors in essays like “Voice in the Persian Hajji Baba” by Esmaeil Haddadian Moghaddam and Anthony Pym or in Kamran Rastegar’s Literary Modernity Between the Middle East and Europe.
Another key pioneering work of Iranian prose, considered by some as “the first modern Persian novel,” is Zayn ol-Abedin Maraghe’i’s Siyahatmaneh-ye Ebrahim Beg (“Travel Diary of Ebrahim Beg”), which was anonymously published in three volumes between 1895-1902 in Cairo. In the novel, Ebrahim Beg, an Iranian who was raised in Egypt, makes his first trip to Iran and finds what M. R. Ghanoonparvar describes, in Prophets of Doom, as “a hell rampant with poverty, wretchedness, religious hypocrisy, official corruption and political oppression” (2). The book “acquired a relatively large readership” and due to its “tone, realism and simplicity of language” was considered an early example of modern Persian novel (3). Like Hajji Baba, it was also read as a critique of Iran’s dire situation that called for reform and modernity.
In most scholarly works on Iranian literature, however, Mohammad-Ali Jamalzadeh’s collection of short stories Yeki Bud Yeki Nabud (“Once Upon a Time”), written between 1915-1921 and published in 1921 in Berlin, is considered the first modern prose work. For example, Michael C. Hillmann, in his essay published in Persian Literature, calls it “[t]he beginning of the modern era in Persian prose fiction” (292). Encyclopaedia Iranica writes that the book, “notable for its direct, colloquial language, remarkable use of Persian idiom, and immense sociological, political, and critical insight, signaled a major turning point in the development of modern fiction in Iran.” Jamalzadeh (1892-1997) continued to be an important presence on the Iranian literary scene while living mostly outside of the country.
The last writer I would like to highlight is Sadegh Hedayat (1903-1951). Of all Iranian prose writers, no one has been as influential as Hedayat. His masterpiece novella, Buf-e Kur (“The Blind Owl”), was also the first modern Iranian prose translated into English. It was originally published in Mumbai in fifty handwritten, stenciled copies with a note: “not for sale or publication in Iran.” According to Homa Katouzian, Hedayat sent thirty copies to Jamalzadeh “for circulation among friends in Europe” (Sadeq Hedayat: The Life and Legend of an Iranian Writer, 60). In The Politics of Writing in Iran, Kamran Talattof calls the novella “Iran’s most controversial and celebrated work of fiction” (58). The book was later published in Iran, in 1941, after Reza Shah’s abdication fostered a more open political environment.
The Blind Owl is a complex, macabre existential tale told by an unreliable narrator. Though the book is much more, some critics have read it as a critique of the Reza Shah rule. Ghanoonparvar says the book reveals “Hedayat’s terrible awareness of change taking place in the Iranian psyche, Iranian society and social institutions” (15).
Like many great works of modernist literature, these texts were new, self-conscious, and critical, though the Persian works seem to be darker and more scathing. Yet what is most unusual about these books is that they were mainly written and published in other countries. In other words, key foundational works of modern Iranian literature was born elsewhere.
This unique literary history may have happened because the works were critical of Iranian establishment and other counties had important Persian presses and journals, such as Akhtar (1875-9) in Istanbul, Habl ol-matin (1893-1930) in Kolkata, Sorayya (1898-1900) in Cairo, and Kaveh (1916-1922) in Berlin. Iran also had limited independent publishing and a small educated readership that was close to the state, making it difficult or dangerous to print these works. However, as we have seen, all of them not only got published in Iran but found great readership, becoming an important part of the modernist movement.
Persian literature has had a long history of works written and published outside of Iran. Rumi, for example, wrote in Persian, but was born probably in Vakhsh, part of present-day Tajikistan, and lived in Konya, part of present-day Turkey, under the Seljug Sultanate of Rum. Iran also shares the national heritages of a number of writers with other countries, such as Nezami Ganjavi in Azerbaijan.
Non-Persians also wrote in Persian, even though alas many did not receive the attention and respect they deserved in Iran. For example, Persian was the lingua franca on the Indian subcontinent until 1835 when the Governor-General of India Lord William Bentinck replaced it with English. Writers like Abdul-Qādir Bīdel (1642-1720), born in Azimabad in north India and whose mother tongue was Bengali, were eminent Persian poets of their time.
Persian remains the official language of Afghanistan and Tajikistan, and continues to be spoken in many different countries. These different cultures have produced great works. No history of Persian literature could ignore the heritage of these regions.
As for recent Iranian writers of diaspora, the list is long and includes major living writers such as Ebrahim Golestan (b. 1922), Iraj Pezeshkzad (b. 1928), Reza Baraheni (b. 1935), Goli Taraghi (b. 1939), Shahrnush Parsipur (b. 1946), Reza Ghassemi (b. 1949), Moniru Ravanipur (b. 1952), Zoya Pirzad (b. 1952), and Shahriar Mandanipour (b. 1957). Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, we have very few new works from these writers—for various reasons, such as not being able to visit or publish in Iran and the West’s limited Persian readership. And those that have been published often have not had the impact and readership of the earlier works printed in Iran.
Parispur said to me once that in exile it is hard to tap into that source from which she wrote her major works in Iran. She also experienced psychological breakdown and imprisonment for her work and would not like to return to the same emotional place. Yet, I still hope that great works will continue to be produced in Persian both inside and outside of Iran—and that, like the diverse community of early Persian writers, new generations will break ground in ways unimaginable and that intercultural dialogue of Persian literature will flourish near and far.