Foreword to The Bombay Review’s Iranian Edition Vol I & II, release(d) in March, 2021.
Dr. Nilofar Shidmehr
Chief Editor and Curator,
The Bombay Review’s Iranian Edition (Vol I & II)
I am delighted to have been invited to curate and guest edit the two issues of The Bombay Review on Iran. In November 2020, when I reached out to twenty-five fellow authors in Iran and the diaspora to invite them to submit their writings, I didn’t expect this huge positive response, which humbles and thrills me at the same time. My colleagues’ generous contribution has enabled me to present readers with a rich and colourful tapestry of Iranian writings and art by a wide range of writers and poets from three generations, who live across the globe. What is striking about this display of literature and art, is the diversity and fluidity of its voices that makes it hard to identify the entire presentation as a signifier of a definite and fixed country called “Iran”.
These two issues of Iranian New Writing come out at a time of great crisis, distress, and uncertainty, when a bright future is more doubtful than ever. For almost two years, the world has been plagued by a virus that has caused much fear, distrust, social destruction and isolation. Lockdowns and social distancing have separated people from one another, interrupted community gatherings and collective presentations, and disrupted the rhythm of the everyday coming together of bodies in public places. With the collapse of liberal ideals of progress, freedom, and democracy, and deep distrust of governments to handle the crisis, we are witnessing the spread of chaos globally. In this situation, where humans are bound to their homes and fearful of one another, each concerned about their own survival, things like literature and arts that connect us and create social solidarity are essential to our collective survival and to our individual wellbeing.
These two issues of New Iranian Writing by The Bombay Review, published in the context of this perilous time, come from an effort to create connectivity among readers across the world, no matter where they might be located at this moment. Although these two editions focus on Iran, the cultural scope of the collected literary and artwork gathered here goes beyond the confines of any particular nation. I would like to suggest the metaphor of an “Iranian carpet” as a flying object to capture the many journeys along which readers are taken, where they have an opportunity to find the threads of their own cultures. Travelling on this “flying carpet” to many corners of the world, while readers are knotted to experiences presented by these contributing authors, translators, and artists, they also get a chance to make new knots so as to extend this magic carpet, and thus expand their flight.
When I migrated to Canada on Oct 30, 1997, along with my personal belongings, I also brought with me a small Iranian rug. During my first two weeks when I’d resided at the house of an old Iranian friend, it had remained in my luggage, unrolled. My friend’s house already included a few Persian carpets. I unrolled my Iranian rug only later when I moved to a room in New Westminster City which I rented from an elderly Chinese family that spoke no English. My attic room had already a beige carpet, over which I spread my Iranian rug. As new immigrant, in my first few months in Canada, I felt I had been stripped of everything that gave me an identity: my family, home, mother tongue, and job. Even my name sounded foreign in the new place, no longer providing me with an identity. Not used to the weather, food, and living among non-Iranians, I had a challenging time to find my place in the society. I remember December 1997 was very cold and I got a very bad flu which lasted for a few weeks. Staying in my room, I’d coughed days and nights, that made the family who lived downstairs worried. The only comforts I had during that hard time were the soup the old Chinese landlady cooked for me and the Persian carpet where I sat to eat, read, hum a song to myself, make long distance phone calls, cry, or study English. My Persian rug provided me with a space of belonging. Whenever I sat or lay on it, it carried me to different lived places where I felt at home.
Serving utilitarian, artistic, and symbolic purposes, the Iranian carpet is a special object for me and every Iranian in and outside Iran, and their descendants. As most Iranians grow up on Iranian rugs, their lives and worldviews are shaped by them. Like the interior of Iranian houses, the inside space of Iranian minds is also covered by virtual Iranian carpets.
Woven in many regions of Iran inhabited by heterogenous people from diverse ethnic groups, languages, cultures, and traditions, Iranian rug is diverse with regard to material, design, and color. For over 2500 years, carpets have been made by nomadic tribes, village and city people, and royal court designated artisans and manufacturers. Iranian rug, called “Ghaali,” “Zeeloo,” and “Gabbeh,” has thus been an essential part of the life of the pauper, and king, and the tribal people who move between places their entire lives. For this reason, it can be considered as a dynamic object that reflects Iran’s complex and changing geography and history, represents Iran’s multicultural people, and weaves together Iran’s minor and major trajectories of traditions.
A narrator of Iranian arts, cultures, and economies, that brings together several trends of Iranian subcultures, Iranian rug is thereby a nomadic symbol of Iran, not a nationalistic symbol of it. It stands for “Iran” as a fluid concept untraceable to a particular nation representing the unification of a certain people under a national flag. This “nomadic Iran” can travel to all corners of the world; it can be unrolled to cover exterior and interior of real and virtual various spaces, as well as psychic spaces of individuals or groups of people. In this sense, Iranian carpet creates real and virtual spaces of belonging.
Iranian rug is often the work of many weavers, not a single individual. Carpet making is often a collective endeavour and a time-consuming enterprise. Frequently, several persons work for months or even years to weave one large carpet. The weavers could be from many generations, from grandparents to grandchildren. They sit next to one another on a bench set in front of the loom, working together simultaneously. A group, working in the morning shift, then is replaced by a next group who works in a later shift. Up to three groups of weavers can work on production of a carpet. Passing wefts through warps and making knots and then beating down the wefts by comb-like instrument, the weavers themselves are woven together through their shared activity. A carpet is one object but made of many knots, while each single knot is different than another.
Similar to Iranian rug which reflects both individuality and collectivity of its makers, the two special Editions of The Bombay Review on Iran also showcase both singularity and collectivity of its authors, translators, and artists. While each piece of writing or artwork is unique, their collections create a tapestry that weaves together heterogenous spaces of belonging or non-belonging in multiple times and locations across the world.
Like their writings and artworks, the contributors come from diverse origins and their experiences span three generations. The majority live outside Iran, and across four continents and many cities, ranging from Kuala Lumpur, Malesia, to Cologne, Germany, to La Merced, Toluca, Mexico, to Kenmore, Queensland, Australia. They are refugees, exiles, immigrants, international students and citizens. One of the authors belongs to the Afghan community who have taken refuge in Iran for several decades. Among those with permanent resident status in countries other than Iran, some arrived at their second country as refugees and some as landed immigrants. Except for two writers who were children at the time of their arrival in Canada, the others were already adults. The mother tongue of one of these two is English and she doesn’t speak Persian or any other language spoken in Iran. Some of the diaspora authors identify as immigrant writers, some as writers-in-exile, and some as both or none. Some have lived in more than two countries in their lives and speak and/or write in more than two languages. The autobiographical diversity and fluidity of life trajectories is reflected in their prose and poetry and art so that this collection of their writings and artwork cannot be placed in one frame of reference and be considered as any kind of “Grand-Narrative” (Lyotard, 1979) of a unified nation called “Iran”.
But if Iran isn’t some presence which the pieces of writing, translation, and art in the New Iranian Writing Editions focus on, then what is it? I suggest it is a spectre, a ghost, in the sense introduced by French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1993), for “Iran” appears as the return of memories, impressions, and expressions of a past that tends to haunt the authors and artists presented here. In this sense, “Iran” is not the presence of an origin or identity to which the collected pieces refer to, or to which they could be traced. Instead, Iran becomes a suspended, floating non-origin. Iran, I’d propose, is a “flying-carpet” in making as it moves along and creates new transmigratory trajectories and new cartographic routes!
Below: About the contributors and their work
Disclaimer: This foreword serves for both the volumes of Iranian Edition, the second of which is scheduled for release later this spring.
In one of the essays (Vol II), Amir Ahmadi Arian, the acclaimed novelist, essayist, and academic, talks about ghost-sightings by people in the world during the COVID 19 pandemic, and also during the spread of other plagues or happenings of large-scale disasters in the past, such as the 1821 cholera epidemic in Persia. He argues that, whenever we humans have been faced by an unsettling phenomenon that we couldn’t capture as a whole, which is “everywhere and nowhere”, “present in all aspects of our lives”, some of us have conjured “a visible embodiment of [our] predicament” as something like a ghost.
Arian borrows the term “hyperobject” from the philosopher Timothy Morton (2013) to explain how the rational mind, habituated to cause-and-effect reasoning, cannot make sense of extreme and frightening predicaments and crisis such as global warming. Paralyzed by such tragedies and facing their “inability to contain them”, some envision other “hyperobjects”—ghost-like “stand-in” figures—to deal with their pain, anxiety, and frustration. That is why, even in our time, humans or “Bani Adam” (A term borrowed from the Persian poet Saadi Shirazi by two of the contributors), conjure ghosts to face devastations caused by the global spread of Corona Virus. The contributors in these two issues of The Bombay Review, seem to be also confronted by an unsettling problematic other than COVID 19. The name of that problematic or hyperobject is “Iran”.
Ghost seeing is common reaction in a world which is falling apart at the seams—a world where extremists of all sorts, including nationalist Hindus in India, are on the rise. The image of such a world is captured in the poem “Persian Carpets” by the acclaimed poet, scholar, and academic, Roger Sedarat. The poem opens with a dream dreamt by the father of the poem’s speaker: a dream in which the carpets “spreads out on floors” of his house are coming apart and, as the dream “unravels”, they disintegrate into “nothingness”. At the same time, we are taken back from the time of Darius, the third Persian King of the Achaemenid dynasty, when the Persian Empire reached its peak to today’s Persepolis in an Iran trying to achieve nuclear power. The Persepolis of today, however, is nothing than the ruins of it glorious past where “mane-less lions with withered spines” stand at the entrance of the royal palace.
The image of lions and their pose “slouching back toward their maker in Shiraz” in Sedarat’s poem alludes to “rough beast” in Yeats’ poem “Second Coming”. Yeats’ beast, however, doesn’t slouch back “toward their maker [Darius] in Shiraz” but “towards Bethlehem to be born”. As many literary scholars have pointed out, Yeats’ poem was a response to the violence of World War I, which had ended only one year before the composition of the poem in 1919. It was also a prophecy that the chaos of war had not diminished but was actually gaining more momentum, thereby it was going to bring about another large-scale disaster. “The Second Coming” was Yeats’ prophecy of World War II—his prophecy of an even darker and more horrific event yet to happen in the 20th century. In similar way, Sedart’s poem foresees a darker future for the world, as well as for both Iran and the US and a possible conflict between them. He foresees a second coming of the clash that happened during hostage crisis in 1979-1980. The poem is written at present time, the time when both Iran and the US (under Trump) dreamt of reviving the power they once had. While Iranian leaders dreamt of making Iran again into an Empire ruling over the Middle East and parts of North Africa, Trump dreamt of making “America Great Again”. The dream mentioned in the poem is thus a double dream: it is both an Iranian and an American dream. Respectively, the title of the poem “Persian Carpets” refers to more than one carpet. Such perverse dreams have only brought about more chaos and calamity to the world we live in –– a world where some create “hyperobjects” such as ghosts to confront the disasters they’re facing.
In a world like this, where millions of people have left their home countries because of various reasons such as war, political and religious persecution, famine, environmental and economical crisis, and social upheaval and instability, writers, poets, and artists respond to hyperobjects like displacement, alienation, and discrimination displacement in a different way than those who conjure ghosts. They write, compose poetry, and make art to combat the growing global tragedies of 21st century and the feelings of anger, depression, and grief they call forth.
The authors contributing to the New Iranian Writing Editions are no exception. Through their writings and arts, they also speak to tragedies happening in the world, which are not exclusive to Iran. For example, Maria Saba and Majid Naficy show the brutality of execution. Alie Ataee, Firoozeh Khatibi, and Golnoosh Nour disclose the violence of honor killing, and oppression of heterosexual and queer women. Azarin Sadegh, Mojgan Ghazirad, and Arash Khoshsafa invoke terrors of war and tyrannies of the obligatory military service. Peyman Esmaeili and Maria Saba expose repressions of and discriminations against ethnic minorities. Mohsen Emadi and Mehrnaz Bassiri express the pain of living in exile and the atrocities of migration, and Mehri Yalfani and Nahid Keshavarz Fallahi reveal the uncanniness of “unhomeliness” of the world (Bhabha, 1990) and the “pathos of belonging-non-belonging” (Shidmehr, 2014).
Besides demonstrating a wide range of predicaments such as living at the margins of society, being subject to bullying, and experiencing loss, the contributors also collectively create things like resistance, empathy, solidarity, and hope to battle them. Together, they weave the hyperobject of an “Iranian” carpet, that flies above real and fictional locations where readers meet memorable fictional characters such as “Kobra”, “Ms. Talebi”, and “Setareh” in the stories by Maria Saba, Mojgan Ghazirad, and Mehri Yalfani, who seem to be different characters in Bänoo Zan’s poem “The Story of My People”.
As this magical carpet moves through alleyways of the world, it hovers above landmarks such as “The Minaret” (a concrete poem by Khashayar Mohammadi) or takes readers to the dwellings of the characters created by our authors, as in Rosa Jamali’s poem “Knotweed”, where a mythical woman lives and raises a child for six thousand years. It drifts above an airport dreamt by the main character of Nasim Marashi’s novel I’ll Be Strong for You, which looks more like Tehran’s old international airport “Mehrabad than Imam Khomeini Airport”, and lands in the house of an immigrant Iranian woman in Chicago, hosting a party, in Ezzat Goushegir’s story “Elizabeth”, where an American woman and an Arab émigré meet.
The contributing artists have also an indispensable role in shaping up this magical carpet. They take us on a tour to real and imaginary places, as well as inside the labyrinth of Iranian collective psyche. Atieh Noori’s photographs capture abandoned buildings in and around Tehran. Moslem Khezri’s brilliant and powerful drawings masterfully capture confined spaces of classrooms and highlight moods, emotions, and interactions of male students in Sistan Baluchestan Province of Iran, and depict how they interact. Samad Ghorbanzadeh’s photomontage collection places us in dreamlike settings and reveals desires, needs, and aspirations kept in the collective unconscious of Iranian people, and humanity in large. This is where the borders between real and unreal becomes blurry. The other artists also make borders between historical times, concepts, and human beings porous through their use of various material, colors, textures, and patterns, and their employment of light and shadow. In doing so, they problematize binaries like private/public and modern/traditional, and complicate notions of Iranian identity and culture. Ebrin Bagheri and Parima S. Moghaddam highlight the theme of belonging/non-belonging in their evocative, exquisite paintings, collages, and jewellery art. While making references to public figures (Farah Diba Pahlavi- The former Queen of Iran and Queen Elizabeth I, and King Fath-Ali Ghajar) and to various pre-modern and modern traditions of Persian art and literature, they amalgamate Iranian and foreign elements from ancient and contemporary world cultures (e.g. Egyptian and East Indian cultures) to create intricate and detailed artwork. Similarly, Nooshin Zarnani complicates and mystifies the notion of personal identity by painting herself in different social roles such as a nurse and The Pageant of Persia. The paint quality seems so fresh as if it was newly done and some colors were running down the canvas. Her self-portraits reflect the image of different characters combined together in paralleled mirrors.
Amazing illustrations work by the other graphic artists and illustrators included in the Iranian Editions, Fereshteh Najafi, Ahlam Faez, and Saba Soleimani, have appeared inside or on the cover of published books, theatre pamphlets, and movie posters, and have been featured in national and international exhibitions. They combine European style illustration techniques with Persian miniature and calligraphy to give new identities to Middle Eastern subjects. Their artworks make their way inside Iranian houses and public venues as decorative objects. For example, Zahra Ashouri’s wall hangings, designed as fictional characters, adorn the walls of coffee shops. Or Sheida Mohammadi’s dolls attach to hair and body, or to favorite household objects.
By the end of their journey through a manifold of text and artwork where each singular piece is so powerful that it leaves long-lasting impression in mind, readers get a profound experience of an “Iran” scattered around the globe in all directions in space and time. This “Iran” is not a fixed geographical place on today’s world map, nor a fixed category of people who all speak Persian, are universally heterosexual, have specific cultural habits, observe certain traditions and customs, and share similar life experiences, sensibilities, and socio-political and cultural beliefs. And, this experience is not a touristy experience. Rather, it resembles the exhilarating experience of a Persian drunk reeling between various taverns and followed by another reeling Persian drunk—the kind of Drunkard who Roger Sedarat says Bob Dylan made his muse.
As the curator and guest editor of The New Iranian Writing Editions, I’m thrilled to have made such an experience of such an “Iran” possible!
Bhabha, Homi K. (1990). Nation and Narration. New York, NY: Routledge Publishing.
Derrida, Jacques. (1994). Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. New York, NY: Routledge Publishing.
Lyotard, Jean-François. (1984). Postmodern Condition: A Report of Knowledge (First Edition). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Morton, Timothy. (2013). Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Shidmehr, Nilofar. (2014). Poetic Inquiry: A Responsive Methodology in Research and Education (PhD Dissertation). Link: https://open.library.ubc.ca/cIRcle/collections/ubctheses/24/items/1.0165900