Dear Philip, We are Never Done

by  / Translated by Parvaneh Torkamani  /  December 27, 2013  / No comments

For an Iranian writer, retirement is meaningless.

Philip Roth

Dear Philip Roth,

I am very sorry to have read your recent announcement: No longer passionate about writing, you are now retired and don’t intend to produce any more novels.

  1. Under Eastern Eyes, a column by Yaghoub Yadali
  2. “Enemy…terrorism…nuclear bomb…war.” These words are often used by American media to describe Iran. The image the media presents is often hazy, incomplete, and distorted. The political and military aspects of my country are covered mainly in a negative light.
  3. In Under Eastern Eyes (I have adopted the name from the novel Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad), I will write about those topics which American media either cannot or does not want to talk about. The emphasis will be on social and cultural aspects of Iran although, out of necessity, I will talk about politics, despite my despair.
  4. Under Eastern Eyes, a column by Yaghoub Yadali
  5. Yaghoub Yadali, born in 1970, is a writer and television director. His first work of fiction, the short-story collection Sketches in the Garden, was published in 1997. It was followed in 2001 by Probability of Merriment and Mooning, which was named book of the year by the Writers and Critics Award. His first novel, The Rituals of Restlessness, won the 2004 Golshiri Foundation Award for the best novel of the year and was named as one of the ten best novels of the decade by the Press Critics Award. He has also published many articles and reviews of literature and cinema in newspapers and magazines in Iran.

Certainly this wasn’t good news for your fans. But reading about your decision made me think. We are both writers, though in two different worlds, and I believe this difference is so important that it has the potential to change one’s destiny.

I am from Iran. I don’t know how much you know about my country or how familiar you are with our literature. In your interview you said that you’ve given your life to the novel: You studied it, taught it, wrote it, read it—and excluded practically everything else. This is likely the ideal path for an author: To dedicate oneself to the story, to teaching, reading, and writing. But when I look at significant authors in my country, I realize that this is exactly the path they couldn’t take. In Iran, good authors are not permitted to teach in universities. A government committee has to approve their credentials and assess whether or not they’re devout, practicing Muslims, along with scrutinizing their loyalty to the political regime. The committee has to be certain that any writers who teach in our universities won’t lead the students astray.

Dear Philip, (I hope I’m allowed to address you by first name. As a writer I feel close to you and know you as my friend.) In your books, you wrote about whatever you liked. As far as I know, the most important themes in your work are sexual desire, Jewishness, God, America, love, old age, and death. As we Iranians put it, “Whatever your old heart wanted, you said.” But if an Iranian writer decides, for example, to write about love in a way that doesn’t read with the official line, he will be accused of questioning the foundation of family. Writing a love triangle between a man and two women has been banned in the past few years. Writing about sexual desire and instinct is altogether taboo and could put you behind bars. I won’t even say anything about God and religion. We all remember Salman Rushdie’s tribulations. In our stories, an unmarried man and woman are not allowed to be alone in a room, behind closed doors. Would you believe it my friend? Would you believe that they’ve dragged a writer to court because a vehicle in his story caught on fire?! It’s true; a few years ago an automobile manufacturer accused a young author who set one of their automobiles on fire in his story of implying that their brand was inferior. The court was very kind to the writer; they ruled that the next time the story was published he would have to explain that the cause of the fire was not a technical defect!

In my opinion you are a lucky person, Philip. You’ve never had to send your novel somewhere so they could assess whether it’ll be harmful to society or lead people astray. And only then give you permission to publish. Writers in my country have to answer for every word and every line they write—not only to the government, but to anyone anywhere in society. Even if the government approves your book, the guild of butchers, nurses, grocers, or a ghassal or gravedigger could bring you down just because the butcher or nurse or ghassal in your novel was delinquent and didn’t follow professional conduct. In my opinion the Iranian writers who find a way to write and are successful in getting permission to publish several novels, resisting until fifty or sixty years of age, are commendable heroes.

On the other hand, an Iranian writer cannot live on royalties alone. The average sale of a novel is fifteen hundred to two thousand copies. Up until a few years ago, if a novel sold above ten thousand copies it was a best seller. These days, if a novel sells three to four thousand it’s a best seller. Our people don’t have a great desire to read Iranian novels. Instead, foreign novels in translation usually sell well. This is for the simple reason that the censorship bureau actually approaches the foreign novel with tolerance. The wider variety of subjects and relative freedom in foreign novels also causes the Iranian audience to feel closer to those works.

Of course, this freedom is relative and, because of their subjects, most of your books haven’t been translated into Farsi. Translators know they won’t get permission to publish them. (As far as I know, only four of your works have been published in Farsi; most likely they were censored. I don’t know if they were published with your or your publisher’s permission or not. I am sorry my friend. Unfortunately, copyright laws are not followed in Iran.)

A few years ago one of our best authors, Ahmad Mahmoud, left this world. On one of the last days of his life a reporter asked him: “If you were born again would you choose the same path?” He answered: “No! I would prefer to be an employee or something similar, with a regular monthly salary, so I wouldn’t have to stretch my hand to beg from others.” Most independent Iranian writers cannot have a government job with a regular income; if they do, they face many limitations, don’t usually get promotions, and are in danger of being fired.

My friend, I say all this to reach the conclusion that retirement for an Iranian writer is meaningless. He has so many things to write about, and so many challenges, that his passion and voracity for writing never go away, not till his last breath. Only death or some incurable disease can retire an Iranian writer. But this is not a good thing at all. It’s a tragedy that an author should regret and develop complexes about all that he has to say and is not allowed to write or publish, forced to carry them until he dies.

Philip, forgive me. This is only the venting of one writer to another who might understand.

Someone who likes you,
Yaghoub Yadali

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