TitleA Tehrani young man's reading of a sexy story

How one book can do what the Islamic Republic can’t

17 Aug 2010

■ Shafagh Ashna
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TehranReview literally honors its name with its new section called ‘FROM THE STREETS OF TEHRAN’. A lot is written and said about what is going on in the Iranian capital these days, but we want to know personally from people who actually live there, right in the heart of events. They will make us hear the heartbeat of that challenging city. What are people talking about in the streets? How do they run their daily lives? What do young people read? What are the hopes and despairs of ordinary people? These and many other questions will be answered and will you give you, our reader, an impression of what is going on in the streets of Tehran.

One of our regular contributors will be Shafagh Ashna (23, his name is a pseudonym), who describes himself as follows: ‘When I was a child I wanted to save the trees. After a while I decided to become a spaceman, far from the crowd, alone by myself. It is about a year I have come down on earth, on the pavement of the streets of my town. Now the trees have become human, I have become a tree, feeling like a child again.’

Here is Shafagh’s text:

A couple of days ago, I was reading an interview with Ali Motahari, one of the members of the Iranian parliament, in which he warns about the bad books and ruinous novels that have became common under Ahmadinejad’s government. Regardless of how terrible the book market has became over the past five years and that almost no published book has not been touched by the sword of censorship, I continued reading the interview to exactly find out what Motahari meant. He points at those books in which erotic scenes were described in detail and at authors writing about love or sexy relationships. Motahari says these kinds of books make the roots of the family weak and spread prostitution.

The reality is that the system of the Islamic Republic has been using all of their facilities and financial resources for years to propagate ‘Islamic’ behavior and reject the behavior they call ‘western’ and ‘vulgar’. We can see this training in study programs at schools and universities, and also in public media, where Iranian youth and people are obliged to this kind of living. Also legal restrictions are used as a tool for their control. From refusing to show musical instruments on television to making an army man the head of the Ministry of Culture: these are all evidences of this control.

But what is the result? People go their own way because they see that statesmen don’t even try to follow the Islamic behavior they are trying to make common among people. When I was a child, wearing T-shirts (with short sleeves) and jeans and using gel was forbidden at school. If we didn’t obey the rules, we had to go to the manager’s office and he punished us. One day, the manager’s son accompanied his father to school. Students were surprised because he wore jeans and a T-shirt and had gel in his hair. Students started talking about it: why do they lower our grades when we do these kinds of things, but why does the manager’s son gets permission? These kinds of questions have been asked for years in Iranian society. Members of the government give meaningless and empty preaches, but they themselves even don’t believe in what they say.

After reading Motahari’s interview, I remembered a story from Jhumpa Lahiri, an Indian writer who lives in America as an emigrant and writes in English. Lahiri is very famous in Iran because of her books. Maybe because of her eastern way of living, microscopic vision and her smooth way of telling a story, many Iranians like her novels. The name of the book was Interpreter of Maladies, a book with nine short stories. The story I like very much is titled ‘Sexy’, but in Iran, the translator changed it to ‘Attractive’ in order to pass censorship. The story is about 22-year old Miranda. She meets a married man in Boston whose name is Dev. His wife has gone to India for a vacation. Miranda and Dev start a hot, sexy life in that period. Dev goes to the Miranda’s house everyday and sleeps with her. A large part of this 30 page-story describes the relationship between Miranda and Dev – actually that kind of ‘romantic relationship’ that Mr. Motahari mentioned as a reason for spreading prostitution and moral corruption.

But this is not the whole story. Besides describing the relationship between Miranda and Dev, Lahiri writes about the husband of the niece of Miranda’s colleague who left his family when he had met a woman and is now living in London. Miranda’s colleague talks about her niece and her small child everyday at work, and tells how that woman caused her niece’s husband to completely forget about his family. One day Miranda and Dev go to the Mapparium museum in Boston. The architecture of the museum is such that even a low whisper can be heard easily. Whispering far from the other side of the room, Dev says how sexy Miranda is.

This story goes on until one day, Miranda’s colleague’s niece who lost her husband divorces him. In order to recover psychologically, she decides to meet her family and spend some days with them. Miranda’s colleague asks her to take care of her niece’s child the day that they come to Boston, in order to have more time to talk to each other. Miranda agrees and the boy comes to here house. He starts playing and takes Miranda’s nightgown out of her closet, which she had bought with excitement for Dev, to wear it for him and make him sleep with her. The little boy insists on Miranda wearing the nightgown, and when she does, the boy whispers ‘how sexy you are’. Miranda knows that the little boy doesn’t mean anything by it, but she wants him to describe what he means by this sentence. First he is ashamed and refuses to answer, but when Miranda insists, he describes the meaning of ‘sexy’ like this: “It means that you don’t know someone but you fall in love with her, exactly what my father did. He sat beside a sexy woman and now he loves her instead of my mother.”

These words have such a big effect on Miranda that she takes some distance from her relationship with Dev. After Dev’s wife has come back from her travel, their secret appointments look like some kind of detective fiction and are not as interesting as before. Actually Miranda breaks with Dev not because of religious orders or morality but because of a simple reason that “no other small boy thinks that a sexy girl gets his father from him”.

This story made me think and I felt it filling me with morality and positive thoughts. Actually, reading a 30-page story did something with me that the Islamic Republic propaganda couldn’t do in 30 years! I decided to write a letter to Mr. Motahari and tell him: I hope the people in charge don’t get your orders. I hope they do not forbid to publish books because of words that are not appropriate from your point of view. At least they should read them once, to know that literature is not different from life and life is that thing that you try to put in a frame over the past 30 years, and you didn’t succeed. I decided to write a letter to Mr Motahari and send him the book. Maybe he would change his mind…

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    کوچ بنفشه‌ها

    تهران‌ریویو مجله‌ای اینترنتی، چند رسانه‌ای و غیر انتفاعی است. هدف ما به سادگی، افزایش سطح گفتمان عمومی در مورد ایده‌ها، آرمان‌ها و وقایع جهان امروز است. این مشارکت و نوشته‌های شما مخاطبان است که کار چند رسانه‌ای ما را گسترش داده و به آن غنا و طراوت می‌بخشد. رایگان بودن این مجله اینترنتی به ما اجازه می‌دهد تا در گستره بیشتری اهداف خود را پیگیری کرده و تاثیرگذار باشیم. مهم‌تر از همه اینکه سردبیران و دست‌اندرکاران تهران‌ریویو به دور از حب و بغض‌های رایج و با نگاهی بی‌طرفانه سعی دارند به مسایل روز جهان نگاه کرده و بر روی ایده‌های ارزشمند انگشت بگذارند. تهران ریویو برای ادامه فعالیت و نشر مقالات نیازمند یاری و کمک مالی شماست.