Honoring the lost voices
By Michael Beadle
Iranian-born author Farnoosh Moshiri writes about people who are enemies of the state, those who have disappeared, and those displaced by war and oppressive governments. And yet she breathes a light of hope into her characters, a chance for redemption despite all their suffering.
You come away from Moshiri’s work both awed by her poetic sentences (inspired by the Sufi masters Hafiz and Rumi) and angered at the injustices the world often ignores.
One reviewer writes that Moshiri’s work is “essential reading not just for those interested in the seldom-heard voices of Iranian women but for those who care about the progress of literature.”
Moshiri may well have been an Iranian playwright living in Tehran had her country not been through the revolution that overthrew the Shah (or king) and installed an Islamic fundamentalist state that exists today. Moshiri once published in Iranian literary magazines before the 1979 revolution. She earned her bachelor’s degree in dramatic arts in Tehran. After earning her master’s degree in drama from the University of Iowa, she returned to Iran to take part in the movement towards more freedom in her home country and to work with fellow actors and playwrights.
But by 1983, her very life was in danger. Friends she knew were being imprisoned and killed by the government. She went underground and eventually fled her country with her 2-year-old son after massive arrests of secular intellectuals, feminists, and political activists. She wound up in refugee camps in Afghanistan and India for four years before immigrating to the United States and starting a new life in Houston, where she now teaches.
Moshiri’s novels — At the Wall of Almighty, The Bathhouse, and Against Gravity — are partly autobiographical and partly fiction and also inspired by the writings of others who have endured horrific experiences at the hands of oppressive governments.
In The Bathhouse, for example, Moshiri writes about a 17-year-old girl who is arrested and tortured for a month simply for being related to a political activist. The abuse exacted upon the women in this book — sitting in boxes for days at a time, being stoned and flogged in public — were all true experiences for Iranian women and girls whose only crime might have been possessing or reading the wrong book or pamphlet, according to Moshiri.
Iranian women are known for their free-spiritedness, Moshiri explains in an interview with Beacon Press, one of her publishers. Women were also very much a part of the protest culture as far back as a century ago. But under the extremist Islamic regime that rose to power in the early 1980s, women were forbidden to walk or talk with men in public places and were not allowed to sit next to males in schools or universities.
Theatres closed. University departments were renamed. Professors were fired. Newspapers were shut down. Purges of secular artists, intellectuals and professionals attempted to wipe out any sign of culture that was not in line with Islamic dictates.
When women were arrested as political prisoners, they were brutally beaten worse than their male counterparts. Virgins were raped before being executed, so, according to the religious reasoning, their souls would not make it to heaven. Some weren’t even allowed to stand next to their brothers to face a firing squad. Instead, they were thrown into burlap sacks and executed. These Medieval practices called to mind the Spanish Inquisition in a modern society.
Haunted by such images and stories — which included the executions of her own friends and family members — Moshiri later poured out these memories in her first novel, At the Wall of the Almighty.
Critics since then have taken notice of her compelling, graceful style. Among her awards and fellowships, she’s won the Barbara Deming Award, a grant to feminist writers whose work speaks of peace and social justice; two consecutive Black Heron Press Awards for Social Fiction; and a Valiente Award from Voices Breaking Boundaries. Her novels have been translated into several languages. Her short story collection is called The Crazy Dervish and the Pomogranate Tree, and her latest novel, Against Gravity, was chosen for Barnes and Noble’s “Discover New Writers” series last year.
Moshiri shared some of her insights as a writer in an email interview with Smoky Mountain News.
SMN: What was it like growing up in Iran before the Revolution?
Before the 1979 revolution the urban life in Iran was modern. Tehran was a beautiful city and I lived most of my childhood in northern Tehran not far from Mount Alborz. I grew up in a secular, middle class family. Most of my relatives were poets and writers, and I grew up reading and writing.
SMN: What led you to become a writer?
I saw my father writing novels, my uncle writing poetry, both my grandfathers recited Hafiz and Rumi from memory. I was in elementary school when I knew I’d become a writer.
SMN: In 1979, after receiving your master’s degree from the University of Iowa, you returned to Iran. What were you hoping to accomplish as a politically active artist in your home country?
Like many youth of my generation, I believed in the revolution. The Shah’s monarchy had created a pretty face — an appearance of wealth in the big cities — but the majority of the population was living in poverty and the class gap was getting wider every day. Besides, there was no freedom of speech, and writers and intellectuals would get arrested and tortured if they wouldn’t follow the lines of the regime.
SMN: In your novel, The Bathhouse, a 17-year-old girl is imprisoned and tortured in a bathhouse with other women. While she’s not connected to any political movement, she’s treated as if she were. Eventually, she’s turned loose. The random acts of violence committed against her and the other prisoners at the bathhouse seem to be symptomatic of torture. It’s not so much what you’ve done to warrant such brutality. It’s merely a show of power.
Torture has been used (and is used now) by almost all the regimes of the world (and by the U.S. as well) to show their power, break the political opponents, and get information. This is a brutal and inhuman approach and it’s sad that the U.N. does not have any power to stop it in all the prisons of the world.
SMN: One of the prisoners in The Bathhouse says if his side had won the revolution, his side would have been doing the torturing. That helps us see how we’re all capable of evil acts, given the circumstances. How do you impart these kinds of insights into your stories without coming across as sermonizing?
What this character says is true: if their side would win, the others would be prisoners. There must be serious rules regarding human rights of political prisoners, and these rules must not remain on paper, but actively imposed and monitored in all the prisons of the world without any double standard. To answer the last part of your question, I can just say that I have a sermonizing voice (for example now, when I’m addressing my social and political views) and a writer’s voice. If my novels are really works of art (I can only hope), then they won’t have a sermonizing voice.
SMN: Much media attention in the Western press has focused on the controversial Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — his comments about Israel needing to be “wiped off the map,” his pursuit of a nuclear program, and Iran’s alleged support of militant groups in Syria and Iraq. But Ahmadinejad didn’t fare so well in recent local elections and students demonstrated against him in December, calling him “a dictator.” Where do you think Iran is headed politically? Will reformists and moderates be able to gain power?
I’m not sure where Iran is going. Ahmadinejad seems to be a very ambitious populist, a right wing populist. But Iranians are not politically naive, and they can distinguish between an honest leader, and a dishonest one. For one thing, he is a true Islamic fundamentalist, he is honest in his devotion to the Khomeini’s line, but I’m not sure if he is really a nationalist (no Islamic fundamentalist can be a true nationalist). These are people who tried to obliterate Persians’ historical pre-Islamic traditions and rituals, which have their roots in Zoraostrian religion (Pre-Christianity). So, I think Ahmadinejad’s nationalistic gesture is a way to find supporters among the secular nationalists who have fled the country.
But all this said, I don’t believe that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The fact that I’m opposed to the Islamic regime doesn’t mean that I support Bush’s policy in the Middle East. Iran, as a modern country needs to further its science and technology, and there must not be any double standard about this issue in the world. America has to respect Middle Easterns’ integrity and stop colonial plans and expansionism.
SMN: What are you working on now in terms of stories and themes?
I’m working on a novel. The story, like Against Gravity, takes place in America. One of the themes might be the psychological study of “displacement.”