Salt of the earth

Nilofar Shidmehr's poetry


Salt of the earth
by Ari Siletz

Shirin and Salt Man
Collected poems
By Nilofar Shidmehr
Oolichan books 2008

No man has died more nobly for love than Farhad the stonecutter. And no man should be loathed more than the heartless news bearer who told him the lie that his Shirin had died.

The poet Nezami tells us that Princess Shirin of fable built a mausoleum for Farhad who shredded mountains to deserve her. 1700 years later, author Nilofar Shidmehr found out that mummified remains of a man were discovered near the mountains where Farhad had thrown himself to his death. There was no mausoleum. Fickle Shirin, undreamable as the morning sun, if love cannot rage then what curse burdens your daughters today?

In Shidmehr’s vastly imaginative novella, Shirin and Salt Man, a modern day Iranian woman named Shirin plans to elope with the mummy of an ancient salt miner preserved in brine and discovered in 1993 in Iran. She is not as fortunate as Nezami’s Farhad. Her insanity is not from love, but from neglect. She married the abusive Khosro, and now remorse has driven her to adultery with the pile of salted bones she imagines to be Farhad.

Shidmehr’s Khosro is not a king like Nezami’s Khosro. Though the romantically obsessed heroine married him for his kingly name, he really just works at the ministry of Islamic Guidance. As Shirin says,

“His job was to censor foreign actresses
who spoke their love out loud.
He was good at chopping images
and changing story lines.
My husband turned prostitutes into virgins
all the time”

The modern Khosro would likely censor Shidmehr. Her imagery mixes anger and sex like mud and blood. Here’s how the author describes the virgin Shirin being raped:

“There was Shapoor
shaking and gnashing his teeth
as though my shame were his.
You showed me your legs.
You stole away my virtue;
cover your body, woman.
Pebbles jabbed into my back,
like a mess of my own dislocated vertebrae.
and when he got up my voice ran silent
as the river through me. Darkness covered
my body, the mud was mixed with blood.”

Shirin had tried to get a ride with the man, who accidentally glimpsed her legs through a split chador. Shidmehr perhaps knows that the Nezami fan would compare this to Farhad’s equally pathological but harmless behavior at his first glimpse of Shirin. He faints!

Even in her humorous moments Shidmeh’s imagery is wet. She says,

Shir has three meanings, as you know: milk, or the animal,
the lion. Never mind the third meaning.”

It was the meaning between the first and the second that got Abbas Kiarostami’s “The Wind Will Carry Us” in trouble with Iranian Khosros. You see, the director had “no idea” women aren’t supposed to milk cows while men read love poems to them.

Yet Nezami has ducked Islamic censors for centuries. Shidmehr constantly borrows from his sensuality in her free translations of him:

“Call me whenever you drink
from that milky brook
I brought you. Every day
when you sweeten your mouth
please say my name aloud,
for I am bitter here without you”

At one point in the novella the repeated milk imagery suggests an odd possibility to the reader. “As a newborn
to a mother’s breast,
Farhad spoke to Shirin,
I am drawn to you.” Does Shirin intend to put the stolen mummy to her breast and nurse him back to flesh? Is the second meaning of shir not lion but lioness taking responsibility for suckling a new pride?

Struck by Shidmehr’s display of literary brilliance, I wondered why Shirin and Salt Man is a novella and not a full-length novel. A more culturally aware publisher would not have let her stop at women vs. Islam. Like a lover who can’t get enough, the editor would have begged the author to go places where Nezami’s imagination could only point the way.

For example, she could tell us why Farhad had to die. In Nezami’s time, and doubly so in the Sassanian period when Khosro va Shirin takes place, a princess could never marry a stone cutter, regardless of his merits. Nezami is coerced into feeding Farhad and his pure love to the maws of his social order. The hero was condemned to execution by the tragedy of rigid hierarchical societies.

But modernity changes class paradigms in upheavals that dwarf the political revolutions it inspires. The new consciousness of female oppression rides the seismic waves of a historyquake where dynamic landmasses of meritocracy rub against the stolid ways of autocracy. This is how a modern novel about Shirin and Farhad story can have a happy ending.

Sadly, the Western publishing industry (includes distribution, reviews and other publicity) takes only what it is conditioned to want from Iranian women writers, allowing the rest of their talent to lie dormant. It has frustrated the desirous volcano inside Shidmehr to groan threateningly but not erupt.

Yet love compensates for small dissatisfactions. Shidmeh’r mature romance with our own literature cleans up after careless Lolitas seduced by the lustful Humberts of Western cultural chauvinism. While these writers’ crush on the splendid American Khosro ignores our culture’s humble handsomeness, Shidmehr’s devotion to our legacy showcases just what treasures there are to lose if we neglect our heritage. Despite the taste of salt in her lament, Shidmehr’s protectiveness of Nezami forbids the foreigner Alexander to think his sword could defeat a Gordian knot as skillfully tied as Persian culture.

It is fair to acknowledge the complaint of our star struck Lolitas, but we need no urging to suffer Shidmehr’s anguish because her writing makes it clearer that she is of the same body as us. Or as Farhad said of Shirin, “I cannot say we are of one body because self-worship is idolatry.”

Reading Shidmehr’s resurrection of Nezami in English, I wondered if it is it even possible for the thirty-year-old IRI weed to choke a three thousand years old tree. Shidmehr’s prognosis is not the hope of a mad lover when she says,

“No story is written unchangeably
in stone—not mine
nor Nezami’s Shirin’s,
Shah Khosro’s or Farhad’s:
“Reconfiguring Mount Bisotun.”
I could call Farhad back
to life, be a Jesus
and make Farhad rise
from the dead. He will lift
his head off the stones,
his breath lend its color
to the world I create
around him. He will intuit
that Shirin lives, that the news-bearer
was deadly and dead
wrong. He will raise”

When I see an Iranian writer unraveling our old myths to weave new meaning into familiar smelling wool, I am inspired to wish that for every copy of Reading Lolita In Tehran there would be two copies of Shirin and Saltman, Because inside the pages there is nourishment, there is power, there is hope.

There is love.


1. See Nazy Kaviani’s prose telling of the Shirin and Farhad story, here.
2. See Nezami in the original, here. Visit


Recently by Ari SiletzCommentsDate
چرا مصدق آسوده نمی خوابد.
Aug 17, 2012
This blog makes me a plagarist
Aug 16, 2012
Double standards outside the boxing ring
Aug 12, 2012
more from Ari Siletz

Dear Ari

by IRANdokht on

What a great job you did introducing Ms Shidmehr's work. Now I am definitely going to read it, even though I am not sure how I would feel about the necrophilia imagery of it....

As for Nazy Kaviany's Khosrow va Shirin, I agree with you %100. I couldn't get enough of it!

It's nice to see such talented ladies reviving our older treasures and introducing them to a whole new audience.

I like your writing


Azarin Sadegh

to Anonymo

by Azarin Sadegh on

Thanks for reading all my comments from other articles :-) But I don't know who you are or I wouldn't know when you tried to associte yourself with's just fine. Don't do it :-) I never tried to please the world anyway. Azarin

Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

Thanks for the correction. I'm with you in thinking highlyof  Nazy Kaviani's labor of love.


Khosrow and Shirin

by Passerby (not verified) on

"Notes: 1. See Nazy Kaviani’s prose telling of the Shirin and Farhad story, here." contains the wrong link. Below are the correct links to Ms. Kaviani's short and very sweet summary of, in her words, "one of the most beautiful love stories ever written in Persian literature" : Khosrow and Shirin.



And within which "border"

by Anonymo (not verified) on

And within which "border" does this extreme dark and incorrect view towards people fall in? (see a copy of your comment below). Yes Ghengiz and Hitler cared for "art" also. I don't ever want to associate with indiviuals like you, and my position would be the same if you made such an incorrect rotten comment against any people and not just moslems. It's a matter of principle, something quite selectively missing in the personal version of your world of "art".

"What did moslems expect?
After executing the ones who disagree with them and promoting the killing of moviemakers and authors and the stoning of women and whoever is not with them, now they are complaining about other's hate speeches. Don't they get it?
It is obvious! These hate speeches are just a mirror reflecting their own black hatred.

Oh by the way, believe it or not, I'm not the religious type. Now continue with your customized "universal art".

I hope some day you will realize how wrong you are and will change for the better.

Azarin Sadegh

Dear Ari

by Azarin Sadegh on

Thanks again for your clear and detailed points.

Yes. I will attend Nafisi and Satrapi's talk next week, sitting in the front row! 

As my last attempt to end this lively discussion (that I enjoyed too!), I am quoting my favorite author Orhan Pamuk:

"For me, to be a writer is to acknowledge the secret wounds that we carry inside us, the wounds so secret that we ourselves are barely aware of them, and to patiently explore them, know them, illuminate them, to own these pains and wounds, and to make them a conscious part of our spirits and our writing.

A writer talks of things that everyone knows but does not know they know. To explore this knowledge, and to watch it grow, is a pleasurable thing; the reader is visiting a world at once familiar and miraculous. When a writer shuts himself up in a room for years on end to hone his craft – to create a world – if he uses his secret wounds as his starting point, he is, whether he knows it or not, putting a great faith in humanity. My confidence comes from the belief that all human beings resemble each other, that others carry wounds like mine – that they will therefore understand. All true literature rises from this childish, hopeful certainty that all people resemble each other. When a writer shuts himself up in a room for years on end, with this gesture he suggests a single humanity, a world without a centre."

To read the whole speech voila tye link: //

In a word, I rather absorb a work of art by its own beauty. Who cares about Nietzsche 's political views, or Kafka's or Dostoyevsky’s? As long as their work throw me as a reader into this common emotion that could spawn such a joy, no matter who I am, no matter where I came from. 

I truly believe in the universality of art, and politics by definition has its own borders.




Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on


1. I disgaree regarding  separation of literature and politics. Without the dimension of politics any appreciation and understanding of literature is incomplete, and in the case of some works, impossible. Even Cinderella and Snow White have feminist politics encoded in their narrative. Since you appear well read, I find myself  unable to take your statement literaly. 

2. The comparison of "RLT" to Shidmehr is explained as follows. Naficy has created a hopeless dystopia in Iran. Shidmehr's characters lives in the same universe, yet she finds creative ways of escaping it. Her work suggests Persian culture has the tools it needs to set things right.

3.The above review calls for publications that break the typecast of our talented women Iranian writers, hoping their future works need no longer be referenced to "RLT." 

4. If I were to write a commentary on Dabashi's analysis of "RLT," it would expand on the following statement. "Compositionally turgid, emotionally vindictive, but contextually accurate."

5. Dabashi's diatribe againt Nafisi is one reason I have not  yet written a review on the literary merits of "RLT." You have demonstrated the problem I have to solve in writing such a review: criticisms of Nafisi are prone to be misunderstood as a "copy and paste" of Dabashi.

6.If I were to write a review of "RLT," it would discuss how the work contains its own literary criticism. For example, compare Nabakov's vastly complex and intellectually seductive Humbert to the antagonists in "RLT," who are more at home in a Kung-Fu movie.

6.Thank you for initiating this exchange. Our discussion reveals the importance of Shidmehr, drawing attention to her work.

7.Sadly I'm not going to be able to make it to the Nafisi-Satrapi talk. I'm hoping some writer (maybe you) would cover the event on this site. I saw Satrapi last night in San Francisco. She is getting brillianter and brillinater!

Also I absolutley did mean to flatter Naficy on the extent--though not the direction-- of her influence.


Azarin Sadegh

To Anonymous000

by Azarin Sadegh on

Thanks for your explanations. 

Sorry for my mistake, but since Dabashi's article was out first in 2006 and Keshavarz's book came out on 2007, so I assumed that Keshavarz was the one copying Dabbashi and not vice/versae. Thanks again for your clarification.

I have to explain more about the similarities that I found between Keshavarz and Dabbashi’s works.

1) The lengthy effort to categorize Nafisi’s book as part of the “new Orientalism” and then to dismiss it as the result of this categorization were similar in both works. Actually, by the same kind of reasoning Orhan Pamuk would belong also to this same category and oh my…in my mind he’s the most original author of our time!

2) Or the same bizarre criticism of Nafisi’s book cover (!!) look like a copy/paste to me (but now I don’t know who copied who!)

And again, it doesn't make any difference in my mind about their tasteless efforts and the mean nature of their attempts to put down another work of literature to gain some kind of fame or authority.  

Let's face it. Each book has its own merit and audience and if Keshavarz, had skipped on criticizing Nafisi and instead had only focused on her own personal memories (that were the best part of the book and her real strength), her book could have been recognized for its real values.





by Anonymous000 (not verified) on

Thank you very much Azarin for being so clear about your views. I think we are just of two very different opinions about the role of literature, the meaning of politics, and albeit les importantly, about the specifics of the works in question. I leave the first two aside, for now, and apologize for not being able to expand just now due to lack of time, but on the third one, just as a factual clarification, Dabashi's article was published after Keshavarz was well into her writing project of this book. That aside, the only thing Keshavarz and Dabashi share is a devastating critique of Nafisi's work. The critiques are two different ones. I'd call Dabashi's critique external and Keshavarz's an internal one . So I'm not sure how it could be seen as a copy/paste of the Columbia Prof. Though personally, I did not find anything novel in Keshavarz's work, I came to terms with that fact remembering that Keshavarz has not written for me, (a woman who has not only lived in Iran, not just through the Revolution and war but in fact a lot longer, and someone who also has done a good deal of human rights activism inside the country rather than just screaming on and such in the West) but for the same audience as that of Nafisi's. Sorry this last bit may read like self-promotion, but I hope you understand that that's not my intention (anonymity should be a proof for that after all); all I meant was to give you more facts to consider before a lable of 'Islamist' may come out.

Azarin Sadegh


by Azarin Sadegh on

First of all, let me thank you for your response.

I think it is very interesting that you think any book review of an Iranian author should refer to Nafisi’s book as a reference or an influential work. I guess Azar Nafisi should feel pretty flattered here! But your comparison with "Never without my daughter" was plain ridiculous, since Nafisi's book is of another caliber and you know it well.

Second, I rather forget about Keshavarz's forgettable book (that is nothing but a very dishonest book with an agenda that isn’t even original or invented by her). Reading just parts of it, was a total waste of my time! She could just copy/paste Dabashi’s article :-)

 Why should I value a book that tries to sell itself through the misrepresentation of another best seller? Let's be honest Sir. I have lived in Iran too, and the Iran I remember had nothing to do with the fantasy land of Keshavarz (plus, I have never been impressed by the Sufism or the mystic side of our literature. I think there is a clear confusion in Keshavarz’s mind between Islam and sufism)  

Third, I would never mix literature with politics. Just because our lives have been affected by politics, it doesn’t mean that all our literature also should be infested with its poison. Or just because we don’t agree with an author’s political view, it doesn’t mean we should dismiss his/her work.

And the most important point: I am not sure how it’s going to help Nilofar’s work, since as much as I know, she's a real author who writes real fiction.



PS: BTW, if you're interested...Azar Nafisi is coming to LA! She is going to have a dialogue with Marjan Satrapi at Royce hall on April 16th as part of the UCLA Live! program.

Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

In composing this review, I struggled to avoid refering to Nafisi's work. Finally I realized such an omission would duck a reviewer's responsibility to the reader. The purpose of a review should never be to promote or disparage a work of art, but to explore the social contexts in which the work would be interpreted. Nafisi's influential work is so much in context for the politcally conscientious Iranian that he/she would see a Lolita shaped hole in this review there was no reference her and writers in the same genre.

To get in the loop as to the relevance of Naficy's literary legacy to Shidmehr's likely readers, see Fatemeh Keshavarz's book "Jasmine and Stars: Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran."

I am glad you enjoyed Naficy's work. I would too under different circumstances, as one commenter below observes. In fact I would even like "Not Without My Daughter" except for the circumstances. To go further, I truly admire the science and technology--and yes, art--that goes into making an F-14, except for the circumstaces of its use.

Shidmehr's work delivers a heartbreaking yet energizing message without the f-14s. That is relevant and worth emphasizing!


Azarin Sadegh

Please read it again:

by Azarin Sadegh on

My comment was a response to these section of the article:

"Shidmeh’r mature romance with our own literature cleans up after careless Lolitas seduced by the lustful Humberts of Western cultural chauvinism. While these writers’ crush on the splendid American Khosro ignores our culture’s humble handsomeness, Shidmehr’s devotion to our legacy showcases just what treasures there are to lose if we neglect our heritage."


"When I see an Iranian writer unraveling our old myths to weave new meaning into familiar smelling wool, I am inspired to wish that for every copy of Reading Lolita In Tehran there would be two copies of Shirin and Saltman,.."  

And about your deduction from this part regarding American publishers and political implications of Azar Nafisi's book:

"Sadly, the Western publishing industry (includes distribution, reviews and other publicity) takes only what it is conditioned to want from Iranian women writers, allowing the rest of their talent to lie dormant." 

As an iranian woman (who lived in Iran during the revolution and war), I have only my admiration for Azar Nafisi and her courage facing the brutality of the islamists with her opposition to the imposed dress code and her opposition to the attacks on the women's rights and freedom after the revolution and her love for the universal literature.

And i don't agree with you about selective publishing of certain books with certain political views. Haven't you read Snow by Orhan Pamuk? The author won the Nobel prize and the book is a best seller and the book is filled with poet-islamist-terrorists characters and veiled-women commiting suicide out of their faith... 

If a book is good enough, it will be published, regardless of its political side.



PS: Dearest Nilofar, I am so sorry...i really didn't want to use your blog to discuss Nafisi's book or Pamuk's Snow! I wish you the best for your book.



The Reviewer

by Anonymous000 (not verified) on

The reviewer is not drawing on Nafisi's work for nationalist sentiments, or at least that's the way I read him. He's not objecting against writing on Lolita or an Iranian writing a novel based on Lolita per se, but against writing Reading Lolita in Tehran with its political implications. This is, I think, clear if you consider his point regarding US publishers. I could not agree with him more on that.

Azarin Sadegh

I loved Reading Lolita in Tehran and...

by Azarin Sadegh on

I have been a bit familiar with Nilofar's work through her blog on And I am impatient to read her coming book, that seems to have such a compelling story. I loved the originality of the story, or at least the original way she reads an old Persian myth.

But honestly, I don’t get your comparison with Azar Nafisi’s book. Why do you think it was necessary to mention Reading Lolita In Tehran? What is this obsession with Azar Nafisi and her success? I loved Reading Lolita in Tehran and I loved Nabokov’s Lolita and I loved Dostoyevsky and Hedayat and Kafka and Nilofar’s poetry. I love literature (good literature) and I would buy any good book from any writer with any nationality. If there is one thing that we should spare from our blind nationalism is Art. A good work of art is universal. It doesn’t know any border or any barrier. It doesn’t carry a passport and it doesn’t contain in a limited volume in time.

If you’re trying to promote Nilofar’s work, by putting down other Iranian authors books (and specifically Azar Nafisi, just because Reading Lolita in Tehran used Jane Austin and Nabokov’s work to make her point!), then I’m afraid you are not really helping her work (which is written in English). Nilofar’s work deserves to be recognized under the best possible lights, not displayed under the shadow of our nationalism.