The evening of Thursday 25 February in Paris was wet and windy. From metro Mabillon I turned left and found myself in the rue Princesse and in front of Village Voice, the Anglo-American bookshop where Goli Taraghi, the Iranian novelist was going to give a talk. This well-known Parisian bookstore organizes lectures by many international writers.
I got there over half an hour early. Next door I spotted an eating establishment with plenty of empty chairs. I went in and discovered that it was a fancy hamburger joint with Sri Lankan cooks sporting Saddam Hussein moustaches and French waiters dishing out pseudo-American burgers in pseudo-American accents. I ran into a rather ample middle-aged woman coming out of the restroom and for a second we locked glances in that usual air of tribal recognition Iranians have when they spot a co-member. A faint smile crossed her face and then passing me by, this short lady went and perched on a rather high stool at the counter. Was she Goli Taraghi? I half thought so, but could not tell for sure. She was carrying a handbag, but no books or notebooks to indicate that she belonged to the writing profession. Moreover, on this rainy evening, drinking a cup of coffee on her own, she looked a bit forlorn for an author who was about to give a talk. If that was her, where then were her admirers and entourage?
I turned back towards my own table, which was under a picture of Barack Obama presenting the camera with a big smile and baring a perfect set of teeth. At six thirty-five the lady at the counter got up and left. She turned right towards the bookstore, her chignon keeping an even keel against the persistent wind. I got up, paid the bill and left.
Inside the bookstore I saw the same lady and was now sure that it was her, Goli Taraghi. She looked different from my remembrance of the photo on the back of her books I had at home. She seemed a bit darker and with a broader nose. It was however her congenital nose, a rarity nowadays amongst Iranian women. We again looked at each other. I greeted her in Persian expressing my happiness to see her. She seemed pleasant and unassuming. The meeting with the author was on the first floor. So I climbed up the stairs. Fold-up chairs with seats as small as dessert plates were filled by a sizeable crowd of Europeans, Americans and Iranians. At the top of the spiral stairway was a table displaying Goli Taraghi’s latest book translated into English, A Mansion in the Sky
Mrs Taraghi came upstairs and sat down. She said the chairs with the tiny uncomfortable seats reminded her of a story. She used this story as a preamble to her lecture. It went like this: according to an Indian legend a famous musician in retirement agreed to play his instrument once more for the king, the queen and all the royal court on one condition, that if anyone during the performance shook his or her head from side to side they should be beheaded. This seemed like a very lethal stipulation since Indians are accustomed to shaking their heads a great deal when they speak, or when they are transported by hearing a piece of delightful music. Nevertheless the king acquiesced. Not surprisingly, as soon as the audience heard the splendid music everyone started shaking their heads including the king and the queen. After the performance the musician relieved everyone’s fear by letting them know that he had only set that condition to see how much the audience was in love with his art and what price they were willing to pay for their enjoyment. The point of telling this story was that the uncomfortable chairs of the bookstore, like the threat of impending decapitation, were the test of the audience’s love for literature and the sacrifice they were willing to make on its behalf.
Goli Taraghi’s opening anecdote was followed by many other stories. It was natural for her to illustrate everything she wanted to say through a story, be it the state of censorship in Iran or the capricious and inconsistent despotism of the Iranian political and administrative system. Although the stories themselves were charming, their import only confirmed what the audience already knew about Iran. As noted by Kenneth Galbraith the late Canadian scholar, the hallmark of conventional wisdom is acceptability. It has the approval of those to whom it is addressed. Conventional wisdom as defined by Gabraith refers to those views that are taken for granted and “accommodate themselves not to the world that they are meant to interpret, but to the audience’s view of the world.”1 Goli Taraghi was doing a wonderful job corroborating the audience’s already formed conclusions about Iran. The crowd wanted to hear ingenious variations on the woebegone theme of our Jekyll and Hyde country. A country where on the green side all women are strong, all men are good looking and all children are above average and on the other side they are the exact opposite. Mrs Taraghi was very obliging in living up to this expectation. She also let everyone know that she would soon be going to Stanford on a three month teaching contract.
Although at the outset she declared that she was not a politician, and she would only speak as a writer, Goli Taraghi went on to talk almost about nothing else but politics. Even when she spoke about her craft, she depicted the kind of juggling an Iranian writer has to do to bypass state censorship. She talked about the predicament of the Iranian writer in general, and the female writer in particular, pointing out how an Iranian artist has to bend down to procrustean rules of a backward political establishment. In her competent English she sketched the moronic antics of authorities that are the embodiment of absurdity.
At question time, when I ventured to ask her what writers she used to read in her formative years, and particularly what Iranian writers influenced her, she altogether ignored my question about her possible indebtedness to Iranian writers and only quipped that she was her own influence. Had authors such as Jamalzadeh, Hedayat, Al-Ahmad, Simin Daneshvar, Golshiri or Pezeshkzad contributed to her literary upbringing? She did not tell. Instead she mentioned Nabokov and commented on how much she loves reading him. Her words on Nabokov however were encouraging. She said she is not after extracting any particular philosophy out of his work, but is interested in his craft as a storyteller. She made an apt distinction between the job of a philosopher and that of a storyteller. She also mentioned Salman Rushdie and how she hoped one day to be able to emulate the subtleties and intricacies Rushdie has accomplished in his novels. I thought this kind of openness to other influences is good and fine and what else could we expect from an international writer. On the other hand, the ultimate test of a novelist is the ability to create a vivid and powerful portrayal of life and not regurgitate techniques of this or that fashionable author like Salman Rushdie.
It would have been nice to hear her read one or two extracts from the translation of her book into English so the audience could have witnessed her writing skills and the breadth and scope of her imagination. When someone made approving noises about the English translation of her books, Mrs Taraghi said that some people were unhappy with it, complaining that the sense of humour loses something of its force in translation.
Odile Hellier the bookstore’s owner asked Mrs Taraghi if living thirty years outside her native country had put a damper on her inspiration as an Iranian writer and how credible really was her understanding of Iranian life and society after such a long absence? Mrs Taraghi replied that she visits Iran regularly and insisted that living as an expatriate has presented no obstacles to her writing. She remarked that Persian is the life material of her artistic expression because it is the language she loves and knows how to knead and fashion for the telling of her stories. Her answer however did not come across as very convincing. There is no denying that writing away from the living centre of a culture and that organic community in which the real pulse and palpitation of a language can be felt poses a major drawback. She was also not very persuasive in responding to a question about the possibility of publishing outside Iran where the censorship of the Islamic Republic has no sway. If nothing else, writing in Paris at least has the advantage of providing her with freedom of expression. She mentioned how all her books - barring one have been allowed publication in Iran. She cited practical reasons such as low print runs and limited readership for not publishing her books outside the country. Practical considerations of course are very important, but a writer who has something to say will manage to say it come hell or high water.
Although Mrs Taraghi remarked that she was averse to using symbols in her writing, at the end of her talk she told a symbolic story to illustrate the dichotomy of the Iranian psyche. The story went like this: she was trying to bring a bar-axe, which is used by Iranian Dervishes out of the country for her son. On the blade there was an inscription from The Koran. The customs officer at the airport examining the axe told her that she couldn’t take the axe out of Iran because it was an ancient artefact belonging to the Sassanid period. Mrs Taraghi shot back that it could not possibly belong to the Sassanid era if it had Islamic writing on it. The customs officer who did not want to lose face told her that the handle belonged to the Sassanid period, but the blade was Islamic and she would only be able to take the latter half out of the country. For Mrs Taraghi, this story became a symbol of the divided soul of the Iranian nation: Iranians, she argued, belong to their ancient Zoroastrian civilization from the neck down, and from neck up they are given to Islamic culture. Nevertheless, what Mrs Taraghi overlooked was that the bar-axe she was trying to bring out of the country was going to end up on the wall of a Parisian apartment as a mere ornament and bereft of its real purpose and significance.
When at the end of the meeting I was getting ready to leave, I was again thinking of the teaching chair at Stanford that Mrs Taraghi was soon going to occupy. Is this Iranian writer also going to become a mere ornament perched on a prestigious academic height, but bereft of her real purpose and significance? Will she articulate to her listeners what they already believe in, but want to hear confirmed by a famous Iranian writer, or will she defy established platitudes and complacencies? The dark days Iranians are going through right now are due to the triumph of conventional wisdom and failure of the creative imagination not only in Tehran, but also in Washington, London and Paris. Mrs Taraghi is a talented author and immensely likeable as a person. She belongs to a profession that can break through the formidable wall of ignorance and greed by humanizing us and holding a mirror to our collective conscience. What can we do but hope that she will live up to her high vocation and wish her luck.
1 -- The Affluent Society p. 20
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