Such were the opening words of Jon McGregor’s 2002 debut novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things. Set in the northern English town of Bradford, which doesn’t immediately bring lyrical associations to mind, the genius of McGregor’s work was in how it based itself on the raw urbanism of the city to give life to one of the best lyrical novels of this century. Modernist literature has long known charms of the quotidian urban experience. But how can literature go beyond the generic city and to give life to the specificity of a city, like McGregor does? Only a few cities have truly ensconced their places in world literature and, as a result, they annoyingly come to stand in for The City as such.
It is hard to find a way to this pantheon of Great Literature Cities. Recent years have seen a proliferation of translation to English and French from non-Western locales and non-European languages and thus the rise of a ‘global novel,’ as the American critic Adam Kirsch has called it. But it should be noted that of the eight authors Kirsch includes in his book on the topic, all but two write in European languages. Vast popularity of South Asian and African writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Arundathi Roy has shown that the old ‘Commonwealth literature’ debate on whether the post-colonial novel should be written in English or indigenous languages has been mostly settled. Through their powerful writings, they are neutering what Adichie warned about as a ‘danger of a single story’ and have, in the process, expanded the urban and geographical imagination of the world literature.
In something of a delicate irony, to join this pantheon of global literature is harder for countries that boast a rich and continuous literary culture in non-European languages; that is, mostly, countries that were able to escape the scourge of colonialism. Such is the predicament of modern Middle Eastern literature; a region so present in the world news whose cultural riches is yet to adequately reach the global field. Writers of the region mostly write in the three languages that, as recent as a century ago, were their interlocking lingua francas (Turkish, Arabic, Persian); (writing in other regional languages such as Kurdish and Azeri also has a rich history — as has writings in what is both the oldest and the newest language of the region, Hebrew.) They base themselves on the rich literary allusions that don’t always translate well into European languages. The point is not that these countries are therefore inundated with modern literary treasures, simply hidden behind a linguistic barrier, but that their relationship to the world literature and the dynamism of their prose faces challenges of isolation.
Yet, Middle Eastern writers have started to enter the pantheon — and with them, they bring their cities. Orhan Pamuk, one of the two novelists of the Kirsch’s list who writes in a non-European language has propelled his beloved Istanbul to an ever-more honorable place in the world literature. Can the other cities of the region join the old imperial Constantinople there?
“A City in Short Fiction,” a series ran by Britain’s Comma Press, is one of the many attempts to marry the power of literature to the potential of the global city. Its list of published books includes cities as diverse as Liverpool and Rio and a good number of cities in the Middle East and its immediate environs: Istanbul, Cairo, Khartoum, Gaza, Tbilisi and now Tehran, my hometown.
Gathering ten short stories from writers young and old,The Book of Tehran is based entirely on translations from Persian. The book runs across generations with its writers ranging from established literary stalwarts like Goli Taraghi (1931-) to post-revolutionary phenomena such as Kourosh Asadi (1964-2017) and younger, rising stars such as Amirhossein Khorshidfar (1981-.) The Tehrani protagonists give us a rich urban range, from the obliquitous female university student to quasi-criminals city toughs. There is also some range in form with Asadi’s experimentation in “Sunshine,” in which the narrator blurts out his story in one 15-page-long paragraph being the most notable departure from the more classical forms.
The unifying theme that brings together all the ten stories is, of course, the city of Tehran. And yet, as we go through a book, expecting that wondrous city to emerge through the stories, a question gnaws on the reader: Where exactly is Tehran in these stories? Writing the city beyond generic urbanity is a daunting challenge, just as grasping a city upon a first visit is. Cities are akin to people; they all share some basic features and they all have their obvious and superficial differences. But to get beyond this and discover their specificity, to get to their brilliant wonders and their terrible woes, only happens with time. What, then, can a writer do to give life to the city, to make it sing?
In introduction to the book, Orkideh Behrouzan, an anthropologist at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), puts Tehran at the center of Iranian political and cultural history. She lists dozens of major socio-political events that happened in the city and notes the presence of icons such as the Tehran University, “both the physical and symbolical home of political protest.” But she also points out that Tehran is “both a physical entity and a cultural phenomenon.” It is not only the streets and parks and ice-cream parlors of Tehran that make it the metropolis that it is, but its place in the cultural imaginary of millions.
It is this second Tehran that permeates the stories of this book. The physically and historically specific Tehran has a dimmer presence but it is the spirit of Tehran that is unmistakable across the stories.
In Azardokht Bahrami’s Betrayal, a middle-aged Tehrani woman discovers that her husband is spying on her with hearing devices. When a male friend visits, she wants them to emulate sounds of kissing and sex to deceive the husband. The short story happens all in a room and the city-as-such might assumed to be not present. But what could be more Tehrani than such bizarre comeback at a jealous husband? When the friend hears of the husband’s espionage shenanigans, he retorts: “I can’t believe it! Here? In the megalopolis of Tehran? In the twenty-first century?” Tehran is, here, not only a code between the two but an ideal; of what should be condoned and what not.
For a book that is to feature a city, many of the stories happen indoors. This is the Tehran that many know. Tehran of city apartments and adventures on the staircase. The streets of the city have long boiled with so much life, from political revolutions to incessant traffic, and to take refuge in your home has long been a most Tehrani thing to do. Jalal Ale Ahmad, my favorite Tehrani writer in the city’s history, put it best when, upon embarking to build a house for himself and his wife, said: “When you can’t do much about the big society out there, you make a small version within the four walls of your house.”
The 14-year-old girl at the center of Goli Taraghi’s The Other Side of the Wall mostly moves from an apartment to another. She hates her piano lessons, which she takes “from an Armenian lady… at her home, a forsaken house at the end of a dead-end alley.” Much of the story takes place in the teacher’s home where “the stairway smells of disinfectant, like hospital, as well as sewage and everything old and rotting.” The Tehran of our young student, like that of many Tehranis, is often a halfway between public and private. Her space is often neither a public space like a park or a stereotypically private one like a bedroom, but the world of stairways and busy-body neighbors who have long defined the Tehrani apartment life. This is why she is so aware of the neighbors. One of whom is “a woman from the Caucasus [who] speaks a hodgepodge of Turkish, Persian and Russian.” The other “is a bad woman [who] yells obscenities at heaven and earth.” Even if she didn’t, “the walls are thin as onion skin” and thus the apartment complex is a mini-Tehran in itself, where people live cheek by jowl.
The Tehran of streets and public spaces is not absent from the protagonist’s life but it is more a dream and an aspiration. She hopes the Armenian teacher would be kind enough to take her to “Cafe Shahrdari or the cinema,” but, within the life of the story, we don’t see this happening.
Aspiration is a theme across many of the stories, apt enough for a city that has long been a place of dreams, large and small. Many of the dreams go beyond Tehran or Iran, as the familiar Tehrani figures of a character who leaves the country and those who are left behind often appear. In Payam Nasser’s Wake It Up, the protagonist starts the story by lamenting over Kimia, a woman whose “flight to North Carolina took off at 3:27 in the middle of a cold winter night.” Atoosa Afshin Navid’s The Last Night takes the familiar setting of a female dormitory where women of different walks of life, religious and secular, Tehrani and provincial, share a tight space together. It is the narrator’s impending migration to Canada, and the letters she gets from her brother there, that backgrounds the story but we can see how aspirations of the other women of the story also interact with Tehran and go beyond it.
The homoeroticism of the female dormitory encounters in The Last Night is somewhat predictable but never on the nose. Affection of women for women also frames Khorshidfar’s story which also takes place in that quintessential Tehrani setting, staircase of an apartment, when a woman who is locked out due to her husband’s delay goes to have tea with a neighbor she barely knew before.
Very different connections (and perhaps homoeroticisms) form Mohammad Tolouei’s Mohsen Half-Tenor where two male friends help each other survive in a brutal, boisterous Tehran of drugs addicts and urban toughs. The protagonist defines himself and his buddy, Mohsen, as having once had “all the trappings of a typical Tehran punk or ‘laat o lout.” This Persian term is one of 31 that the translator, Farzaneh Doosti, prefers to leave untranslated with notes in the back. This hodgepodge helps bring to life the world of emotions, smells and images that is the urban balagan of Tehran.
There is much more that could be said about the book’s stories and how they make Tehran sing. We can even have a little game to ask how best is Tehran represented? As an aspiration, as a smelly house in a back-alley or a site of homoerotic female encounters in a dormitory?
I’ll opt for a line in perhaps the best story in the book, Domestic Monsters by Fereshteh Ahmadi, the book’s editor. This is the story of a narrator who speaks of her difficult relationship between her mother and her aunt (who hate each other). The auntie is a old communist who introduces the young women, in a classic fashion of leftist intelligentsia, to a world of literature and culture that makes her who she is, including Ethel Voynich’s The Gadfly, an Irish novel set in 1840s Italy which might not be as well-known in today’s English-speaking world but which defined generations of Iranian cultural leftists. We follow her as she grows up and sees life and her elders differently. But in speaking of the agent of change and maturity, she names neither her aunt or the books she reads but a different character: “Tehran had taught me so much about people and life.”
Iranian fiction has a long way to go to make Tehran sing and do it justice. This city needs to emerge in modern fiction and give form to it. But the seeds are present in the stories of today and the face of Tehran is visible. if you only look close enough, you’ll still see Tehran in the hearts and minds of the stories of this book and many others. It is the Tehran that teaches “so much about people and life.”
Arash Azizi is a writer and a doctoral student of history. He was born and raised in Tehran. He now lives in New York, a city he often finds similar to his hometown.