Shahriar Mandanipour: The ‘Love’ Cure for Iran

Shahriar Mandanipour‘s novel from exile, Censoring an Iranian Love Story, is the back-story of the shockingly brave green-banded resistance we watched on TV till the regime cracked down on reporting… and Michael Jackson died.

CNN pictures of a botched election and a nation, a mullocracy, in turmoil are one thing. The darker, more satisfying novelist’s version gives you a deep ecosystem of paranoia, both earned and embellished — a sort of Thousand and One Nights version of Dostoevsky’s Demons (1872), anticipating revolutionary chaos.

Mandanipour’s Iran is eternally a young people’s country (80 percent under 30, nowadays) where the revolutionary generations don’t much listen or learn from each other. “My generation sacrificed, but didn’t know what democracy was. To get killed was an honor… We got rid of the Shah, but didn’t know what we wanted. This new generation wants freedom to walk together, and the future right now.”

From antiquity Mandanipour’s Iran stands for inspired story-telling, with a contrary bad old habit of censoring its best writers.

And then there’s a love problem at the heart of the Mandanipour diagnosis of Iranian culture: it’s the over-refinement of pomegranate-and-nightingale metaphors and fantasy, matched by a deathly dread of the real thing: of boys and girls holding hands in a picture show. “In this book I am trying to write a brighter story about love… to remind Iranians that there is love in the world, that it is our right to be lovers.”

Shahriar Mandanipour, who was black-listed and unpublishable in Iran, came to the US three years ago. He wrote his new novel, in Farsi, as an artist in residence at Brown University’s Watson Institute. Up the road in Cambridge the other day, he talked with me about the whole web of life, love and literature in Iran and maybe elsewhere. He also unlocked for us the Iranian code on three key dates in the history Iran shares with the US:

1953 was the year of Operation Ajax, the “original sin” in postwar bullying that Americans insist on forgetting. Kermit Roosevelt, plying an infinite supply of CIA $100 bills, roused the rabble against Iran’s model post-colonial democracy led by Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh (for the sin of repatriating the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company) and seated Reza Shah Pahlavi, the King of Kings and Light of the Aryans, on the Peacock Throne. “My kind of Shah!” marveled Dave Powers, court jester in the Kennedy White House. We Americans were coached at liking the puppet “modernizer,” but Iranians like Shahriar Mandanipour called it a “coup d’etat” and despised the Shah for smashing their golden opportunity for self-rule and then for the depraved tortures and killings by Savak, the Shah’s secret police. Though no Iranians were involved in 911, “It is not far-fetched,” as Steve Kinzer has told us, “to draw a line from Operation Ajax through the Shah’s repressive regime and the Islamic Revolution to the fireballs that engulfed the World Trade Center in New York.” Iranians and Americans are all still paying, in blind purgatorial agony, for the unmentionable sin of 1953.

1979 was the year when Jimmy Carter, under pressure from Henry Kissinger and the Rockefeller Brothers, admitted the ousted Shah to the US for medical treatment. It was the year when Iranians like Shahriar Mandanipour wanted the US to hand over the Shah to Iran for trial and, presumably, execution. When Iranian students seized the US Embassy in Tehran in protest, 1979 became the start of more than a year of “America Held Hostage.” In Iran it was crucially the moment when democrats and moderates like Mahdi Bazargan were unmercifully squeezed out of office, when as Shahriar Mandanipour put it in conversation, “the liberal government resigned and the clerics got all the power.”

2003 was the year of mind-melting absurdity, when the Bush invasion of Iraq toppled America’s vicious old friend and Iran’s worst enemy, Saddam Hussein. The Mandanipour version stems from his own “long hot summer” of army service at the front of Iran’s war with Iraq in the 1980s. His personal discovery as a reluctant soldier was that he could not fire on an Iraqi who wasn’t firing at him, yet further that he hated above all Saddam Hussein, “a foolish dictator who had started a ridiculous war.” When the US finally turned on Saddam, “in the depth of myself, I was happy,” Mandanipour admits, though he knew he would come to hate the war. It was a war, of course, that extended Iran’s influence through Iraq’s Shia majority. It was a US-Iraq war, I volunteered, that Iran won. “That the regime won,” Mandanipour corrected me. “Not the people.”

Mostly, though, Shahriar Mandanipour is talking here about books and literature — about the burdens on a writer who’s been forced out of his language zone, and the tricks he has called on here to surmount the problem. The assignment he gave his dark self in a dark time was to write “a love story” with “an ending that will not make my reader afraid of falling in love.” His post-modern construction is a novel of four essential characters in cross-conversation: the virgin lovers Sara and Dara, the author who is trying to tell their story and the official censor who is trying to thwart it. The question is whether the censor can be induced to fall in love with the lovers. My answer is that Shahriar Mandanipour is in the Scheherazade class of story tellers, for our time.

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  • nother

    I really enjoyed this program because it stoked a strong belief I’ve had about the recent uprising in Iran, and you have given me more layers to meditate on.

    The Western media has led us to believe that these events are a simmering desire for democracy/capitalism – to be like “us.” I feel strongly – and I’m dumbfounded that this is not highlighted more – that what is truly at play in Iran is an earthquake of desire for women’s rights. If Iran had the same government but with greater rights for women, I find it a good bet that the masses would be complacent with their current standard of living.

    But these sons and daughters of the recent past all have mothers who have been lamenting in their homes the oppression of being left behind. Now these modern offspring have grown up enough to defend their mothers in the streets.

    It is my belief that the Green Revolution is fueled not by Mousavi but by his wife Zahra Rahnavard. She was a revolutionary against the Shah; she is an artist, a PHD, and a former head of Alzahra University. And she is “loved” by both her husband and a people.

    She is everything excepted noticed. So when Mousavi actually showed affection to her on stage and stood side by side with her, the Iranian earth shook. (And the fact that her brother has recently been arrested, attests to the fear she instills).

    So when Mr. Mandanipour states in this program that Iranians know what they don’t want, but not what they DO want – I believe his words echo a generation past. What I see on video and read on blogs is a focused sentiment that knows what it wants: not Hollywood and Starbucks, but rights for women. It reminds me of how the Civil War was fueled by the abolition movement, but Lincoln and the Unionist tried hard not to make that the focus – yet it was always the elephant in the room.

    But therein lies the place where Mr. Mandanipour’s yearning (to see love) complements the current revolution. We find this truth to be self-evident; the grist of love for anything or anyone is respect. Until there is respect for women in Iran, love will be lacking, as will order.

  • nother

    And if woman’s rights are the fuel of the Green Revolution, Obama’s speech in Cairo lit the match. Our countries face one another down, hunkered in bunkers of ignorance and rhetoric. President Obama came out of the bunker first, took one large step forward and asked the Muslim people to meet him half way. Many have.

  • potter

    An old thought is revived again about love, the chemical rush of it, and what it is and does. Maybe we fall in love with our mothers first, but it is the longing to merge with another human being as we further mature which can (could-should) broaden to loving all life itself. This thought has not ever gotten lost in me (thank goodness for that). I have never gotten sour. Let’s toast to those who still believe in love. And I always come to this again when I think of the troubles in the world-the lack of love, and, as Chris puts it at the end of this interview, the “love cure”. But one has to be opened up somehow and it is the (hormonal) falling in love, call it infatuation, that does it or starts it which must in turn force the letting go of what which love must replace. I don’t think you can love and hate at once. That thought has not been proven to me to be wrong.

    Anyway it took me several sessions with the ipod to finish this interview not only because of it’s length but because Shahriar Mandanipour is trying to express himself as deeply and fully and honestly as he can in our language, not his. At some point, around the middle, I felt wow! – this is a very precious thing- a privilege. How else would I/we hear these sentiments and feel such a connection?


  • nother

    Now I’m not dumbfounded as much (still working on the dumb part), the women thing is being highlighted:

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  • hadie sharifi

    Mr. Mandanipoor

    hope you will be health.

    Hoped to see you in DAI in heidelburg, but heared that you went to hosepital.

    waiting for your mal and have good news about your health.

    Don´t know do you remember me or not. I write for children and about children`s language. I`m linguist.


  • حسین

    پروانه را به تمامی اگر نمیشود لمس کرد لا اقل میشود نوشت.
    واژه های پروانه ایت رامی ستایم