New York, NY – On May 1, as thousands of New Yorkers staged their modest but hearty May Day rally – hoping to revive the Occupy Wall Street movement in the city – faculty, students, and a few other denizens gathered in the small but delightful Martin E Segal Theatre Center at the City University of New York (CUNY) to watch and listen to theatrical performances and selected readings by playwrights and novelists from Egypt, Georgia, Iran and the United States.
The event, dubbed “Revolutionary Plays Since 2000” and organised in conjunction with the PEN World Voices Festival, featured works by Laila Soliman from Egypt, Lasha Bugadze from Georgia, the Civilians from New York City, and Mahmoud Dowlatabadi from Iran, with Mike Daisey as the moderator.
Founded and chaired by Salman Rushdie, the PEN World Voices Festival is now an annual event in New York City, and attracts writers from around the world to read and stage their work.
The event, as the organisers had envisioned it, was “dedicated to the emerging global voices of revolution from Egypt, Georgia and the United States”, seeking to explore “the links between uprisings in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and movements like Occupy Wall Street, looking for similarities between these grassroots expressions of frustration, fury and optimism. How does theatre react to these crucial historical moments? With documentary exactness? With lyrical outrage?”
The mournful colonel and the young revolutionary
Particularly poignant in this gathering was the barely noticed encounter between the young Egyptian playwright Laila Soliman and the aging Iranian novelist Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, who was in New York to promote the English translation of his novel, The Colonel (which has yet to pass the censorship of the Islamic Republic and be published in its original Persian in Iran). As he began to read an excerpt from his novel, Dowlatabadi turned to Soliman and said: “I hope what I will read will not disappoint you” – and when Soliman came to join him on stage she asked in a whisper why he thought she may be disappointed.
Dowlatabadi thought Soliman was full of hope and devoid of caution; she thought he was full of pessimism and lacking hope. They were misreading each other. The stage was deceptive.
Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s The Colonel is a heavy read – and like any other literary work of art, it must be read in the original. But the original does not exist – except in a handful of copies that Dowlatabadi has entrusted to a few close friends – while one fateful copy is wandering through the miasmatic labyrinths of the censorial policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Dowlatabadi wrote his novel in a span of two years between 1983 and 1985, as the Iran-Iraq war was raging and the Islamic Republic began in earnest its reign of theocratic terror, with mass executions in its prisons, cultural revolutions, university purges, and a massive totalitarian attempt to pacify the multifaceted, defiant Iranian political culture.
Dowlatabadi sat on his novel for almost three decades. When he finally submitted it to the ruling authorities for permission to publish, they said no. He subsequently allowed a German, then an English, and now a French and Italian – and soon an Arabic and Hebrew – translation. But to this day, the custodians of the sacred censorship refuse to allow its publication in its original Persian in Iran. Though there are possibilities of publishing it in Persian in Europe or the United States, Dowlatabadi insists – and rightly so – that its original Persian must be published in Iran or nowhere else.
The Colonel reads very much like Gabriel García Márquez’s The General in His Labyrinth/El general en su laberinto (1989) the fictionalised account of the last days of Simón Bolívar, the Venezuelan revolutionary leader. Just like Márquez, Dowlatabadi too writes this novel as the dismantling of the myth of the grand liberator.
The Colonel is the story of one retired army officer of the Pahlavi regime whose five children have been attracted to multiple ideological strands in pre-and post-revolutionary Iran. He has lost three of his children to their ideological convictions and subsequent death. One son is hidden in the basement of his father’s house, catatonic with guilt and moral and intellectual defeat, and an older daughter is married to an opportunist businessman perfectly at home in the Islamic Republic.
The novel opens in a dark rainy night when the colonel is summoned by the authorities to come and collect the corpse of his younger daughter, Parvaneh, who has just been executed in prison for having been a sympathiser to a defeated political group. From that very first page forward, there is a lump in the throat of the narrative that will not let go until the very last page. The Colonel is a eulogy, a Jeremiah of hardened pains, the literary lachrymose of a mourning nation, a funeral procession, a people delivering the corpses of their own children to the graveyards of their bodies and souls. The Colonel is painful to read, impossible to put down. Dowlatabadi says The Colonel first came to him as a nightmare – and reading it is like reliving the nightmare of a people. The Colonel is self-flagellation of a nation, regretting all its delusional ideals, fearing with fury what it has done to its own children. The Colonel is the chorus tragedy of lost hopes, of transpired aspirations.
Dowlatabadi’s protagonist, the colonel of the title, is self-absorbed, hallucinatory, introverted, constantly listening to the echo of his own voice and the vivid recollections of things past that he cannot, seems must not, forget – indeed condemned to remember.
Just like The Colonel in his Labyrinth, Dowlatabadi’s Colonel is also narrated between two colonels, the decaying patriarch of a family recalling the story and one Colonel Mohammad Taqi Khan Pessian (1892-1921) – a nationalist officer in the hiatus era when the Qajar dynasty (1789-1926) finally yielded to the Pahlavis (1926-1979) – after whom he has named one of his own sons, thus positing three historical, fictional, and aborted colonel liberators adjacent to each other. The three shades begin to bleed into each other, and the hallucinatory narrative that emerges becomes even more compelling than the factual history itself.
Dowlatabadi’s Colonel is descriptively thick, thickening – the horrid hallucinatory implosions of a pain some one hundred years plus in the making – some three decades plus in the open.
But The Colonel reads painfully – the horrors of a father who has been summoned in the middle of the night to go and collect the executed body of her youngest daughter, just murdered by the authorities of the Islamic Republic – when following an edict from Ayatollah Khomeini they carried out a mass execution of political prisoners.
“Why did you sit on this novel for all this time?” I asked Dowlatabadi while he was in New York. “Becase,” he said, “I wanted it to be farthest from the daily and routine politics of the time so it can get to the truth of it all.”
The hallucinatory prose is the coagulated pain of a people, caught in the snare of conflicting ideologies. It was prophetic that the novel was written when it was written, that it was published first in multiple languages other than Persian, in the birthplace of its author.
The Colonel is now an urtext – an original that does not yet exist, and yet all its translations can only allude to it – as shadows with no body yet to claim them.
Native, and yet not provincial
In an introduction to a collection of three essays by Terry Eagleton, Frederic Jameson, and Edward Said on Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature (1990) Seamus Deane, the Irish poet and novelist, called for “a new discourse for a new relationship between our ideas of the human subject and our idea of human communities”. In that vein he thought it necessary, if we are to overcome the colonial experiences, for something “native”, “and yet not provincial”.
But what exactly would that mean, in the aftermath of an Islamic revolution and a sordid theocracy that it begat, and now after the return of the repressed of the Islamic Republic in the Arab Spring? For the revolutionary fiction that will arise in the factual aftermath of these transnational revolutions, the pain of the past must be wedded to the hope of the future.
What Laila Soliman did not know that evening on stage in New York was that Mahmoud Dowlatabadi was looking at her and seeing Parvaneh, the youngest daughter of the colonel, whose young, executed body he is summoned to collect after that fateful bang at his door. Dowlatabadi was carrying the wound of a revolution more than 30 years into the horrors of its delivery.
What Dowlatabadi did not know that evening on stage was that Laila Soliman heralded from a generation that had no trust in any grand ideology of a total emancipation to become so bitterly disappointed at the end of the game. There was no ending to Laila Soliman’s game, as Mahmoud Dowlatabadi stood in front of her and recited the pain of his endgame.
The aging patriarch of Persian literature and the young Egyptian playwright met and did not meet that evening in New York, but their two respective peoples have much to learn from each other – one giving the other hope, resilience, and steadfast determination, and the other revolutionary wisdom, aging and seasoned solace: that the fact of revolution has much to learn from its fiction.
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. His most recent book The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism has just been published by Zed.