Revolutionary Satire from Iran, 1907-1909
- ISBN: 9780300197990
- Published By: Yale University Press
- Published: May 2016
During the factional struggles that followed the enactment of an Iranian constitution in 1906, there was an explosion of new periodicals. In one pro-constitution newspaper, Sur-e Esrafil, the writer and scholar Ali-Akbar Dehkhodā published “Charand-o Parand,” a regular satirical column that became a sensation, both for its political daring and its experiments in prose style.
In Charand-o Parand: Revolutionary Satire from Iran, 1907-1909, Janet Afary and John R. Perry have produced the first translation of the complete series of 32 columns, together with substantial footnotes explaining many of the column’s topical references and sometimes cultural background. This is accompanied by an introduction that puts the column in the context of Dehkhodā’s life, the Constitutional Revolution, and the print run of Sur-e Esrafil. The introduction then summarizes the column’s critique of the period’s Iranian politics and religion, and compares this critique to the writings of other Muslim reformers of the period.
Dehkhodā would later become Iran’s greatest lexicographer, and his column reflects the same combination of breadth and detail in its vision of a society undergoing radical transformation. He tries out every literary form from the proverb and café song to the court chronicle, and he ventriloquizes madrasa students, illiterate villagers, and women gathered around the water pipe. This heteroglossia made it a model for early Iranian literary modernism, but “Charand-o Parand” is more concerned with scoring points and eliciting laughs than with literary innovation per se (the column’s unpretentious title is a phrase used to dismiss an utterance as nonsense).
Written in an anxious period of parliamentary maneuvers and street brawls after the temporary victory of constitutionalism, the column’s politics are skeptical but rarely cynical. Dehkhodā places little faith in the new parliament, but urges peasants and the urban poor to look after their own interests by participating the revolutionary committees that were a major border-crossing factor in the period’s Iranian, Ottoman, and Russian revolutions. Along with the conversations among its diverse cast of characters, the column often contains an element of dialogue with its numerous readers, including the outraged critics who cried blasphemy. Dehkhodā jousts with the censors and anti-constitution mobs that intervened between issues to try to silence him, and he frequently jokes about things he must stop just short of saying openly. Such constraints go to the wind completely in the last three columns of full-throated denunciation and invective, which he composed in Swiss exile after the coup of June 23, 1908.
The translation itself is remarkably readable and sometimes even funny, threading its difficult path through the topical jokes and language-specific puns with a combination of erudition and common sense. Contemporary readers of the Persian text, whether native speakers or not, can be bewildered by its outdated slang, technical terminology, titles, and names of figures clearly known at the time but attested few other places in printed sources. Add to this Dehkhodā’s frequent play with popular mispronunciations and other solecisms, and it becomes clear what a labor of love this project must have been. As the acknowledgements reveal, Afary and Perry drew on the collective expertise of a wider community of scholars.
This translation makes available a valuable primary source for the Middle East history classroom. It will immediately join Iraj Mirzā’s “Ārefnāmeh” on the short list of works whose English translations really capture the vitality and offense of Constitutionalist literature. In courses on modern Islamic thought, this work, together with the “Slavs and Tatars” collection of cartoons from the contemporaneous Tbilisi journal Molla Nasraddin, will give students a sense of the process by which Islamic reformists repeatedly renegotiated the limits of the speakable in their societies. Perhaps equally important, it will convey to students the relish and sense of humor with which the reformers entered the fray.
Samuel Hodgkin is assistant professor of Comparative Literature at Yale University.
Samuel HodgkinDate Of Review:April 22, 2020