Persian Gardens & Iranian Prisons

Judith Gabriel


By M. R. Ghanoonparvar
Austin: Universities of Texas Press, 2001. 186 pp.

By Farnoosh Moshiri
Seattle: Black Heron Press, 2001. 182 pp.

By James Buchan
New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. 2000. 343 pp.

By Elaine Sciolino
Illustrated. New York: The Free Press. 2000. 402 pp. 

By Nesta Ramazani
Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2002. 302 pp.


By Nasrin Rahimieh

Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2001. 191 pp.


By Judith Gabriel 

An increasing number of literary works, originally penned in any of the  myriad of tongues, find their way into the reading diets of American readers - a largely monolingual audience. All too often, the process of translating these works is taken for granted, and the translator's name is quickly passed over.  In "Translating the Garden," M. R. Ghanoonparvar, a prolific practitioner of his complex and largely unappreciated trade, captures the process in a fascinating narrative as he sets to work translating modern Iranian literature.

The work in translation is "Goftogu dar Bagh," (Dialogue in the Garden) by Shahrokh Meskub, and although relatively short, it is a culturally complex work exploring the Persian psyche through perceptions of art, literature, identity and spirituality. To translate it into English - to render its allusions and references meaningful and in alignment with the intent of the author - is a time-consuming mission. In describing the process, the translator also opens doors to Persia's rich literary tradition and contemporary culture, noting: "As any translator would concede, translating, especially literary translation, is not just the act of rendering words, phrases and sentences from one language to another; rather, it involves the translating or transmitting of culture." As an example, Ghanoonparvar points out that the "garden" of the title is a translation of the Persian bagh- yet the meaning is more complex than the English term, embracing concepts such as homeland and imagined or remembered worlds.

While staying away from any heavy theorizing, Ghanoonparvar is honest about the struggles to find the right word, the proper tone, and the often imperfect results: "I also hope to show how and why in practice every translation is inevitably a failure, with occasional moments of success." Ghanoonparvar begins the book by presenting several translations of one section of the text by other translators, then moves on to focus on his own process as he worked his way through the text. He explains certain decisions, as well as key aspects of the original text.

For one thing, punctuation was introduced quite late into the Persian language and does not follow English conventions. In addition, Persian word order places the verb at the end of the sentence.  Besides the matter of semantics and syntax, there is the larger picture of the text and complex, multilayered metaphors and allusions.  Ghanoonparvar recounts how he struggles to find just the right word - based on its sound, its connotation and denotations and the intended meanings, particularly for words that have mystical meanings such as those tied to Persian Sufi literature. He shows that translation not only involves searching for the "right" words, but also an interpretation of the text. For the translator, it's often a thankless task, as Ghanoonparvar says, for "when a translation is successful, usually the original author gets the praise for having written a masterpiece, but if it fails or even reproduces the failures of the original, the translator gets the blame."

Both the translator and the author of the text merit praise in this instance. Ghanoonparvar examines the dialogue between the two Iranian intellectuals in "The Garden," setting the groundwork for it by delving into questions of the nature of migration and emigration, and some specifics about Iranian migration itself, particularly as it relates to Meskub's text, in which "the 'loss of the garden' or the loss of Paradise and the nostalgic desire to return home, even if it is to die there, is a metaphor for the loss of roots."  The reward, for English readers, is twofold: besides gaining entré into a modern Persian literary text, they will, having been allowed to hover over the translator's shoulder as he wrestled with linguistic and cultural enigmas, find that text to be enriched and clarified.



      Winner of the Black Heron Press Award for Social Fiction, "The Bathhouse" is Farnoosh Moshiri's second English-language novel.  Her first, "At the Wall of the Almighty" tells the story of a nameless male political prisoner in the El-Deen prison. "The Bathhouse," a much shorter work, is similar in that the central character - this time a young woman -remains nameless as she tells of her time in an old bathhouse used as a prison. The story, although fictitious, is based on interviews with former Iranian women prisoners. Both works combine literary beauty and the stark horrors of torture and repression.

The nameless girl of "The Bathhouse" is the daughter of a secular professor and the sister of an activist who finds herself imprisoned in the early years of the revolution along with other activists' relatives, as well as women who are political activists themselves. Their lives are sheer nightmares, which Moshiri captures in a restrained yet chilling way, tautly recreating the horror of prison life through sounds and cinematic incidents. Captors lead the prisoners around by leashes because the women are considered to be "untouchable devils." Women who "repent" wear black veils and must supervise the unrepentant; the book deals with how the vulnerable are manipulated into collaborating in their own victimization, as well as the confrontation between the oppressor and the oppressed and the bonds formed by the captives.  Trying to help one another, the inmates form a kind of family, often making sacrifices for one another; ironically, the girl is punished for feeding the starving baby of a fellow prisoner, and she loses many friends to terrible deaths. It is the humanity of these women that "The Bathhouse" extracts from the torment they endured.

Moshiri grew up in a literary family in Tehran. She worked as a playwright and fiction writer in Iran, before fleeing the country in 1983, after her play was banned and its director and cast arrested. Moshiri went underground, eventually escaping to Afghanistan, then to India. She has lived in Houston since 1987.


"The Persian Bride," an epic novel by James Buchan that spans the last quarter century in Iran, was first published in Britain under the title "A Good Place to Die." It is the story of a young Englishman, John Pitt, who comes to Isfahan in the early 1970s, and with a faked university degree, gets a job teaching English at a local language school for girls. Almost immediately, he falls in love with one of his pupils, Shirin Farameh. The two elope and escape to a deserted villa on the Persian Gulf coast, but in the turbulence of the fading years of the shah, with the specter of the secret police hovering over them, they are separated. As he searches for his missing wife and child, Pitt is arrested and tortured in the infamous Evin prison.

Pitt's quest ultimately leads him to Afghanistan and Kashmir and to the front lines of the Iran-Iraq war. Having survived the resurgence of political Islam, Pitt declares: "The effect of the revolution has not been to revive religion in Iran but to make it hateful to all but the portion of the population that has a material interest in it, that gets its bread and water from the mosque."

A former foreign correspondent for The Financial Times, Buchan's description of the Iranian scenario reflects a familiarity and nuanced understanding of the country's political and cultural realities, and frequently alludes to Persian poetry and the Quran.

Elaine Sciolino has had more experience covering Iran than any other American reporter, reporting on the events of the past two decades for Newsweek and The New York Times.  In "Persian Mirrors," she paints a portrait of the Iran of today, with an emphasis on changes permeating the society under increasing liberalization of attitudes and the declining sway of the mullahs. But while she finds resistance and modernization, there is no rebellion per se, and she finds that Iranians are still motivated by piety and patriotism. Nonetheless, the changes are there, in restaurants, schools, aerobic classes and private homes, and Sciolino documents the experiments in democracy and Islam she has witnessed.

That most visible symbol, the chador, is still the rule of the day, but there's some relaxation of attitudes toward women's dress, and Sciolino quotes an Iranian woman writer who characterizes the garment as an ever-changing symbol: "An emblem now of progress, then of backwardness, a badge now of nationalism, then of domination, a symbol of purity, then of corruption, the veil has accommodated itself to a puzzling diversity of personal and political ideologies." Currently, many women are subtly attempting to subvert the dress code, and are now allowed to wear a headscarf, providing that it covers all the hair, as well as a kind of raincoat outer garment.  But even this is likely to change, as Sciolino notes, "The Islamic Republic is a fluid place where the rules are hard to keep straight because they keep changing. What is banned one day might be permitted the next."

Written in a lively, reportorial narrative, yet filled with insight and nuanced observation, Sciolino includes her own experiences as a Western woman, one who, by virtue of her journalistic ingenuity, as well as by gender, has gained rare access to the otherwise veiled lives of her Iranian counterparts. 


"The Dance of the Rose and the Nightengale" is the autobiography of a young girl growing up in Iran. The daughter of an English Christian mother and an Iranian Zoroastrian father, Nesta Ramazani was allowed a distinctly liberal lifestyle for her time and place, one that took her into the world of Persian and Western music, poetry and dance. She violated convention when she became a member of the first Iranian ballet company, which had been established by an American woman, performing a synthesis of Persian and Western forms throughout Iran and other countries.

     Dancing was not the only taboo she surmounted, both as a female given certain freedom ("Never before had a young girl from a good family danced in public") and a member of a minority - her grandfather was a leader of the Zoroastrian community and a member of Parliament. In many ways, her life was exceptional for the time and place into which she was born, and her account reads like a novel. Ramazani lays out an Iranian landscape, both culturally and personally, that few have access to. In velvet prose, she brings the reader behind the screen, into family settings and shows the way that the changing political scenario impacted their lives. Ramazani today is Associate Dean of Humanities and Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Alberta.

Nasrin Rahimieh learned as a child that linguistic and cultural identities were changeable and negotiable. With family border crossings between Persia and Azerbaijan, she was familiar with many levels of migration and exile, yet ultimately rediscovered a need to submerge herself in Persian culture. She found herself drawn to works by ther "missing Persians" throughout history, interested in how they had dealt with cross-cultural transplanting. 

In "Missing Persians," Rahimieh presents selected narratives written from the 16th century to modern times. Each of the five chapters is devoted to a particular individual who traveled away from Persia either in an actual or a metaphorical  journey. Together, they represent ways in which Persian travelers have interacted with other cultures and  how these interactions helped them to define themselves.

This essay appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 11, no. 52 (Summer 2005) 
Copyright (c) 2005 by Al Jadid