“Tell me which books you read, and I’ll tell you who you are!” That was how the late Iranian literary critic Mohit Tabatabai used to tease Tehran’s glitterati in the “good old days.” To be sure, the claim wasn’t based on any scientific study but empirical evidence showed that it wasn’t quite off the mark either. Books do offer an insight into the soul of a reader, provided he has a soul.
Thus, those interested in all things Iranian, especially in these exciting times, wouldn’t want to miss a new book on Iran’s “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei if only because it devotes a chapter to books that he loved as a young man.
The new book, a sort of biography, was originally written in Arabic under the title “En Ma’a al-Sabr Fathan” (Patience Leads to Victory), but has just come out in Persian translation under a pseudo-poetical title “The Drop of Blood That became a Ruby”. The “Supreme Guide” recalls his “passion for reading famous Iranian and world novels” and insists on “the deep impact” that reading novels had on him.
But what novels did the future “Supreme Guide” find especially captivating?
Zevaco uses a simple formula: taking a historical character or event and fictionalizing it with a dose of page-turning pathos. Zevaco’s world is a universe of sex, violence, conspiracy, and betrayal.
In his best-selling novel “Borgia”, the head of the dreadful Borgia family that dominated Florentine politics in the medieval times, rapes his own sister Lucrece, a seductive blonde. The novel “Nostradamus” is a fictionalized biography of a roaming charlatan who claimed to read the future to gain money, power, sex, and fame.
Zevaco’s most popular novels come in the series known as “Les Paradaillans” of which only two are translated into Persian.
Zevaco was an anarchist who edited the movement’s organ “Les Gueux” (The Beggars) and thus he aims at highlighting the corruption of European ruling classes. Ferocious anti-clerical, Zevaco regards organized religion as “the poison of the masses”. Some of his best writing is about the massacre of Huguenots (Protestant Christians) by the French King Charles IX under the influence of his shrewish mother Catherine of Medicis.
Khamenei’s next favorite novelist is Alexandre Dumas, another spinner of 19th century swashbuckling yarns, including the “Three Musketeers”, “The Count of Monte Cristo”, “Twenty Years Later” and, the gripping “Cagliostro” relating the adventures of Joseph Balsamo, another charlatan in search of sex, money, and power.
Dumas’s work has less sex, revenge, and violence than Zevaco, but the two French authors share many similarities, especially when it comes to fast-paced adventures and unexpected reversals of fortune.
Another 19th-century French novelist is Maurice Leblanc, best known for his “Arsene Lupin” series about a gentleman thief who robs gentlemen, a classic of escapist literature.
Leblanc’s work shares two features with the works of Zevaco and Dumas. The first is the creation of an alternative world as a fictionalized double for the real one. The second is the central hero’s disdain for codes and norms of established bourgeois morality.
Khamenei says that he also read “almost all Iranian novels” of the period.
At the time of Khamenei’s youth, Persian novel seldom went beyond imitations of French novels of the late 19th century with JK Huysmans, Emile Zola, Hector Malot, and Anatole France as favorites.
Because Iranian intellectuals disliked the British, none bothered to translate major English novels until the 1950s and, in the case of American literature, until a decade later. For the average Iranian reader, young men like Khamenei, France was the world’s “Literary Superpower.” Russian literature was also little known, again partly because of the Iranian elite’s dislike of Russia as an enemy of Persia for two centuries.
Curiously, all the Iranian novelists of the time, that Khamenei talks about, chose women as central characters at a time that Iranian women were still treated as second class citizens.
Ali Dashti’s novel offers a heroine named “Fitneh” (Sedition) who decides to use her charm to move up the ladder in a world dominated by men.
Muhammad Hejazi’s heroin “Ziba” is equally charming and ruthless in pursuit of a place in a world that tries to shut women out.
Then we have “Shahrashub”(literally: the disturber of peace in the city) the heroine of Hossein-Qoli Mosta’an whose appetite for sex is as keen as that of the main male character Aqa-Bala Khan. Mosta’an’s other popular novel “Rabi’a” also has a woman as the central character but is set in medieval times.
Jawad Fadil’s “Yeganeh” is in a different register, a romantic tearjerker about star-crossed lovers. But even there, it is the heroine “Yeganeh” (The Unique One) who captains the wayward ship of forlorn love. Fadil’s second novel, “Sho’eleh” (The Flame), also has a woman as its central character but is more ambitious in literary terms.
Taghi Modaressi’s heroine “Yakolia” in the novel of the same title is the most literary of the works of that period with the added distinction of being set in Biblical times.
The best-selling novel of the latter end of that period was Muhammad-Ali Afghani’s “Ahu Khanum’s Husband” which launched a nationwide debate on the status of women and was used as material for a feature film and a television series.
Khamenei says he loved and cherished all those books. Ironically, however, all the novels he devoured with great appetite are on a blacklist of books that “corrupt public morality and violate religious values”, established under President Muhammad Khatami in 1999. Iranians who are today the same age as Khamenei was in his youth cannot read the books he loved.
This article was written by Amir Taheri for Asharq Al-Awsat.