Belonging in the Literatures of Iran & the Maghreb

A review of Un(der)writing Home: The Politics of Belonging in the Modern Literatures of Iran and the Maghreb, by Guilan Siassi.

In bringing together Persophone writers of Iran and Francophone writers of the Maghreb, Guilan Siassi’s dissertation pushes the limits of comparative literature, Francophone studies, and area studies by positing a new approach to the study of contemporary “minor literatures.” Theoretically informed and historically contextualized, Siassi’s study addresses concepts of exile, home, and identity, and draws from a range of literary critics and authors of prose fiction to develop a theory of “un(der)writing,” which she defines as “an analytic tool to expose the ‘ghosts’ that emerge symptomatically in narrative representations of home and enables reading practices that are attentive to the self-deconstructive tendencies of literature in general” (p. xi). The concept effectively allows Siassi to tease out the often contradictory and the paradoxical impulses that underscore the texts she analyzes.

In Chapter 1, “The Languages of Home: Linguistics and Literary Communities in Iran and the Maghreb,” Siassi puts the literatures of the Maghreb and Iran into a comparative perspective, shedding light on “the asymmetric but complementary development of literary modernism from the period of nation-building in each region through the current day” (p. 36). Drawing from the problematic and often overlooked chapter of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities “Patriotism and Racism,” she examines the work of Moroccan author Abdelkebir Khatibi and Iranian author Muhammad Ali Jamalzadeh, highlighting a shared vocabulary rooted in the lexicon of “familial intimacy and a mythos of shared linguistic identity” (p. 44). It becomes apparent that both writers use language as the primary medium through which to build an imagined community, but do so in completely contrasting ways. Jamalzadeh invokes a form of linguistic democratization by issuing a challenge to the problems of diglossia that afflicted Iran in the early twentieth century, while Khatibi sees the polyglossia of the transnational Maghreb as a source of unity centered on the “psycho-linguistic experience” (p. 74) of Moroccans, Algerians, and Tunisians. While Anderson and Khatibi are shown to be preoccupied with the importance of the mother tongue, Khatibi transcends that with the idea of being at home with the cosmopolitan polyphony of North Africa. The contrasting view that Siassi brings to the table with her comparative reading of both authors underscores the importance of language and national identity, two themes with which Maghrebi and Iranian writers of later generations have remained engrossed.

“Mythic Dreams of Home: Transnational Poetics and National Histories in Sadeq Hedayat and Kateb Yacine,” the second chapter of the study, focuses on Kateb Yacine’s Nedjma and Sadeq Hedayat’s The Blind Owl. The novels are hallmarks of modern Algerian and Iranian literatures, respectively, with each one revolving around an alluring and seductive, but ultimately unattainable female figure. Siassi, taking her cue from noted scholars before her, namely Michael Beard, Marc Gontard, and Charles Bonn, interprets this figure as the nation. She convincingly argues that both novels “betray anxieties about a proto-national homeland whose construction was imminent or already, problematically, underway” (p. 90). Indeed, when read as national allegories, each of these breakthrough and highly experimental works exhibit striking similarities to one another. The surrealist and modernist poetics employed in both novels are infused with localized symbols and content and critically engage with issues of history and identity. Most importantly, perhaps, when they speak of the homeland, “they point to an always-already lost ideal; one that is coveted and mourned” (p. 127). The chapter concludes by engaging with the ideas of Pascale Casanova in her 2005 article “Literature as World,” noting that the two authors “were able to embrace certain values of literary autonomy without forsaking the cultural and political specificity of their work…mark[ing] a spot for themselves within the international literary community” (p. 128).

In Chapter 3, “Translations of Home: The Poetics and Ethics of Cross-Cultural Exchange in the Works of Khatibi,” Siassi returns to the work of Khatibi but shifts the lens from the politics of the noted Moroccan intellectual and focuses on the ethical aspects of his work, underscoring his “poetical exploration of the interpersonal relations we cultivate with our most intimate others” (p. 131). Siassi highlights Khatibi’s own concepts of aimance and pensée-autre to interrogate, primarily, two of his most important works: La mémoire tatouée (Tattooed Memory) and Amour Bilingue (Love in Two Languages), highlighting the processes of translation, broadly conceived, between and within post-colonial languages and cultures. In doing so, Siassi demonstrates how Khatibi, through language and translation, puts forth the concept of bi-langue, an “exceptional occurrence” that “appears and disappears” in language, but is “different from all thought which affirms itself and obliterates itself in translation” (p. 157), thus radically transforming the relationship between former colonizers and colonized.

In Chapter 4, “The Cryptic Womb of Home: Melancholia, Messianism and Procreative Ghosts in Parsipur’s Touba and the Meaning of Night,” Siassi takes a gendered approach to the themes of belonging and representations of home, in what is perhaps the most important work by Shahrnush Parsipur, one of Iran’s foremost writers of fiction. By bringing the notion of “un(der)writing” to her reading of Touba and the Meaning of Night, Siassi argues that the home in Parsipur’s works, and especially in Touba is “always overdetermined by patriarchal law and thus fraught with great ambivalence.” As her close reading of the novel exhibits, the home also becomes “the birthplace of a specifically feminine form of historical knowledge” (p. 167). Siassi’s reading of Parsipur’s multifaceted storyline and the vast array of characters that span multiple generations culminates in what she defines as Touba’s “melancholic messianism,” a term that aptly describes “not just the libidinal structure of [Touba’s] relationship to the home but also the paradoxical temporality of that desire” (p. 202).

Beginning in the twilight years of the Qajar era and going well into the Pahlavi period, Parsipur’s character of Touba – at once austere, educated, and beautiful – problematizes contemporary ideas of womanhood and femininity, particularly in the first part of her life. However, as Siassi demonstrates, Touba remains unable to transgress the gendered boundaries of social life in which she is brought up. Siassi’s reading of the novel, heavily informed by psychoanalysis and trauma theory, reveals Touba’s paradoxical complexity, rooted in the notion of a “paternal-historical home” (p. 211). Siassi’s intervention is at its best when she calls for a reading of the novel informed by Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok’s notion of “cryptonymy,” an approach that exposes the “repeated cycles of violence that result from the collective silencing and transgenerational transmission of a traumatic history” (p. 215). Siassi’s reading adds to the previously published studies of Parsipur’s work by Kamran Talattof, as well as the more formalist reading of the novel by Mohammad Mehdi Khorrami in Modern Reflections of the Classical Tradition in Persian Fiction (2003).

In Chapter 5, “Gendered Memories of Home: Bodies of Law and Itineraries of Desire in Goli Taraghi and Assia Djebar,” Siassi again uses gender as the primary lens through which to read two major authors, complicating her discussion around the issues of linguistic affinity that framed her discussion in Chapter 1. Siassi brings together Taraghi’s autobiography Scattered Memories (Khātereh-hāye Parākandeh) with Djebar’s “autohistoriographical” novel Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade (L’amour, la fantasia). Siassi’s juxtaposition of the prominent female writers, each of whom currently lives in a state of exile, reveals two very different political positions toward the home and particularly toward the male power structures that previously shaped their lives. In this way, we see that Taraghi refrains from critiquing the masculine structure of power that singularly ruled her family home, while Djebar, in the arguably more complex literary text, offers a powerful feminist critique of the patriarchal power structures that shaped her notion of home (p. 221).

Guilan Siassi’s Un(der)writing Home: The Politics of Belonging in the Modern Literatures of Iran and the Maghreb takes an important step in broadening the horizons of Iranian studies, Francophone studies, comparative literature, and even Middle Eastern studies. Indeed it is rare that modern Persian literature is brought into conversation with other literatures, and particularly “minor literatures,” such as those from North Africa. In doing so, Siassi sheds light on the parallel and overlapping histories, aesthetic practices and themes that are prominent within the two literatures and, especially with her concept of “un(der)writing,” offers a new approach to reading other “minor” and diasporic literatures of the world.

Amir Moosavi
Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies
New York University
amirm@nyu.edu

Primary Sources

Muhammad Ali Jamalzadeh, Once Upon a Time (Yeki Bud, Yeki Nabud)
Kateb Yacine, Nedjma
Abdelkebir Khatibi, La mémoire tatouée: autobiographie d’un decolonize; Amour bilingue
Sharnush Parsipur, Touba and the Meaning of Night (Tūba va Ma’nā-ye Shab)
Goli Taraghi, Scattered Memories (Khātereh-hāye Parākandeh)
Asia Djebar, L’amour, la fantasia

Dissertation Information

University of California, Los Angeles. 2011. 274pp. Primary Advisor: Ali Behdad.

 

Image: photo by Guilan Siassi.

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