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Each year, the Bita Prize in Literature is given to an artist of Iranian origin who has made singular accomplishments in the field of Persian letters. Simin Behbahani, the grand Dame of Modern Persian poetry, was the first winner. In 2009 a committee from inside and outside Iran selected Goli Taraghi as the second recipient of the $10,000 award. What follows is her lecture, delivered at Stanford University, upon receiving the award.
All my life, I have lived between two worlds. My father came from a religious family; they lived in the holy city of Qom. Fascinated by the achievements of modern civilization and an admirer of the social and moral values of the Occident, he chose as our family name the word “Taraghi”—“Progress,” a quintessentially modern concept. He moved to Tehran, the capital of a modernizing Iran. There, he became a famous lawyer and founded the Taraghi magazine, for many years one of the most influential literary magazines in the country. We lived in Shemiran, in the north of the city. My paternal aunts and cousins stayed in Qom, bound to their religious beliefs and traditional values.
My mother came from a Westernized family. My maternal uncles were educated in Europe; they embodied the modern, liberal men of their generation. The gap between the two poles of my family was unbridgeable.
In my book of memories, Two Worlds, I described the moral and intellectual conflict that tore asunder the heart of my family:
Summer begins and my aunts arrive from Qom, and settle in the ground floor guest rooms. Father says:
‘Beware, the wolves are here.’ I am thrilled about the arrival of the wolves, and feel that from the narrow slits of their suitcases another world creeps out and spreads throughout the bright rooms of our Shemiran house. Mother, worried about the presence of this other world, quickly draws an invisible wall between them and us— ‘us,’ who are familiar with the West, science and modernity, and ‘them,’ who are backward and superstitious.
As a child I witnessed these two opposing modes of existence. Soon, I fell under the spell of my aunts, and I started to pray five times a day. Yet at times, I would cut short my prayers, and after reassuring God Almighty of my continued faith, I would run after my mother to go to the cinema or a dance. I developed a double personality: torn between the fear of God and the mesmerizing world of modern life. I constantly leapt between these two selves, unable to find the real me.
It was about this time that I was sent to America—Des Moines Iowa, of all places! I was sixteen. I cried every night. But before long, I dressed like my American friends, talked like them, and behaved like them. It was, however, a superficial metamorphosis.
After five years, I returned home, settled down, got married, and made a name for myself as a writer. I started to teach at Tehran University. I was revolted by the repression of the times and joined my revolutionary students, crying for freedom and justice. With the dawn of the Islamic Revolution, I, too, was carried away, like many others, by the mystic joy of joining a giant monolithic whole. Why was I so emotionally moved, and how did I abdicate any rational reasoning? I attribute it to the religiosity dormant in my unconscious. Little did I know that I would be thrown out of the university, and that many people I knew would be executed by the new regime. I could not imagine that the greater part of my family would immigrate to the many corners of the world, and that I myself would end up living in France for many years.
Since then, my life has become a perpetual journey between Paris and Tehran, a journey that is far more than mere geographic displacement. It is an existential migration from one reality to another. This bifurcation naturally demands the sort of double life that has marked my literary imagination.
As soon as I start to formulate my ideas and select the words, I feel the invisible presence of the man from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance—in charge of censorship—standing over me. He dictates his rules: love is a taboo subject, and words with any hint of a sexual connotation are forbidden. My passionate lovers, he tells me, must be married couples. I become a limited, frustrated writer. I write a self-censored version for the Ministry and a second version for myself. In the latter, I become a free writer, floating in a universe of words and images. I let my thoughts fly and my inner desires float to the surface. Cutting a word from your story or poem, your essay or your novel, is like cutting a piece of your flesh. Iranian censorship has no logical or definite criteria. Even if you avoid all the forbidden words and taboo subjects, the fate of your book still lies in the hands of the censor.
Let me share an example. I wrote a work of fiction called “The Adventures of Mr. Alef in Exile.” I included the first chapter in a collection of short stories I was about to publish. The Ministry rejected the book. I went to ask why. The man behind the desk was angry at my story. He wanted to know why I had sent Mr. Alef to Paris. Didn’t I know that Paris was an immoral city of corruption and depravity? I assured him that Mr. Alef doesn’t drink wine, doesn’t eat pork, and doesn’t chase after women. But my argument apparently wasn’t strong enough. The censor was worried about the fate of Mr. Alef; he ordered me to bring him back to Iran right away. I said Alef doesn’t have any money to buy his return ticket. The censor said this could be arranged. I asked him about the other stories in the collection. He couldn’t care less about them, he said.
I didn’t have the heart to force Alef back to Tehran, and so I asked his preference. Did he want to stay or go back? Many years have passed since that encounter, and I am still waiting for his answer.
Goli Taraghi, author of nine widely translated books of fiction, won the Bita Prize for Literature in 2009. Her most recent book has been banned in her native Iran. She moved to Paris in 1979.
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