Social Criticism in Modern Persian Literature

  October 24, 2021   Read time 3 min
Social Criticism in Modern Persian Literature
The prose satire of the period was no less forgiving of Iran’s failings. The most remarkable, the column “Charad Parand” (Charivari) in Sur-e Esrafil, written by the aforementioned Dehkhoda, produced a penetrating and stylistically sophisticated scrutiny of the values and practices of society at this eventful time.

Born in Qazvin to a family of small landowners, Dehkhoda’s agrarian background, early madrasa education, and short diplomatic career in the Balkans turned him into one of the best critics of his generation. With an alternative satirical pen name Dakhow (“headman,” in the Qazvini dialect), Dehkhoda’s intimate tone and simple but piercing logic, published in thirty-two issues of the journal between May 1907 and July 1908, lampooned the conservative and sneered at the court and corrupt nobility while highlighting the suffering of ordinary people and the misfortunes of the downtrodden: hungry peasants, broken artisans, oppressed women, and a host of imagined character types who appeared as the author’s alter ego. It was partly because of Dehkhoda’s contribution that Sur-e Esrafil reached its widest circulation of twenty-four thousand in 1908.

In the first issue, the author employs an ingenious cure for the acute problem of opium addiction in Iran to remedy problems of adulterated bread flour and health care for the poor. Browne’s excellent translation of a short passage displays the novelty of style and content: After several years traveling in India, seeing the invisible saints and acquiring skills in Alchemy, Talismans, and Necromancy, thank God, I have succeeded in a great experiment; no less than a method for curing the opium habit. . . . To all my zealous, opium addict Muslim brethren I now proclaim the possibility of breaking the opium habit thus: first, they must be firmly determined and resolved on abandoning it. Second, one who, for example, eats two methqals [nine grams] of opium daily should every day diminish this dose by a grain and add two grains of morphine in its stead. One who smokes ten methqals of opium should daily reduce the amount by one grain adding instead two grains of hashish. Thus they should persevere until such time as the two methqals of opium which he eats are replaced by four methqals of morphine.
By the same logic he then proposes to Iran’s statesmen that, since “people are poor and cannot eat wheaten bread, and that the peasant must spend all his life in cultivating wheat yet must himself remain hungry,” they should consider the following: On the first day of the year they bake the bread with pure wheat flour. On the second day in every hundredweight they put a mound of bitter apricot stones, barley, fennel flower, sawdust, lucerne, sand—I put it shortly as an illustration—clods, brickbats, and bullets of eight mithqals. It is evident that in hundredweight of corn, which is a hundred mound, one mound of these things will not be noticed. On the second day two mounds, on the third three, and after a hundredth day . . . in such fashion no one will notice it, while the wheat breads habit has entirely passed out of men’s minds.
After the coup of 1908 and the execution of Jahangir Khan Shirazi, the editor of Sur-e Esrafil, Dehkhoda escaped to Switzerland but returned after the constitutional restoration to begin a scholarly career as Iran’s greatest modern lexicographer. Like Bahar, he preferred to stay out of politics and alternatively to pursue language and literature as expressions of Iranian national identity.