by Karim Pourhamzavi
Probably, it is difficult to talk about a secular or atheist stream in the Middle East nowadays. The media prefer more the loaded voices of the guns and violence carried on by the long beards, Islam fundamentalists in that region, than liberal, national, socialist or generally secular pictures. However, the atheist stream in a country such as Iran is rooted in about one century of history starting with the 1906 Constitutional Revolution when the Iranian constitutionalists succeeded in introducing the first modern constitution in the country. Two decades later, Iran witnessed a new generation of nationalists who were secular and atheist in their orientation. One of the key authors of this generation is also one of the most famous writers in Iran’s modern history, Sadeq Hedayat (1903-1951).
Hedayat was primarily a short story writer, although his novel The Blind Owl is one of the most highly-regarded Iranian novels of all time. His stories provide a picture of how Iranian society was looking in the 1930s and the 1940s and a critical view of religion during that time. Moreover, Hedayet’s precise observations of that society do not lack psychological analysis of his stories’ characters. Nor do they lack satire and drama.
It will be helpful to understand Hedayat’s view about religion by considering one of his stories, about ten pages long, “Obji Khanom” (“The Older Sister”). The story is written about a working class Iranian family in the 1930s, where a husband and his wife had two daughters. The younger daughter was pretty, while the older was not so fortunate. In that traditional environment where the success of mothers with daughters was measured by the marriage of their daughters, the younger sister, given her prettiness, had the chance to marry a middle class person.
The psychological analysis part of the story comes when the younger sister comes to visit her parents with her husband and her little child. The parents become happy whenever the younger sister visits them, they make their best food to welcome their successful daughter and her family and indeed they do not hesitate to show how proud they are of her, any time they get the chance. On the other hand, the older ‘ugly’ sister was deprived of all of those smiley faces. She, in an undeclared manner, was blamed for not being married or, as the author tries to lead us toward the point, blamed for being ‘ugly’. Accordingly, the older sister’s role was limited to housekeeping and doing house jobs such as cooking and cleaning.
In the 1930s and in the “Old Sister” story, Hedayat artistically illustrated the notion of psychological ‘relative deprivation’, the situation where someone in a group is deprived of attention and affection and tries to take some form of compensatory action. The dissatisfied sister, indeed, did not accept her situation. She was not as pretty as her younger sister and she was not able to attract a husband further up the social scale but she also wanted to become someone. Therefore, in that traditional environment, she took asylum in religion. She became a good religious observant, she wore her hijab strictly and, under the shelter of religion, started to accuse other members of the family of being people with weak faith and and poor at carrying out their religious duties.
In her religious world, the old sister was someone who others could not compete with. Probably, she also could find something in her spiritual world that she never found in her reality. However, the story ends by a suicide commitment of the older sister, an act that her religion prohibited. Hedayat seems to wanted to tell us how empty the old sister’s world was and to what extent even the most observant believers in religion doubt their ideology.
In Hedayat’s view, people’s economic situation is also related to their religious behaviours. For instance, in the Iran of his time, the poor tended more strongly to clasp religion, as it appeared to offer some solace from their real world experiences of exploitation and oppression. He also recognised, however, the conservative position of the wealthier class of the society and how they tended to use religion to keep and legitimise the status quo which advantaged them as a class. Hedayat saw that religious attitudes within the still-traditional Iranian society of the 1930s/40s was deeply connected to a combination of social issues and historical events and how religious notions were passed from one generation to another and developed as a customs. These facets occupy a considerable space in Hedayat’s writing.
With regard to gender issues, he believed that the causes that led women, who mostly were dependent on men in their economic affairs at the time, to adopt a religious life and exercise it differ from men. The domination of males over females is also apparent in the very nature of the religious exercise in Hedayat’s stories.
Part of Sadeq Hedayat’s body of work is translated into other languages, including English. Reading this author’s works can be important to draw a picture of Iranian society and its complexity today. It is also important to provide a cultural understanding of the Middle East at large, particularly when the author put the readers in front of stories that were written from an irreligious perspective.
While his most famous work is The Blind Owl, I would suggest first-time readers start with less complex works.