Mahmoud Doulatabadi: “With Iran, one must have patience”
Published in “Die Welt” on October 25 2009
Original title: “Our eyes have become used to the darkness”
Iranian writer Mahmoud Doulatabadi on stranded protests and hatred towards the West
“How can a nation endure so much unspoken”, asks the Colonel. He is with his son, “a broken man with white temples, broken, crushed, sick”, who “bravely attended the murder of his mother”; the killer was the Colonel himself. He is on his way through a rainy night to bury his daughter by his own hands, and looks back on years filled with pain and suffering.
The author of this apocalyptic day in the earlie Eighties after the overthrow of the Shah is Mahmoud Doulatabadi, one of the most famous writers in Iran. His novel so far was published only in German; the censorship board in his home country has prevented the publication of the book.
Welt am Sonntag: Mr Doulatabadi: torture, murder, despair: Your book “The Colonel” lacks nothing. The time following after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 must have been bleak indeed.
Mahmoud Doulatabadi: When I was writing the “Colonel”, the times were even more sinister as I described them. Between 1981 and 1984, life was dark and unbearable to an extent that it made your head spin.
Welt am Sonntag: And today? Is life in Iran easier today?
Doulatabadi: Our eyes have become used to the darkness.
Welt am Sonntag: In June, the Iranian writer Amir Cheheltan in the light of the post election protests wrote: “There is no turning back.” Today the impression is rather that the rulers have prevailed.
Doulatabadi: Obvioulsy, we still owe the clergy another era of ruling. That Iran will see changes is a historical necessity. The standstill will be overcome, things have started to alter. But we need patience. With Iran, one must have patience.
Welt am Sonntag: Why don’t you leave the country? Your son lives in Düsseldorf, your daughter in Paris.
Doulatabadi: I have another son in Iran. Of course I have been thinking about an extended stay abroad, and I still do. At the same time, the thought that my work in my home country could remain unfinished prevents me from actually doing it. It is possible that I will leave Iran for half a year or a year, but not forever.
Welt am Sonntag: Why will your work remain unfinished in case you leave Iran?
Doulatabadi: Many of my writings have not yet been published in Persian. My readers would never know about them. Once, when another popular writer left Iran, the people were very disappointed. That I could disappoint my fellow countrymen is a horrible thought to me. Everything I write is connected with the landscape, the people of my homeland.
Welt am Sonntag: Herta Müller also left her home country and still narrated about Romania.
Doulatabadi: That’s correct, however, her environment has remained the same; Eastern Europe is a part of Europe. It is not the same as emigrating to Germany from Iran.
Welt am Sonntag: Last year, a novel of the Iranian writer Tirdad Zolghadr was published in German. The novel describes the art scene and party life in Tehran, and we thought hey – that’s exactly the same as here.
Doulatabadi: Our society is full of contradictions. This writer has correctly described the lifestyle of the young urban middle class. They have those new opportunities, because their fathers were sold down the river for them.
Welt am Sonntag: In your book “The Colonel” actually none of the protagonists is free of guilt. Does living in a dictatorship imply to be burdened with guilt?
Doulatabadi: I don’t see it that way, they did not become guilty. Each of them has walked their own path and, doing so, made mistakes. No human being is perfect. Your question caused me to reflect about where I have failed. [Translator’s note: The German text says “was ich versäumt habe”, which could also be translated as “what I have missed”]
Welt am Sonntag: And…?
Doulatabadi: I will answer that in a few years. I walk the path of life very slowly, I am a man of misgivings, like Hamlet.
Welt am Sonntag: Why is it that democracy in your country has such a hard time, while the different revolutions in history show that there is a great desire for freedom?
Doulatabadi: As far as I know history, the Napoleonic era marks the end of dictatorships in Europe. Hitler, Mussolini and Franco were exceptions to the rule. Hitler was already an anachronism by the time he came to power. In Europe you have a centuries-long tendency toward democracy.
Welt am Sonntag: But in Iran there have always been, and still are, elections, a fact that shows that the rulers would have a legitimacy problem without the people’s votes.
Doulatabadi: In our country history took a different course. The modern Western world did not tolerate the dictator Hitler, and overthrew him. What is interesting is that the Western world did exactly the opposite in Iran. In our country, the democratically elected Mohammad Mossadegh was overthrown by the CIA in the 50s.
Welt am Sonntag: Still, would you say that we have cultural similarities?
Doulatabadi: Plenty. Apart from the time of the antiquity, the Middle Ages and even the colonialism, cultural similarities between Iran and the West have been existing for decades, not only technical-scientifical ones, but also artistic ones. However, our experience with the West have at times also been unpleasant and bitter.
Welt am Sonntag: Is the hatred of the Iranian government towards the West a result of our political mistakes, or is it an attempt to cover up their own mistakes, because they do not succeed in their efforts to transfer the society into an independent Iranian modernity?
Doulatabadi: Both is true. What makes the hatred appear legitimate from our people’s viewpoint are the continuous threats against our country. Personally, I dislike the Iranian government’s statements as much as I dislike the threats of the West. I am a man of peace, and I wish for my country that it maintains friendly relations with all other countries.
Interview conducted by Matthias Wulff
Translated by Bahman Nirumand