Caspian Cultural Centre

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Private Parts and Public Discourses in Modern Iran

Private Parts and Public Discourses in Modern Iran

by Homa Katouzian

The first half of the twentieth century minus the Reza Shah period is unique in the whole history of Persian literature in the amount of satire, lampoons, and invectives that were published largely though not entirely through the press, usually with a political motive. It was characteristic of Iranian history that the fall of an arbitrary state, often even the death of a ruler, led to division and chaos. The first quarter of the twentieth century was a period of revolution, chaos, and coup. And in the period after the fall of Reza Shah up to the 1953 coup, chaos was resumed and was once again accompanied by licentious journalism and pamphleteering.

Lampoons, invectives, and the use of obscene language in Persian poetry, and sometimes in anecdotal prose such as that of Obeid Zakani, date back at least to the twelfth century. Sometimes it was done for fun, sometimes for private vengeance, sometimes on behalf of a patron for castigating his enemy, or sometimes blatantly to obtain money from the victim. Sana’i Ghaznavi, Adib-e Saber, Rashid al-Din Vatvat, Anvari Abivardi, Suzani Samarqandi, and Khaqani Shervani are some of the most renowned examples in a long line of poets, which in the nineteenth century ends up with Yaghma-ye Jandaqi and Qa’ani Shirazi. Yaghma once described not just the human race but all living creatures as motherfuckers, though the Persian term he used was zan-qahbeh. Qa’ani returned his compliments by describing him as the chief motherfucker of all.

During the constitutional revolution modern and progressive prose and poetry went public and with it the use of poisonous satires and scathing lampoons, though for a time they a stopped just short of using obscene language. E. G. Browne was the first observer to capture the emerging union of the press and public with political poetry, although he did not expose much of the poetry and none of the prose that was particularly vehement and scathing. By the end of World War I and in the early 1920s explicit obscenity also entered the verbal armory of public conflict. In 1919 Abolqasem Aref Qazvini, being livid with Vosuq al-Dawleh’s conclusion of the Anglo-Iranian agreement, described him as one whose house’s door is open to whores, while out-of-doors his wife is busy turning men into whoremongers.

Politics itself was new. By the turn of the century there was not yet a Persian term for it, so the term polteek, a corruption of the French word politique, was habitually applied. It was later that the term siyasat was used, which did exist in Persian but had had other meanings. Politics was new, but so were the modern political press and the application of poetry, including scathing or obscene poetry, to public discourse. Advanced prose and poetry were no longer confined to the elite or to the private sphere; on the contrary they made up much of the emerging [End Page 283] public sphere, which included growing discussions of private parts in public. Sa’di once said in a tale of an angry man’s invectives against all and sundry that “he left no one’s mother and daughter untouched.” Indeed, they left no one’s mother, wife, and daughter untouched.

Regarding mothers, the favorite target in the years 1907 and 1908 was the mother of Mohammad Ali Shah. She was a daughter of Amir Nezam Farahani (Amir Kabir) who had married her cousin, the late shah. It is not well known that Mohammad Ali was a grandson of both Naser al-Din Shah and Amir Kabir. Nor did the radicals who accused his mother of infidelity mention that fact. The unfortunate woman’s title was Ommol-Khaqan, which literally means “the emperor’s mother.” The radical constitutionalists, virtually all of them belonging to the Democrat party, kept referring to Mohammad Ali as the son of Ommol-Khaqan, obviously meaning that he was not his father’s son.