Simin Daneshvar

Simin Daneshvar and Jalal Al Ahmad, 1956

Simin Daneshvar born in 1921 in Shiraz, she was educated in a missionary school and became fluent in English. She began her writing career as early as 1935, when she was still an eighth-grader. Her first article, “Winter Is Not Unlike Our Life,” was published in a local Shiraz newspaper. She entered Tehran University and majored in Persian literature. When her father, a physician, died in 1941, Daneshvar was forced to find a job, as the family’s only source of income had been her father’s salary. She was employed at Radio Tehran, where she wrote a series of programs entitled “The Unknown Shirazi,” for which she received scant pay. In acute need of money, she even wrote articles on cooking. Eventually, her fluency in English enabled her to become assistant director of foreign news. But she soon became dissatisfied with the routine nature of this job and left Radio Tehran for a newspaper called Iran, for which she wrote articles and did translations. The relaxed social and political

environment of the forties, marked by some degree of democracy and freedom of speech, prompted Daneshvar to choose journalism as a potential career.

During her year at Iran (1941-1945), she decided to try her hand at fiction writing. Later, without prior knowledge of story-writing technique, she wrote Atash-e Khamoush (The Quenched Fire) in 1948, at the age of twenty-seven. Although seven out of sixteen stories are O. Henry inspired, and Daneshvar had the book published in first draft form, the major elements of her style are evident. Daneshvar had become familiar with O. Henry as a student, and like him she deals with the basic issues of life, death, love and self sacrifice .

Typical of writers of the 1940s, Daneshvar dwells on issues within Iranian society. She juxtaposes the opposing values of right and wrong, such as poverty versus wealth, or the carefree life of the rich versus the sorrow of the poor and for moral reasons condemns one while praising the other.

The year following the publication of The Quenched Fire, Daneshvar received her Ph.D. in Persian literature from Tehran University. Subsequently, she became acquainted with Jalal Al Ahmad, the famous contemporary writer and social critic, during a trip from Isfahan to Tehran. They were married in 1950. Two years later, Daneshvar received a Fulbright scholarship and left for Stanford University for two years. During this time, she published two short stories in English in The Pacific Spectator.

Upon her return to Iran, she joined Tehran University as an associate professor of art history, a post she held for twenty years. Daneshvar was never granted a professorship, not for the lack of credentials, but due to the influence of SAVAK (Shah’s secret police) as she would learn later from the president of the university. She had always been an outspoken and articulate lecturer who believed that her primary responsibility was to her students. Precisely for this reason, she would have many confrontations with the SAVAK throughout her years at the University.

Daneshvar published her second collection of short stories, Shahri Chon Behesht (A City as Paradise), in 1961. Meanwhile, her translations of Chekhov, Shaw, Hawthorne, Schnitzler and Saroyan had become a valuable addition to the collection of foreign works available in Persian. In A City as Paradise, Daneshvar’s prose style had matured considerably, coming closer to the language of the people, no longer as formal as it had been in The Quenched Fire. Instead she had developed a short, clear and concise sentence structure.

Her other preoccupation, which began at this stage, is with the concept of time. Similar to Al Ahmad and Sa’edi, she felt the need to remind her readers constantly of the passage of time in the form of days, weeks, months or seasons.

Daneshvar asserted her devotion to recording women’s conditions in Iranian society in “A City as Paradise”. Here she no longer dwells on the general characteristics of women; rather, she assumes a neutral position and avoids passing judgement on them; she merely portrays the women and their lives as she saw them. Her characters are able to speak for themselves and demonstrate where their major strengths and weaknesses lie.

Daneshvar is also quite successful in creating the real, as well as the imaginary, worlds of her characters. In Bibi Shahr Banu, Daneshvar cleverly depicts the actual lives of her characters, juxtaposed against the lives they wished they could have had. In The Playhouse, her handling of Siah’s character and his secret love for the girl is subtle, yet far-reaching. In her portrayal of the girl as a victim of society and of her own ignorance, Daneshvar surpasses all of her prior stories.

Simin Daneshvar

At the time A City as Paradise was published, Daneshvar was still under the shadow of her husband, Al Ahmad, who was an imposing figure in Tehran’s literary circles. Al Ahmad had begun writing in 1945 and by 1961 had published seven novels and short story collections, establishing himself as a notable writer and critic. It was not until the publication of Savushun, Daneshvar’s masterpiece novel, in 1969, that she attained recognition as an indispensable writer of modern Persian literature, surpassing even Al Ahmad in literary importance. Savushun was the first novel written by an Iranian woman and from a woman’s perspective and has been reprinted sixteen times. In Savushun there are no longer traces of weak technique, structure, or style. The story, told from Zari’s perspective, depicts a Shirazi landowning family which has become entangled in the dirty politics of the 1940s, instigated by foreign intruders and local opportunists. The hero, Yusuf, Zari’s husband, resists the foreigners’ demands that he turn over his crop to feed the occupying army. To do so would result in the starvation of his own peasants. He pays for his stubbornness with his life. The last scene of the novel is that of Yusuf’s burial procession, which is on the verge of turning into a mass demonstration. However, government troops disperse the demonstrators, leaving his body to be carried by his brother and Zari. This scene is among the most moving and well written passages in Persian literature. In Savushun, Daneshvar integrates social events, traditional customs, and beliefs, creating a beautifully narrated story.

Daneshvar’s husband died a few months before the publication of Savushun. After Al Ahmad’s death, Daneshvar continued her involvement in the activities that had been important to her husband. She assumed a leading role in the Writers’ Association, which Al Ahmad had helped to found, encouraging young writers in their efforts. In her understated yet resolute way, she provided moral support for intellectuals and dissidents opposing the Pahlavi regime. She specifically concentrated her efforts on assisting her students financially and academically. When she refers to political issues in her writings, it is within the broad context of unjust political systems, for Daneshvar never adhered to a particular political ideology.

Simin Daneshvar, at her home March 2007

During the mid-1970s Daneshvar kept a low profile. She maintained her position as associate professor and became the chairman of the Department of Art History and Archaeology. In addition to her work at the University, she wrote a series of short stories. A few of these were published in magazines and finally compiled in 1980. To Whom Can I Say Hello? established Daneshvar as a good short story writer, as well as an able novelist. In the stories Traitor’s Intrigue, To Whom Can I Say Hello?, and The Accident, Daneshvar upholds the standards of excellence she had attained in Savushun. In this last collection, Daneshvar expands her earlier convictions. The diversity of her characters and her choice of themes reflect her thorough understanding of the multi-faceted Iranian society. She captures the mentality, the ideals, aspirations, lifestyles, manner of speech, and popular expressions of Iran’s various social strata. Her well-rounded characters are representative of their time and place, presenting a colorful view of Iranian behavior. This quality in her writing affirms the faithfulness of her work as being a true mirror of society.

Daneshvar’s stories reflect reality rather than fantasy. They contain themes such as child theft, adultery, marriage, childbirth, sickness, death, treason, profiteering, illiteracy, ignorance, poverty and loneliness. The issues she deals with are the social problems of the 1960s and 1970s, which have immediacy and credibility for the reader. Her inspiration is drawn from the people around her. In her own words: “Simple people have much to offer. They must be able to give freely and with piece of mind. We, too, in return, must give to them to the best of our abilities. We must, with all our heart, try to help them acquire what they truly deserve.”

In 1979, Daneshvar retired from her post at the University, and in the following year published To Whom Can I Say Hello? In 1981, she completed a monograph on Al Ahmad, Ghoroub-e Jalal (The Loss of Jalal). This is the most moving piece she has written, as well as the best descriptive work on the personality of one of Iran’s literary leaders. Daneshvar relates her last days with Al Ahmad with great detail and emotional understanding. Her prose is formal, proving her mastery of Persian classical literature. Daneshvar currently resides in Tehran.

Simin Daneshvar’s works:

  1. Sareban-e Sargardan (The Wandering Camel rider)
  2. Jazire-ye Sargardani (The Wander Island)
  3. Mah (The Moon)
  4. Suvashun
  5. A City Like Paradise (Shahri mesle behesht)
  6. Beh Ki Salam Konam? (Whom Should I Greet?)

Iran Chamber Society


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