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  • Interview with Mahmoud Dowlatabadi
  • Kamran Rastegar (bio)

Mahmoud Dowlatabadi (1940– ), by some estimates, is Iran's preeminent living writer. Born to a family of modest means in a small village in Northeastern Iran, Dowlatabadi came of age in a time when Iran's rural population was emigrating to the cities, looking for new lives and new ways of living. In this sense, he is one of a generation of new voices to seek their place within the field of modern Iranian literature, those not from the urban middle or upper classes. His work to date encompasses over ten novels, as well as many novellas and short stories. Any list of his major works would have to begin with his massive 5-volume novel Kelidar, and also include the novels Missing Soluch (English translation by Kamran Rastegar, published by Melville House Publishing, New York, 2007) and The Legend of Baba Sobhan. Part of Dowlatabadi's remarkable achievement has been the raw force of his literary style, and the subtlety of his prose – in particular in treating issues of poverty and marginalization. Where previous Iranian authors tended to represent poverty as either grotesque or heroic (or, in some cases, as both), Dowlatabadi is the first to attempt to represent the complex ethics of poverty that result in horizontal violence between similarly dispossessed groups, and the ways in which poverty instills violence and repression even into the intimate spaces of the family. In addition, Kelidar and Missing Soluch both present complex female characters as major voices within their narratives. While Dowlatabadi's powers as a writer, and his impact among younger Iranian authors, are widely accepted, there are aspects to his biography that have in some ways prevented wider recognition for his work. Falling as he does between the lines of 'pre-revolutionary' and 'post-revolutionary' writers, some have treated him as a pariah to both canons. One of the few established leftist authors to refuse to enter exile after the revolution, some diaspora-based Iranians still castigate him for remaining in Tehran after the revolution. Yet, treated with suspicion by some in government circles after the [End Page 441] revolution, he has often struggled to publish, and was famously targeted for assassination in the 1990s by what has been termed a 'rogue unit' in the Ministry of Interior. Despite these obstacles, Dowlatabadi has remained a prominent voice for freedom of thought and creativity in Iran, and has continued to be productive in literature as well as criticism.

K. Rastegar: I would like to begin by asking if you would speak generally about your family life, your childhood and the period of your life leading up to when you came to Tehran and began writing. Although I've noticed that in other interviews you've said you prefer not to talk about these matters...

Mahmoud Dowlatabadi: No, I do like speaking about these matters, but this is such a long discussion that I rarely have the patience to engage in it. I am from Dowlatabad in Sabzevar; it's a small village in the south of Sabzevar [a region in Northeastern Iran]. I was born there, my mother was my father's second wife. There I went to Mas'ud Sa'd Salman Elementary School, where we had a strict principal who commanded authority, his name was Abulqasim Zamani – God rest his soul – I really owe a great deal to him. Because it was there that the idea was presented to me that when you put letters together they make up words, and when words are organized they make up sentences – the most important event in my childhood was this realization, which resulted in my ability to read books. And so in the village I began reading voraciously. I read all the romances that we had at that time around the village. And although my father hadn't studied very long in the seminary, he was considered a religious authority and he influenced me a great deal because it was due to him that I became familiar with [the Persian classical poets] Sa'di, Hafez and Firdowsi. He generally spoke in the kind of language they used.

The first work I published was...