by Claus V. Pedersen, Associate Professor, University of Copenhagen
Originally published in ABADAN RETOLD
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Armenian-Iranian prose writer Zoya Pirzad, born in Abadan 1952, was the shining star on the Iranian literary firmament during the 1990s and the early years of this century. With the collections of short stories Mesl-e hame-ye ‘asr-hā ‘Like all the afternoons’ (1991), Taʿm-e gas-e khormālu ‘The acrid taste of persimmon’ (1997), Yek rūz mānde be ʿeid-e pāk, 1998, the genre of which is comparable to the following work, and the novels Cherāgh-hā-rā man khāmush mi-konam ‘I turn out the lights’ (2001) and ʿÂdat mikonim ‘We get used to it’ (2004), Pirzad became popular with both the ordinary readers in Iran and the literary critics. The reason for this popularity was and is, I believe, that her works were written in a simple, yet literary language. In addition to that, Zoya Pirzad has managed to put into words a picture of everyday Iran seen from a female point of view; a point of view that is not judgmental but never the less critical of the conditions for women in Iran. The critique is most often expressed symbolically or between the lines.
A brief summary of the story line of the novel runs as follows.
An Armenian-Iranian woman in her thirties, Clarice, who is also the narrator, lives in Abadan in the early 1960s together with her husband, a fifteen-year-old son and about six, seven years younger twin daughters. Her unmarried annoying sister Alice and quarrelsome mother live in the oil city, too; her father is dead. They all used to live in Teheran, but have moved to Abadan for work. Clarice is not happy with her life. On the practical side she feels pressured by the duties as a housewife and host for friends and family. On the emotional side she feels neglected by her husband Artush, who is preoccupied with his job, his old Chevy and politics, and has become less interested in taking care of Clarice’s needs, intellectually and otherwise.
Into the neighboring house moves a new Armenian family, a tiny, little grandmother, Elmira, her son Emil and his daughter Emily. Elmira is a former rich lady, globetrotter and in addition to this a bully and a house dictator spreading fear in both her own family and in Clarice. Emil on the contrary shows to be everything Artush is not: kind, attentive to Clarice’s needs and interests, which are the garden, flowers and books. Emil takes no interest in politics and is an echo of Clarice’s beloved late father’s words to her when they lived in Tehran: Do not meddle in other peoples’ lives and always agree with other people and their opinions.
Clarice grows fond of Emil, is perhaps even a little in little in love, and feels pangs of jealousy, when her sister Alice and her friend Nina’s beautiful niece Violet, newly arrived from Tehran and newly divorced, show interest in Emil. Clarice also unconsciously feels that Emil is attracted to her. Simultaneously, Clarice grows more independent from her husband and stands up to him in several instances. Their most serious disagreement is when Artush knowingly or not lets friends store and distribute socialist political propaganda from their garage. Clarice accuses her husband of being selfish and not caring for her and their children’s safety. After this incident, wife and husband do not speak together for many days.
Clarice also takes an interest in a women’s rights association. After some hesitation she approaches her husband’s secretary, Mrs. Nurollāhi, the driving force in the association, and volunteers to work with her up to the coming election in which the right for women to vote is at stake (1962?, right obtained in 1963).
Towards the end of Cherāgh-hā-rā man khāmush mi-konam, it shows that Emil has made a pass on another woman, namely Violet. He wants to marry Violet, tells this to Clarice and asks her to help him with persuading his mother to accept the marriage. Nothing comes of it. Emil’s mother is against the marriage, and one day close to the summer holidays, Clarice’s neighbors have secretly moved out and left Abadan. Artush has become more attentive to Clarice’s needs, they reconcile and probably finds a new modus vivendi in which Clarice is a more equal partner to her husband. Alice marries a Dutch engineer, and moves to the Netherlands. Much to Clarice’s surprise – as Artush and her mother do not get along very well – her husband asks when his mother-in-law moves in with them.
Cherāgh-hā-rā man khāmush mi-konam is thus a kind of a Bildungsroman with a woman living in the 1960s amidst the growing global women’s liberation movement, which also had an effect on Iran and Iranian women. But the novel also gives a vivid picture of Abadan in the early 1960s, and in the following, I will present some aspects of that picture.
The British oil refinery in Abadan is central to many aspects of Pirzad’s novel. All the male characters, mostly Armenians, but also the Dutch engineer and the female women’s rights activist, Mrs. Nurollâhi, are employed in the oil refinery. Clarice’s sister is a nurse in the Bimârestân-e sherkat-e naft, the oil company’s hospital, they often visit the different sports and recreational clubsattached to the company, and order “fish and chips” from the “Annex” (انکس), a compound with cafeteria, libery, sports facilities, etc. for the middle and upper rank employees at the refinary. Clarice’s family lives in one of the European-style villas (see the picture) build by the oil company in a middle-class section of the city. In general, the novel gives a picture of Abadan, which is divided into different, seemingly isolated, sections with each their class of the population. Clarice’s family’s house is, as mentioned, in a middle-class section named Bavarde (Bawarda). Family and friends urge them to move to the upper-middle class section with houses with pools, namely Braim, but the husband Artush does not want to – probably because of his Marxist leanings. Finally, the working class quarter of Piruz(abad) is mentioned, and Artush mentions – as a stark contrast to Abadan’s technological splendor – a nearby village, Shatit, where poor Arabs live in mud huts without water and electricity.
What stroke the author of this article the most was the picture in the novel of a very early Western, or maybe rather American, consumer culture.
I grew up in middle class Denmark in the 1960s, and it was not until the late 1960s or even in the 1970s that many of the things we read about in Cherāgh-hā-rā man khāmush mi-konam came to Denmark. Abadan in the early 1960s must be said to be very advanced in this respect both compared to Denmark and, I assume, to the rest of Iran, perhaps with the exception of the richer parts of Tehran.
Clarice’s friends Nina and Garnik are therepresentatives of a modern consumer culture. They have recently moved from Bavarde to Braim, and they buy all the new things that are imported to Abadan for their daughter. They buy Pepsi (پپسی) and Canada (کانادا) soft drinks (Canada soft drinks never made it in Denmark), hula hoops (هولاهوپ) and yoyos (یویو). They also introduce Clarice’s family to fast food, that is, food bought in town, not homemade food, which Clarice until recently had made every day. Fish and chips from the “Annex” is the favourite.
Otherwise, we hear about film posters in Clarice’s son’s room with portraits of actors from recent Western films, Alan Delon, Romy Schneider; about recently produced films shown in the cinemas Rex, Khorshid, Taj, and the oil company’s open air cinema, for instance Tom Thumb (تام بندانگشتی) from 1958 and Laurel and Hardy (لورل و هاردی); we hear of recently released music played on the juke box (جوک باکس) in the milk bar (میلک بار) in town, for instance Hit the Road Jack, either the a cappella version by Percy Mayfield from 1960, or Ray Charles’ version from 1961. In that same milk bar, Clarice and Mrs. Nurollahi have ice coffee, in Persian called gelâse (گلاسه). Even Marxist Artush is not untouched by the Western culture. He loves his old Chevy (شوی), almost more than he does his wife, although it often cannot start.
Like Western culture has invaded Abadan, the English language permeates the Persian all through the novel.
Taken into consideration that the British are the bosses in both the refinery and the connected institutions like the hospital, it is only natural that the English language creeps into the Persian speech of the characters in Cherāgh-hā-rā man khāmush mi-konam. Especially Clarice’s sister uses English words. She gets “off” from work (آف), she is often “impressed” (ایمپرسد), says “hello” (هلو) to people, and shows her “interest” (اینترست) in Emil.
Other English words that are often used in the novel are “store” (استور), supermarket for the people employed at the oil refinary, “dairy” (دیری), “Smarties” (اسمارتیز), “grade” (گرید), and “seniors” (سینیورها). Clarice’s mother hates these words that enter the Persian and Armenian languages of her family, but also she unwittingly uses English words every now and then.
Reflections of history and politics
Pirzad’s novel reflects also important historical incidents and political trends from the 1960s.
First and foremost, the novel shows how the earliest group of high-ranking skilled workers and engineers to a certain degree consisted of educated Armenian. Next, Clarice’s husband’s Marxist persuasion is representative for many both middle class and working class Iranians in Abadan, and by extension in the whole of Iran in the 1960s.
Finally, and most importantly, women’s liberation as demonstrated by Clarice’s gradual realisation of the unsatisfactory and subordinate role she plays in the family as housewife is at the forefront of the novel. This realisation is helped by talks with Mrs. Nurollahi and her invitation to Clarice to join in the local Iranian women’s organisation. Only a year after the events in Cherāgh-hā-rā man khāmush mi-konam, in 1963, Iranian women gained electoral rights by a decree of law.
Women’s liberation was a main theme in Iran and the rest of the world in the 1960s in which the actions of Cherāgh-hā-rā man khāmush mi-konam play out. But there can be no doubt, I think, that the novel also carries a message, between the lines, to women in contemporary Iran about the fact that conditions for women still are unsatisfactory in today’s Iran. Thus, the novel is not just about Abadan in the 1960, but also about present-day Abadan and Iran.
زویا پیرزاد، چراغ ها را من خاموش می کنم، نشر مرکز، تهران، 1380 (2001)