Mohammad Ali Jamalzadeh (1895-1997)

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Mohammad Ali Jamalzadeh, the founder of the European-style Persian short-story genre, was born in Isfahan into a middle-class family. The date of his birth is debated; years between 1892 to 1896 are mentioned. At the end of his life, even he himself was not quite sure of the exact year. The year 1895 has been traditionally used as his day of birth.

Jamalzadeh's father, Sayyid Jamal al-Din Isfahani, was a progressive mullah who rose against despotism and delivered fiery speeches against the government, speeches which inspired his son but landed himself in prison where he was poisoned. Young Jamalzadeh, however, lived in Iran only until the age of twelve or thirteen. Thereafter, he lived in Lebanon where he attended the Antoura Catholic School (1908) near Beirut, in France (1910), and in Switzerland. There, he read law at the University of Lauzanne and later on at Dijon.

After his father's death, Jamalzadeh's life became somewhat difficult but, thanks to his many friends who supported him and to occasional students who paid him tuition, he survived starvation. By the time that World War I came around, he was in his early youth. He joined the group of nationalists in Berlin and, in 1915, founded a newspaper (Rastakhiz) for it in Baghdad. He also cooperated with the journal Kaveh (1916). In 1917, he published his first book entitled Ganj-e Shaygan (The Worthy Treasure). An overview of Iran of the turn of the century, Ganj-e Shaygan deals with Iran's socio-political as well economics, a major contribution gapping the distance between literature and the sciences. In the same year, he also represented the Nationalists at the World Congress of Socialists in Stockholm. His later year, until 1931 when he picked up residence in Geneva and worked for the International Labour Office are spent in make-shift jobs such as working for the Iranian embassy in Berlin.

During all these years, Jamalzadeh had very little contact with Iran. But that did not prevent him from learning Persian on his own. Rather, drawing on his meager experiences gained at a tender age, he wrote about the lives of his contemporary Iranians. His preoccupation with language use and his Dickensian style including repetitions, pile up of adjectives, and popular phrases quickly remind the reader of his background and of his sincerity to contribute. Yet his very distance from the sources of events described compromises the accuracy of his works. His disregard for form and lack of a desire to revisit his works and make revisions compounds the difficulty.
Jamalzadeh's major work is entitled Yeki Bud Yeki Nabud (Once Upon a Time). Published in 1921 in Berlin, Once Upon a Time did not reach Iran until a year later. And when it did, it was not received favorably at all. The public, especially the clergy, loathed Jamalzadeh's portrayal of their country to the degree that copies of the book were burned in public squares. A collection of six short stories, Once Upon a Time deals with the socio-political situation of Iran at the beginning of the 20th century, a subject that thus far had been outside the purview of poets and writers in general. Furthermore, mingled with this is a considerable degree of militancy against Western intrusion in Iran and an open mockery of Islamic fanaticism. The simple, colloquial style, with a exact degree of humor, enhanced the impact, making the import of stories like "Farsi Shekar Ast" (Persian is Sugar) even more poignant.

This reaction affected Jamalzadeh to the degree that for the next twenty years he refrained from engaging in any literary activities. He began writing again in the 1940s, but by that time he had lost the dexterity that imparted conciseness, novelty of form, originality of ideas, a biting sense of humor, and a tight structure to his earlier stories. Tautology, a tendency toward using sage remarks, mystical and philosophical speculation and disregard for order became the hallmark of his later endeavors. Sahraye Mahshar (1947), Talkho Shirin (1955), Kuhna va Now (1959), Ghair az Khudo Hichkas Nabud (1961), Asmano Risman (1965), Qissahai Kutah Baraye Bachchehaye Rishdar (1974), and Qissai Ma ba Akhar Rasid (1979) were written during this phase of his literary activity.
Jamalzadeh only begins the debate on the dilemma of Western-educated Iranians returning from abroad. For a long time thereafter, the reaction to these innocent youths' selfless endeavor to apply themselves and support their home and country constitutes a major chapter of the history of short story in Iran of Reza Shah. Neither at home nor in society do we find an appreciation of the efforts expended by these youth.
Similarly, Jamalzadeh's criticism of the court and the clergy continues. Some of the works lack Jamalzadeh's unique Persian style, of course, but they can be as biting and accurate. Hedayat's works, especially his Pearl Cannon, are devoted to a parody of the twin pillars of Iranian government.
In addition to Persian, Jamalzadeh also knew French, German, and Arabic and translated many books from these languages into Persian.
The third phase of Jamalzadeh's literary activities is even less weighty than the second. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, he returned to Iran. There, making a180-degree turn, he supported the changes brought about by Khomeini and praised the clergy in numerous interviews.
Jamalzadeh died on November 9, 1997.


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The Dean of Modern Iranian Writers

Hasan Kamshad

Sayyed Mohammad Ali Jamalzadeh holds a place of singular distinction in contemporary Persian literature as one of the innovators of the modern literary language, and the first to introduce the techniques of European short-story writing to Iran.

Jamalzadeh was only sixteen when he left Iran for good, but the impression left on him by his childhood training and environment proved indelible. After studying law in Switzerland and France, he joined a group of Iranian nationalists in Berlin who published the famous journal Kaveh and who engaged in a political and cultural campaign directed mainly against foreign influence and intervention in their country's affairs.
The publication of the Celebrities Yeki Bud va Yeki Nabud [Once Upon a Time] marked the beginning of Jamalzadeh' career as a storyteller, and laid the foundation of modern Persian prose and pointed the literary direction for the next generation of Iranian writers.

Following the success of Yeki Bud va Yeki Nabud in 1921, Jamalzadeh refrained from literary activities for the next twenty years, which coincided with Reza Shah's entire reign. The long silence came to an end in 1942 after which he became one of the most prolific authors of modern Iran.

In general, there appears a sharp distinction between the early stories written by Jamalzadeh and his later compositions. Whereas conciseness, novelty of form, originality of ideas and a biting sense of humor mark the earlier writings, his later works show a tendency towards prolixity, sage remarks and mystical and philosophical speculations, frequent use of classical poetry and, at times, lack of shape and order. Everyday expressions adorn almost every line, to the extent that his penchant for juxtaposing idioms seems to override other considerations.

Jamalzadeh's pre-eminence is due mainly to his timely clarion call for a regeneration of Persian prose. One of the main themes that recurs in his writings is the dilemma of Western-educated Iranians when they return home. Numerous characters of this type appear in his works, all in different situations and with different potentialities, but none of them is able to tolerate the prevailing conditions, accommodate himself to the requirements of his milieu, or even feel at home in his own country.

Another theme in his writings is criticism of Muslim clergy and Shiite rites and institutions in Iran. Jamalzadeh was brought up in a religious family. Thus, his approach to religion--unlike that of Hedayat who abhorred everything religious--was more sympathetic and regarded the clergy as only falling short of ideals of the faith. Whereas the majority of Iranian modern writers do not know enough about the clerical mind and terminology and limit themselves to merely abusing the clergy, Jamalzadeh beat the akhund with the akhund's own stick. Clearly, the author of Yeki Bud va Yeki Nabud must be considered one of Iran's greatest modern writers who despite, or perhaps because of, long years of residence abroad, was until the end the most absolutely Persian of his contemporaries. Nevertheless, the golden touch displayed in his first work never quite reappeared in his later writings. All the same, his importance can scarcely be exaggerated: he has just claims to his position as the dean of modern Persian writers.  


Jamalzadeh and Sadeq Hedayat:

Vanguards of Modern Persian Writing


Based on the personal idiosyncrasies of Jamalzadeh and Hedayat, the similarities and differences in their style and the nature of their interpersonal relationship, the author compares and contrasts the life and works of these two pioneering Iranian writers. He suggests that despite the many differences that separated them, mutual bonds of friendship and respect marked their disparate lives.
Jamalzadeh's life had little resemblance to Hedayat's quiet and uneventful existence. The former, had witnessed or experienced in the early stages of his life many of Iran's social and political ills, including despotism, injustice, religious prejudice and fanaticism, and disregard for human rights. Hence, his continued preoccupation with the idea of democracy and his early involvement in political activities and a campaign against foreign intervention in Iran's internal affairs. Hedayat, on the other hand, led a secluded and rather pampered life in Tehran. He was tutored by a French instructor and came to know about European culture and democratic institutions through a number of his relatives who had studied or traveled extensively in Europe.

In terms of their writings, while Hedayat mostly focuses on the existential aspects of life, Jamalzadeh is often preoccupied with life's concrete and material manifestations. Thus, whereas in Jamalzadeh's writings human despair takes on social and political connotations, in Hedayat's works it assumes an absolute and eternal sense. Moreover, they are particularly distinct in their opposition to religion. Hedayat is not only opposed to Islam but to all religions and ideologies which presume to have the exclusive right to guide and control man's life. Even his early fascination with Zoroastrianism was mostly due to the rising spirit of nationalism in Iran. Jamalzadeh, however, dislikes not the idea of religion but the manifestations of arbitrary and inhuman application of religious tenets by their zealous and bigoted interpreters and adherents. In a broader context, while Hedayat does not believe in life after death, Jamalzadeh, insists on his metaphysical beliefs. Ironically, Hedayat who dreaded frailty committed suicide at a relatively young age, while Jamalzadeh, 105 years old at his deathbed, still lamented the approaching end.  

A Critique on Dar ol-Majanin

Homa Katouzian

Jamalzadeh did not write fiction for twenty years after the publication of his path-breaking collection of short stories, Yeki Bud va Yeki Nabud, which, in a genuinely literary style, criticized important aspects of Iran's culture and society. It was only in 1941 that he wrote Dar al-Majanin [Lunatic Asylum], a novel which largely concentrates on its characters' psyches and existential problems, although--as in almost all of Jamalzadeh's works--the social framework is never out of sight.

The widespread belief that Jamalzadeh never wrote another good work, after his first collection of short stories was published, stems partly from the fact that the literary quality of his numerous short stories and novels varies to an unusual degree. This judgement may also be based on the fact that his first work--unlike the rest-- was uniquely innovative. Most importantly, Jamalzadeh refused to follow the fashionable currents of the time either in politics or in trendy "committed" literature, although he went on writing "realistic" fictions which were critical of Iranian social mores and political culture.

Dar al-Majanin is not only Jamalzadeh's second, but also one of his best. The novel's philosophical themes are spun around the intertwined lives of a number of friends and relatives who reside in an insane asylum because they are, or pretend to be, insane--one of whom, a character named Hedayat Ali Khan, has an uncanny resemblance to Sadeq Hedayat. The use of language, description of some scenes and sceneries, and the presence of imagery are at times masterly. In his development of the narrative lines, the author manages to delve into lengthy discussions of issues such as sanity and madness, reality and appearance, reason and mysticism, frequently quoting many Iranian and European poets, philosophers and mystics. The story is in some sense tragic, but it is far from depressing although it ends on an unhappy note.  










































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