Mostafa Mastur’s “Pig Bone and Leper’s Hands”. A powerful introduction to contemporary Iranian society
Roberto Toscano 19 September 2011

We  talk about Iran every other day. For Americans, let alone Israelis, it is a true obsession, and also in Europe people look at the country with concern and suspicion.  The Iranian regime, of course, deserves – on the basis of a political analysis – both concern and suspicion, but what has been happening since the 1979 revolution goes much beyond politics and has affected the image of the country, in the sense of simplifying, schematizing, and losing depth and color. It is as if the country as a whole had been forced into a black chador, as if we paradoxically had taken for granted the image that the regime wants to project: chador-clad women, bearded demonstrators chanting “Death to America”, old Shia clerics defining religious orthodoxy.

This is why the millions of Iranians who went to the streets protesting for the fraudulent 2009 presidential elections (“Where is my vote?”) were such a surprise. Suddenly the world discovered that Iranian society was not what the regime was projecting, but it was young, articulate, with women as courageous protagonists of the protest.

A healthy new awareness, but one that runs the risk of producing a schematic reversal of a distorted image, producing an equally distorted one. After 2009, if we judge by what the media are producing, one might get the impression that Iranians are overwhelmingly young, middle class, dissident, secular and pro-Western. Politics is again at work, ostensibly for a good purpose (solidarity for Iranian democrats) but not necessarily on good, reliable grounds.

How is, really, Iranian society? To answer this question we should not ask political leaders (neither Iranian nor American nor Europeans) and also we should take political commentators with more than a grain of salt.

If we want to know what Iranian society is really like, we should listen to artists. For Iran, this has been true especially in the case of the great movie directors: Kiarostami, Panahi, Majidi, and recently Farhadi, whose “The separation”, that won the Silver Bear in Berlin, gives us a deep, many-layered, contradictory and fascinating view of Iranian society through what is apparently a merely private story.

We know much less Iranian literature – one could add, unfortunately, since Iranian writers could add another dimension to our knowledge, as well as to our enjoyment of good literature. This is why I believe that the publication of the Italian translation of Pig Bone and Leper’s Hands (“Osso di maiale e mani di lebbroso” in Italian) by a contemporary novelist and short-story writer, Mostafa Mastur, must be welcomed as an important event, and one which should be followed by further efforts to translate and publish contemporary Iranian literature. The book, published by a newly founded publishing house, “Ponte 33”, is a real discovery, and one that deserves to draw both attention and commentary.

One is immediately captured by an incredible rhythm, a narration that is apparently broken but is on the contrary coherent and fully unitary. It is almost a script ready for a movie. What came to my mind was Altman’s “Short cuts”, which is not surprising, since Mastur is the Farsi translator of Raymond Carver, the author of the literary work from which that movie was drawn.

The story? A high rise building in Tehran. Neighbors who reflect and embody the most disparate social conditions, religious or non-religious orientations, moral or immoral behaviors. Conservative families, young people with outrageous lifestyles (alcohol, drugs, unwanted teenage pregnancies), hardened professional criminals, and even a prostitute.

Everything is mixed, everything is contradictory, everything is puzzling. The criminals commit a horrific murder while the radio is on and is transmitting a religious broadcast (hence the quote “pig bone in leper’s hand”, the definition of the miserable nature of human existence by one of the Shia holy imams quoted in the broadcast), the prostitute falls hopelessly in love, the educated mother of a sick child is tempted by the recourse to superstition and miracle cures. Money is as present as in our Western societies. Corruption also. In the background, the incessant hum of a noisy, extremely polluted metropolis. Iran, indeed, in all its contradictions and complexity, as all those who have lived there can testify. Yet the end result is not despair, but a sort of compassionate look on human weaknesses.

As we enjoy this splendid work, let us also try to draw some benefit for our knowledge of the country. A knowledge which is also indispensable in order to choose the right policies toward that country.

A country that is definitely not only one of chadors/ayatollahs/pasdaran, but it is not made only of young tweeters and pro-Western secularists, either.

Writers – and in general artists – tend to tell us the truth more than politicians, diplomats or journalists. Let us listen to them. Let us listen to what Mostafa Mastur is telling us about Iran.