Israeli Life: Farce and Drama
Israeli preoccupation with the threat of a nuclear Iran has produced an abundance of literature. In addition to the usual assortment of political and historical analyses, noted a reviewer on the National Library of Israel’s Web site, among the books the library received on the subject in 2012 were several children books for the ultra-Orthodox community.
Last year, however, also saw publication of the first two translations into Hebrew of two very different novels about Iran: the comedic Uncle Napoleon by Iraj Pezeshkzad and the tragic The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, both translated by Orly Noy. With thousands of copies sold, the two were commercial and critical successes. The farcical Uncle Napoleon made Ha’aretz newspaper’s best-seller list within two weeks of publication. Reports about the translations appeared in the news section as well as the book reviews pages.
Reviewers expressed a sense of relief that something other than fear and anxiety was coming from Iran and even wrote about suspicions that the Iranian menace was being overplayed by politicians at the expense of a more nuanced view of the Middle Eastern nation. “Israelis who cannot make ends meet are being required to develop hostility and anxiety towards a nation thousands of kilometers away, of which they know nearly nothing and with which they have no interest in conflict. And here, finally, is an Iranian novel in Hebrew that teaches us something about that complex culture, and about the 75 million-strong nation that has other concerns except for the desire to annihilate us,” noted mainstream Yedioth Ahronoth in its review of The Colonel.
Uncle Napoleon is a social farce set in Tehran in 1941. As the allies are invading Iran, the preadolescent narrator falls in love with his beautiful cousin, whose father, a retired officer who idolizes Napoleon, gradually loses his mind to his paranoiac fear that the British are coming to get him. The wildly popular book, first published in Iran in 1970, was made into an even more popular television series that is still beloved in the country four decades later. Its author, Pezeshkzad, has been living in Paris since the Islamic Revolution.
The Colonel, set during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, is the story of an ex-colonel in the Shah’s army. He has lost three of his five children to the revolution and war and reflects on his and his nation’s mistakes. The book has never been published in the Persian original due to censorship. Dowlatabadi, considered the greatest living Iranian writer, lives in Tehran. Despite his scathing criticism of the regime, observers say he is considered too prominent for the authorities to touch.
Noy was born in Tehran in 1970 and moved to Israel with her parents during the revolution in 1979. She decided to translate Uncle Napoleon into Hebrew to share the rich culture of her country of origin, but also as a political act of changing the Israeli conversation about Iran. “This is very great literature and I felt it was a shame for Hebrew readers not to know such wonderful literature,” she said in an interview from her current residence in Tampa, Florida.
Her desire to translate Persian literature led Noy to leave her job in an NGO devoted to developing a future vision for Jerusalem. Napoleon was an obvious first choice. “It is a cult book,” she said. “There is no Iranian that lived in Iran in the 1970s who does not know the book. The TV series was tremendously popular, a masterpiece, with the best theater actors. In Israel, my parents had the whole series on video and we used to watch it every Saturday morning. I can recite every word from beginning to end even though it is 500 pages long.
“Much of Iranian humor and slang is based on that book. It is a funny, smart and very illuminating satire about the undercurrents of Iranian culture. When we left Iran in the middle of the chaos my mother put a copy of the book in her bag and that is the copy I translated from.”
Jonathan Nadav, owner of Xargol publishing house, published Uncle Napoleon together with Am Oved (an English version called My Uncle Napoleon was published last year through Melville Press). When Noy approached him with the translation, “She brought me a ready-made translation,” he said. “She is a great translator and this was a fantastic debut. We printed two editions and it sold in the thousands.
“The first time I spoke to Orly I had a general feeling that there had hardly been any translation of modern Iranian literature into Hebrew. And sure enough, besides a few classics like the Shahnameh [The Epic of Kings] and some classic poetry, there was nothing.
“There have been books about Iran such as Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, which was written in English, and the graphic novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, which was written in French, but nothing that came to us directly from Persian. This just goes to show you the importance of people who function as cultural mediators, like Orly. Iran is a country of rich and very deep culture but we do not know it well.”
The story of the translation of The Colonel into Hebrew was quite different: This time the publisher, Am Oved, which had acquired the rights from the author’s proxies in a third country, approached Noy. “It is a dark, critical, brave book,” she said. “The tone of this novel is so dark and oppressive that every hour while I was working on it I had to take a break, go outside, see light and breathe some fresh air.”
Noy says Iranian and Israeli culture have a lot in common. “If you asked me about the most dominant Iranian characteristic I would say it is humor,” she said. “It is fine, subtle, ironic and in many cases sarcastic—almost Jewish humor. It mocks itself, it is self-aware…. Uncle Napoleon is about an ancient nation with a grand history that cannot let go of clinging to its glory days and has trouble dealing with its present reality. I think the book is so relevant to Israeli readers.”
“The Colonel is also very timely and relevant reading. I think both books are more than just exotic literature from a certain place in the world but are very relevant for Israel. Napoleon hides it behind humor and The Colonel within tears, but both are saying something very relevant to Israelis today.”
Haggai Ram, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev, wrote in the afterword of The Colonel that it is “full of historic gems that can fill huge gaps in the faulty Israeli knowledge of modern Iranian history…. By merely exposing the long-standing troubles facing the Iranians and how they deal with them the novel gives these people vital humanity and all at once cancels their radical ‘otherness’ in the eyes of many Israelis. Furthermore, it demonstrates that the real threat Iran poses to Israel’s existence pales in comparison with the threat the leaders of Iran pose to members of their own nation.”
Orly Rahimiyan, the Israeli-born daughter of immigrants from Iran who is writing her doctoral thesis about Iranian Jews, says the community in Israel numbers 300,000, including immigrants and their descendents. Although the community has a rich and active cultural life, with numerous musical ensembles, a number of books and films and one lending library in Holon, she says it tends to maintain a low profile and keep to itself. This has begun to change in the last decade, she says, as Israel has moved away from the “melting pot” model toward multiculturalism and pluralism. “The unique cultural elements of each group are no longer considered a threat to Israeliness but rather as something that enriches it,” she said.
Rahimiyan points out that as opposed to other Muslim countries, there is still a Jewish community in Iran numbering some 25,000 people, who are not seeking to leave the country but view themselves as part of Iran and are proud of their 2,700-year history since biblical times. She says there are active ties between the communities in Israel and Iran and a cultural exchange through radio, television and social media. She views the translation of the two books as part of a larger trend of immigrants returning to their roots. “I see it as part of a worldwide trend, not special to Israel,” she said. “It is not typical just to the Iranian community, it is happening throughout the Middle East, in the United States and Israel. For Orly Noy it was an attempt to go back to her roots, she wanted to show a different Iran from what the media shows. I totally agree, because you don’t see the culture and richness of Iran. But as someone familiar with the material even before the revolution, it is not new. It was very wise of Orly to translate some of the iconic works of that culture.”
Israeli culture makes its way to Iran, too, although only through unofficial channels. An album of Persian songs performed by Iranian-born Israeli singer Rita was reportedly an underground sensation in Iran last year, requiring fans to use sophisticated programs to download it and prompting the official government news agency to warn against “Israel’s latest scheme in its soft war” against Iran.
Noy points out that Iran produces an enormous volume of culture and that the Rita phenomenon was mainly a curiosity. As for the reaction in the Israeli Iranian community to her translations, Noy says that Persian speakers would rather read the books in the original and weren’t sure translation was such a good idea. “When I told my parents, who couldn’t be more supportive, that I was going to translate Uncle Napoleon, they were a little shaken. They asked: ‘Are you sure you want to touch that?’”