11 Books to Get You Started on Persian Literature

Zulaykha (Potiphar's Wife) tears Yusuf's (Joseph's) shirt. Behzad's illustration of Jami's classic romance.

People are always asking me, “What should I read from Iran?” Okay, that may be a slight exaggeration. One person asked me, one time. That was my 88-year-old neighbor, who is awesome, and more well read than you and I can ever hope to be.

But even if you never asked the question, you may have just realized, “Wow, I know next to nothing about Iranian literature.” Or, maybe you were one of those wondering, “Wait, they have literature over there?” (I have been asked this, in all seriousness. More than once.)

Turns out, the Persian language (spoken today in Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan) has a rich literary tradition stretching back to the 10th century. Unlike English, Persian hasn’t changed all that much in the course of a millennium. Today’s educated native speakers can read Classical Persian without too much trouble.

I couldn’t cover ten centuries in ten books. So here’s eleven. (Just kidding, of course this selection doesn’t even begin to cover it.)

In case you’re wondering, I picked the books on a couple of criteria:

1) Availability of the translation

2) Quality (and accuracy) of the translation

3) Significance of the work / author

4) Originally written in Persian

5) The list is geared towards modern literature

For those more interested in Iranian politics and recent history, I can recommend this list from the New Yorker.

The List (order is completely arbitrary):

1. My Uncle Napoleon by Iraj Pezeshkzād

Translator: Dick Davis

Genre: Satire

Period: 1960s, Pre-Revolutionary Iran

http://www.amazon.co.uk/My-Uncle-Napoleon-Modern-Library/dp/0812974433/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1397775818&sr=1-2-fkmr0&keywords=dick+davis+hafez

This hilarious novel looks at the family dynamics of an Iranian household, led by the paranoid Uncle Napoleon. Uncle Napoleon has delusions of grandeur regarding his times in the war versus the British, and as a result believes the British are behind everything that goes wrong in his life. The novel pokes fun at the Iranian love of a good conspiracy theory and anti-British sentiment (which continues to a certain extent to this day). At the center of the novel is the unnamed narrator who falls in love with Uncle Napoleon’s daughter. Pezeshkzad’s masterpiece inspired a TV miniseries that was beloved in Iran and remains enduringly popular.

2. The Blind Owl by Ṣādeq Hedāyat

Translator: D. P. Costello

Genre: Experimental Novel

Period: Early 20th Century (1937)

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Blind-Owl-Sadegh-Hedayat/dp/0802144284/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1397776219&sr=1-3&keywords=blind+owl

Dubbed the greatest of all Persian novels, this selection can never be left off a list of contemporary Persian prose. Despite its fame, this one is probably best left to the literati. Narrated by an extremely unreliable, mentally disturbed young man, the novel is highly experimental and dream-like, yet poetic and engrossing. Hedāyat is most often compared to Kafka or Poe, both of whom he was influenced by.

3. The Book of Kings (Shāhnāmeh) by Abū al-Qāsem Ferdowsī

Translator: Dick Davis

Genre: Epic, Mythical History

Period: Classical (11th Century)

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Shahnameh-Persian-Penguin-Classics-Editions/dp/0143104934/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1397775818&sr=1-3-fkmr0&keywords=dick+davis+hafez

Ferdowsi’s epic holds a place in the Persian canon similar to Homer in the Greek. Vast in scope (and length!), the poem written in heroic couplets took the author 30 years to write, according to legend. It begins from Creation and covers the mythical history of the first Iranian kings up to the Arab conquest of Persia in the 7th century. Anyone who liked the Iliad, the Odyssey, or Beowulf will be all over this jewel of Persian literature.

4. Savūshūn (The Mourners of Siyāvash) by Sīmīn Dāneshvar

Translator: M. Ghanoonparvar

Genre: Dramatic Novel, Historical Fiction

Period: Pre-Revolution (1969)

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Savushun-Novel-Modern-Persian-Classics/dp/0934211310/ref=pd_cp_b_1

Dāneshvar’s novel — for many years the best-selling novel in Iran — is set in Shiraz during the Allied occupation of southern Iran in WWII. She paints a masterful picture of intense family turmoil on the backdrop of these historical events. The novel deserves attention both for its popularity within Iran and for its compelling, universally-relatable drama.

5. Faces of Love by Hāfeẓ, Jahān Malek Khātūn, and ‘Obeyd-e Zākānī

Translator: Dick Davis

Genre: Love Poetry

Period: Classical (14th Century)

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Faces-Penguin-Classics-Deluxe-Editions/dp/0143107283/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1397775756&sr=1-1-fkmr0&keywords=dick+davis+hafez

According to translator Dick Davis in a PBS interview, Hafez is like Shakespeake, Milton, Wordsworth, and Tennyson wrapped into one. The greatest of all classical sonnet writers in Persian literature, his works have proven notoriously difficult to translate. But Davis, a poet himself, has achieved a very accessible translation that includes meter and rhyme. He also includes a selection of poems from one of our only female classical Persian poets, Jahan Malek Khatun, and a number of poems from the infamous ‘Obeyd-e Zakani. ‘Obeyd is banned today in Iran for his erotic and sometimes downright graphic poetry. Let’s just say, while these elements aren’t overlooked by other poets, few Persian poets have talked so freely and frankly about sexuality as has ‘Obeyd. Davis’s book is an indispensable introduction to Classical Persian poetry.

6. Women Without Men by Shahrnūsh Parsīpūr

Translator: Kamran Talattof

Genre: Novel, Magical Realism

Period: Post-Revolution (1989)

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Women-without-Men-Literature-Translation/dp/0815605528/ref=sr_1_13?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1398125279&sr=1-13&keywords=kamran+talattof

Parsipur’s short poetic novel brings the status of women in Iran to the fore. Weaving together the stories of five Iranian women — ranging from a prostitute to a middle class school teacher — Parsipur presents a critique of gender relations in Iran in particular, but tells her story in such a symbolic and universalist fashion that it cannot help but resonate with readers around the world. Imprisoned several times for this and other writings, Parsipur has suffered for her iconoclastic approach, and her work continues to be officially banned in Iran. Speakers of Persian may be interested to know that Parsipur was interviewed just recently by Kambiz Hosseini (known as the “Iranian Jon Stewart”) about 18 minutes into this episode. She cites her influences as Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Balzac, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

7. Dīvān-e Shams by Jalāl al-Dīn Rumi (Molānā)

Translator: Franklin Lewis

Genre: Mystical Love Poetry

Period: Classical (13th Century)

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Rumi-Swallowing-Franklin-D-Lewis/dp/1851689710/ref=sr_1_57?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1397776983&sr=1-57&keywords=rumi+poetry

Known in Iran mainly as Molana, Rumi continues to be the Persian poet who is most well-known in the West. Rumi’s poetry was meant to be sung, not just read, and he wrote in a brilliant rhythmical style which is difficult to reproduce in translation. Many of his translators have sacrificed accuracy in order to render these effects and at times distorted his work. They have also tended to over-emphasize the cross-denominational aspects of Rumi’s work, which is greatly concerned with Islamic mysticism. He professes that transcending the letter of religious law is sometimes the best way to follow the spirit of the law. Not surprisingly, this aspect of Rumi’s message has become greatly popular in the West, but has also been misunderstood. Lewis, a scholar of Persian literature, has produced these refreshingly flowing and accurate translations which offer a welcome corrective to popular translations published so far.

8. Selected Poems by Forūgh Farrokhzād

Translator: Sholeh Wolpe

Genre: Contemporary Poetry

Period: Pre-Revolution (1950s and 1960s)

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sin-Selected-Poems-Forugh-Farrokhzad/dp/1557288615/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1397777209&sr=1-1-fkmr0&keywords=forough+shole+wolpe

Forough is one of Iran’s most famous modern poets, if not the most famous. I’ve already translated two of her pieces for this blog. Like Parsipur, she wrote openly about female sexuality in a society that was not prepared to handle such declarations. Her poetry remains extremely popular in Iran today because of her authentic voice and facility with expressing a wide range of emotions. Her work has been translated into many languages and multiple times into English, which is rare for an Iranian poet. Wolpe’s translations are works of art in their own right.

9. Conference of the Birds by Farīd al-Dīn ‘Aṭṭār

Translator: Dick Davis

Genre: Mystical Poetry

Period: Classical (13th Century)

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Conference-Birds-Classics-Farid-Attar/dp/0140444343/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1397777315&sr=1-1&keywords=conference+of+the+birds

Along with Rumi, ‘Attar is one of the great mystical poets of Classical Persian literature. In his Conference of the Birds (Manṭeq al-Ṭayr), ‘Attar bases the plot of the epic didactic poem on a pun — a large group of birds sets out to find their king, the Sīmorgh, the great mythical bird, but at the end of the journey, only thirty birds (sī morgh) remain, and  they realize they themselves are the Simorgh. The poem is an allegory for the soul’s search for mystical guidance and desire to unify with the Divine. In the midst of this frame tale, ‘Attar tells innumerable anecdotes that never fail to surprise and teach along the way.

10. Occidentosis by Jalāl Āl-e Aḥmad

Translator: R. Campbell

Genre: Polemic

Period: Pre-Revolution (1962)

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Occidentosis-Plague-West-Jalal-Ahmad/dp/0933782136/ref=sr_1_sc_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1397777375&sr=1-1-spell&keywords=plauged+by+the+west

Jalal Al-e Ahmad’s most famous work, Occidentosis (Gharbzadegī), was written prior to the Revolution and provides a window into the anti-Western sentiment that was growing at the time among certain sectors of Iranian society. Anyone interested in modern Iranian politics or recent history cannot afford to skip this book. Ahmad tries to provide an Islamic response to the problems in Iranian society that he perceives were created by Western imperialism. His critique is in some ways not unlike those of Franz Fanon and Edward Said.

11. PEN Anthology – Strange Times, My Dear

Translator: Various Translators

Genre: Anthology – Prose and Poetry

Period: Post-Revolution (1979 – Present)

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Strange-Times-Dear-Contemporary-Literature/dp/1611457289/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1397777591&sr=1-1&keywords=pen+anthology+strange+times

If literature is your interest and you can only buy one book on the list, the PEN Anthology would be a great place to start, since it contains works by a wide range of authors from 1979 to 2005. It includes poetry and prose of Iran’s most famous literary masters, as well as work by promising up-and-coming authors. With over 60 pieces included, most readers will be hard-pressed not to find something that appeals to them.

Happy reading!

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11 thoughts on “11 Books to Get You Started on Persian Literature

    • Rumi is one of my absolute favorites as well! If Rumi is your man, you might want to check out Hafez (Faces of Love) or ‘Attar (Conference of the Birds) first. ‘Attar is a mystic too so his themes are similar. Hafez is not necessarily a mystic but his poems are delightfully ambiguous and can usually be read either in a secular or religious way. Plus Davis’s translation is a masterpiece! Thanks for stopping by!

  1. This is a fantastic list! I haven’t read much Persian literature (only Rumi, really), but I would love expand and will look into finding some of these. Thank you 🙂

    -Plutark

    • Thanks for your comment! Rumi is fantastic but I do hope you read more — there is a whole ocean of material here! I only wish there were more translations available so I could offer everyone more, but I suppose that’s why my blog exists in the first place 🙂

    • Both are great choices, so you can’t really go wrong! If I remember correctly, one chapter of Parsipur’s Women Without Men is sampled in the PEN Anthology, so you could check it out there and decide if you want to read the rest. It’s short but really powerful.

  2. Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad is now available in soft bound. Vocalist Sussan Deyhim has just written an opera using many of Sholeh Wolpe’s translations. It will go on stage this January. By the way, please correct the spelling of the translator’s name in this blog: Sholeh Wolpe A great reading list.

    • خیلی ممنون!‌ It should be fixed now. I suppose I was thinking of her name in Persian script and used my own transliteration system, oops! 🙂 Wonderful to hear about the opera, looking forward to it.

  3. Hi,

    Looking for a book my father in law read as a kid in iran. It was probably around 1960’s. Is a persian fiction story, a comical book about a man who travels to america, possibly hollywood, and gets caught up in a bunch of funny situations. He said he ran into someone, possibly Alfred Hitchcock, and gets into some strife. He said the book cover had a man in a striped flannelette shirt. I know it’s not much to go off, but if anyone has any idea what this book is, please email me!! I will pay for the information!!

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