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Monday 4 July 2016

Rituals of Restlessness - Yaghoub Yadali (translated by Sara Khalili)

Depending upon your internet enquiry, you will either believe that Yaghoub Yadali is “widely published in Iran” (City of Asylum, where he was a writer-in-residence 2013-2015 or University of Iowa, where he was resident in 2012) or “banned from publication and reprint” (Words Without Borders). What is unquestioned is his novel “Rituals of Restlessness” (translated by Sara Khalili) receiving the 2004 Golshiri Foundation Award and being named one of the top ten best novels of the decade by the Press Critics Award in Iran. In 2007 Yaghoub Yadali was sentenced to one year in prison for having depicted an adulterous love affair in the novel. As you can see by his writer-in-residence placements above, he has subsequently moved to the USA and recently the controversial “Rituals of Restlessness” was released by Phoneme Media.

Phoneme Media, a not-for-profit publisher, have partnered with the Pittsburgh not-for-profit City of Asylum to publish a series of works, “Rituals of Restlessness” is the first. City of Asylum, in their own words, “creates a thriving community for writers, readers, and neighbors. We provide sanctuary to endangered literary writers, so that they can continue to write and their voices are not silenced. We offer a broad range of literary programs in a variety of community settings to encourage cross-cultural exchange.”

As the back cover of this novel explains, the plot is simple, Kamran is planning a car accident, he is to use an Afghan illegal immigrant as his body double, and disappear from his wife, his job, his tedious existence.

There was a banner: “Felicitations to our fellow countrymen on this pride-inspiring week of holy defense.” Every year there was a one-week celebration of the war with Iraq, during which kiss-asses, vying for promotions and more overtime pay, would wear their ill-fitting Basiji army uniforms and address each other as “brother” to demonstrate their enduring revolutionary spirit and their readiness for battle should America decide to attack Iran. Right! A firecracker would have them crawling into a hole, much less an attack by America

Blending flashback and present time narration, the tension of executing his plan and the reasons why Kamran is doing such slowly take shape. The smattering of information about the traditional Iranian upbringings of our protagonist (and his wife, and lover) is not too overbearing, you do not feel as though this is a condemnation of a culture, in fact in feels more like a celebration, a new world where tradition and modern values can co-exist.

Three days had passed from their wedding night, which both their mothers had insisted should be arranged based on tradition: The husband and wife would go to the bridal chamber, and Fariba’s mother and the women in her family would wait behind the door for them to have sex and for the blood of virginity to stain the white cloth that had been spread on the bed. The bloodstained fabric would be proof of the bride’s purity, and her mother would show it to everyone.
Kamran had said, “I would rather die than submit to such a ludicrous ceremony.” He had told Fariba, “this ritual belongs to idiots. Isn’t it stupid for you and I to be making love in a room while a bunch of women lurk behind the door, cracking watermelon seeds and giggling until morning, just so they can see proof of the conquest on a piece of cloth?”

As our novel unfolds we become a witness to a man’s descent into depression, self-awareness of a life without meaning and the restless rituals of people who have nothing else to achieve other than east, sleep and fill in the endless hours.

He stayed under the shower for a long time and played with the water drops. He slowly turned the knob until the water became very cold. He held his head under it and let it cascade over his ears. It was just like the times when he would submerge his head in the swimming pool and, except for a monotonous, continuous whirr, all other sounds would suddenly stop. It was then that he often wished he could inhale all the air in the world, so that he could stay underwater, naked and calm, listening to that soothing hum…not forever – he knew he bored easily – but long enough that he did not tire of it.

Kamaran’s personal decay is exaggerated by his actions, he collects dead cockroaches to feed to the ants in his apartment.

He hollered and roared as much as he could. There was no sound that he did not make, yelling at the top of his lungs. His vocal cords felt like they were about to tear. It made little difference whether Esteghlal was on the offensive or Persepolis; just the fact that the crowd rose to its feet and shouted at will, cursed at the referee, and hurled all sorts of usual and unusual things at the players was enough for him to lose himself among them, to howl as loudly as he could, and to revel in the fact that he was not even a tiny fraction of that multitude.
Other than satisfying a sense of nostalgia, the only reason he was at the stadium, watching the boring and idiotic match between two of the country’s most popular soccer teams, was so that he could transform into an insignificant speck among a raucous crowd of more than a hundred thousand and should on and on without anyone complaining.

There are symbolic moments throughout, for example Kamran walks under various banners, and a significant amount of the narration takes place in the mountains, a region bordering on Iraq.

As Kamran descends further into a black hole, his nihilistic tendencies come to the fore, at times I was reminded of Dostoyevsky, which work I am not too sure…(I know, a big call but the recollection was there – maybe I’m descending into madness too!!!)

…the absurd monotony that like an octopus was slithering closer and casting a horrible shadow over the seemingly endless minutes and hours.

I was also reminded (only slightly) of Sayed Kashua’s “Exposure (translated by Mitch Ginsburg) an Israeli work, longlisted for the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, however this is a lot stronger piece, being a lot more plausible, and more readable in its address of the internal struggle. The similarities may have bubbled up due to the Middle Eastern setting and the “action” taking place in dark secluded apartment blocks?!? This is an intriguing work from Iran, and although the nation has a rich literary history it is a country that I haven’t delved too much into and one that doesn’t feature often in world literature discussions or book awards. As Nima Malek Mohamadi points out in an article at the British Council website last year;

Iranian writers have longed for a larger, global audience beyond the limitations of the language, ever since Sadegh Hedayat wrote two of his short stories in French. Some big waves of migration out of Iran during the last thirty years, and closer contact with cultural circles abroad, have resulted in Iranian modern literature – and its translation into European languages – gaining more attention. However, geopolitical motives also have a role to play. This tendency is sometimes evident in the book titles themselves, such as Literature from the 'Axis of Evil' – a translation of poems and stories by Iranian, Iraqi, and North Korean writers, published in 2007.

A readable, enjoyable and enlightening debut in the City of Asylum series and a very worthwhile project to support, one I hope continues for many years to come.

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