The Sasanians ruled an empire stretching from the Mediterranean to the Aral Sea. Under them, the Zoroastrian religion developed its most subtle metaphysics. Greek philosophers flocked to their capital in Ctesiphon, while in Babylon, the Jewish Talmud ripened. Iranian painting, metalwork and music were received enthusiastically in China and India.

Island of Bewilderment is a recent English translation of Jazire-ye Sargardāni, a historical novel by the late Simin Daneshvar, originally in Persian and published in 1992. Daneshvar (1921- 2012) was considered Iran’s first female novelist. Her books were about the lives of ordinary people, especially women, through the lens of political and social events in the country. She was also a renowned translator and counted Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard among her translations into Persian. She was the wife of the famous social critic and writer, Jalal Ale-Ahmad, also a writer of acclaim.

Fifty years ago the Iranian Ministry of Education sent a high-level delegation to my university. As a student of Persian, I was asked to drive their Excellencies around to their various appointments. I ventured to remark, in halting Persian, to the distinguished guests that our university pre-dated the reign of Shah Abbas II (reigned 1642-1666). They went goggle-eyed at the notion that anything American could be so old. Not only did the colonists build schools contemporary with Shah Abbas’s madrassa in Esfahan, but as Daniel Potts tells it, those early Americans eagerly followed “Agreeable News from Persia”, as well as less agreeable news, the first news report about Iran appearing in the Boston Newsletter in 1717.

Island of Bewilderment: A Novel of Modern Iran, Simin Daneshvar, Patricia J Higgins (trans), Pouneh Shabani-Jadidi (trans) (Syracuse University Press, October 2022)
Island of Bewilderment: A Novel of Modern Iran, Simin Daneshvar, Patricia J Higgins (trans), Pouneh Shabani-Jadidi (trans) (Syracuse University Press, October 2022)

Twenty-six-year-old college graduate, artist, and employee of the Ministry of Art and Culture, Hasti Nourian aspires to be a “new woman”—independent-minded, strong-willed, and in control of her own destiny. A destiny that includes Morad, an idealistic young architect and artist with whom Hasti is deeply in love. Morad is a sharp critic of Iran’s Westernized bourgeois class, the one that Hasti’s mother relishes. After Hasti’s father died, her mother had married a wealthy businessman and moved to an exclusive neighborhood of northern Tehran.

The Persian Empire fascinates and rightly so. Founded by Cyrus the Great in 559, represented the culmination of 2,000 years of Middle Eastern history. During their two centuries of rule, the Persians united much of the then civilized world, from Egypt to India. Lloyd Lewellyn-Jones argues, in partial justification for his new history, that this era is ignored or misunderstood, a claim that seems at odds with now a rather long list of books on the Empire that may be found on Amazon. As both Llewellyn-Jones, grudgingly, and Matt Waters, more graciously, demonstrate, we know a huge amount about this empire, in part because it coincided with the classical age of Greek literature. In addition, this Empire recorded in clay tablets every loaf of bread and cup of wine provided to its civil and military functionaries. The very richness of the archaeological and literary sources make constructing a coherent story challenging. Llewellyn-Jones makes the history cogent and exciting by stretching his sources about as far as they can go, and provides no footnotes. Waters uses the same sources, amply documented, and in a gingerly fashion, for his painstakingly complete life of Cyrus the great.

Royal patronage gave impetus to great works of art. In a period when artists’ craft required years of apprenticeship, when the raw materials included costly powders and rare preparations, when collaboration among a large number of artists was required, the final result is practically a celebration of the presiding monarch. So it is with two manuscripts from the British Museum, covered in Treasures of Herat, Addendum 25900 and Oriental 6810. They represent the apogee of the Herat school of art, under the last great Timurid ruler, Sultan Husayn Bayqara (1438-1506).

Hafez in Love is an English translation of the 2004 novel Hafez-e-nashenideh pand (literally “Hafez, Heedless of Advice”) by the late author Iraj Pezeshkzad who was one of Iran’s best-known contemporary authors. He is best remembered for his satirical 1973 novel, My Uncle Napoleon which was later made into a successful television series. In Hafez in Love, Pezeshkzad—through a creative engagement with the poetry of Hafez and his contemporaries, as well as an imaginative use of historical fiction—brings the literary scene of 14th-century Iran to life.