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In Iran, Listen for the Metaphor
In devout, pre-revolutionary Iran, sex had no place in the clandestine vocabulary. But the new generation, subverting authority at every turn, has a dozen words by which to refer to a woman. It calls a virgin a "zero-kilometer." An unattractive person, or one who is difficult to bond with, is a "Teflon." There are political words in the new vocabulary, but they don't have a trace of the previous sentimentalism.An agent of the old regime would have been called a "fiend" or a "bloodsucking enemy." A spy of the current regime is simply a "BBC," or an "antenna." The old much-feared word, Savaki, referring to a member of Savak (the shah's intelligence agency), now stands for nothing more than a tough or grumpy teacher. In giving a reference to the Pahlavis such a benign meaning, the new generation is declaring itself to be far less zealous in its judgment of that regime, suspicious of post-revolutionary propaganda and the excessively malevolent portrait that the new regime tried to paint of the old.
This change in language, and the sense of freedom it offers, is being felt throughout the written arts. Prose writing has also been transformed. While Iranian law discriminates against women, the world of fiction has proved perfectly egalitarian, even dominated by women. Authors, especially nonfiction writers and journalists, are working to steer clear of the previous penchant for metaphors and ambiguities. A new written Persian -- less romantic, more grounded and closer to the spoken language, with its emphasis on clarity -- is emerging. This is the new generation's effort at creating accessible narratives and transparent prose, to inhibit its readers from building another Tower of Babel.
Philosophy is all the rage. And the lexicographers are cheering: Words such as "discourse," "approach," "phenomenon," whose synonyms have been languishing in the dictionaries, are at last being used. Not since ancient Greece have philosophers addressed crowds of hundreds, if not thousands, as they do in Tehran. On their last visits to two universities, Stanford philosophy professor Richard Rorty and German philosopher Jurgen Habermas each spoke to audiences of more than 1,500. Multiple translations of Nietzsche are now available, and in 2005, the bestseller "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" was printed on Bible-thin paper, in Bible-size dimensions. In a culture that's struggling to wrest itself from the grip of fundamentalism, the emergence of a tendency toward inquiry and critical thinking is a leap forward.
If democracy is to be measured by the quality of a country's constitution or institutions, then Iran, with its staunchly conservative supreme leader and its council of clergy, has a long way to go. But if we take deeper, less visible social undercurrents into consideration, then Iran's remarkable movement of the written word -- the move away from idealism and toward realism, a greater demand for clarity, the loss of appetite for utopian rhetoric -- gives hope for the future.
To someone like me -- a child of the 1979 revolution, a romantic whose sensibilities were shaped by the ethos of that era -- the embrace of a word and a concept as unfeeling as "pragmatism" seems like an aberration. But it's an aberration I'm willing to accept if it will lead to a new political order in Iran.
Roya Hakakian is the author of the memoir "Journey From the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran" (Three Rivers Press) and two books of poetry in Persian. She left Iran in 1984 at the age of 18 and now lives in Connecticut.