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Until this century, literary achievement in Persian prose was distinguished more by the style of writing than by creative aspects of the content or construction. Literary fame was garnered by imaginatively embellishing and crafting one's prose, whether informative or recreational. The stylization of prose was frequent in works on the humanities but more particularly in historiography, where the narrative lent itself easily to this form of writing; in history books the author could draw on rhetorical devices in order to heighten the praise of the patron, obfuscate his shortcomings, or gloss over his defeats. Some early histories, such as Bal'ami's Tarikh-e Tabaii and (more notably) Bayhaqi's Tarikh-e Mas’udi, however, display considerable literary merit and dramatic force in many of their episodes without recourse to ornamentation.

With the passage of time, the style of writing became even more ornate, so that sometimes considerable skill is needed to extract the meaning from under a heap of rhetorical flourishes and turgid verbosity. An attractive balance between sense and artifice is struck in Sadi's Golestan,, only to be lost again in the contentious and florid style favored in later periods before the Revivalist Movement returned a new balance to prose.

This is not to say, however, that belles lettres as a genre was not cultivated. It might be better described as the literature of entertainment. Middle Persian knew tales of adventure (e.g., Hazar Afsan) and books of fables (e.g., Kalila and Demna, translated from the Indian Panchatantra). These varieties continued in Islamic times, with others, such as "stories of the prophets" and works of adab, which consisted mostly of interesting tales, witty remarks, curious observations, and attractive quotations.

It was only in modern times that prose literature began to assume a distinct status rivaling that of poetry. At the turn of the century, journalism became an instrument of social change and political reform, paving the way for the judicious use of simple, unadorned prose for fiction. The first dramas, novels, and short stories written in this prose style were all aimed at social criticism and satire and played a considerable role in raising the national consciousness and promoting social reform.


After an inept and hesitant beginning with Ebrahim Beg's Siyahat-nama (Travelog [Istanbul, 1888; first published a few years earlier in Cairo]), modern Persian prose fiction had a splendid second beginning with Jamalzada's Yeki bud, yeki nabud (Berlin, 1921; English trans. Once upon a time, New York, 1985), a collection of six satirical stories and sketches in engaging and colorful colloquial language.

During the reign of Rezi Shah (1925-41) a number of novels were published, mostly maudlin works with pious social postures and weak techniques. Mohammad Mas'ud's first novel Tafrihdt-e shab (Night entertainments) made a stir by openly exposing the frustrations of the educated classes and urban civil servants with a mixture of humor and tragedy. It was followed by several others of the same kind. Hedayat, a gifted and sensitive writer, whose frustrated latent nationalism and morbid sense of doom often led to mocking flippancy, emerged after World War II as the most outstanding fiction writer and the undisputed leader among his younger contemporaries. Although essentially a short-story writer, his short novel the Buf-e kur (Blind owl) has outshone by far all his other works and has exerted an enormous influence on Persian fiction. A number of his admirers, notably Al-e Ahmad, Chubak, and Behazin, distinguished themselves in depicting the lives and circumstances of the poor, the oppressed, the ignorant, and the superstitious in a veiled or openly critical vein. In 1952 B. Alavi produced Chashmhayash (Her eyes), a well-constructed novel of psychological insight and oblique political protest. The rather sagging and undernourished literary scene of the 1960s was enlivened for a while with M. A. Afghani's Showhar-e Ahu Khanoum (Ahu Khanom’s husband), a voluminous novel of love and betrayed loyalty, in which the circumstances of a provincial baker and his wife, mistress and children receive realistic and at the same time moving treatment. The 1970s saw the emergence of M. Dowlatabadi as a leading novelist. A writer of considerable verve and imagination, he writes mostly of the harsh life in southern and eastern deserts and oases of Persia. In his major work, Kelidar, a roman fleuve in ten volumes (1979-84), he writes about the life and times of a large array of characters, mostly poor villagers and semi-nomadic peasants and herders at the foot of the Kelidar mountains north of Nishapur. The spectrum of experiences reflected in the pages of this marathon novel, the rich and original language, and the narrative dexterity of its author make it the most impressive Persian novel to date.

In the course of the 1970s and early 1980s, the novel, compared to the short story, has been gaining ground and increasing in number, even though well-constructed novels of merit, such as J. Mirsadeqi's Badha khabar az taghyir-e fasl midadand (The winds presaged the changing of season, Tehran, 1984) have been few.


Satirical drama began brilliantly with Akhundzada's plays; although written in Turkish, they were conceived in the Persian cultural climate of the Caucasus and were aimed primarily at Azerbaijani readers. Some of them were translated by Ja' far Qarachadaghi who also wrote a number of plays in a similar vein. The reformist and satirical zeal exhibited in these early plays abated with the success of the Constitutional Movement in Iran and later with the restrictions imposed by autocratic rule. After World War II experiments were made with different kinds of plays, from poetical to symbolic to absurd. However, with the exception of Gholam Hosain Sa'edi ("Gowhare Morad," 1930-85), Persian drama has not been blessed with writers of the same caliber as poetry and fiction. Sa'edi, a prolific dramatist, short-story writer, and essayist of strong liberal convictions, wrote a number of socio-political and psychological dramas and has remained a strong literary influence for the past three decades.

It should be noted that Shi'ite passion plays or ta’zia are in verse which is generally of inferior quality and hardly rises to the level of literature.

Prose Style

The prose style of post World War II period has been subject to several influences and constraints. Nationalism, westernization and claims of the colloquial language have been the main forces affecting modern prose. Three different styles may be mentioned here.

The polite style of writing which finds its best representatives in books on the humanities and essays and articles in social criticism has evolved from the style of the Literary Revival. Its chief characteristic, compared to Safavid and Qajar prose, is clarity. At its best, it is also elegant. By "elegant" I mean a style of writing which is not only free from vulgarisms, verbosity, pretence, and adheres to correct grammar, but also uses apt words and phrases, is pleasing to the ear, and is informed by a quality of mind which results in firm constructions and attractive expressions. Symptomatic of the continued importance attached in Persia to this style are anthologies of essays, articles and excerpts chosen by the virtue of their stylistic qualities". The practitioners of the polite/formal style generally have a good foundation in Persian classics, often revealed in their borrowings from and allusions to the old masters' writings.

This style has been generally resistant to the influence of the West and continues the classical linguistic, heritage. On the other hand it has been affected by nationalistic feelings since the turn of the century, particularly after the Constitutional Revolution. An outcome of this has been a tendency to opt for words of Persian origin rather than Arabic, and to reduce or abandon some morphological Arabic features used also in Persian, such as feminine adjectives with broken plurals (e.g. marakez-e 'elmi for the earlier marakez-e 'elmiyya "scientific centers") and of Arabic plural suffixes (e.g. mo'allefan instead of the now less frequent mo'allefin "authors"). This tendency, which has gained steadily, can be seen clearly in the writings of M. A. Forughi (d. 1949), A. Bahmanyar (d. 1955), and S. Nafisi (d. 1966). The Persian Academy (Farhangestan), in which some ardent nationalists wielded considerable influence was inaugurated by Reza Shah in 1935, and coined or proposed words of only Iranian origin.

The second type is the style which has prevailed in fiction. Whereas some writers like M. Hejazi (d. 1973), Ali Dashti (d. 1982), and T. Modarresi (in his Yakoliya va tanhay i-e u [Yakoliya and his loneliness], Tehran, 1964) have used polished, even mellifluous prose, the general tendency has been increasingly to use idiomatic and colloquial language, and this is now, by and large, the kind of prose which prevails in dialogue. In the hands of an able writer, the medium is colorful and effective. The use of slang and dialectical forms in fiction has been an offshoot of this tendency.

The third is the journalistic style which is more difficult to define in view of its variety, but which has played a major role in the development of contemporary language. Journalists have been less constrained by the canons of literary usage and more influenced by the necessity of forging new expressions and coining novel words in order to deal with the immediacy of publishing international news and con-committant situations or ideas. An invasion of expressions based on foreign idioms characterized journalistic writing of the less conservative papers and magazines in the 1970s, when the alien-sounding editorials of some "progressive" journals and newspapers reflected a galloping Westernization and an ever-diminishing familiarity with the literary heritage of the past. The revolution of 1979 with its reaction against Western cultural elements has attempted to check this tendency.


The Development
of Iranian Literatures

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Copyright© 1999 K. Kianush, Art Arena