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Breaking taboos in Middle Eastern fiction Add to ...

The narrator's frustration with contemporary Arab culture's suppression of desire and her ambitious mission to re-sexualize the Arabic language can be traced to her sexual awakening, which began with the discovery of surprisingly explicit commentaries on the joys of sex composed by Arab writers centuries ago.

This aspect of the book proves fascinating, though sometimes in an unintended manner; that so many Arab intellectuals and artists feel compelled to justify their controversial works by depicting them as continuing an illustrious Arab tradition - as Al Neimi has done - points up the burdensome weight of history and heritage in Arab societies.

Taken together, two recent novels about Iran demonstrate that, whether Persian nationalist or Islamic in orientation, the Iranian state has proven extraordinarily repressive. The Age of Orphans, whose pre-publication manuscript earned debut author Laleh Khadivi a Whiting Writers' Award, tackles the unhappy fate of the Kurds of Iran, especially during the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi (reigned 1925-1941) and his son and successor, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (reigned 1941-1979).

Meanwhile, Shahriar Mandanipour's Censoring an Iranian Love Story, explores the travails of young lovers in contemporary Iran, and the ultimately insuperable obstacles faced by those who would write about this controversial subject from within Iran's borders.

"The Kurds have no friends but the mountains," goes the old saying, though in The Age of Orphans even the mountains seemingly turn against the Kurds. A young Kurdish boy is orphaned when his father dies during a confrontation between the Persian army and Kurdish guerrillas in the 1920s. Adopted by the very regiment that orphans him, the boy learns how to be a loyal servant of the shah (Khadivi pointedly refrains from capitalizing the word), in whose name various punitive military expeditions are launched against the Kurds and other restive ethnic minorities. The boy is renamed Reza (after the shah), Persia becomes Iran, and the shah is succeeded by his son. As a captain in the Iranian army, Reza is dispatched to the Kurdish region to pacify the rebellious people in whose bosom he was raised. Eventually, he will suffer the consequences of this soul-destroying mission: "As a soldier he will be deftly divided through the head, as a murderer cut open through the heart and as an old man split so thoroughly that one side of him dies first, unbeknownst and long before the other, damned to serve in hell as a half a man."

In prose that is by turns beautifully lyrical and frustratingly grandiloquent, Khadivi shows Western readers a little-known aspect of pre-revolutionary Iran, a country whose ideology rested on the twin pillars of Persian nationalism and veneration of the shah, with bloody consequences for those - such as non-Persian ethnic minorities - who dissented. The subject of minorities in Iran certainly enthralls, though the author's own ethno-nationalist inclinations, which prompt her to consider Kurdish-majority regions as belonging to the Kurds, and which lead her to exalt the supposed specificities of Kurdish lineage and stock, cannot but unnerve readers wary of ethnic chauvinism.

Renowned Czech-French novelist Milan Kundera has bluntly stated: "The condemnation of totalitarianism doesn't deserve a novel." Reading Censoring an Iranian Love Story, which depicts the Islamic Republic of Iran in all its absurdity, one realizes the truth of Kundera's observation. Most people don't need to be convinced of the iniquity of the theocratic regime in Iran - even most Iranians don't. And the recent repression of dissent as well as quality books on life in Iran - Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis - has likely darkened the rose-coloured glasses of the Islamic Republic's precious few Western admirers.

Nevertheless, Mandanipour's novel, which consists of two parallel tales - the not-by-choice platonic love affair between Sara and Dara alongside the narrator's efforts to write their story in a manner that will pass the country's draconian censorship laws - proves surprisingly original. The postmodern artifice of situating the love story itself alongside an attempt to render it in literary - albeit expurgated - form, enables Mandanipour to provide a wonderfully wry and sarcastic commentary on the laws and mores governing love and literature in Iran.

And for all his aversion to the Islamic Republic, which replaced Persian nationalism and veneration of the shah with Islam and veneration of Khomeini, Mandanipour acknowledges that, in his country, literary love and tragedy were conjoined long before the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Ironically, the punishments for lovers in Saudi Arabia, a country in good international standing, are just as severe, if not more so, than those in increasingly isolated Iran. The Consequences of Love, Eritrean Sulaiman Addonia's debut novel, is set in Jeddah. "I had been in this country for ten years," muses narrator Naser, a 20-year-old Eritrean refugee, "yet I had never talked to a girl or held a woman's hand."

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