Persian, Hebrew Books to Bridge Between Iran, Israel

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The last book she grabbed before leaving Tehran at the age of nine was the first Orly Noy translated into Hebrew many years later. Two civilizations that know only mistrust have much to learn more about each other's literature, including the recent wave of feminist authors.

In our fragile time, while the winds of war blow in our region, two [modern] prose books by Iranian authors are being published for the first time in Israel [in Hebrew translation]. These books reveal a different, painful and sorrowful facet of the nation that seems to represent the greatest, most terrifying enemy of the West in our time.

Indeed, Orly Noy — an Iranian-born Israeli — has returned to her roots and translated prose texts from Persian to Hebrew. (Although Persian poetry has been translated before, this is the first time that prose has been translated to Hebrew.) When we ask why she has chosen this particular point in time to do so, Orly answers, “The translation of texts from Persian to Hebrew is my way of expressing something from both of my identities, Israeli and Iranian. At the same time I also hope to burst the big balloon called ‘Iran the menace,’ and portray my homeland as something real and alive with a past full of suffering and intrigues, politics and [vested] interests, good and evil. The Israeli reader can identify with these [themes] and, through them, also become acquainted with a different Iran.”

The two books translated by Noy — My Uncle Napoleon (by Iraj Pezeshkzad) and The Colonel (by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi) — were just recently published by Am Oved. These books offer the Hebrew reader a unique glimpse into the depths of human existence and Iranian history.

It would seem to be simpler and more accurate to deem the suffering of the Iranian nation in these days as the end product of the collective madness of the 1979 revolution era — the era that brought about the great disaster called the Islamic Republic. While we may tend to think that “they sleep in the bed they made for themselves,” the two books above explain to us that life is not black and white. The revolution in Iran — similar to [last year’s revolution in] Egypt — transpired first and foremost for humanistic values of equality and against [governmental] corruption; it did not only represent Islamic circles. At this point Noy invites us to become acquainted with the “other” Iranian nation, which received tragedy instead of the liberty they yearned for. In the words of Amir (in The Colonel), “we are all destroyed or will be destroyed in the future. We have begun to discover ourselves and understand our identities, thus in the future we will pay the bitter price of revenge.”

Cravings for hot, sweet beets

Noy and her family emigrated at the end of January 1979, on the exact day that the Shah [Mohammad Reza Pahlavi], Iran’s last monarch, left Iran. “I remember the demonstrations. We lived not far from Tehran University and masses of people used to congregate around our house constantly, people dressed in black [carrying] pictures of Khomeini. I remember [that once] I was very sick and we were not able to cross the main road to get to the doctor, because everything was blocked by the crowds. Everything happened very fast. From the beginning, these riots cast fear on my parents. There were [other] Jews who supported change and demonstrations, but we were from the bourgeois class and were not in dire straits, so the revolution was difficult for us.

“One of the images I remember most is: My father and I on a wintery night are walking, it was the height of the revolution. My father was the director of the branch of a bank, I remember we bought hot, sweet beets on the street, then suddenly a group of revolutionaries appeared opposite Father’s branch and shattered the glass windows to smithereens. Of course, we didn’t dare intervene. They burned [it] down, and we kept our mouths shut. After a year of revolution and gunfire, my parents understood that this would no longer be the same country.”

But alongside the pain there are also memories of a beautiful country, memories that Noy clings to. “Summer vacations in Esfahan and breathtaking scenery. I miss the mountains around Tehran and the Persian language. I feel the lack of that nation’s mannerliness and propriety, and their rich, long history. I grew up as a middle-class Jew in Iran, we weren’t religious at all though we always had a strong, well-developed Jewish awareness. But we lived in a mixed Muslim neighborhood.”

Once in Israel, Noy underwent the typical process of all immigrants: trauma, denial of culture of her birthplace, and finally a return to her roots. “I wouldn’t let my parents play Persian music when my friends came to visit,” she says. “Slowly, slowly I re-connected. I always read Persian literature in the original language because at some point I felt that my Persian was slipping away. It was a gradual process of becoming re-acquainted with the culture I had abandoned in my childhood.”

“I was very insulted”

For many years, this correspondence between Israel and Iran did not come naturally to Noy. From her point of view, it was a gradual process of integration and consolidation until she felt confident enough to dive back into the Persian language. “I remember that it all began one day when I did a Google search [in Hebrew] for ‘Persian literature,’ and Google’s answer was, ‘Do you mean Russian literature?’” Noy says. “Google has no sense of humor, it’s not making fun of me, it simply doesn’t know about Persian literature [translated into Hebrew]. I was very insulted because we are talking about 6,000 years of magnificent culture and history. I think that this ignorance is unfortunate; the Hebrew reader is not really familiar with Persian history, culture and literature and only views Iran in negative contexts. The Jews who came [to Israel] from Islamic countries were forced to pay a steep price: their past went up in smoke. They were forced to detach from their memories, their humor, their culture.”

So these yearnings for the past are what impelled you to choose the books [to translate]?

“That’s a slightly different story. We got organized to leave Iran at the last minute. The book My Uncle Napoleon is the soundtrack of my childhood. It was the last copy that my mother stuffed into the bag before we left our house in Iran, when I was nine years old. I translated the book into Hebrew from that same copy that we took to Israel with us more than 30 years ago. The book sat on the shelf for years, waiting for me to translate it. At the time, there was a very popular television series [in Iran] based on the book.”

Do you intend to translate more books from Persian?

“Of course. It is important for me to translate Iranian women's literature. In my opinion, the women there are constantly changing the status quo for their benefit. Of course they still have a long way to go, but things are changing — without Western involvement — as expressed by the recent wave of women's literature breaking new ground in Iran.”

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Found in: translation, the colonel, orly noy, my uncle napoleon, mahmoud dowlatabadi, literature, israel, iran, iraj pezeshkzad
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