Farid Ghadami interviewed by Erik Mortenson

Farid Ghadami

Farid Ghadami is an Iranian writer, critic, ex-university lecturer, and literary translator. He is best known in Iran for his humorous and critical novels with a radical counter-culture outlook, as well as his translations of controversial literature, including that of the Beat Generation. He is the first translator into Persian of the books Ulysses by James Joyce, Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs, Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg, The Dharma Bums and Big Sur by Jack Kerouac. So far, he has written five novels and five works of literary criticism, including a book called Hitchhiking on the Road to Modernity: On the Beat Generation and has completed over 40 translations of, amongst others, Walt Whitman, Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, Anais Nin, Arthur Rimbaud, Mahmoud Darwish, William Butler Yeats, Ossip Mandelshtam, Antonin Artaud, Richard Brautigan, Amiri Baraka and William Blake. He has written also four scientific books, including Advanced Applied Engineering Mathematics and Research Methods in Science and Engineering which are now taught at universities in Iran.

Erik Mortenson is a literary scholar, writer, teacher, and translator. His work has appeared in journals such as Arizona Quarterly, Comparative Literature Studies, History of Photography, and Chicago Review, and he has contributed to collections such as The Cambridge Companion to the Beats and The Emergence of Buddhist American Literature, among others.  Mortenson is also the author of three books, all from Southern Illinois University Press: Capturing the Beat Moment: Cultural Politics and the Poetics of Presence, which was selected as a Choice outstanding academic title in 2011; Ambiguous Borderlands: Shadow Imagery in Cold War American Culture (2016); and most recently, Translating the Counterculture: The Reception of the Beats in Turkey (2018). 

In the West, we tend to view Iran through its leaders rather than through its people. For many of us, Iran is a highly religious country with a homogeneous culture. But is that conception fair?

Honestly, I think many people in the West do not know much about Iran and the Iranians, and many have probably heard its name only in the case of the nuclear dispute with the United States and Western powers. In general, the West’s perception of Iran and its people is really ridiculous; often when I am in a Western society, people ask me in surprise, “Are you really Iranian?” I think this lack of recognition has several reasons: Iran is a small country with a population of eighty million that is not an important player in the world economy and politics; most Iranian writers and artists have not been able to enter into dialogue with the outside world, and that is why many prominent Iranian figures in literature and art have been recognized and honored only by a limited number in the West, for instance, Reza Baraheni, Iranian writer and poet, who was a friend of Allen Ginsberg too, has been described by Hélène Cixous as “a giant poet,” or Sadegh Hedayat, who has been praised by Henry Miller and Andre Breton, but people in the West have not read of them; Iran is not a tourist destination and therefore not many people have experienced it; and lastly, the knowledge of people in the West about Iran depends on the media that pursue specific goals, presenting the image of Iran that it likes, the image of a semi-primitive, semi-savage and semi-innocent people, which is really false and disgusting. That is why you see that, for example, Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema is famous and praised in the West, because it presents the same image of Iran that Westerners like to see, but it is never allowed to introduce real Iranian writers and artists to the world. Once I was walking in Zurich with a Norwegian friend who was also a poet and translator, and a big fan of Kiarostami.  He pointed to a three- or four-story building and asked me if there were any such buildings in Tehran. I was really shocked! I told him that in terms of modern buildings, Zurich may be just a modern village compared to Tehran.

Given how little we know about everyday life in Iran here in the West, I’d like to talk a bit about Beat readership in your country. Who exactly is reading the Beats in Iran?  Is there a strong underground or youth culture in the country that is typically reading Beat literature, or does it enjoy a wider audience?

Iran is a very educated society, most young people have a higher education degree, and they love to read, even with the awful economic situation we experience. There is also underground art and literature in Iran, but actually it is not so underground. The spread of social media in the last decade has now brought everyone to the ground. People have access to practically everything, any book, movie or video they want. But in the case of books, the story is a little different. If a book is to be officially distributed in Iranian bookstores, it must be permitted by the Iranian Ministry of Culture before publication. Parts or lines of the book may be removed by the censorship department. For example, this happened to my translation of the novel Ulysses in Iran, the first translation of Joyce’s novel into Persian that was published in the country. The Ministry of Culture eliminated a few lines and words from it. The book was published, but I made all the omissions available to the Iranian audience through social media so that everyone could read Ulysses without censorship. This is what I do with all my translations and my own novels, including Naked Lunch or The Dharma Bums, although many translators and writers do not do so for fear of repercussions. Social media has really helped fight censorship, and I think it has really made it meaningless and inoperative. To sum up, all of my translations of Beat Generation have been officially published in Iran, and most of them have always been on the bestseller list. I cannot say that certain audiences follow these books, but I do have a very interesting memory. Once one of my novels was banned from publication in Iran for two years. When I went to the Ministry of Culture, an employee of the censorship office recognized me and said that the novel The Dharma Bums had changed and saved his life. The audience of the Beat Generation in Iran is very wide, but it’s true that most of them are students and young people.

While the Beats have become accepted literary figures for the most part, it sounds like they are still conceived as controversial writers in Iran. Are the Beats and their works being used to “counter” the dominant culture in the country?

Exactly. I always say that our situation is culturally very similar to that of the United States in the 1950s. That is why the works of the Beat Generation still have a counter-cultural meaning for us, although to some extent they have become a part of the mainstream culture in Western society. Naked Lunch is still a great source of counterculture for the US and Europe, but I think the late capitalist system has largely been able to depoliticize and castrate literature. To be more precise, it has been able to promote authors and books that are really part of the existing culture, the status quo, amusing nonsense books that by no means can affect the minds and lives of the readers and only entertain them for a few hours. But, fortunately, I can say that literature in Iran has not yet become apolitical and still has a radical character somewhat, which is why writers like Burroughs or Ginsberg can be so popular and effective in Iran, although Iranian readers are affected by universal culture too.

In your Barricade interview with Vladimir Mitev, you remark that “Beat culture is very popular in Iran. Young people saw in them a new idea for living. When you read Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg you can find new ideas for thinking in a new way.” Can you expand on this a bit? What exactly are Iranians looking for in the Beats, and what are they doing with these works once they find them?

In general, I think literature affects our lives in three ways: there are works that affect our way of thinking, and through this way they can enliven our lives, because they teach us that we can look at the current situation in other ways, with a critical look. Burroughs, Joyce and Marcel Proust are in this category. Another group is the writers who enrich our lives by stimulating and enriching our imaginations, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Jorge Luis Borges, William Wordsworth, and Richard Brautigan. But there are also writers who tell us about new forms of life, breaking taboos and ridiculing ideologies in the process: Henry Miller, Walt Whitman, and Jack Kerouac are categorized in this class. Jack Kerouac connects us with the passion of life. Even in his most bitter novel, Big Sur, he puts the passion of life and love above everything, beyond religion, beyond death, and even beyond life itself. It’s as if Kerouac is telling his readers, “Do not be afraid, even though it is full of scary things, take off your clothes and dive in the heart of life and love, for no reason but to fall in love.” Maybe today, when sexual freedom has been achieved in Europe and America and good, important changes have taken place in favor of homosexuals, the literature of the Beat generation is seemingly part of today’s culture, but it really is not the case: today’s culture (which I call the Trinity of Pop, Porn, and Popcorn) has even industrialized sex and defined standards and stereotypes for it. This, incidentally, is not sexual freedom, but the asexualization of sex, making it part of the culture industry.

You have noted that your translation of The Dharma Bums was quickly reprinted after it sold 1,000 copies the first week, and that your translation of Naked Lunch was one of the best-selling books in Iran in 2020, according to Iranian news agencies. What do you think accounts for this popularity?

Yes, even the novel Naked Lunch, published at the height of the Corona crisis and in very bad economic conditions in Iran, sold nearly half of all its first editions online in its first day: nearly five hundred copies in just one day. I think Beat Generation literature has been very inspiring for Iranian youth and intellectuals. Because of the awful English language teaching methods in our schools and universities, many of our people cannot read English texts and therefore have to wait for translators to translate books. Most translators in Iran also follow the market trends. They look at what books make money and then translate those. Safe nonsense books. There was a lot of fuss when I translated The Dharma Bums. First of all, for many, Kerouac’s writing style was completely new; he writes without any editing, in his own words, like someone sitting in a cafe and telling a story to others. Second, he taught us that the only way to live is not to work certain hours of the day, make money, and then spend that money in ways defined by the existing culture. He taught us that life is like a road and should be experienced on the road, and in the mountains and woods. And that you can only understand modernity if you revive your connection with nature, a connection that was ignored in favor of civilization. After the publication of The Dharma Bums, thousands of people in Iran became fascinated with travel, mountains and woods, young people started to travel even without money.

The publication of Naked Lunch in Iran had a really strange story. This novel was published at the height of the outbreak of the Corona virus in Iran. Many who read the novel were shocked: a human virus that Burroughs had said should be quarantined and cured shocked the novel’s readers. At the same time, they had never read a novel written in such a crazy way. Although I had previously translated and published the book The Junky’s Christmas and Other Stories in Persian, and the movie Naked Lunch was also very popular in Iran (I would not exaggerate if I say that at least one million people have seen this movie in Iran), nevertheless such a novel surprised everyone.  Burroughs’ writing style was really shocking to everyone. I am always in touch with the readers of my translations and my own works on Instagram, and many of them said that they have read it more than ten times and it was still a terrifying experience for them. But alongside the novel’s extraordinary style, Burroughs appears in the novel as a great thinker; he simultaneously criticizes capitalism, bureaucracy, religion, medical science, and everything in the sharpest possible way, without advocating for something else.

Thinkers who have spoken about the concept of “Control” in the new age of capitalism are very popular in Iran, from Michel Foucault to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. But Burroughs speaks of these categories in a way that frightens one. For us in Iran, the novel Naked Lunch is even more frightening than for Americans, since, on the one hand, we are dealing with medieval ideologies, and on the other, there are aspects of the capitalist system in Iran as well. The link between science and repression, psychology and control, drugs, the power of police repression, alongside the threat of rampant violence perpetrated by religious fundamentalists around us, from ISIS to the Taliban to other fundamentalist groups, as well as the risk of a possible US military strike. Naked Lunch is a great source of thought for the Iranian readers, far beyond a classic and brilliant literary text. I always say that Naked Lunch is a novel for Americans, but it is life for us.

You mention the reception of Beat texts in Iran, so let’s talk a bit about what happens when Beat texts are brought into another language. What are the challenges in rendering Beat works into Persian? What are the payoffs?

I always face many challenges when translating Beat texts. One problem is due to the differences in languages that occur in any translation. For example, Kerouac sometimes writes very long paragraphs. While you want to maintain his specific style, it would be very difficult to translate it into Persian. But I think these translations provide new possibilities in Persian. For example, to translate a Kerouac, you really have to create a new structure in Persian. These challenges really enrich the Persian language. Persian is a hospitable language, I always say. Even if you read today’s Iranian literature, you can see that my translations of poems and novels of the Beat generation have really influenced the language of many Iranian poets and writers. It has also given them more courage to make their literature more private, rude and controversial. But for each one of their works, I always have specific troubles. I have also translated James Joyce’s Ulysses into Persian, but I always say that the hardest thing I have translated has been Naked Lunch. It is full of argot and slang terms, terms that many Americans today do not even know. There are repetitive sentences, pictures and tones in it that in each repetition one should be careful that these repetitions are also preserved in Persian. There are many ambiguous sentences that one should be careful not to sacrifice the form of those sentences for a specific meaning. Or consider the novel The Dharma Bums;it is full of Buddhist terms. I think I put about three hundred footnotes to this novel, which together would be a book about Buddhism!

Critics have called Naked Lunch an “unfilmable” book. Is it an “untranslatable” one as well?

For sure it is, but that is exactly why it is translatable. In “The Task of The Translator,” Walter Benjamin asked, “What does a literary work ‘say’? What does it communicate?” And he answered immediately: “It ‘tells’ very little to those who understand it. Its essential quality is not communication or the imparting of information.” In his article, Benjamin implicitly argued that translation is impossible, and that the possibility of translation is the result of this impossibility.  But I think the category of translatability is quite different from the cinematic conception. According to Oliver Harris, Naked Lunch needs translation, but it also resists translation. I think reading the Persian translation of Naked Lunch is much more understandable for an Iranian reader than reading the original text is for an American reader. This does not mean that the novel is reduced in the Persian version, but it does happen for a number of reasons: the original text has a sacred aura that disappears in translation, whether it wants to or not. Translation is inherently secular. Second, the translator does not create the work, but builds it. Creation is from nothing, but building is based on pre-existing material, which is the original text. So the reader of the translated text is dealing with a structure whose material is obvious, but the structure of the original text is empty, a void. Third, the translator is free to provide explanations and footnotes, but there is not such a possibility for the author. More precisely, the author is a faithful husband to the text, but the translator has the freedom of betrayal. A radical suggestion for great literary writings is to translate them into their original language from a translated text. For example, if someone comes and translates Naked Lunch from Persian or French into English without looking at the original text of the novel, it is really a radical work that I think will reveal many unknown aspects of this novel as well as the act of translation.

Ottoman literature, as you probably know, borrowed heavily from Persian literature as an inspiration. While researching my book on the Turkish reception of the Beats, I was surprised how both of these earlier literatures seemed “Beat” in a broad sense, interested as they were in wine, sexuality (including homosexuality), and transcendent states, with Rumi as perhaps the best example. Does having such a literary tradition make Beat works more acceptable? Into what sort of contexts or lineages (if any) are the Beats placed in Iran, or are they seen as a purely American phenomenon? 

Honestly, this is the first time I have heard this from a Western writer and thinker, and it clearly shows your amazing knowledge of Iran and the Middle East. Exactly as you say. It may seem a little strange, but sexual repression in Iran has been a modern thing. If you look at classical Persian literature, from Hafez (1315-1390) and Saadi (1210-1291) in poetry to Obeyd Zakani (13700-1371) in prose, you will see that from the point of view of most Iranian poets and writers, a natural sex life includes sex with the opposite sex as well as homosexuality. You will also see that celebrating life with poetry, wine, and music has been an integral part of Iranian life, and still is. In this sense, Khayyam (1048-1131) and Obeyd Zakani really have the last word. Reading the works of Obeyd Zakani, which are humorous short stories from the real life of people in his time, we see that the sexual life in Iran has been completely in a tolerant way: for example, in one of his stories, he tells of a couple who had sex on the porch (you can see such a picture only in a Beat writer’s text). A beggar passed by and said, “Give me something to eat.” The man says we have nothing. At the same time, they were having oral sex, and the woman slapped her husband out of sheer excitement. The beggar says give me what you eat. “I’m eating my husband’s dick and he is taking my slaps,” she said. “Which one do you want?”

Regarding the relationship between Molavi (Rumi) and Shams, well, I cannot see it as a homosexual relationship. In fact, it is difficult to find anything about sex in their relationship, it was more of a spiritual connection. I think this discourse was formed in the West about Rumi’s works and it was a kind of Western trend. In any case, we in Iran do not have such an understanding of Molavi at all. While in the works of Saadi and Obeyd Zakani, this issue is quite evident. The Beat generation seems to be the return of Khayyam and Obeyd to the modern era: sexual tolerance, celebrating life, praising the passion of life, all of this is presented in a modern way in the works of the Beat generation, and for many Iranians, to some extent, reading the works of the Beat generation is a pleasure of discovering their own repressed culture. The emergence of modernity in Iran was accompanied by sexual repression and limitation of many freedoms. Later, this modernism was also tied to religion and in my opinion made Iran a very special case: modernism and religion in contemporary Iran (from the beginning of the twentieth century or mid-nineteenth century AD) almost helped each other and eventually achieved significant restrictions on individual and social freedoms. In the West, and almost all over the world, the opposite is true: modernism and religion were enemies. So you can imagine how attractive, for instance, William Burroughs could be to Iranians.

A Turkish friend of mine once traveled to Iran and was surprised to learn that there was actually quite a problem with “hard” drugs in the country. Is this observation true and, if so, does it help explain the interest in Burroughs or other Beats, given their accounts of drug use?

If we look at the classical Iranian literature, we can easily see that opium was not an Iranian drug, but alcohol and cannabis were. Opium in Iran had only a medical and therapeutic aspect. But almost in the late nineteenth century, opium also became a common drug in Iran. After the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the coming to power of religious people, very severe punishments were formed for the consumption and distribution of all these drugs, which are still standing. However, despite severe restrictions and penalties, access to all of these drugs is not difficult in Iran. I’m not a user myself, but everybody knows this fact. But with regard to the literature of the Beat generation, no, I do not think that the category of narcotics in their works is an attractive thing for Iranian readers, but the main issue is freedom, according to the quotation that Burroughs takes from Hassan Sabah: “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” Of course, I would also like to say that Hassan Sabbah was a very religious and strict man who even flogged his son for drinking wine, according to Islamic rules. Burroughs, like many other Westerners, when talking about Hassan Sabbah, is actually talking about Hassan II, the third successor of Hassan Sabbah and the fourth God of Alamut, who announced Resurrection in Alamut and was an intellectual, radical and secular man. In my own novel Commune of the Dead, I have dealt with a part of the history of Alamut from Hassan Sabbah to Hassan II. In contemporary Iran, there is both the concept of control in its modern sense and the concept of repression and punishment in its medieval sense. This complexity of the issue, as I said, makes it important for Iranians to read many of the works of the Beat generation.

In your interviews and writings, you clearly see literature as a potential means for establishing community, for bringing people together. What sort of function do you see Beat literature serving in Iran? 

This question can be discussed on two levels: in general, every literary text forms a community that can be the source of our political understanding. No writing deprives the reader of reading it: for example, Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” or Whitman’s “Song of Myself” can be read by anyone, of any race, any class, and any gender. In his book, Literature and Evil, Georges Bataille argues that communication is impossible, and ironically that is why literature is communication. Jean-Luc Nancy believes that every writer, every work even, inaugurates a community; and finally, Blanchot speaks of the idea of literary community, a community without communion, saying that the possibility of a community results from its impossibility. Based on the writer-reader communication, Whitman seeks to form a literary community with his reader, without any apparent discrimination. Anyone seems invited to join his community, where there is no mention of “property”, that is, a community which is not supposed to protect an asset from others, but a void space that anyone can enter, just by holding Whitman’s book in his/her hands. At the second level, literature shows us how false and shameful xenophobia is. Cultures, ideologies, and religions have drawn false boundaries between human beings, everyone is afraid of each other, the same dirty sentence that Thomas Hobbes said: man is a wolf to man. Literature makes us understand the other, understand his pains and passions. When we read the novel Anna Karenina, we can understand how lovely a woman who betrays her husband can be, when we read the poems of Mahmoud Darwish, we can understand how similar the Palestinian Arabs are with us, with the same loves and passions, when we read Big Sur or Ginsberg’s poems, we can understand that homosexuals are just like others. Non-literary communities are always formed on the basis of fear of the other, but literature teaches us that we can have open communities, based on love of the other.

You have published a book, Hitchhiking on the Road to Modernity: On the Beat Generation (2019), that is unfortunately for us here in the West only available in Persian.  Would you mind talking a bit about this intriguingly-titled work?

The main idea of this book is to study the relationship between democracy and technology, which I started with a review of Walt Whitman’s poems and continued with Ginsberg’s poem “Howl”, ending with Amiri Baraka’s poem. Based on this book, using sources from Georges Bataille to your own great book Ambiguous Borderlands, I’ve written a proposal and want to write my doctoral dissertation, which I hope I will be able to start soon in France, under the supervision of Professor Eric Athenot, who is the translator of complete poetry of Whitman into French. Whitman, commonly regarded as the poet of American democracy, was the first poet to deliberately praise technology. This book wants to show that democracy and technology in Whitman’s works are linked to each other in only two manners: through celebration and the road (as itself and as a metaphor for communication). This book will also explore the concepts of celebration, communication and the road in the works of Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg, all three of whom were influenced by Whitman’s writings. Finally, by studying the poem “Somebody Blew up America,” which was written by Amiri Baraka after and in reaction to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, this book will explore why technology is no longer associated with democracy in Baraka’s poetry but rather has come to serve terrorism. Celebration and communication are two key concepts in this essay. For Whitman, celebrating is essential to democracy and forming a “community” is essential to celebrate. The English word “celebrate” comes from the Latin word “celebrare,” which means “to assemble to honor.” So, every celebration needs a group or a crowd, a community. It is common that the verb “to celebrate” in Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself” is considered only to mean “to glorify” or “to worship,” but why ignore the other meanings, like “to feast” or “to fete”? In order to celebrate something, in the sense of glorifying it, there is no need for a crowd or a community, but for Whitman, first of all, celebrating is a collective and public act; and secondly, from the point of view developed in his poetry, everything is worth celebrating.

In the middle of the twentieth century, the development of weapons of mass destruction was a new technological achievement that would probably not have met with Walt Whitman’s approval because it neither helped to expand the concept of celebration nor facilitated communication. The development of technology, which in Walt Whitman’s poetry is associated with the development of democracy, became a problem for democracy in the middle of the twentieth century. For many of the Beat Generation poets and writers, technology was seen to develop tools for control, just as it helped to kill more people. In the 1950s, Allen Ginsberg, in his poem “Howl,” by painting the picture of mid-twentieth-century modernity, showed how a Sphinx called Moloch emerged from the heart of modern technology to destroy the lives of his generation. Ginsberg no longer saw life as “A Song of joys” the way Whitman did – he felt threatened, because a “Sphinx of cement and aluminum” had stood against the democracy which was Walt Whitman’s ideal. Allen Ginsberg saw the danger of barbarism in technological advances, as Walter Benjamin had warned that there was no document of civilization which was not at the same time a document of barbarism. In Baraka’s poem “Somebody Blew up America,” we suddenly find that in the world described by him the great technology of today has come to serve terrorism. Amiri Baraka showed us that technology, which was originally linked to democracy, is now linked to terrorism. It’s the main line and idea of that book.

You have spent some time in Bulgaria and Switzerland on fellowships, so I’d like to end with a comparative question about the global impact of the Beats culturally.  Does reading the Beats in Iran offer us a new way of thinking about these writers in Europe and beyond? Did translating them into Persian reveal a new facet of their work to you perhaps difficult to discern in the English originals? 

I had never thought about this before, but your question made me think. To be honest, when I talked to my author friends in Switzerland and France about the Beat Generation, it was very strange to me that they no longer looked at the Beat Generation works as a source for reflection. Honestly, I think the capitalist cultural project in the West has been really successful: they have made literature part of the entertainment industry, something non-political. A German friend of mine said that the era of Beat generation literature is over. In Switzerland, I read several novels by today’s Swiss writers, they were really nonsense, one of them, which was a very popular novel, was all sentimental words of a woman who was not pregnant and wanted to have children, and absolutely nothing more. Most of the people I talked to in Western Europe thought of literature as really sentimental. In Bulgaria, however, I had different experience: the literature of the Beat generation was still inspiring and critical for them, particularly Kerouac. But I must admit that I have seen Iranian readers more enthusiastic about the works of the Beat generation than anywhere else. For Iranians, literature has always had a liberating meaning, and I think the works of the Beat generation have this liberating character.

July 2021

Please find an introduction to Farid Ghadami’s new translation of Naked Lunch, written by Oliver Harris, here.