Muhammad Ali Jamalzadeh
Iraj Bashiri

copyright 1999

Mohammad Ali Jamalzadeh, the founder of the European-style Persian short-story genre, was born in Isfahan into a middle-class family. The date of his birth is debated; but in Kitab-i Hunar, in his own hand, we find January 24, 1892, mentioned. It is noteworthy to add that, at the end of his life, even he himself was not quite sure of the exact year. The year 1895 has been traditionally used as his date of birth.

Jamalzadeh's father, Sayyid Jamal al-Din Isfahani, a progressive mullah, rose against despotism and delivered fiery speeches against the government, speeches which inspired his son but landed himself in prison where he was poisoned. as for young Jamalzadeh, he lived in Iran only until the age of twelve or thirteen. Thereafter, he lived in Lebanon where he attended the Antoura Catholic School (1908) near Beirut, and in France (1910) and Switzerland. In switzerland, he read law at the University of Lauzanne and later on at Dijon.

After his father's death, Jamalzadeh's life became somewhat difficult but, thanks to his many friends who supported him and to occasional students who paid him tuition, he survived starvation. By the time that World War I came around, he was in his early youth. He joined the group of nationalists in Berlin and, in 1915, founded a newspaper Rastakhiz, for it in Baghdad. He also cooperated with the journal Kaveh (1916). In 1917, he published his first book entitled Ganj-e Shaygan (The Worthy Treasure). An overview of Iran of the turn of the century, Ganj-e Shaygan deals with Iran's socio-political as well economic situation, a major contribution bridging the gap between literature and the sciences. In the same year, he also represented the Nationalists at the World Congress of Socialists in Stockholm. His later years, until 1931 when he picked up residence in Geneva and worked for the International Labour Office are spent in make-shift jobs such as working for the Iranian embassy in Berlin.

During all these years, Jamalzadeh had very little contact with Iran. But that did not prevent him from learning Persian on his own. Rather, drawing on his meager experiences gained at a tender age, he wrote about the lives of his contemporary Iranians. His preoccupation with language use and his Dickensian style including repetitions, pile up of adjectives, and popular phrases quickly remind the reader of his background and of his sincerity to contribute. Yet his very distance from the sources of events described compromises the accuracy of his works. His disregard for form and lack of a desire to revisit his works and make revisions compounds the difficulty.

Jamalzadeh's major work is entitled Yeki Bud Yeki Nabud (Once Upon a Time). Published in 1921 in Berlin, Once Upon a Time did not reach Iran until a year later. And when it did, it was not received favorably at all. The public, especially the clergy, loathed Jamalzadeh's portrayal of their country to the degree that copies of the book were burned in public squares.

A collection of six short stories, Once Upon a Time deals with the socio-political situation of Iran at the beginning of the 20th century, a subject that thus far had been outside the purview of poets and writers in general. Furthermore, mingled with this is a considerable degree of militancy against Western intrusion in Iran and an open mockery of Islamic fanaticism. The simple, colloquial style, with an exact degree of humor, enhanced the impact, making the import of stories like "Farsi Shekar Ast" (Persian is Sugar) even more poignant.

This reaction affected Jamalzadeh to the degree that for the next twenty years he refrained from engaging in any literary activities. He began writing again in the 1940s, but by that time he had lost the dexterity that imparted conciseness, novelty of form, originality of ideas, a biting sense of humor, and a tight structure to his earlier stories. Tautology, a tendency toward using sage remarks, mystical and philosophical speculation and disregard for order became the hallmark of his later endeavors. Sahraye Mahshar (1947), Talkho Shirin (1955), Kuhna va Now (1959), Ghair az Khudo Hichkas Nabud (1961), Asmano Risman (1965), Qissahai Kutah Baraye Bachchehaye Rishdar (1974), and Qissai Ma ba Akhar Rasid (1979) were written during this phase of his literary activity.

Jamalzadeh only begins the debate on the dilemma of Western-educated Iranians returning from abroad. For a long time thereafter, the reaction to these innocent youths' selfless endeavor to apply themselves and support their home and country constitutes a major chapter of the history of short story in Iran of Reza Shah. Neither at home nor in society do we find an appreciation of the efforts expended by these youth.

Similarly, Jamalzadeh's criticism of the court and the clergy continues. Some of the works lack Jamalzadeh's unique Persian style, of course, but they can be as biting and accurate. Hedayat's works, especially his Pearl Cannon, are devoted to a parody of the twin pillars of Iranian government.

In addition to Persian, Jamalzadeh also knew French, German, and Arabic and translated many books from these languages into Persian.

The third phase of Jamalzadeh's literary activities is even less weighty than the second. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, he returned to Iran. There, making a180-degree turn, he supported the changes brought about by Khomeini and praised the clergy in numerous interviews.

Jamalzadeh died on November 9, 1997.

Persian is Sugar
Six of One... (The Government and People of Iran)

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