Al-i Ahmad, Jalal
Iraj Bashiri

Copyright (c) Iraj Bashiri, 1999

Son of a Shi'ite clergyman, Jalal Al-i Ahmad was born in 1923 in Tehran. His early education consisted of the normal Iranian curriculum in the 1930s as well as study of the French and English languages; he used both these languages extensively later in translating major western works into Persian and in carrying out research into the sociology, anthropology, and dialectology of some of the remote areas of Iran. As a youth, Al-i Ahmad was actively involved in the Tudeh Party, especially between 1944 and 1948 before the Party was forced underground by the Pahlavi regime.

Between 1951 and 1953, Al-i Ahmad supported the nationalist government of Muhammad Musaddiq. After the fall of Musaddiq, however, he served as the unofficial spokesperson for the 1950s and 1960s dissident intelligentsia. As such he wrote short stories, novels, and essays and in the strongest critical format possible criticized the regime of the Shah, who had been reinstalled in Iran by the America's Central Intelligence Agency.

Al-i Ahmad's last years were devoted to the creation of a government in Iran that would return the country to true independence, self-sufficiency, and a long-awaited prosperity. However, he did not live long enough to see the fruit of his endeavors. Al-i Ahmad died in 1969; according to his wife, Simin Daneshvar, poisoned by the agents of the regime.

Between 1945 and 1962, Al-i Ahmad wrote five major collections of short stories, three novels, and an essay. The themes of the collections are diverse. Prominent among them, however, are the superstitious beliefs of the common people, recorded in their own language; excesses of the clergy in their exploitation of the visible aspects of the religion instead of devotion to the teachings and the dogma; and intrusion of western ideas into Iran's predominantly Shi'ite ideology. Al-i Ahmad's novella, The Headmaster, exposes the life of the Iranian educators of his time. It is not a portrait that one would want to present to the public but one that he, as a teacher, was fully familiar with and wanted his countrymen to become acquainted with. Only exposition of the ills of the system, he believed, can force people to seek a remedy for the malaise.

At first glance, the works of Al-i Ahmad, especially his characters, do not dazzle the reader. But once familiar with his sarcasm, cynicism, and humor one can hardly put his collections of short stories down. He writes, as Kamshad aptly says, with a conviction that is unique to him Ahmad Shamlu adores this very conviction in his "Anthem."

    Before being turned to ashes
      by the wrath of the thunderbolt,
         he had forced the steer of the tempest
              to kneel before his might.

    To test
      the faith of old
         he had worn out his teeth
             on the locks of ancient gates.
         On the most out-of-the way paths
              he struggled,
         an unexpected passer-by
         whose voice every thicket and bridge

Al-i Ahmad's 1962 essay called "Weststruckness" or "Fascination with the West" is even more critical of the regime. Addressing Iran's mounting social problems directly for the first time in Iranian literature, "Weststruckness" takes western intrusion into Iran's traditional Islamic educational system to task. Teaching about the various ways to serve a hot dog to students who have never seen a hot dog, Al-i Ahmad says, is a waste of time for both the teacher and his wards.

In addition to his literary activities, Al-i Ahmad contributed to the understanding of sociological and cultural aspects of far-off regions of Iran such as Awrazan and the Kharg Island. His research, even though he was neither a trained sociologist or a cultural studies expert, leads the way to a better understanding of those regions of Iran.

Finally, Al-i Ahmad has translated a number of important works from French into Persian. These include Dostoevsky's The Gambler, Camus's L'Etranger, and Sartre's Les Mains Sales.

See also:
The China Vase

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