Reza Baraheni, Writer, Poet, Literary Critic, and Public Intellectual: A Life-long Champion of Social Justice and Freedom of Speech
Image: Peter Sibbald
Reza Baraheni was one of Iran’s most important literary figures of the 20th and 21st centuries. Polymath novelist, essayist, translator, and public intellectual he was notably considered the “founder of modern literary criticism in Iran”, and was rated “Iran’s finest living poet” in 1977 by Harper’s Magazine. His works have been translated into English, French, Turkish and other languages. Well known as a prominent advocate of freedom of speech, democracy, and minority rights in Iran, he died on March 24, 2022 in Toronto, Canada, where he had lived in exile with his family since 1997. He was 86.
Reza Baraheni was born in 1935 into a poor family in Tabriz, the capital of East Azerbaijan province of Iran. Although an Azerbaijani Turk, he wrote mostly in Farsi (plus later in English). This was because, since the 1920s the Pahlavi regime had declared Farsi to be Iran’s only official language. Minoritized languages including Azerbaijani Turkish, were banned or discouraged. One brief exception was in 1945-46 during which Iranian Azerbaijan, as a self-proclaimed autonomous republic, switched education to the local lingua franca. During this period the ten-year-old Reza wrote his first poems in Azerbaijani Turkish. However, once the autonomous government had been overthrown, Farsi was reinstituted as the only language of school instruction. Young Baraheni, apparently unaware of the reverted language policy, wrote a composition in Turkish and took it to school. The reaction would last with him forever: “When I … hung it on the wall, I was forced by the school authorities… to lick the ink off the surface of the paper in front of all the teachers and the students. I swallowed my mother tongue. I never forgot the humiliation.”
To make matters worse, the school teachers enforcing this incomprehensible rule shared the same mother tongue. He later wrote: “Your mother tongue becomes a criminal conspiracy against the great official culture of state. If you write anything in your own language, you automatically become a separatist and a traitor to the sovereignty of that state. So even in your childhood and youth in your own city you begin to live in exile, and you are told to hate your mother tongue.”
Baraheni initially sidestepped the language issue by writing in Farsi and studying English Literature, first at Tabriz University, then in Istanbul where his doctoral dissertation focused on Alfred Lord Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, Algernon Swinburne, and Edward FitzGerald. Equipped with modern literary theories and a critical ability, he returned to Iran in 1961 to teach English literature at Tehran University. In addition to lecturing, Dr. Baraheni published numerous writings on poetry, story writing and literary criticism in Ferdowsi Magazine. Many were later turned into books. An important early example was "Gold in Copper" (1968), a historical study of Persian poetry.
Return to controversy
During the 1960s, Baraheni was a founding member of the Iranian Writers’ Association (IWA), an organization associated with PEN International to promote and defend the rights of writers in Iran. He courted controversy with “The Infernal Days of Mr. Ayaz" (1972), a historical novel whose criticism of the social and political reality of its time led to its being banned by the Shah's censorship apparatus. Un-intimidated, a year later Baraheni published “Masculine History: The Dominant Culture and the Subjugated Culture” which critically discussed oppression against women and minoritized ethnic groups in Iran. That book was also banned, three months after its release and would lead to his arrest after returning from a year-long teaching position in the United States. Tortured by SAVAK (the Shah’s secret police) he was held in solitary confinement for 102 days, but eventually released following international campaigns.
Returning to the United States he taught at various universities, published articles on human rights and gave testimony about his own first-hand experiences of human rights abuses in Iran. Important works from this period included “God's Shadow: Prison Poems” (1976) and “The Crowned Cannibals: Writings on Repression in Iran” (1977), a non-fiction work in English which narrates the story of his imprisonment and torture and the bigger issue of the Shah’s ideologies including language marginalization.
This brought Dr. Baraheni the first of what would prove numerous awards for his literary and human rights activities, including the Overseas Press Club of America’s Madeline Dane Ross Award (1977), “for international reporting in any medium which demonstrates a concern for humanity”.
After the Revolution
In 1979, following the departure of Shah from Iran, Baraheni gave up a fully tenured professorship at the University of Maryland to return to his homeland. Like many exiled Iranian dissidents he was full of hopes and expectations for the post-revolution era. However, he soon found himself struggling against the new regime’s own brand of tyranny which, he soon found, was “worse” for him than the previous one.
An outspoken public intellectual, critical of the new regime’s suppression and censorship, Baraheni was arrested in 1981 and again in 1982. He was also expelled from the University of Tehran for “signing a statement on democracy”. Nonetheless, despite being thus “forced into exile in [his] own home”, Baraheni remained in the new Iran for nearly two decades. Important works from this era include “The Song of the Murdered” (1983), a novel that narrates the intellectual and political struggle and repression in the last years of the Shah’s regime; “Alchemy and Clay” (1985), a critique of then-contemporary Iranian poetry; and "Mysteries of My Land" (1987), a historical novel on socio-political changes in pre-revolutionary Iran from the 1940s onwards. Famously he also held underground literary workshops in the basement of his Tehran apartment. These played an important role in the emergence of a new generation of writers and poets in the post-revolutionary era who based their writings on modern, postmodern, and feminist literature.
By this point Reza Baraheni was regarded as the most prominent representative of post-structuralism and postmodern literature in Iran. In this regard “Addressing Butterflies and Why Am I No Longer a Nima'i Poet?" (1995), is his most influential book and was considered groundbreaking in transforming the form of Persian poetry. However, by the mid-1990s, serious threats to his life meant he felt it impossible to remain in Iran any longer. In 1996, he escaped with his family to Sweden, and from there came to Toronto, Canada in 1997.
Mourning his recent passing, the Writers’ Association of Iran, described Baraheni as an "independent and libertarian writer.” PEN Canada remembered him as “A ferocious human rights activist and a valiant warrior for freedom of speech”. PEN South Azerbaijan (Iran) in Exile commemorated him as a “fearless and confident human being” who “expressed his opinions and thoughts explicitly and recklessly, without thinking about its consequences.”
As a public intellectual and writer, he never ceased to champion and advocate for the rights of minoritized communities in Iran. Back in 1976, when testifying to a US Congress hearing on Iran’s human rights record he had said: “In my writings I’ve called for linguistic and cultural autonomy for the Turkish people of Iranian Azerbaijan because they have an identity of their own, they have a distinct culture that is Azerbaijani, their language is Turkish… I asked for autonomy for these people…. I think it is their constitutional right” adding importantly “I am after self-determination for my people, but this is not secession”.
Since his school days he felt that he had been in linguistic “exile,” always with the hope of being “in Tabriz on the day that the Turkish language is freed and everyone starts learning Turkish” so that he could see young students “sit in first grade to start learning.” However, he never lived to see the dream fulfilled. As yet many of the same restrictions still remain on Iran’s minoritised languages.
Baraheni is survived by his wife, Sanaz Sehhati; daughter, Aleca; and three sons, Oktay, Arsalan, and Esfandiar. Arsalan Baraheni is now himself an experienced film-maker who has produced the documentary "Alchemy and Dust" and other interviews that help further cement his father’s legacy.