Tradition and the Notion of “Modernity”

A conversation with the author

By David Levy

About “Two Tales”

Following the Iranian revolution in 1979, I was preoccupied with the question of why our parents were “more modern” than their own offspring. This motivated me to write Two Tales in the post-revolution years, focusing on the events taking place during the last decades of the nineteenth century and up to the conclusion of World War II.

I chose to write about this period in time because there was a great conflict between tradition and the notion of “modernity” that, particularly during the Cold War, became a great challenge to Eastern cultural values.  Religious and intellectual factions of society expressed their political views with slogans such as “Return to Our Roots”.  Anti-imperialist and anti-Marxist attitudes quickly dominated, culminating in the 1979 upheaval.

As research for my story, I focussed on the first half of the 20th century, reading over a hundred books, newspapers, historical accounts and political memoirs, as well as travel journals written by foreign visitors to Iran. 

Yet, I would not say that the book is merely historical.  My readings taught me that, in fact, two revolutions marked Iran during the 20th century.  The first was in 1906, and was successful in establishing a constitutional monarchy to replace the existing dictatorship.  Iran became the first Middle Eastern country to embrace the social and political liberties of a new era.  The second, in 1979, did away with this same constitutional monarchy in favour of an Islamic Republic.  This second revolution seemed to compensate for some of the failures of the first one, as evidenced during the time between both World Wars and as a result of the negative impact of the Cold War on Iran’s internal politics.  Unfortunately, it also produced a theocratic constitution that deprived Iranians of the achievements of the earlier revolution.  Iran regressed, leaving the nation struggling under the yoke of an ideological regime.

Hessam and Iraj, the protagonists of Two Tales, both belong to the social class that drove the 1906 constitutional revolution in Iran.  The characters are intellectuals who dream of a modernist revival of the rich and ancient culture of their country and its great civilization.  They seek progress along the path of modernity, similar to the one Europeans chose after the Renaissance and industrial revolution.  With this ambitious goal in mind, they help the constitutional revolutionists of 1906 overcome opposing groups and religious fundamentalists.

As I wrote the novel, I could see that modern-day fundamentalists have risen from their own ashes.  I purposely kept the ending of the stories vague, because I believe that the effort by Iranian society to achieve its own liberty is not yet concluded.

About “The Empty Chair” and “The Opera Singer”

These two stories, The Empty Chair and The Opera Singer, continue the debate between traditional and modern values, with similar characters to those established in Two Tales, yet set in the present time.  You might say that Nassrin and Parviz are in some ways descendants of Hessam and Iraj, the protagonists of my first novel.

Growing up in middle-class families during the second half of the century, Nassrin and Parviz continue to explore the notion of traditional vs. modern, an ongoing debate that has gradually become a struggle between eastern and western cultural values. 

In The Empty Chair, Nassrin is divorced from her French husband, having married him before the revolution when she was a student at the Sorbonne.  They have a school-aged son who lives with her in Paris.  Involved with a Czech artist in an unstable relationship, Nassrin witnesses the wave of immigration that the Iranian revolution created among various social classes.  Through her, the story explores the struggle of the many expatriate artists and intellectuals from Iran in search of a new identity.

In The Opera Singer, readers are introduced to an Iranian opera singer (Yes!  There was one!).  Before the revolution, Parviz was a highly talented opera singer who often performed at the Tehran Opera House.  The Islamic revolution bans opera and Parviz is now without a job.  His powerful voice, however, gets him an invitation to participate in a musical celebration of the battle against the “decadent” western culture.  Not convinced that western culture is the enemy, Paviz leaves the country.  This is a story about the crisis within a regime that imposes a collective identity on society, and how it affects the individual.

The themes are similar to those in Two Tales; despite the independence of each story I think of all as the four parts of an entire novel.

David Levy is a cinema historian.