A Persian Requiem is a 1969 novel by Iranian author Simin Daneshvar. A Persian Requiem is set in the Iranian city of Shiraz during the early 1940s. During this period, Iran was under occupation by both the British and the Soviet Union due to its strategic importance as a supply route during World War II and was in a stranglehold under the autocratic rule of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who came to power in 1941. The central characters in the novel are Zari, a young, traditionally-minded woman, and her husband Yusef, a prominent member of the landed elite and a staunch nationalist who is resentful towards both the corrupt Iranian government and loss of Iranian sovereignty. In the background, political factions such as the communists and tribal leaders openly rebel against the government and compete for power, thus destabilizing Iranian society. Zari attempts to carry on with a normal life and keep her family shielded from outside events. The killing of Yusef due to his persistent opposition to British domination and political corruption ultimately shatters Zari’s efforts at maintaining a normal family life. The novel ends with Yusuf’s funeral service, which eventually turns into a city-wide uprising in opposition to colonialism and political corruption.
One of the main themes explored in A Persian Requiem is the loss of national identity and resentment towards colonial rule. This theme is shown several times throughout the novel. For example, Zari describes the presence of foreign troops in Shiraz as unreal and akin to “watching a film.” This idea is further shown when Yusef meets with Captain Singer, a member of the British occupying force in the city and states that the Iranian people “never had the chance to fight” and that they are suffering the consequences of defeat “without ever having tasted victory or even an honorable defeat.” Additionally, Captain Singer mentions to Yusuf that the British are entitled to Iranian natural resources because “they do not need it all.” The British are also depicted as taking advantage of the Iranian people by trying to get ahold of their resources and placing strains on their medical systems. Through such sequences, Daneshvar is saying that the British occupation of Iran has demoralized the Iranian people, and that continued colonial influence and occupation has robbed Iran of the independence that it deserves as a nation.
The theme of the disconnect between the individual and authority and the idea of grassroots political change is also explored in A Persian Requiem. For example, the Iranian government is described by Yusef as not following through on its promises of political liberalization and instead brought “only bribery, excuses, hated and executions.” Additionally, Yusef states that “instead of books, teachers, medicine, and health care, they sent us soldiers armed with bayonets, guns, and hostility.” The Iranian government is portrayed as being weak at its core and unable to address the threats Iranian society faced on a continual basis. For example, the Iranian army is mentioned as “worthless even in the face of a group of local upstarts” and lacking the proper training to deal with foreign invaders and internal threats. This perceived weakness is one of the main factors as to why the British government kept its hold on Iran for many decades and as contributing to the rise in anti-government insurrectionist movements led by the communists and local tribal chiefs.
The role of women in the Middle East is shown in A Persian Requiem. Zari is initially depicted as accepting the traditional role that women in Iranian society followed and as holding in her emotions despite her deep-seated resentments. Zari holds in her emotions until the moment when her frustration becomes reaches its peak in which she erupts in an outburst at Yusef, stating that he is “the one who took my courage away from me.” Zari ultimately becomes transformed by the death of her husband, articulating the core that was previously suppressed and emerges as an independent woman in defiance of the traditional societal norms within Iran. For example, when addressing a group of local officials about the proper public involvement in Yusef’s burial, Zari recognizes the need to speak out against social injustices by stating that she “concluded that “one has to be brave in life for the sake of those who are living.”
In conclusion, A Persian Requiem explores several different themes include the loss of national identity, the divide between the individual and government, and the role of women in Middle Eastern cultures. Simin Daneshvar is effective at illustrating the numerous social and political issues that characterized Iran during the 1940s and highlights the long-standing effects of colonialism and foreign domination on a people yearning for independence. Additionally, A Persian Requiem highlights the social and political issues within Iran that eventually came to a head a little more than a decade after the book’s publication with the Iranian Revolution. Because of its portrayal of life in Iran during a critical juncture in the country’s history, A Persian Requiem will continue to be viewed by critics as one of the most influential Iranian novels in recent memory and may serve to influence future works on life in the Middle East.