Skip to main content
Outdated Browser

For the best experience using our website, we recommend upgrading your browser to a newer version or switching to a supported browser.

More Information

Nonfiction

For the Love of the Books

By Habibe Jafarian
Translated from Persian by Salar Abdoh
A personal essay from an Iranian woman journalist describing the impact of books like Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, and George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia.

1.

There was extra time left at the end of the class and our Koran/Religious Studies teacher was allowing us to quietly do whatever we liked until break time. This was seventh grade and I’d never had a teacher remotely like her. She was young and pretty, unlike our other Divinity teachers, who made it a point to dress badly and look bland. She had serene, generous eyes, and her brightly colored manteaus and overcoats were always tasteful and carefully ironed. It took me a while to gather enough courage to go up to her desk, a crumpled piece of paper clammy from my sweaty palm in hand. Unfolding the balled-up note, I asked nervously, “What does this mean?” It was a word I didn’t know how to pronounce, so I’d written it out: اگزیستانسیالیسم, existentialism. I caught the look of shock on our teacher’s face as her eyes darted back and forth between me and the piece of paper. Then in a cold tone she asked, “Where did you find this word?” I still hadn’t realized there might be something so terribly wrong and even believed that I’d managed to inspire her admiration over a difficult word. I told her that I’d found it in an article that the writer Jalal Al-e Ahmad had written about the novel The Blind Owl. The teacher’s face turned red. She was trying to keep her voice down but there was definite disapproval in her tone. “Who told you to read such a book? Where did you even get it? Do you know that its writer, Sadegh Hedayat, killed himself? Do you realize suicide is a great sacrilege? What else do you read? You shouldn’t be reading this sort of thing.”

As she spoke her voice became gradually less reproachful but also more desperate, as if she suspected it was already too late and there was no turning back for me from a fate similar to that of the writer of The Blind Owl. I stared at my shoes and said nothing about what other sorts of books one could find in our house, and that no matter where my older brother might hide his precious volumes, I’d still find them. For a moment I even wondered if our teacher simply didn’t know what that word meant. I wasn’t feeling bad or guilty, just a sense that it was best I turn around now, go silently back to my seat, and keep my mouth shut. I was twelve years old at the time and already sure that books were my first and last love. This certainty, though, came with a price, a constant reminder that my love of books was not something I should cultivate or be glad about. In fact, in the world where I grew up, books—at least certain books—were seen as something dangerous, something to be wary of and keep at a distance if possible. Later in life, I’d briefly wonder if there might not be some elemental truth to such fears. But at age twelve, walking quietly back to that school desk, firm in my intention to never ask a teacher questions about literature again, I already knew that I’d go home and somehow unearth every book that was left to read in my brother’s bookshelf. No one could stop me.

There is the world before a person discovers books and there is the world after. It is a kind of matrimony. Dangerous, but necessary—especially for those of us for whom a life of not reading might seem simpler, but also drab and ultimately colorless. I was determined: one day I’d marry a book.

 

2.

 

The “book” I wished to marry, the man of my dreams, had to be someone like my brother, Hossein, the person who most resembled a combination of fictional characters like Thomas Fowler of The Quiet American, Prince Bolkonsky of War and Peace, and Rochester of Jane Eyre. Men who were stubborn and hard to pin down, who were jaded and proud, and who even possessed more than a touch of arrogance.

Hossein was working on his master’s thesis in Economics when he decided to drop it all. He was a poet at heart. But he was also a working journalist and a veteran who’d been at the Karbala 5 operations at the bitterly contested Faw Peninsula during the Iran-Iraq War. Later on, during the Afghan Civil War, he would fight alongside his close friend, the legendary commander of the Northern Alliance, Ahmad Shah Masood, and later still he’d fall into the hands of their merciless enemy, the Taliban, for a time. Yet this was the same man who also loved the poetry of Rumi and Vladimir Mayakovsky, and you’d often see him tramping among his papers scattered in the middle of our living room, reciting out loud from Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell’s personal account of the Spanish Civil War.

Hossein was unlike anyone I knew. And I was sure he was that way because of all the books he’d read. Save for a few volumes of the Koran that belonged to our father, all the other books in our house were Hossein’s. He was the owner of a magic treasure chest. He could open that chest and lend me a share of the magic inside.

Which he did. Partly.

But I was hungrier than he’d imagined and would not be satisfied with just what he doled out. I wanted more. Much more. Therefore my first rebellion in life turned out to be directed at my brother, the man I worshipped. He had separated his books into those that my sister and I could read and those that he didn’t want us to touch. His words: “Forget about these other books.” I suppose he felt two adolescent girls growing up in a provincial city in the northeast of Iran weren’t ready yet to read modernist Persian texts and translations of the works of Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, and Jean-Paul Sartre.

 

A lot of Hossein’s books weren’t even shelved. In a working-class home on the poor side of the city of Mashhad, right after the long eight years of war with Iraq, owning enough bookshelves was beyond our means. Most of the books sat stacked in boxes, silent but pregnant with mysteries that our brother didn’t feel we were ready for. Except that he wasn’t there to watch us. Hossein was usually away, lugging a camera to some troubled spot. I can’t recall how long it took before I gave in to the temptation and also made my sister a partner in crime. One day, inevitably, we quit just hovering around those boxes and dug in. We heaved, pushed and pulled, until our tiny hands had managed to undo all those gigantic cartons. I have no idea what prompted my sister to choose Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler first, while I chose W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. Nor could I tell you so many years later exactly how much I understood of what I read back then. But I do remember the hours upon hours spent in various corners of the house, engulfed and dreaming. If there was a heaven at all, this had to be it. But when the inevitable happened and my brother returned from one of his trips to find out we had not listened to him and had delved into the forbidden fruit, he locked the door to Eden. Stifling his natural compassion, Hossein banned us from reaching for any of the books in his library for the next few years.

 

3.

The female librarian at University of Tehran’s central library takes the two-volume copy of Anna Karenina from me and asks, “You read the whole thing?” I nod yes. By now I’m a junior in college, and it’s been just a little over two years since I left Mashhad and came to the capital to study and, hopefully, have my own share of adventures. The librarian puts the books down with distaste and says, “Some women are monsters!” Not knowing how to react, I offer an inane smile. To my understanding, the tragic woman in the novel is nothing like how the librarian describes her. She’s sincere and intelligent. I care about her. And this mindless smile that I offer as an answer is one that, in retrospect, I will go on to offer the world every time I’m faced with declarations and judgments from people who know nothing of the world of shadows, people for whom there is only certainty and no relative answers to difficult questions, people who are forever sure of what’s black and what’s white and who’s guilty and who is not. Books, the very act of reading, have stripped me of absolutes. I do not dislike Anna Karenina, and this is dangerous to our librarian. As I reach to take back my college ID, I see that she has noticed what I’m majoring in and is giving me a hard stare. “You’re actually studying to be a librarian?” Her look turns to one of pity and she continues, “There was nothing else for you to choose besides this? Are you serious? Tomorrow when you graduate what do you think you’ll do? There’s no money in what we do and no job. Take a good look; at most you’ll become someone like me. Is that what you really want?”

I have no answers. There’s no way I can explain that I came to Tehran to major in Library Science because, as absurd and laughable as it seems, I have always wanted to marry a book. There’s no explaining that I am here because I could not stand the thought of ever being separated from books and I figured Library Science would guarantee me this marriage. I might in fact try to tell her all of this. But she would not understand. In her curious yet apathetic stare there’s not the slightest hint of the abandon that comes from a true love of books. And all the volumes in this great library have not made a dent in her reasoning. She does not suffer from the bug as I do. We each speak a different language.

 

4.

The person who did speak my language, however, was an old man I’d met almost ten years earlier, just after my fall from grace with my brother. He was a retired school principal in our neighborhood who had turned one of the rooms in his house to a books-for-rent shop. He had a daughter about my own age who was in charge of running the store. For every twenty-four-hour rental of a book they charged a negligible sum. What made the whole setup even more odd was that it existed in a part of our town where just about every head of a family was a laborer, a place where there was so little interest in books that they were not even used as decoration, where speaking “high language” was considered effete and a sign of incompetence, and where there were at least five children to each household. To try to make a living here by peddling the gibberish of “unbelievers” from clear across the planet who, on top of everything else, had never done right by us and this country, was nothing short of lunacy. That old man, whom I saw only once in his “shop,” had to be truly mad to be doing this. Yet I understood his affliction. I understood that the bug had gotten to him just as it had gotten to me.

 

When I discovered the books-for-rent shop, nearly two years had passed since my brother’s punishment. Hossein’s library remained forbidden. I would rent the books and take them home to breathlessly read right in front of our banned library so that Hossein would take notice. Wuthering Heights, Madame Bovary, Anton Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog, The Thirsty Wall and the Stream by the Iranian writer Ebrahim Golestan, Heinrich Böll’s The Clown . . .

It was as if I had found my way back to Eden. My brother saw what was happening, but he stayed silent; not once did he ask me where I was getting those books or reproach me for going against his mandate. So I kept on reading, right through the scorching summer when I was fifteen. I read, and Hossein remained silent. Then one week into autumn, he finally pointed to his shelf and his boxes of books and bellowed, “Those books over there are not just for show!” He had finally surrendered. He was a man who had seen enough of the world to know when it was too late. Whatever calamity he’d believed might befall a teenage Iranian girl whose passion was books was already here. There was no going back for either one of us.


First published in The Millions, January 30, 2017. © Habibe Jafarian. Translation © 2017 by Salar Abdoh. By arrangement with the author and translator. All rights reserved.

Read About Context Explore Teaching Ideas

1.

There was extra time left at the end of the class and our Koran/Religious Studies teacher was allowing us to quietly do whatever we liked until break time. This was seventh grade and I’d never had a teacher remotely like her. She was young and pretty, unlike our other Divinity teachers, who made it a point to dress badly and look bland. She had serene, generous eyes, and her brightly colored manteaus and overcoats were always tasteful and carefully ironed. It took me a while to gather enough courage to go up to her desk, a crumpled piece of paper clammy from my sweaty palm in hand. Unfolding the balled-up note, I asked nervously, “What does this mean?” It was a word I didn’t know how to pronounce, so I’d written it out: اگزیستانسیالیسم, existentialism. I caught the look of shock on our teacher’s face as her eyes darted back and forth between me and the piece of paper. Then in a cold tone she asked, “Where did you find this word?” I still hadn’t realized there might be something so terribly wrong and even believed that I’d managed to inspire her admiration over a difficult word. I told her that I’d found it in an article that the writer Jalal Al-e Ahmad had written about the novel The Blind Owl. The teacher’s face turned red. She was trying to keep her voice down but there was definite disapproval in her tone. “Who told you to read such a book? Where did you even get it? Do you know that its writer, Sadegh Hedayat, killed himself? Do you realize suicide is a great sacrilege? What else do you read? You shouldn’t be reading this sort of thing.”

As she spoke her voice became gradually less reproachful but also more desperate, as if she suspected it was already too late and there was no turning back for me from a fate similar to that of the writer of The Blind Owl. I stared at my shoes and said nothing about what other sorts of books one could find in our house, and that no matter where my older brother might hide his precious volumes, I’d still find them. For a moment I even wondered if our teacher simply didn’t know what that word meant. I wasn’t feeling bad or guilty, just a sense that it was best I turn around now, go silently back to my seat, and keep my mouth shut. I was twelve years old at the time and already sure that books were my first and last love. This certainty, though, came with a price, a constant reminder that my love of books was not something I should cultivate or be glad about. In fact, in the world where I grew up, books—at least certain books—were seen as something dangerous, something to be wary of and keep at a distance if possible. Later in life, I’d briefly wonder if there might not be some elemental truth to such fears. But at age twelve, walking quietly back to that school desk, firm in my intention to never ask a teacher questions about literature again, I already knew that I’d go home and somehow unearth every book that was left to read in my brother’s bookshelf. No one could stop me.

There is the world before a person discovers books and there is the world after. It is a kind of matrimony. Dangerous, but necessary—especially for those of us for whom a life of not reading might seem simpler, but also drab and ultimately colorless. I was determined: one day I’d marry a book.

 

2.

 

The “book” I wished to marry, the man of my dreams, had to be someone like my brother, Hossein, the person who most resembled a combination of fictional characters like Thomas Fowler of The Quiet American, Prince Bolkonsky of War and Peace, and Rochester of Jane Eyre. Men who were stubborn and hard to pin down, who were jaded and proud, and who even possessed more than a touch of arrogance.

Hossein was working on his master’s thesis in Economics when he decided to drop it all. He was a poet at heart. But he was also a working journalist and a veteran who’d been at the Karbala 5 operations at the bitterly contested Faw Peninsula during the Iran-Iraq War. Later on, during the Afghan Civil War, he would fight alongside his close friend, the legendary commander of the Northern Alliance, Ahmad Shah Masood, and later still he’d fall into the hands of their merciless enemy, the Taliban, for a time. Yet this was the same man who also loved the poetry of Rumi and Vladimir Mayakovsky, and you’d often see him tramping among his papers scattered in the middle of our living room, reciting out loud from Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell’s personal account of the Spanish Civil War.

Hossein was unlike anyone I knew. And I was sure he was that way because of all the books he’d read. Save for a few volumes of the Koran that belonged to our father, all the other books in our house were Hossein’s. He was the owner of a magic treasure chest. He could open that chest and lend me a share of the magic inside.

Which he did. Partly.

But I was hungrier than he’d imagined and would not be satisfied with just what he doled out. I wanted more. Much more. Therefore my first rebellion in life turned out to be directed at my brother, the man I worshipped. He had separated his books into those that my sister and I could read and those that he didn’t want us to touch. His words: “Forget about these other books.” I suppose he felt two adolescent girls growing up in a provincial city in the northeast of Iran weren’t ready yet to read modernist Persian texts and translations of the works of Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, and Jean-Paul Sartre.

 

A lot of Hossein’s books weren’t even shelved. In a working-class home on the poor side of the city of Mashhad, right after the long eight years of war with Iraq, owning enough bookshelves was beyond our means. Most of the books sat stacked in boxes, silent but pregnant with mysteries that our brother didn’t feel we were ready for. Except that he wasn’t there to watch us. Hossein was usually away, lugging a camera to some troubled spot. I can’t recall how long it took before I gave in to the temptation and also made my sister a partner in crime. One day, inevitably, we quit just hovering around those boxes and dug in. We heaved, pushed and pulled, until our tiny hands had managed to undo all those gigantic cartons. I have no idea what prompted my sister to choose Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler first, while I chose W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. Nor could I tell you so many years later exactly how much I understood of what I read back then. But I do remember the hours upon hours spent in various corners of the house, engulfed and dreaming. If there was a heaven at all, this had to be it. But when the inevitable happened and my brother returned from one of his trips to find out we had not listened to him and had delved into the forbidden fruit, he locked the door to Eden. Stifling his natural compassion, Hossein banned us from reaching for any of the books in his library for the next few years.

 

3.

The female librarian at University of Tehran’s central library takes the two-volume copy of Anna Karenina from me and asks, “You read the whole thing?” I nod yes. By now I’m a junior in college, and it’s been just a little over two years since I left Mashhad and came to the capital to study and, hopefully, have my own share of adventures. The librarian puts the books down with distaste and says, “Some women are monsters!” Not knowing how to react, I offer an inane smile. To my understanding, the tragic woman in the novel is nothing like how the librarian describes her. She’s sincere and intelligent. I care about her. And this mindless smile that I offer as an answer is one that, in retrospect, I will go on to offer the world every time I’m faced with declarations and judgments from people who know nothing of the world of shadows, people for whom there is only certainty and no relative answers to difficult questions, people who are forever sure of what’s black and what’s white and who’s guilty and who is not. Books, the very act of reading, have stripped me of absolutes. I do not dislike Anna Karenina, and this is dangerous to our librarian. As I reach to take back my college ID, I see that she has noticed what I’m majoring in and is giving me a hard stare. “You’re actually studying to be a librarian?” Her look turns to one of pity and she continues, “There was nothing else for you to choose besides this? Are you serious? Tomorrow when you graduate what do you think you’ll do? There’s no money in what we do and no job. Take a good look; at most you’ll become someone like me. Is that what you really want?”

I have no answers. There’s no way I can explain that I came to Tehran to major in Library Science because, as absurd and laughable as it seems, I have always wanted to marry a book. There’s no explaining that I am here because I could not stand the thought of ever being separated from books and I figured Library Science would guarantee me this marriage. I might in fact try to tell her all of this. But she would not understand. In her curious yet apathetic stare there’s not the slightest hint of the abandon that comes from a true love of books. And all the volumes in this great library have not made a dent in her reasoning. She does not suffer from the bug as I do. We each speak a different language.

 

4.

The person who did speak my language, however, was an old man I’d met almost ten years earlier, just after my fall from grace with my brother. He was a retired school principal in our neighborhood who had turned one of the rooms in his house to a books-for-rent shop. He had a daughter about my own age who was in charge of running the store. For every twenty-four-hour rental of a book they charged a negligible sum. What made the whole setup even more odd was that it existed in a part of our town where just about every head of a family was a laborer, a place where there was so little interest in books that they were not even used as decoration, where speaking “high language” was considered effete and a sign of incompetence, and where there were at least five children to each household. To try to make a living here by peddling the gibberish of “unbelievers” from clear across the planet who, on top of everything else, had never done right by us and this country, was nothing short of lunacy. That old man, whom I saw only once in his “shop,” had to be truly mad to be doing this. Yet I understood his affliction. I understood that the bug had gotten to him just as it had gotten to me.

 

When I discovered the books-for-rent shop, nearly two years had passed since my brother’s punishment. Hossein’s library remained forbidden. I would rent the books and take them home to breathlessly read right in front of our banned library so that Hossein would take notice. Wuthering Heights, Madame Bovary, Anton Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog, The Thirsty Wall and the Stream by the Iranian writer Ebrahim Golestan, Heinrich Böll’s The Clown . . .

It was as if I had found my way back to Eden. My brother saw what was happening, but he stayed silent; not once did he ask me where I was getting those books or reproach me for going against his mandate. So I kept on reading, right through the scorching summer when I was fifteen. I read, and Hossein remained silent. Then one week into autumn, he finally pointed to his shelf and his boxes of books and bellowed, “Those books over there are not just for show!” He had finally surrendered. He was a man who had seen enough of the world to know when it was too late. Whatever calamity he’d believed might befall a teenage Iranian girl whose passion was books was already here. There was no going back for either one of us.


First published in The Millions, January 30, 2017. © Habibe Jafarian. Translation © 2017 by Salar Abdoh. By arrangement with the author and translator. All rights reserved.

Definitions

manteaus: Buttoned tunics that cover women’s bodies to their knees, mandatory to wear in public places in Iran.

“high language”: Polite or literary language.

“unbelievers”: People who do not follow Islam.

Meet the Author

Habibe Jafarian, journalist and author of “How to Be a Woman in Tehran.”

Salar Abdoh, translator of this essay, comments that Habibe Jafarian is “arguably currently Iran’s finest nonfiction writer . . . essential reading for anything that has to do with Iran.”

You can read more from Jafarian, and find out what her current life is like, in her essay “How to be a Woman in Tehran,” also published on this site. Or, check out her essay “Something Cataclysmic Every Week,” published in The Baffler, about the COVID era in Iran.

Meet the Translator

Watch Salar Abdoh discuss Iranian culture and literature: “Iranians Are Extremely Curious About the World.”

(Watch on YouTube.)

Then, learn about Abdoh’s childhood and teen years in his essay Hunger, also published on this site.

Say the Names

Listen to  pronunciations of selected Persian terms in this story, read aloud by Mandana Naviafar.

(Listen on SoundCloud.)

Then, listen to a pronunciation of the word “existentialism” in Persian. Does it remind you of any other languages?

Banned Books Around the World

In this essay, Jafarian’s religious studies teacher is shocked that she has read a censored book. See below to find out more about censorship in Iran and other countries, including the U.S.

Iran:

The U.S.:

Mexico: Read about politicians’ 2001 attempts to ban Carlos Fuentes’ novel Aura, and how the ban dramatically boosted the book’s sales.

China: Visit the Taboo Topics section of our collection of literature from China.

Egypt: Read an article in which Egyptian novelist Mansoura Ez-Eldin says that it is the “silence or self-censorshipof creative people that actually threatens Arab creativity.” Then, read about the censorship of so-called “Fake News” in Egypt.

Russia:

World: 

From Mashhad...

Imam Reza shrine, Mashhad, 2009. Public domain.

Look at photographs of the author’s birthplace, Mashhad, “Iran’s most religious city,” on FlickR and in a traveler’s photo essay.

. . . to Tehran

Young Iranians at TEDxTehran, Dijon Cafe at Fereshteh Bookcity, 2018. By Fahime Taherjouyan, CC BY 2.0 license.

Jafarian writes that she “came to Tehran to major in Library Science because, as absurd and laughable as it seems, I have always wanted to marry a book.” Find out about her chosen city below.

Look at a map of Tehran and its landmarks, possibly similar to the one Jafarian used to “stare at for hours,” on LonelyPlanet.com. (This travel website calls the city “a formidable adventure.”)

Then, look through Flickr users’ images of Tehran, Jafarian’s current home. You’ll find photos of the university she attended.

A Writer's Fate?

Sadeq Hedayat, author of The Blind Owl. 1928 or 1929. Public domain license.

Habibe Jafarian’s teacher worries about her suffering “a fate similar to that of the writer of The Blind Owl.” Learn more about that writer and his fate in this biography from the Iran Chamber Society.

The Iran-Iraq War: A Scholar Speaks

Habibe Jafarian describes growing up “[i]n a working-class home on the poor side of the city of Mashhad, right after the long eight years of war with Iraq.” Below, find out more about that war from Amir Arian’s introduction to Iranian literature:

In 1980, Saddam Hussein decided to take advantage of the post-revolutionary chaos in Iran and launched a military campaign to annex the strategic, oil-rich state of Khuzestan. It turned out to be much harder than he had imagined. Hussein’s attack led to an eight-year war that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and burned out large swaths of land on both sides of the border.
The war left a large mark on the Iranian psyche and became a major literary theme.

You can find out more about the Iran-Iraq war in this BBC timeline. For greater depth on “the longest conventional war of the 20th century,” read this article from the Encyclopædia Iranica.

Iranian writer Amir Ahmadi Arian

Background on Iran

New to learning about Iran? Read the country’s profile on encylopedia.com.

Two Iranian women walking down an alleyway with old buildings and parked motorbikes.

Alleyway in Hamoomchaal, by Kamyar Adl. License: CC BY 2.0.

More from the Author

Iranian author, journalist, and translator Habibe Jafarian Read Jafarian’s “How to be a Woman in Tehran,” also on this side, in which she sketches her adult life as a journalist. Or, find out what it’s really like to live under U.S. economic sanctions in “Something Cataclysmic Every Week,” published in The Baffler in 2020.

Other essays of Jafarian’s translated into English include “Of Dead Men and Warriors,” in Guernica, and “A Son’s Story,” in Asymptote.

More from the Translator (and author, acting as a translator!)

Habibe Jafarian translated Salar Abdoh’s essay “Hunger,” also published in this unit. In the essay, he describes coming to the U.S. as a teenager.

Iranian writer and translator Salar Abdoh

More Rebellious Women

“I could tell that Reza never forgave me for going against his wish. His life revolved around a personal code that was unbreakable. But so did mine.”

In this essay, also translated by Salar Abdoh, Jafarian recounts how she fought for the recognition of another woman who lived by her own personal code: Ingrid Bergman.

Love in Translation
British author Charlotte Bronte

Cropped image of a portrait of Charlotte Brontë by Evert A. Duyckinck, 1876. Public domain.

As a child, Jafarian hoped to someday marry a man like “Rochester of Jane Eyre” — but how did Rochester come across in the Persian translation of Charlotte Brontë’s English classic?

A group of scholars are launching an innovative project to find the answer to this and many other questions by comparing hundreds of translations of Jane Eyre. Read about their work, and find out what was omitted from the Persian translation of the novel, in Poets and Writers. (Thanks to Professor Yolanda Padilla of the The University of Texas at Austin for this suggestion!)

Inspired by her Brother

Habibe Jafarian’s brother Hossein was a major influence on her reading and life. He could often be found “tramping among his papers scattered in the middle of our living room reciting out loud from Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell’s personal account of the Spanish Civil War.” You can hear Orwell himself reading from Homage in the video below.

Jafarian also mentions that “Hossein was usually away lugging a camera to some troubled spot.” The translator of this essay has done similar work: read about his experiences as a journalist covering the war against ISIS in the essay The Cleric and I.

Then, read Jafarian’s other essay on WWB Campus to see whether she’s following in her brother’s footsteps in her own work.

Last Love
Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev

Photograph of Fyodor Tyutchev by Sergey Lvovich Levitsky, 1867. Public domain.

Jafarian writes, “I was 12 years old at the time and already sure that books were my first and last love.”

The phrase “last love” most famously appears in a nineteenth-century Russian poem by Fyodor Tyuchev, recently published in translation in the Financial Times.

More Love of Fictional Characters

The cover of Teffi’s book Subtly Worded, from Pushkin Press.

Habibe Jafarian wasn’t the only young woman to fall prey to the charms of Prince Volkonsky. Teffi, a Russian humorist, describes her own love affair with the fictional prince—and jealous hatred of his bride, Natasha Rostov—in this excerpt from her book Subtly Worded. (Note: the relevant section begins after the asterisks.)

More Readings That Go Beyond the Black-and-White*

In her essay, Jafarian observes that some people think they know “what’s black and what’s white and who’s guilty and who is not.” Jafarian cannot share this certainty: “Books, the very act of reading, have stripped me of absolutes.”

Below, you’ll find stories and articles that might do the same for you.

On WWB Campus:

Fiction available elsewhere:

Nonfiction available elsewhere:

*For Teaching Idea 1

More Stories of Life-Changing Reading*

Cover of the novel Fahrenheit 451On WWB Campus:

Elsewhere:

*For Teaching Idea 1

More Books That Change Lives*

Mentioned in Jafarian’s Essay:

Mentioned Elsewhere:

*For Teaching Idea 1

More Banned Books*

*For Teaching Idea 1

​More Stories of Divisions Within Cultures*

On WWB Campus:

  • How to Be a Woman in Tehran, also by Habibe Jafarian (See the descriptions of her encounter with the receptionist and the “mullah”)
  • Encounter, also from Iran, about two women’s failure to connect and the lasting consequences of that failure
  • An Interview with Wu Wenjian, a Chinese oral history profiling one of the working-class protesters at Tiananmen who comments that, even when they are all in prison together, there is a vast distance between him and the student protesters: Elite and ordinary citizens pass by each other. The wall between them is insurmountable.
  • The Stone Guest, about a citified Uzbek sculptor in Moscow and his recently-arrived “rascal of a nephew.”
  • Pears from Gudauty, a story from Russia, set during the Soviet era and putting the lie to the myth of “universal brotherhood” among Soviet nationalities.

Elsewhere:

For Teaching Idea 2

To access these Teaching Ideas, please register or login to WWB-Campus.
English

1.

There was extra time left at the end of the class and our Koran/Religious Studies teacher was allowing us to quietly do whatever we liked until break time. This was seventh grade and I’d never had a teacher remotely like her. She was young and pretty, unlike our other Divinity teachers, who made it a point to dress badly and look bland. She had serene, generous eyes, and her brightly colored manteaus and overcoats were always tasteful and carefully ironed. It took me a while to gather enough courage to go up to her desk, a crumpled piece of paper clammy from my sweaty palm in hand. Unfolding the balled-up note, I asked nervously, “What does this mean?” It was a word I didn’t know how to pronounce, so I’d written it out: اگزیستانسیالیسم, existentialism. I caught the look of shock on our teacher’s face as her eyes darted back and forth between me and the piece of paper. Then in a cold tone she asked, “Where did you find this word?” I still hadn’t realized there might be something so terribly wrong and even believed that I’d managed to inspire her admiration over a difficult word. I told her that I’d found it in an article that the writer Jalal Al-e Ahmad had written about the novel The Blind Owl. The teacher’s face turned red. She was trying to keep her voice down but there was definite disapproval in her tone. “Who told you to read such a book? Where did you even get it? Do you know that its writer, Sadegh Hedayat, killed himself? Do you realize suicide is a great sacrilege? What else do you read? You shouldn’t be reading this sort of thing.”

As she spoke her voice became gradually less reproachful but also more desperate, as if she suspected it was already too late and there was no turning back for me from a fate similar to that of the writer of The Blind Owl. I stared at my shoes and said nothing about what other sorts of books one could find in our house, and that no matter where my older brother might hide his precious volumes, I’d still find them. For a moment I even wondered if our teacher simply didn’t know what that word meant. I wasn’t feeling bad or guilty, just a sense that it was best I turn around now, go silently back to my seat, and keep my mouth shut. I was twelve years old at the time and already sure that books were my first and last love. This certainty, though, came with a price, a constant reminder that my love of books was not something I should cultivate or be glad about. In fact, in the world where I grew up, books—at least certain books—were seen as something dangerous, something to be wary of and keep at a distance if possible. Later in life, I’d briefly wonder if there might not be some elemental truth to such fears. But at age twelve, walking quietly back to that school desk, firm in my intention to never ask a teacher questions about literature again, I already knew that I’d go home and somehow unearth every book that was left to read in my brother’s bookshelf. No one could stop me.

There is the world before a person discovers books and there is the world after. It is a kind of matrimony. Dangerous, but necessary—especially for those of us for whom a life of not reading might seem simpler, but also drab and ultimately colorless. I was determined: one day I’d marry a book.

 

2.

 

The “book” I wished to marry, the man of my dreams, had to be someone like my brother, Hossein, the person who most resembled a combination of fictional characters like Thomas Fowler of The Quiet American, Prince Bolkonsky of War and Peace, and Rochester of Jane Eyre. Men who were stubborn and hard to pin down, who were jaded and proud, and who even possessed more than a touch of arrogance.

Hossein was working on his master’s thesis in Economics when he decided to drop it all. He was a poet at heart. But he was also a working journalist and a veteran who’d been at the Karbala 5 operations at the bitterly contested Faw Peninsula during the Iran-Iraq War. Later on, during the Afghan Civil War, he would fight alongside his close friend, the legendary commander of the Northern Alliance, Ahmad Shah Masood, and later still he’d fall into the hands of their merciless enemy, the Taliban, for a time. Yet this was the same man who also loved the poetry of Rumi and Vladimir Mayakovsky, and you’d often see him tramping among his papers scattered in the middle of our living room, reciting out loud from Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell’s personal account of the Spanish Civil War.

Hossein was unlike anyone I knew. And I was sure he was that way because of all the books he’d read. Save for a few volumes of the Koran that belonged to our father, all the other books in our house were Hossein’s. He was the owner of a magic treasure chest. He could open that chest and lend me a share of the magic inside.

Which he did. Partly.

But I was hungrier than he’d imagined and would not be satisfied with just what he doled out. I wanted more. Much more. Therefore my first rebellion in life turned out to be directed at my brother, the man I worshipped. He had separated his books into those that my sister and I could read and those that he didn’t want us to touch. His words: “Forget about these other books.” I suppose he felt two adolescent girls growing up in a provincial city in the northeast of Iran weren’t ready yet to read modernist Persian texts and translations of the works of Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, and Jean-Paul Sartre.

 

A lot of Hossein’s books weren’t even shelved. In a working-class home on the poor side of the city of Mashhad, right after the long eight years of war with Iraq, owning enough bookshelves was beyond our means. Most of the books sat stacked in boxes, silent but pregnant with mysteries that our brother didn’t feel we were ready for. Except that he wasn’t there to watch us. Hossein was usually away, lugging a camera to some troubled spot. I can’t recall how long it took before I gave in to the temptation and also made my sister a partner in crime. One day, inevitably, we quit just hovering around those boxes and dug in. We heaved, pushed and pulled, until our tiny hands had managed to undo all those gigantic cartons. I have no idea what prompted my sister to choose Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler first, while I chose W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. Nor could I tell you so many years later exactly how much I understood of what I read back then. But I do remember the hours upon hours spent in various corners of the house, engulfed and dreaming. If there was a heaven at all, this had to be it. But when the inevitable happened and my brother returned from one of his trips to find out we had not listened to him and had delved into the forbidden fruit, he locked the door to Eden. Stifling his natural compassion, Hossein banned us from reaching for any of the books in his library for the next few years.

 

3.

The female librarian at University of Tehran’s central library takes the two-volume copy of Anna Karenina from me and asks, “You read the whole thing?” I nod yes. By now I’m a junior in college, and it’s been just a little over two years since I left Mashhad and came to the capital to study and, hopefully, have my own share of adventures. The librarian puts the books down with distaste and says, “Some women are monsters!” Not knowing how to react, I offer an inane smile. To my understanding, the tragic woman in the novel is nothing like how the librarian describes her. She’s sincere and intelligent. I care about her. And this mindless smile that I offer as an answer is one that, in retrospect, I will go on to offer the world every time I’m faced with declarations and judgments from people who know nothing of the world of shadows, people for whom there is only certainty and no relative answers to difficult questions, people who are forever sure of what’s black and what’s white and who’s guilty and who is not. Books, the very act of reading, have stripped me of absolutes. I do not dislike Anna Karenina, and this is dangerous to our librarian. As I reach to take back my college ID, I see that she has noticed what I’m majoring in and is giving me a hard stare. “You’re actually studying to be a librarian?” Her look turns to one of pity and she continues, “There was nothing else for you to choose besides this? Are you serious? Tomorrow when you graduate what do you think you’ll do? There’s no money in what we do and no job. Take a good look; at most you’ll become someone like me. Is that what you really want?”

I have no answers. There’s no way I can explain that I came to Tehran to major in Library Science because, as absurd and laughable as it seems, I have always wanted to marry a book. There’s no explaining that I am here because I could not stand the thought of ever being separated from books and I figured Library Science would guarantee me this marriage. I might in fact try to tell her all of this. But she would not understand. In her curious yet apathetic stare there’s not the slightest hint of the abandon that comes from a true love of books. And all the volumes in this great library have not made a dent in her reasoning. She does not suffer from the bug as I do. We each speak a different language.

 

4.

The person who did speak my language, however, was an old man I’d met almost ten years earlier, just after my fall from grace with my brother. He was a retired school principal in our neighborhood who had turned one of the rooms in his house to a books-for-rent shop. He had a daughter about my own age who was in charge of running the store. For every twenty-four-hour rental of a book they charged a negligible sum. What made the whole setup even more odd was that it existed in a part of our town where just about every head of a family was a laborer, a place where there was so little interest in books that they were not even used as decoration, where speaking “high language” was considered effete and a sign of incompetence, and where there were at least five children to each household. To try to make a living here by peddling the gibberish of “unbelievers” from clear across the planet who, on top of everything else, had never done right by us and this country, was nothing short of lunacy. That old man, whom I saw only once in his “shop,” had to be truly mad to be doing this. Yet I understood his affliction. I understood that the bug had gotten to him just as it had gotten to me.

 

When I discovered the books-for-rent shop, nearly two years had passed since my brother’s punishment. Hossein’s library remained forbidden. I would rent the books and take them home to breathlessly read right in front of our banned library so that Hossein would take notice. Wuthering Heights, Madame Bovary, Anton Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog, The Thirsty Wall and the Stream by the Iranian writer Ebrahim Golestan, Heinrich Böll’s The Clown . . .

It was as if I had found my way back to Eden. My brother saw what was happening, but he stayed silent; not once did he ask me where I was getting those books or reproach me for going against his mandate. So I kept on reading, right through the scorching summer when I was fifteen. I read, and Hossein remained silent. Then one week into autumn, he finally pointed to his shelf and his boxes of books and bellowed, “Those books over there are not just for show!” He had finally surrendered. He was a man who had seen enough of the world to know when it was too late. Whatever calamity he’d believed might befall a teenage Iranian girl whose passion was books was already here. There was no going back for either one of us.


First published in The Millions, January 30, 2017. © Habibe Jafarian. Translation © 2017 by Salar Abdoh. By arrangement with the author and translator. All rights reserved.

Read Next

iran-memories
[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]