“Living in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” according to Azar Nafisi in the essential Reading Lolita In Tehran, “is like having sex with someone you loathe.” Thus is the simultaneously felt Iranian patriotism and hatred for its regime neatly distilled. By any reasonable measure, this venerable civilization of almost eighty million people, half of them a sophisticated population of urbane under thirty-fives, ought to have been allowed to embrace and enjoy secularism, modernity, wealth and freedom. That its regime of mean religious old men prevents as much social progress as possible is catastrophe enough, but a different Iran exists behind closed doors. Women shed the hijabs and long jackets they are mandated by law to wear outside, on go MTV and YouTube and out comes the bootleg alcohol, brewed, distilled, or fermented with great ingenuity, and the party starts. Perhaps you know a diplomat, English teacher, oil worker, or intrepid backpacker who has been fortunate enough to visit. Practically everything they will tell you about the sensuousness, hospitality, and joyousness of Iran on the inside will contradict what you think you know. As foreign influence has been purged, it has been left to Iran’s writers and filmmakers to overcome the regime’s need to permit yet control artistic expression. Slowly, Iranian culture has gained traction in the west through films like A Separation, Persepolis, and This Is Not A Film and has helped produce a counterweight to the burning American flags, state denial of the holocaust, and hysterical religious gatherings with which we are so familiar. Prior to what perhaps we will one day term the early twenty-first century Iranian cultural awakening, the key reference point for hidden Iran was for many years My Uncle Napoleon (Da’i-i jan Napuli’un, 1973; tr. from the Persian by Dick Davis, 1996).
In today’s Iran, to dub someone “Uncle Napoleon” is to mock a conspiratorial worldview, especially one which puts the British at the heart of each dastardly scheme to subvert Iranian society. Perhaps one may take it as flattering that the British, apparently, installed the ghoulish black-clad figure of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 as an act of revenge against the United States for its failure to share the country’s oil fairly. If you lift a cleric’s beard, goes the joke, it says “Made In England.” Or that the falling oil prices of late are a conspiracy against the Muslim people. Islamic State, too, is a product of Israeli machinations fashioned in order to justify a wider war against its neighbors. This gibberish may be amusing — at least until becoming merely tedious — if it did not exist alongside the extremely unamusing recent Iranian contributions to the violence in and wreckage of four great regional capitals in Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Sana’a , as well as the regular supply of material, intelligence, and money to the Taliban and Hamas. My Uncle Napoleon, like the behavior of the Iranian state, is a serious kind of farce.
Iraj Pezeshkzad’s novel and subsequent much-loved television series (banned, obviously, by the religious old men) is the most famous satirical treatment of this mentality. The family’s tyrannical patriarch, Dear Uncle Napoleon, heads a household of deliberately exaggerated Iranian caricatures comprising three homes clustered around a courtyard. What proceeds is in some ways a relatively routine family feud slapstick and coming of age tale concerning our teenage narrator’s love for his cousin. Like all the best satire, a sharp edge and quiet sorrow is provided, here in the form of backstreet abortion, arranged marriages, petty police bureaucracy and intransigence, and a wife taking a knife to the “noble member” of a philandering husband. If not all of this works equally well, it is probably reflective of the novel’s success in revealing something of early 1940s Tehran which serves to conceal some of its limitations; it is much too long and the three parts into which it is separated have little in terms of plot to unify them. It is surprisingly bawdy and stuffed with ribald British seaside postcard-like euphemisms for sex. In a long novel such as this, certain affectations belonging to its characters are endearing at first yet moderately irritating by the end, such as the housekeeper’s habit of prefixing everything he says with “Why should I lie? To the grave it’s . . . ah . . . ah . . .”
Most of this is overcome by the serendipitous timing of its 1973 publication allied with the early 1940s period in which it is set. The effect is the dual achievement of, firstly, reflections of history to include the 1906 constitutional revolution, which began brightly enough but resulted in the British and Russians carving what was then Persia up for themselves and the forces of Islamic obstinacy preventing the social progress which was in prospect. It also allows Pezeshkzad to inflict the maximum mockery on Uncle Napoleon via his letters of overture requesting the protection of Hitler when the German Army one day arrives in Tehran:
To his esteemed excellency Adolf Hitler . . . in token of profound devotion and respect to your exalted glory. Your humble servant is sure that your exalted self is sufficiently aware of your humble servant’s and his late father’s long and arduous struggles against English colonial adventurism, nevertheless I shall take the liberty of setting out my struggles below.
Secondly, it is well-positioned in respect of what was to come, in particular the role of Britain and America in supporting the renegade Iranian Army conceived overthrow of the not-much-missed President Mohammed Mossadegh — who, in a cliché indulged in by all despots, won the preceding election with 99% of the vote — in 1953. Pezeshkzad perhaps did not believe the still commonly accepted view that the overthrow was wholly conceived and carried out by suits in Washington and London. If they had, Uncle Napoleon’s ridiculous and hateful worldview would have been right and there would have been nothing to satirize. As Pezeshkzad’s afterword says:
[. . .] the novel’s central character sees the hidden hand of British imperialism behind every event that has happened in Iran until the recent past [. . .] the people of Iran have clearly seen the absurdity of this belief [. . .] the only section of society who attacked it was the Mullahs. They said I had been ordered to write the book by imperialists, and that I had done so in order to destroy the roots of religion in the people of Iran.
So what are the rump of the population who know all about My Uncle Napoleon and precisely the worldview it mocks to make of the Friday prayers chant of “death to America, death to Israel, death to England?” What sort of regime exists in a state of such ignorance that it can commit self-parody as accomplished as this? Its favorite conspiracy theory is a joke amongst its own people. The west’s error is in taking these religious cranks and measuring their temperature whenever it wants to know the current direction of travel in Iran. Once the regime falls, as it almost did in 2009 before the results of an already fixed election had to be further manipulated into Ahmadinejad’s favor (incidentally, that imbroglio was a concoction of the British royal family, according to the Ayatollah), the United States and others will have explaining to do. As Christopher Hitchens put it:
[. . .]try to bear in mind that one day you will have to face the young Iranian democrats who risked their all in battle and explain to them just what you were doing when they were being beaten and gassed.
And so My Uncle Napoleon can be recommended as an excellent place to begin to put this right and understand something of what drove so many samizdat publishers to risk all in ensuring the novel would remain available to Iranians. It is made all the more poignant by the manner in which Iranian custom prevented Pezeshzkad from marrying his own sweetheart, whose father married her off to a rich merchant instead. As Azar Nafasi says, “the absurdities that cause us to laugh at a ludicrous fictional character can become sources of great suffering when practiced in real life.” Like so many Iranians, Pezeshzkad fled for Europe after the 1979 revolution. He remains in exile today. One suspects he cried rather than laughed when he realized the Uncle Napoleons were taking over.