A portrait of Mahsa Mohebali by photographerDirk Skiba (detail)

Mahsa Mohebali's Iran: an interview with the author of "Tehran Girl"

The Department of Asian and North African Studies and the Center for Studies on Contemporary Middle East have organised the CEM 2020-21 conference “Identity and alterity” (click here for the programme), which started today, 26 March. Among the many international guests there is the Iranian writer Mahsa Mohebali, previously a guest of the Incroci di Civiltà festival in 2015, whose latest book, "Tehran Girl", has recently been translated by Giacomo Longhi for Bompiani. We thank Giacomo Longhi for helping us interview Mahsa Mohebali.

What does being a woman, a writer and an Iranian mean to you?

It is an impossible mix – this is the first answer that comes to my mind. 

Let me tell you something. I have divorced twice. I have been lucky with my third marriage and I am happy, but this is not the point. With both divorces, the judge told me that I could not be a good wife because I am a writer. The actual statement was: “Of course if you start writing your husband will no longer want to be with you”. Yet I was the one who had filed for divorce!

Society still cannot fully accept a woman who is a writer.

My mother told me countless times that I should abandon my foolish ambitions to be a writer and get myself a proper job. I started teaching piano lessons when I was seventeen years old and I kept teaching until only a few years ago. Now I can live on my work as a ghostwriter and a playwright

Iran is an apocalyptic country. We have no idea how the system manages to work despite the incompetence, the corruption, the sanctions, the tyranny and the stupidity that crush it.  

We are the ninth richest country in the world in terms of natural resources. Our population is one of the poorest in the world. There are homeless people who sleep in cemeteries. Data on drug dependence is frightening. 

As regards vaccinations for COVID-19, there are eighty million citizens, yet Iran has only bought 100,000 doses. There is no plan for the management of the pandemic. 

The value of the dollar has multiplied by five in one year. The state is going bankrupt. The cost of staples such as bread, milk and chicken has tripled or quadrupled. 

I have no idea how families manage to make ends meet. My husband’s salary and mine last us half a month – after that, the countdown begins. 

I do not know how we can keep living like this. It is insane. The whole country is insane. A madhouse with eighty million people . 

If you are a writer, you have made two mistakes. Being a woman is the first – being a writer is the second. 

Most people do not believe that I live in Iran, because in my profile photos I do not wear the veil. For now, it is as if I were invisible. Iranian newspapers and magazines pretend that I do not exist. Perhaps it is true. When the environment around us pretends that we do not exist or that we are invisible, we slowly feel that we are, indeed, vanishing. I feel as though the ghost of me as a ghostwriter exists, yet the writer has vanished. The ghost moves among people, observing and writing, but no one can see it.  

Your book, “Tehran” Girl, is about a kind of woman who is rarely the protagonist of a novel. However, Elham turns out to be a complex, independent character. You have stressed, in some of your interviews, that glamour can be a form of resistance in Iran. Who are today’s “feminists”, and what would you say to the young women who are trying to find their way in today’s world, a world which is bombarded with mixed messages? 

I understand that people in the West may be surprised that Iranian women express their dissent by wearing colourful, fashionable clothing, by wearing eye-catching make-up and dyeing their hair.

But when a state does not allow women, regardless of their job, to enter a building if they are not dressed in black, or perhaps dark brown or dark blue, it is only natural that women will wear white, red, and yellow to violate this taboo. Dyeing one’s hair is an act of protest. Wearing make-up is dissent. 

On the other hand, there are feminists who criticise this excessive insistence on exterior appearance, stating that there is a risk that it will objectify women. Whatever the truth may be, these two approaches co-exist side by side in Iran. 

Elham, the protagonist of "Tehran Girl", is torn by this internal conflict. She is aware that her body is a capital, which is why she takes care of her body and appearance. However, she also knows that it is a capital which will lose value as time goes by and this scares her, she cannot accept it. At the end of the day, she has no other resources. Without her beautiful body she could not support herself and her family. We cannot afford to wax philosophical if we have nothing to eat.

For quite a while now you have been publishing your books in Afghanistan and then distributing them personally in Iran, where you live. Who are your readers? The West knows about Iran also thanks to other voices, such as those of Azar Nafisi and Marjane Satrapi who, unlike you, have left their country. What sort of dialogue is there between their narrations of Iran and yours? Do your narrations address different readerships? 

The books of Azar Nafisi and Marjane Satrapi are based on their experience in Iran in the 1980s. Almost fifty years have gone by since then. Time is what makes a difference.  

I live in Iran. My novel is about Tehran in 2017 – a city that Nafisi and Satrapi have not experienced. It is natural that their publications convey a different picture of the reality of this country.  

If you have not lived in your country for decades – even in a world in which information travels faster and faster – your notion of that country’s society will become increasingly less precise. 

When it comes to publishing a book, in today’s Iran there are two options: you can apply to the ministry of culture for permission and publish it with an official publishing company, or, if permission is not granted, you can contact a printing service and distribute your book on the black market – those are the so-called ‘underground’ publications. 

An ever-growing readership is gathering around non-censored books. More and more readers are aware that if a book has been granted permission, it has probably been purged prior to publication. Therefore, these readers prefer to read books that have not been put through the censorship sieve, that have not been edited, and whose author has avoided self-censorship.   

I could have published "Tehran Girl" in Iran with an underground publisher, but I chose to contact a publishing company from a nearby country, Afghanistan, which shares our language and culture. This is why my novel is read there, too, while readers in Iran can obtain it via the Internet. 

I think it is important that the uncensored literature of Iran finds its readers, however few they may be. We should be mindful of the gulf between uncensored and censored Persian literature.

Ca’ Foscari hosts many international students, some of whom are from Iran. In your opinion, how does their experience abroad affect their experience back home? For example, does it influence the intergenerational dynamics you address in your novels and mention in many interviews?

I believe it is essential that Iranian youths can study and travel abroad. For about twenty years after the revolution, from 1980 until 2000, almost all of the countries in the world were inaccessible to Iranians. Obtaining a passport was a real challenge. Most European countries did not grant visas. After the year 2000, doors slowly started to open and this has had an incredibly positive impact.

Our young people used to have no idea what the world outside Iran was like. When you are always shut in a cage, you forget how to fly. You forget that you have rights. You forget your right to freedom. You forget that you can be ambitious. Studying abroad is absolutely invaluable to us: it allows us to remember that we can spread our wings and take flight. 

The title of the meeting that you will participate in during the CEM conference is “Identity and alterity”. In your opinion, can identity be a unified whole, or can it only be that sort of restlessness (in terms of time, space, personal relationships, social classes, and even geological restlessness) that you explore in such depth in your books? 

In my opinion, there is no place in today’s world in which identity can be a unified whole. The identity of the contemporary human is fluid, restless, inexplicable, fragmented and multifaceted.

I would like to focus on the concept of fluidity. How can we have a monolithic identity if we live in a society which tells us that outside the home we must wear a veil, while inside the home and at parties we must wear revealing clothes – a society which tells us that outside the home we must pray, while inside the home we drink? Iranian children learn at a very young age that when someone asks them what mummy and daddy do at home, they must lie and conceal the truth. You cannot say that your parents drink alcohol. You cannot say that they dance at parties. So as soon as children become aware of their own existence, they also learn that they must develop two opposing identities. What can you expect from a population raised in this environment?

Time makes our identity more and more cumbersome. When we are young, all of us have at least four or five personalities at our disposal, depending on the environment in which we are in. By the time we are middle-aged, we have become a bizarre creature, a camel-cow-leopard made up of forty pieces – our homeland’s archetypes, the modern world’s tics, the idiosyncrasies of an obscurantist government, the possibilities offered by social networking, and so on. It is an identity so impossible to decipher that we cannot explain it, even to ourselves.