PublicationNotes #4/5

Notes #4/5

The Gathering of Literature Lovers

This excerpt is from the working manuscript of the as yet unpublished English version of Amir Hassan Cheheltan’s novel, translated from the Farsi by Paul Sprachmann, with the kind permission of the author. So far, only a German translation has been published, released in 2020 by C.H. Beck (Munich). The original Farsi version of the novel is expected to be published by Sujet Verlag (Bremen) in 2024.

Book cover, Amir Hassan Cheheltan, Der Zirkel der Literaturliebhaber (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2020). Cover by, Andrea Hollerieth.

That Room

[…] There were eight of them, counting father and mother ten people and, if later on we also include my own fixed presence at the gatherings, we were a party of eleven. Among us, people of note were Golshan and Mokhtar, who had published books and were somewhat recurring presences in literary periodicals. Kusha was a high school literature teacher, but with literary pretensions; he wrote poetry, plays, and stories and thousands of other things, but no one took him that seriously. Except for my father, Ashrafi and Foqahi, who were also high school literature teachers — the rest meaning the blond widow, Monsef, and Hatam had no professional relationship with literature except, as they said, for that unequalled pleasure they got from it.

As the host, my father reserved special rights and privileges for himself, one of which was that he would be the one to read the text himself, except when he indicated a reluctance to do so and wanted someone else to take it on. […]

The gatherings lasted several hours, after which a number of guests would depart, and a number would remain. A small table at the side of the room, which they had set up moments before, beckoned those who stayed; this was when the serious drinking would begin. The members of the literary circle were toasted with round after round (جرعه – عامیانه) of superior quality homemade vodka supplied by an Armenian and served in cut crystal shot glasses (استکان شستی ؟؟). With fewer guests the gathering took on a more intimate cast; all sorts of things, good and bad, became topics of conversation, from rumors about politics to jokes whose teller would suddenly lower his voice and bring his head close to his listeners, after which there would be explosive peals of laughter that shook the chandelier (جار) hanging from the ceiling. In the end, of course, they would again turn to literature; in that room literature was the beginning and end of every discussion. […]

The Discovery of Literature’s Pleasure

[…] If this literature, as I heard afterwards many times and which I myself came to believe, was the essence and expression of a first-rate culture, how does it contain such topics and how does it accord with standard morality?

Seeing my serious leaning toward literature when I was on the verge of maturity, my father tried to draw me nearer to it, on the one hand, while (اضافه) wanting parts of it to remain concealed to me, on the other. At that time, he was unaware of the fact that I remained infatuated with those same hidden parts, bits that were packed with (در چنته) unspeakable secrets, the interminable source of life’s mysteries that piqued my interest. […]

I was surprised that in our school textbooks, which were full of pieces from classical literature, there was nothing with this tone (حال و هوا), a tone that would put the comic, colorful and vitality-filled (پر از زندگی) sides of life on display. The textbooks actually revealed the grim and fatiguing face of this literature, and this was definitely the reason why young people of my generation were not on good terms with it, and when, afterwards, I’d speak about literature’s attractions, most would regard me with bewilderment and skepticism and wondered at my fascination with it. I guessed it was never like that in the past; to me it was likely that in the traditional schools where my forebears studied, the children were familiar with all aspects of this literature, and, naturally, this was why it was cherished and remained (اضافه) with them until the end of their lives. […]


[…] The war with Iraq broke out less than two years after the founding of the Islamic Republic. A war that, given how it had begun (اضافه), everyone predicted would end in a couple of months went on for eight years. […] Under such circumstances as these and at a time (اضافه) when all my nightmares were filled with the whistling of mortar shells that would explode moments later, I took refuge in my books.

I realized, finding myself far away from the Thursday gatherings, or, actually, far from literature was like losing my own roots (جمع) and lineage, and in this case, there could be nothing expect but melancholy. So, whenever I’d go on leave, in place of the foods with which mothers normally packed soldiers’ knapsacks, I’d stuff my pack with as many books as I could and set out for the place I served near the Persian Gulf. While Aristotle understood philosophy as “learning to die,” Persian literature for me was “learning to live.”

In my country the book was always viewed by the authorities as something undesirable; having a book with one was a sign that things were not normal, and those who owned books (جمع) and even those who loved (liked?) them appeared suspicious, especially sociology books or novels. But I always had books with me that belonged to such distant eras and were so generally familiar and were so alien (دور از چیزی) to the tastes of young people with political inclinations that no one harbored any suspicions about me. One of the books always in my knapsack was the Complete Works of Sa’di, which more or less comprised his complete writings, others (اضافه) were Rumi’s Masnavi, selections from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, as well as a small volume of Hafez’s Odes; these were the works of the peerless poets and greatest figures in the classical literature of Iran. At that point, more than any other time, I had concluded these books had no choice but to be written, so necessary were they to the internal lives and external existences of the Iranian (انسان لازم نیست). Had Ferdowsi, Rumi, Sa’di and Hafez not written them others would have; they were destined to be created, exactly like the galaxies, the solar system, the earth and cellular life, all of which had no choice but to come into existence.

I scarcely know anyone among my associates and acquaintances who is indifferent to poetry or who doesn’t cherish our great poets. From the time I became aware of this reality, I’d continually asked myself, what was the nature of this internal attachment of ours as a people to these poets who found such a mythic place in our minds? I also asked (اضافه، یک جمله دوتا شد), how to analyze this attachment when they (بزرگان ادبیات), not even for a moment, are absent from our lives, and one can find the signs of this (their?) presence even in the farthest reaches (بجای کنج? corners) of our beings? How could they penetrate the depths of our souls like that and affect our entire worldview? It’s no wonder (بی دلیل نیست) that some foreign scholars express astonishment at the status we ascribe to the greats of our literature. […]

Freedom_4 — © Courtesy of the artist
AX, Freedom series, 2021. Acrylic and ink on canvas, 30 × 40 cm. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

The Male Beloved

They say that the Prophet of Islam said, “When one man mounts another, the throne of God shakes.”

Despite the solid mass of evidence from Iran’s classical literature in prose and verse going back (اضافه) a millennium and continuing to this day in this nation attesting to this practice. Some scholars believe that the carnal love of one man for another man began to (اضافه) flourish in our country when Central Asian Turks entered Iranian history. Other scholars seek its roots in Greek philosophy, specifically in a reference in Plato’s Symposium to male homosexuality, which they think related to the subject of Platonic love, which, having entered Iran’s philosophical works, subsequently found its way into Iranian mysticism and its literature. Male cupbearers with pretty faces, however, are of greater antiquity. In Greek mythology, Ganymede was the attractive boy kidnapped by Zeus who made him the cupbearer of the Gods of Olympus. […]

What quickly became beyond question to me was this: in the romantic poetry of the great Iranian poets whose numbers, by the grand grace of God (الی ماشأء الله: جدی یا طعنه آمیز؟), are endless, most of the time the beloved is male, and, in fact, Iranian romantic verse in a variety of genres, especially the ode, the poems are homosexual — the root meaning of ghazal (“ode”) being “lovemaking.”

Of course, for several centuries the motif (طرح) of homosexual love has not had a literary aspect (جنبه ادبی؛) or functioned as a literary movement in Persian; it came about as a result of realities that Iranian society has faced. Poets could not adhere to values (?) like general good manners that possibly didn’t exist. They saw humans as they were not how they must be, which most probably is the reason for Sa’di’s popularity; Voltaire believed it impossible that an entire nation could be wrong about sensitive matters and what pleases them. […]

The reason why the homosexual character of classical Persian literature has remained more or less concealed is that the third person pronoun used for males and females is the same word in the Persian language. Of course, in many cases also reference is made to the gender of the beloved, and in others mentioning certain (اضافه) signs suffices; for example, where there is talk of the greenish (سبز فارسی با سبز انگلیسی فرق دارد) down (پرز) of the pubescent beard (اضافه) or when the writer (اضافه) openly refers to the their bowlike eyebrows and arrow eyelashes as a sign of belligerence, it is obvious that the beloved is a young man. In the era when poets of the past spoke of the world (اضافه) outside of the home women were virtually absent, but boys and young men were seen almost everywhere and for this reason were the center of attention; it was in the decades leading up to the modern period that poets began to speak in detail of the beauty under women’s veils also. Keeping women imprisoned (تلویحی) behind the walls of homes and their absence from social space — and the unchallenged role of men in society allowed them to achieve self-sufficiency in the realm of their authority and to satisfy their physical needs in that same realm as well. As Sa’di says in one of his tales (“odes”? یکی از غزلیات ظنر آمیز):

Two who look agreeable cheek to cheek (روی در هم),
Everyone cherishes as do I.
Friends in business (حجره) and the public bath and in the alley;
With each other in the field (دشت), and atop each other at home.
The one in front drives it up to the navel into the one in back,
Next time the one in front is behind the one in back.

It’s all quite plane; everybody loves the same-sex beloved, as does Sa’di, because they are together in the shop, the bath, on the prairie, in the avenue, and at home, of course, they are one atop the other, taking turns penetrating each other.

It is not only in Sa’di’s odes that the beloved is masculine, but the beloved is also explicitly male in about half of Hafez’s odes, because one finds in them the terms “boy,” “beardless youth,” “the fine cheek hairs,” and “greenish down of the beard.” It is only in a small segment of classical verse that one can know for sure the beloved is female. For this very reason boytoying (غلامباره) was (اضافه) tantamount to being womanizing (زنباره: دیگرجنسگرا?), as a quality in men who would choose to be with numerous male beloveds. Some of these beloveds became celebrated enough to enter history, and, like the famous mistresses chronicled in the West, various works have mentioned them by name. […]

Suzani Samarqandi’s («شاعر قرن دوازدهم میلادی» ترجمه نشده-در پاراگراف قبلی گفته شد) romantic poetry describing the male beloved begins with light eroticism and gradually descends into unparalleled obscenity. Eighteenth century European novels generally begin with a preface that explains how the document or memoir came into the possession of the narrator. The teller would go on to tell a tale, thus highlighting the distinction between truth and fiction. But Suzani claims no such thing in any of his poems, thereby eliminating the possibility of the plausibility of an alternative. These verses had made an impression on the Iranian reader, because they arose from cultural referents (ارجاع فرهنگی؟), meaning those very things that lend a work its seeming plausibility and because of the way in which the generalizing of the act of one individual is taken into account, making the text congruent with the existing culture as a whole. (ترجمه نارساست?) و گونه ای همگانی شدن کنش یک فرد به حساب می آید که متن را با فرهنگ همگانی و موجود همخوا ن می کند

In one of his poems, Suzani describes a beloved’s buttocks, saying:

From silver pure I saw a mount severed,
Who has seen such a peak in twain ever?
A sterling mountain alright, cut in two;
But know you with whose blade, sir, I ask you?
In softness a heap of jasmine, white as rice (اضافه),
As unspoiled as the pearl of precious price (ترجمه «در یتیم» اشاره ایست به انجیل است- متی ۱۳:۴۶).

But apparently the delicacy of such a description doesn’t satisfy the poet. He goes a step farther and, in extoling the male beloved’s backside with sheer eroticism, propels frankness and cheek to their very limits; in contrasting the female genitalia and the male beloved’s backside, the poet maintains the latter is by far the superior:

The lad has a bum made of silver ore; The world has never seen its like, so search no more.
My cheeks are the color of processed gold,
Because that bum holds silver treasure untold.
In roundness, firmness, and its narrow gate,
The boy’s backside has neither peer nor mate.
Here’s all my silver for your silver aft;
For tis better than a gold mine and its shaft.
None give gold and gems for the cunt of some lass,
While gold and gems are fitting for an ass.
For ev’ry month the cunt’s awash with blooded crud;
While for a bit of ass all the world’s sweating blood.
The cunt dispirits the body, ass gives it heat;
The cunt’s toxic, while ass is honey sweet.
You’re giving, triumphant, and second to none,
When your cock’s firmly planted in the bum.

But is there precedence for all this praise of the male beloved, especially his ass, in the literatures of the world’s (اضافه) other nations? The first work in defense of young boy love in Western literature was Alcibiades’ The Schoolboy, which was published anonymously in 1652 and has always been discussed as a work of pornography. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in most parts of Europe, homosexuality was a capital crime. Until the 1950s, if British writers wrote openly of homosexuality they would be subject to prosecution. Although things weren’t the same in France — Honoré de Balzac brought out Sarrasine in 1831.

An Iranian poet in the twelfth century, however, exempt from any pursuit in the courts (اضافه), not only composes homosexual verses but also boasts about the act and even credits it with certain virtues (شئونات), acclaim that comes about from the multiplicity of sexual relations with men. […]

The poetry of these poets indicates they got immense pleasure from their profession. Keep in mind as well that long before the Marquis de Sade’s search in his works for a way of expressing sex (eroticism) in the West, Iranian poets were spreading the word (خطابه خواندن) in this language. In the well-known work The Philosophy of the Bedroom (La Philosophie dans le boudoir), which was published in 1795, Dolmancé prefers making love with men, and, when having sex with women, his habit was to penetrate them from behind. Some have praised de Sade for addressing these subjects clearly and candidly in his writing; however, I believe that any way one looks at it, he falls short of Suzani. Roland Barthes was probably unaware of Suzani and his poetry, if not in his famous work The Pleasure of the Text (Le Plaisir du texte) when he distinguishes between “pleasure” and “bliss,” instead of locating the origin of pleasure in the Marquis de Sade’s works he would have mentioned Suzani.

But so as not to give the impression that retail trade in love was always open to Muslim Iranian poets, I must refer an obstacle by the name of the blessed month of Ramadan. In the Muslims’ calendar, Ramadan is a month of fasting and self-restraint. For these poets who traded in love, Ramadan brought about a number of limitations, one of which was the restriction on (اضافه) making love to male beloveds; it was a month-long limitation and had to be compensated for during the eleven remaining months of the year in the best way possible. In describing the situation, Farrokhi claims that the city jurist does this very thing, except unlike the mad poet doesn’t put it in words:

I spent this month in prayer and telling beads;
The brew (سیکی), fine chanting, that sweet boy — my needs.
All month I followed the saintly course;
Eleven months that’d be me and even worse.
But one night a kiss from the friend and Ooh,
The kiss and what should be hidden from view
For the town jurist want this to come to pass,
But only I write it down — silly ass!

Suzani also complains about the limitations imposed by the month of Ramadan and says that even during prayer he is not immune to obsessive attraction to those engaged in prayer (نمازگزاران) with their behinds raised in full prostration (اضافه). But in the end, he places the entire blame on his own frightening manhood, which has the heft of a donkey’s sex organ.

To screw that supple idol of bamboo
The law and fasting have made taboo.
All slaves to holy writ and the right way
Must abjure cunts and bums during the day.
Mornings I dine and evenings I must combine,
All to honor the month of fasting time.
So obsessed am I about copulation
I cannot tell upright from full prostration.
At prayer, how you bend your back and go up and down!
And me all stiff seeing the Imam’s ass goin’ ‘round!
I tally rows of believers by candlelight,
To see whose butt is round and whose is tight.
My scary cock has brought all this malaise;
It’s ruined my life and blackened my days.
Mine’s a lofty standing and great renown,
Due to a cock no mule ever owned.

Manuchehri also bridles against (شوریدن) religiously imposed (اضافه) limitations and ignores (?) the banning of homosexual intercourse; because in this religion, everything pleasurable is unlawful. He says:

The cup and boys are my most desired of wants
No cause for chiding nor scornful taunts.
Both are proscribed, of that I am certain,
But joys like these are gaps in the law’s curtain.

Male beloveds gradually proliferated to such an extent in Persian poetry that some littérateurs understood one of the features of the ode to be speaking of a male love interest. In later eras when the ode gave way to the lyric, the male beloved still had a noticeable (پر رنگ) presence. […]

The Murder of Mokhtar

[…] The new owner of our old home got down to work the minute we vacated it. Only a week later the windows and doors had been pried from their frames, and a waiting pickup truck carted all of them away; at that point the disfigured structure remained for several days with its openings agape, making it difficult to recognize. I happened to be in my apartment the day the bulldozer came to demolish the house, watching it all happen from the window. With the collapse of the modest home, the only thing that remained of all that was a cloud of dust — in the space of a few minutes it destroyed forever that warm gathering which changed my life, lending it new meaning, that small joyful world, a world that had given me a strong sense of being alive and for long years kept us safe like a protective shield from the harm of the perilous world outside (ترجمه نسبتا آزاد).

I know that this is the way it has always been; many things have been around for long years, only to disappear later on (اضافه).

January 2018
6 Bahman 1396

Amir Hassan Cheheltan, excerpts from The Gathering of Literature Lovers, NOTES #4/5 (August/September 2023); published on, July 28, 2023.