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PEN World Voices: Atiq Rahimi in Conversation with Lila Azam Zanganeh

By Emma Garman

Afghan author Atiq Rahimi’s Prix Goncourt-winning and internationally acclaimed novel, The Patience Stone—an excerpt of which he read during the festival’s opening night extravaganza—is his fourth book, but the first that he wrote in French, rather than in his Persian mother tongue.

On Sunday afternoon, when Rahimi sat down with French-Iranian journalist and critic Lila Azam Zanganeh at the French Institute Alliance Française, he talked about the reasons for, and advantages of, that particular decision. From there the discussion—aided by dynamo interpreter Lilia Pino-Blouin, who translated Rahimi’s French into English for our benefit—moved onto subjects including, but not limited to, The Patient Stone’s tripartite structure, the geopolitical roots of Persian/Muslim society’s dislocation of mind and body, the novel’s sub-par Iranian version, translator-imposed incest in Kundera, France’s planned ban of the veil, and the fate of Afghan refugees in Europe.

“I never wanted to write in French,” said Rahimi, “and I still feel that way…but with this novel, the first sentence just came out in French.”  He tried, he said, to keep writing the story in Persian, “but I found I was incapable, so I continued in French, and the book came easily.”

As Zanganeh pointed out, with this novel—which is written from the point of view of an Afghan woman whose husband lies wounded and comatose while she verbalizes, and acts upon, years of pent-up secrets and frustrations—Rahimi has burned through his country’s prohibitions: “There is nothing more taboo,” she said, “than talking about an Afghan woman’s body and her sexuality.”

Hence the impetus to write in French: for Rahimi it was literally impossible to conceive of such a story in Persian, not only due to the draconian societal strictures against women’s sexual and emotional expression, but also because of a kind of linguistic obedience from which he needed to liberate himself. “Just think of the phrase ‘mother tongue,’” he said, “it involves pudeur”—meaning modesty, decency.

Even when he was asked at various times to translate the novel into Persian, he found that he couldn't do it, that “it just didn’t work.” Someone else's "not very well done" Persian translation has now been published in Iran, with “many passages censored.” Nevertheless it’s completely obvious, confirmed Zanganeh, where the word “sex” originally appeared.  

(Literary censorship can veer even more farcical: Rahimi recalled being in Tehran in 1988, and coming across a translation of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being in which the lovers had been turned into siblings. He'd wondered, therefore, whether in the Iranian version of his novel, the heroine's soldier lover would be changed into her brother—“which would be perverted!”)

“I just don’t understand,” said Rahimi, “the resistance there is in our country to naming these things”—especially since there was once a time when the body was far from absent in Persian culture. “After all, Rumi named sex.”

And so with The Patience Stone, he has given back, as Zanganeh put it, “a body and a voice to a literary tradition.”

“The book,” explained Rahimi, “is focused on the body…in the beginning, the woman has no body and the man’s, also, just lies there and does not move. Both bodies are just objects of suffering and shame, as in religion. The second stage is when the woman is obliged to become a prostitute and the body becomes an object of commerce.”  Then, little by little, “the woman becomes a soldier’s lover, and the body is no longer an object, her soul becomes part of her body.”  

The untranslatable Persian word for what Rahimi calls “this beautiful idea where the body and the mind are one magnificent symbiotic element” is Jaan—connoting, simultaneously, life and love. “My hope,” he said, “is that humankind can move towards this idea of Jaan.”

Unsurprisingly, there has been no distribution of The Patience Stone in Afghanistan, nor any public discussion of it. Still, Rahimi is philosophical about his work’s impact upon the attitudes he labors to dismantle: “If I can’t wake people up, I can at least make their sleep troubled.”


Published May 4, 2010   Copyright 2010 Emma Garman

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