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Vis-a-vis the literary establishment

Among the leading figures in the field of literature and literary research during the reign of Reza Shah were men like the literary scholar Sa‘id Nafisi, who established himself in the area of literary history and Persian classical poetry; Iran’s “father of literary research” Mohammad Qazvini;17 the historian and philologist ‘Abbas Eqbal Ashtiyani; the famous poet and literary scholar Mohammad Taqi Bahar; and the poet and professor of history Rashid Yasami, amongst others,18 most of whom held important academic positions. Some of them, like Sa‘id Nafisi and ‘Abbas Eqbal, had even occupied the chairs of Persian literature since the foundation of Tehran University. They were commonly called the Odaba’-e Sab‘eh, the “seven men of letters,” and were active first and foremost in the field of literary research. In his literary history, ‘Alavi distinguishes between those who were primarily academics and those who had been poets, “revolutionary and effusive,” in their youth, like Mohammad Taqi Bahar, ‘Ali Akbar Dehkhoda and Ebrahim Purdavud. As a result of the dictatorial regime of Reza Shah, these latter figures had chosen to keep away from politics, devoting themselves almost entirely to literary scholarship.19

‘Alavi describes his own group in relation to the literary establishment as follows: “We were the newly hatched chickens (ma tazeh jujeh-ha’i budim ke az tokhm dar amadeh budim).”20 Even though they were not yet known they sometimes participated in the literary meetings of the established literati in the house of Sa‘id Nafisi, who was married to Mas‘ud Farzad’s sister:

Every week these scholars and men of letters would gather there. Farzad took us with him. We were the newly hatched chickens of literature. We wanted to work our way up. We were four persons and they were seven. - They were called the seven men of letters.21

The literary establishment of the time hardly noticed them in the beginning. They considered them, in ‘Alavi’s words, as “ignorant insolent small fry” and dismissed their literary works, such as Maziyar and Hedayat’s short stories, for lacking any literary value.22 In response to this attitude the younger generation developed their own strategies, one of which was mockery: they modelled their name Rab‘eh on the term Sabeh, the Arabic word for “seven.” ‘Alavi recounts that it was Mas‘ud Farzad who introduced the name to the group:

One day Mas‘ud Farzad said for fun: If they are the seven men of letters (Odaba’-e Sab’eh), we are the four men of letters (Odaba’-e Rab‘eh). I said: But Rab‘eh, that doesn’t mean anything. He said: Yes, but it rhymes; meaning is no longer as important.23

What began as a joke later became the well-known name of the group. The young writers were aware that they did not share the “experience and knowledge of the older generation, hadn’t read as many books and couldn’t measure up to their academic achievements in the field of Iranian literature.”24 Hedayat in particular suffered from the pretension of the leading intelligentsia of his country, as his works of the time reflect. In the satirical verses Vagh vagh Sahab (Mr. Bow-Wow) (Tehran 1933), for example, the writers Hedayat and Farzad criticize the academic class for their opportunist attitude towards the ruling elite and their plagiarism. To become a successful and famous scholar, according to them

You first of all have to look carefully around to see if one of the famous scholars lives in your town, and then whether he is well-respected by the people there, or, like me, has been cheated by fate. If the former is the case and life is on his side, then work for him for a while. This means that you should sit quietly in on his sessions, ingratiate yourself with him and pay court to him. Join the ranks of his entourage in order that your work brings in money and your name starts to take root. Then commit the titles of some thick Arabic books to memory and write an article imitating them. You have to make especially sure that there is not a single page on which the name of the book is not mentioned. Whenever you come to the phrases which you didn’t understand, by no means show this but instead place them without shame in your own writings, and with this make strangers tremble with fear and your acquaintances go green with envy and jealousy. ... Never forget that if in your writings and talks you trumpet to the importance of honesty for society and mankind’s moral issues and such major topics which appear fundamental but are actually trivial, whether it is convenient or inconvenient, whether you are asleep or awake, then it won’t be long before you receive the title of philosophic scholar and social reformer. Your name will be on the lips of every man and woman and you will have made it.25

By comparison they illustrate the circumstances for the younger generation as follows:

We must wait years and save up our meager pennies, or borrow at exorbitant interest rates, so that we can cover the expenses of printing one tiny book. Then, we expend our time, money, and mental and physical strength in determining the book’s format and font, and in selecting the type of paper and the cover’s color. We undergo the torture of proofreading, and ultimately, with a hundred heartaches behind us, we deposit our printed books with the bookseller, where, if we are fortunate and he is one of the class of honest booksellers, as time passes we will slowly receive our money from him in credit. And if God forbid he is from that other class, then Angel of Death Azrael save us.26

But there were also famous scholars like ‘Ali Akbar Dehkhoda who supported the literary activities of the young and motivated writers. According to ‘Alavi, Dehkhoda occasionally participated in their literary get-togethers in a cafe in Lalehzar Street or invited them to his home. Dehkhoda’s advice for the young generation in dealing with the literary establishment was: “Don’t look at them. They are in power and your battle against them is of no use. You are the princes of literature (shahzadeh-ye adab) and we are only your parasites (rizehkhor).27

Mojtaba Minovi retrospectively emphasizes the prolific collaboration of the young writers in contrast to the rivalry between those of the older generation. In 1952, in his speech in memory of Sadeq Hedayat, one year after his death, he stated:

They were more than seven and we also were more than four, but they had a thousand faces and a thousand hearts, while we were one. Each of us had his own personality and we answered to nobody, but in our love for the arts we were like-minded and we shared our thoughts and were equal to one another.28

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