Untranslated: Other People’s Beds by Aida Moradi Ahani — Siavash Saadlou

Aida Moradi Ahani is far from the archetypal Iranian author. Unlike many of her fellow writers who adamantly avoid routines, choosing coffee shops with rowdy crowds and blasting music as their writing resort, she sticks to a rigorous schedule that involves writing in the wee hours at home every day. She shuns stereotypically writerly habits like smoking and looks after herself by means of exercising. And above all else, she brings to life characters and stories that have rarely, if ever, found their way into Iranian works of the imagination.

Moradi Ahani’s quasi-meteoric rise to literary fame came after her debut novel, Golfing on Gunpowder, was released in 2013. Two years prior, she had published a collection of short stories, A Pin on the Cat’s Tail, with Iran’s reputable Cheshmeh Publications, though the partnership between the two was cut short thereafter. In Golfing on Gunpowder, Moradi Ahani gives a striking depiction of modern-day Iran in ways that are inventive, to say the least. The story follows Ms. Saam, a middle-aged, upper-class woman, who has an ostensibly chance encounter with Haami Navahpour, a young man working for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. While they grow closer, Ms. Saam has no clue she is being used as a pawn in shady financial dealings. Later, she goes on a cruise tour around Europe, where she meets Nabi Navahpour, Haami’s father. The two take a liking to each other and, through a series of incidents, Ms. Saam concludes that Nabi and his son haven’t touched base in years. While travelling to different countries, Ms. Saam discovers that Nabi has missed out on a business deal involving the purchase of warships from a British corporation because of the crippling international sanctions pressed against Iran and is now trying to circumvent the sanctions with the help of Russians. The book is remarkable for its nuanced critique of Iran’s affluent bourgeoisie, as well as intriguing allusions to capitalism and colonialism, which explains why several critics in Iran have applauded Moradi Ahani’s audacity for exploring heretofore undiscussed topics in Iranian fiction.

Moradi Ahani’s second novel, Lost Cities (Sadde Publishing House), which came out in 2018 and had taken the author four years to finish, is a love letter to readers of picaresque literature — a novel brimming with twists of fate that keep you guessing every step of the way. Over 300 pages long, Lost Cities revolves around Mahya Ghavamian, a young Iranian woman who works for Wikileaks and finds herself in an intricate web of devious stratagems that involve the US government and military officials, the Syrian imam of a mosque in New York, and an American presidential candidate. In a recent poll led by Iran’s Dakke online bookstore surveying famous Iranian authors to choose their top ten best novels of the last decade, Lost Cities was a favorite fixture.

As if the above weren’t enough to make a case for the sui generis subject matters of Moradi Ahani’s body of work, her latest book, Other People’s Beds (a distinctly bohemian title) is yet another tour de force, a mélange of introspective writing and apposite epigrams marinated in themes of identity, displacement, and nostalgia. While the book defies any kind of parochial classification, the publisher has categorized it as a collection of essays. It would be next to impossible, however, to pigeonhole the essays as ‘narrative,’ ‘descriptive,’ ‘expository,’ or ‘persuasive’. It can be at once all of those and none of those—a literary chameleon as it were—and for all the good reasons. Other People’s Beds is in fact the first of its kind in the annals of contemporary Persian literature, which means all analogy is off the table.

The fugue pattern of the essays creates the sensation of opening a pop-up book and finding yourself lost in its mosaic labyrinths. In the opening essay, Moradi Ahani invokes an oxymoronic juxtaposition—‘sweet bewilderment’—and describes it as “the memory of those we’ve loved and lost; comforting corners; thrilling or frustrating chronicles; closely guarded secrets; odd tantalizing tendencies; sweet profound agonies.” She goes on to detail what she calls the ‘hidden history’ of her great-grandmother, relayed to her by her late grandfather whose loss, heart-wrenching though it may have been, has sparked a burning desire inside her to set out on an odyssey that would span eighteen years and fifty cities.

The essays here are largely quest-driven, with an eye not for answers but for questions that ennoble the mind. Much like the experience of traveling itself, which can challenge the most dyed-in-the-wool of zealots, Other People’s Beds pushes the envelope of Iranian letters when it comes to the essayistic.

The essays here are largely quest-driven, with an eye not for answers but for questions that ennoble the mind. Much like the experience of traveling itself, which can challenge the most dyed-in-the-wool of zealots, Other People’s Beds pushes the envelope of Iranian letters when it comes to essayistic writing. The narrator is a globetrotter persisting to vanquish her fear of the unknown—and not just the unknown future or present but also the unknown past—while inviting the reader to do the same. Traveling, as Moradi Ahani puts it, “takes us away—away from work; away from daily toils; away from die-hard habits; from the jilting lover; from the back-stabbing friend; from a family that doesn’t get us; from a city we feel confined by or without; from the ever-restive tenor of life.

Travels are within the warp and weft of the book, at times serving as the backdrop to the main story and other times as the story itself. There are revelations aplenty, yet the narrator keeps a tantalizing distance with the reader, referring to certain characters, for example, as Mr. A, or Mr. J. It must be said, though, that the overuse of Finglish throughout the book—writing foreign words using Farsi letters and diacritic marks—produces a rather bizarre orthography and becomes somewhat nettlesome over time. Using the word ‘irony,’ for instance, in Finglish and without a telling hint, will only make the writing less accessible than it can or should be. Granted, sometimes such choice of stylistics has a rhetorical or pictorial effect on the Iranian reader, such as using the word ‘street’ in Finglish instead of simply writing its Persian counterpart: khiyaban.

Certain descriptions in the book are so kaleidoscopically evocative that you can easily imagine yourself in New York City, Venice, Stockholm, or Isfahan. There are also episodes of comic relief in the middle of gravely serious matters, like when the next-door American neighbors of the narrator’s Iranian relatives in Los Angeles ask him to move his truck which is parked outside the house because they’re going to have the Kardashians over. Similarly, Iranian and American readers alike might find themselves roaring with laughter reading the bit about the narrator’s first introduction to the United States: “In 2015, during my first ever trip to the US, I originally landed in San Francisco and then entered Los Angeles—the most clichéd way for an Iranian to be visiting the country.

Water holds a special place in most of the essays, appearing as a symbol of beauty, power, and terror: “The desire to rule waters is rooted in our narcissism. Conquering the water’s narcissism feeds our very own. The victorious gait on the beach after a swashbuckling swim, or our triumphal account of how we came so close to drowning, yet managed to survive—they all are like the aroma of wine oozing from the vintage vault of narcissism.” Food has a strong presence in the second half of the book as well:

Sitting in an ethnic eatery means that you’re having a piece of a different world on your plate. I can savor a meal that a Mexican or a Vietnamese would cook in their home, or inside a city where there is a blanket of snow, a city brimming with blooms, in a home where there’s still the trace of a couple mortar bombs on its facade and from whose windows on-call tanks and soldiers have been seen for years, a home on a street where an annual carnival is going on. This citizen-of-the-world kind of feeling, this experience of trotting the globe through your plate, draws us to ethnic restaurants.

Moradi Ahani likens traveling to being “between the contours of an enormous painting,” and when it comes to immigration, especially within the Iranian populace, she characterizes it as “dwelling in between a diptych inside an immense painting of life and that of the globe; neither on one side nor on the other—attached to—and at times detached of—either one.” More than anything, however, the book reads like a meditation on traveling while paying tribute to those who have lived and traveled before us, echoing the common epitaph on roadside Roman tombs, siste viator: “stop, traveler.” But the act of returning from a trip and relating our stories is also equally enthralling in Other People’s Beds:

Once we return from a trip, it’s always the unattainable immensity we tell our friends about, those sights that have filled us with awe: the unfathomable sea; the countless stairs of a citadel; a wondrous valley; a bridge with twenty-million bricks.

Other People’s Beds is overflowed with subtleties, and apart from stultifying gnomes here and there, it withstands the regurgitation of truisms. Perhaps most important is how the book has been written, which is with unwavering authority. In Other People’s Beds, Moradi Ahani takes the pen to paper with unrestrained verve, writing about travels that might come off as “bourgeoisie-esque” or “ills of the rich” type of writing to many Iranian readers—specifically, those of us who may never be able to afford the luxury of traveling to far-flung destinations and instead find ourselves stuck in a country that grows more isolated by the day. But Moradi Ahani makes so compelling a case with her words that it would be mightily difficult to ignore their indelible imprint. At the end of the day, don’t we read works of literature in part because they inspire us to envisage new worlds? And shouldn’t we be able to appreciate those new worlds even when envying the person who is narrating them?

Aida Moradi Ahani is an Iranian author, translator, and critic. Her debut book, a collection of short stories titled A Pin on the Cat’s Tail, was published in 2011. She has also published two novels, Golfing on Gunpowder (2013) and Lost Cities (2018), both to wide critical acclaim. Her work in translated English has appeared in Tehran Noir (Akashic Noir Anthologies), MAYDAY Magazine, Scoundrel Time, and Asymptote. Within academia, Moradi Ahani has delivered lectures on contemporary Persian literature at Stanford University and University of California, Irvine. Moradi Ahani’s latest book, Other People’s Beds (2021), is a collection of essays. @aida_ahani

Siavash Saadlou is a writer and translator whose works of fiction, creative nonfiction, and criticism have appeared in The Margins, Plenitude Magazine, WGBH Boston, and Asymptote. His poems are forthcoming in two anthologies: Essential Voices: Poetry of Iran and Its Diaspora (Green Linden Press) and Processing Crisis: An Anthology (Risk Press). In addition, his translations of contemporary Persian fiction and poetry can be found in Denver Quarterly, Scoundrel Time, and Washington Square Review, among many other journals. Saadlou holds an MFA in creative writing from Saint Mary’s College of California. @siavashsaadlou