The Blind Owl, by Sadegh Hedayat

2012 Book 136: The Blind Owl  

Written by Sadegh Hedayat; Translated by D.P. Costello; Introduction by Porochista Khakpour

Reason for Reading: 
In order to increase awareness of speculative fiction authors-of-color for A More Diverse Universe blog tour, I have read and reviewed The Blind Owl, by Sadegh Hedayat. Although The Blind Owl may not be considered speculative fiction by critics, I felt that the surreal nature of this book fit with the spirit of speculative fiction. 

My Review
In this surreal novella, an unnamed protagonist unburdens the deadly weight on his chest by confessing to his own grotesquely owl-shaped shadow on the wall. 


“in order to explain my life to my stooping shadow, I am obliged to tell a story. Ugh! How many stories about love, copulation, marriage and death already exist, not one of which tells the truth! How sick I am of well-constructed plots and brilliant writing!”

In his mind-spinning narration, it is difficult to tell when the events described are cloaked with opium, veiled with madness, or are simple truth. This novel is deeply disturbing in many ways. It narrates horrific events, certainly, but it is the manner that they are conveyed that is frightening. His imagery is surreal. His repetition is hypnotic. His words are oppressive. 

“Only death does not lie. The presence of death annihilates all superstitions. We are the children of death and it is death that rescues us from the deceptions of life.”

The imagery and symbolism used by Hedayat portrays his personal marriage between Western and Eastern culture. Although this book is considered the essence of Persian literature, there are signs of Poe and Kafka. The Blind Owl bled, vomited, and wept Freudian symbolism. 

This was an amazing book, and highly recommended to people interested in Persian fiction or in modernist fiction. 

About the Author and Book: 

Sadegh Hedayat (1903-1951) was one of the two fathers of Persian fiction, and sole father of modernist Persian literature. He was born to an aristocratic family in Tehran, and grew up during a turbulent time in the history of Iran. After WWI, the country underwent “modernization” and “Westernization.” As always happens with modernization, many people felt oppressed by the loss of culture and ceremony…by the loss of what makes them THEM and by the adoption of foreign values. Hedayat was apparently not one of these people. In 1925 he left Iran for studies in Europe. After short-lived attempts at studying engineering, architecture, and dentistry, he dedicated his life to studying Western literature and to learning Iranian folklore and history. From 1937 to 1939, Hedayat lived in India. The Blind Owl was first published in 1937 in Bombay, India with the label: “Not for publication in Iran.” At the time of publication Iran was suffering from the oppressive later years of the reign of Reza Shah. Free press was limited, the middle class was ruled with an “Iron Fist,” and the bureaucracy was falling apart under corruption. 

In Hadayat’s later years, his writings attacked the monarchy and the clergy of Iran, which he felt were leading to its downfall. However, he felt alienated by everyone around him in Iran, and moved to Paris. In 1951, he gassed himself in his apartment by plugging all the windows and doors with cotton. He left money for his burial in plain view. 

The introduction to The Blind Owl, written by Porochista Khakpour in the Costello translation is well worth reading. She tells about her history with the novel…how her father wouldn’t let her read it when she was a child because it had lead to so many suicides among Iranian youths. I get the impression that Khakpour’s family was of a melancholic nature and was strongly affected by books of this nature. I found The Blind Owl disturbing, but I didn’t experience any inconvenient urge to off myself after reading it. 

Personal interpretation that will contain middle-of-story SPOILERS:

I generally roll my eyes whenever the phrase “Oedipus complex” is introduced into an interpretation. However, in this case, I think “Oedipus complex” is exactly what Hedayat was aiming for. The ONLY character named in the entire book was his mother. He described his mother’s dancing in sensual detail. He obsessed sexually about all maternal figures in his life, including his aunt and his nanny. He admits to marrying “that bitch” his wife because she reminded him of his aunt (whom he worshiped with an almost sensual passion). He viewed his mother, nanny, and aunt as sexually unattainable…but that view was extended to his wife. He insisted that he had never slept with her. That he had gone mad from her denial of him and her promiscuity with flea-ridden brutes off the streets. I interpreted these obsessive delusions as false. I assumed that he had, indeed, coupled with his wife, but in his madness repressed those memories and created new delusional memories about other men. (On a side note, I’m not even certain his wife was his aunt’s child…she may have been the daughter of his nanny…but I don’t know why that would matter?)

The Oedipus complex extended towards his feelings for his father, his father’s brother, and his father-in-law. He seemed to fear and loathe the very idea of any of these men–they had, in fact, merged with each other in his own mind. Worse, they had merged with his own self-image so that he feared and loathed himself–probably for his unsatisfied sexual desires towards maternal figures. 

Of course, I don’t think the entire story was about an Oedipus complex…that was just the theme that jumped out at me on my first perusal. The story was about a man who was isolated from the rest of the world. A man who would never belong. A man who had no one to unburden himself to as the world around him crumbled into surreal chaos. The isolation was likely a reflection of Hedayat’s own feelings of alienation. The world crumbling around him was likely how he viewed the socio-economic failure of Iran. 

I’m sure this is the type of book that you find something new each and every time you read it…even if you meticulously study it for years.




The Lemon Tree, by Sandy Tolan

2012 Book 118: The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, by Sandy Tolan (8/4/2012)

Reason for Reading: I realized I know much less than I should about this politically vital conflict and am enjoying learning more about it. I read this for the Reading Globally Middle Eastern Literature theme read.


My Review

Ostensibly, this is the (true) biography of the friendship between the Israeli woman Dalia Eshkenazi and the Palestinian man Bashir Khairi. However, the book also focuses strongly on background information–providing a wonderful history of the Israel-Palestine conflict since the 1940’s. I was hugely pleased by this book for two reasons. First, the friendship between Dalia and Bashir was touching because they both had such strong nationalistic feelings. Somehow, despite their very different views, they were able to remain on good terms for many years. That’s touching to me because many books with this let’s-make-peace message tend to be about people who are all about love and peace and aren’t as strongly influenced by their negative emotions as Dalia and (especially) Bashir. This is a friendship that was difficult to maintain, and yet it prevailed. The second reason I loved this book is because of the wonderful history of the region it provided. It’s supposedly a “balanced” view–and it is, in the sense that it recommends justice (and sacrifice) be made by both sides. However, I’d say the book tended to be sympathetic towards to Palestinians. This SLIGHT bias is necessary in this case because many people in the Western world are over-exposed to the Israeli side and don’t realize the Palestinians have a side at all. This book is highly recommended to anyone interested in the conflict.

A Bottle in the Gaza Sea, by Valerie Zenatti

2012 Book 114: A Bottle in the Gaza Sea, by Valerie Zenatti (7/26/2012)

Reason for Reading: Reading Globally Middle Eastern Theme Read. 

My Review 
As a method of self-defense against increasing Israeli-Palestinian violence, feisty 17-year-old Israeli Tal writes a note and sticks it in a bottle. She asks her brother to throw the bottle in the Gaza sea, with hopes that she’ll meet a Palestinian girl and somehow put a personality to the people she knows must be behind the fence. What she gets is 20-year-old Naim, a scathingly sarcastic, but nice-under-the-surface Palestinian man. The book is a series of emails between the two, and as their understanding of each other grows, so does their affection for one another. This was a really sweet book. It was silly, as are all teenage romances, but actually believable (if you have faith in coincidence). I was surprised while reading because I’d originally thought the author was Israeli, writing for Israeli teens—but the book is written by a French woman who lived in Israel when she was younger. The target audience is therefore teens who do not necessarily know all the background in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. This is something I appreciated, because I felt like I understood what they were talking about when they mentioned political and historical events. This is a quick, enjoyable read.

I Shall Not Hate, Izzeldin Abuelaish


2012 Book 112: I Shall Not Hate, by Izzeldin Abuelaish (7/23/2012)

Reason for Reading: Reading Globally Middle Eastern theme read

My Review 
In this heartbreaking (yet strangely uplifting) memoir, Abuelaish relates his life—growing up in poverty in a Palestinian refugee camp, slaving so that he could raise enough money to go to medical school, and his rising career coincident with his growing family. Despite losing 3 daughters and a niece to an Israeli military action, Abuelaish preaches that love, not hate, is required to bring peace. Abuelaish’s story is engrossing and tragic, yet I couldn’t help but think about all of the suffering Palestinians who don’t have a voice. If life is so hard for someone who has powerful connections, what must it be like for those who have no one to help them? This is a must-read for people who think Palestinians are all about terrorism and throwing rocks—people who likely wouldn’t touch the book with a 10-foot pole. It’s also a fantastic read for someone who is sympathetic to both sides of the conflict, but who wants to hear a personal story. I DO wish I could read the story of someone who isn’t highly connected, but this is a fantastic start. And Abuelaish’s enduring message of love make a monumental memoir.

Samir and Yonatan, Daniella Carmi

2012 Book 101: Samir and Yonatan, by Daniella Carmi (7/7/2012)


Reason for Reading: I read this for the Middle Eastern literature theme for Reading Globally

My Review 3.5/5 stars
When Palestinian boy Samir breaks his knee, he must stay in a Jewish hospital for a special surgery. There, he faces his fears of Israelis and make a new friend. This is a cute story with the we’re-not-so-different-after-all moral. Although it may resonate more strongly with the Israeli kids for whom it was originally written, its translation is a good addition to English-language children’s literature as well. It was enjoyable and cute, and has a moral that every child in the world can benefit from.

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

2012 Book 100: Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (7/5/2012)

Reason for Reading: Mostly, I read this book because I was interested it in…but it fit in nicely with Orange July.

My Review 5/5 stars
Half of a Yellow Sun takes place in Nigeria during the Nigeria/Biafa civil war. The narrative follows 3 characters: Ugwu, a village boy who is taken in by some politically-inclined academics as a house boy; Olanna, Ugwu’s mistress and a rich heiress; and Richard, a British expat who desperately wants to be accepted by the Biafrans as one of them. The stories of these three characters are superbly and tragically woven together on a backdrop of war, racial hatred, and famine. This is one of the most impressive books I’ve read in quite a while. The characters were so deep that I felt I knew them. The events described had an eerie realism to them that comes from the author’s intimate knowledge of the history and people. This is one of those books that makes you feel like every incident described is important and well-planned. This is a story not only of war, but of people–their dreams, their loves, their fears, their strengths and weaknesses. Half of a Yellow Sun is a must-read for anyone interested in international literature.

The Septembers of Shiraz, by Dalia Sofer

2012 Book 97: The Septembers of Shiraz, by Dalia Sofer (6/30/2012)

Categories: International Fiction (Iran), Award Winners (Orange Prize Longlist), Historical Fiction (Iranian Revolution)

Reason for Reading: I read this for Orange July as well as for the Middle Eastern literature theme read

My Review 3.5/5 stars
As an Iranian secular Jew, Isaac Amin’s life is swept off-course by the Iranian revolution when he is arrested on false charges of being a Zionist spy. Septembers of Shiraz follows the stories of Isaac, his wife Farnaz, and his two children. I should have really liked this story: the cultural setting is interesting and the frightening circumstances should be emotionally engaging. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel any emotion about the characters until the last third of the book. I’m not sure why this was…they just seemed distant. This fact is unfortunate since an emotional bond to the characters is really all this book had to offer me. I didn’t learn anything new about the Iranian revolution or the types of problems non-revolutionary citizens faced, since I’ve already read other books on the subject. Not that the story is boring or unoriginal, quite the contrary. I think it would be an excellent book for someone who hasn’t read much on the subject of the Iranian Revolution, or for someone who loves reading books on the subject.