Against Remembering: The Fictional Truth of a Massacre

By Samad Alavi

Carolyn Forché’s Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness anthologizes poems that testify to some of the last century’s darkest political tragedies.[1] In her introduction, Forché establishes her basic criteria for selection. First, she includes only poems, as she wishes to demonstrate that the old “arguments about poetry and politics ha[ve] been too narrowly defined” and that it is possible to understand poems as residing between the personal and the political.[2] Second, she includes only poets who experienced “conditions of extremity” first hand, as it is the extremity that “demands new forms or alters older modes of poetic thought”.[3] What follows is an 812page collection of poems in English or English translation arranged chronologically and geographically by the wars, struggles, atrocities, and tragedies against which they speak. Implicitly, then, when Against Forgetting was published in 1993, it established an archive of poetic testimonies, with events categorized and contextualized, so that future readers could reflect upon the poetics of each instance of witnessing and could ask how a poem resists silence and oblivion in the face of trauma – even though the book appeared well before the trauma paradigm gained the currency that, as Anne Marie McManus details, it carries today.[4]

Currently, I work on identifying and interpreting literature that bears witness to the 1988 prison massacre in Iran.[5] This project recalls Forchés work: I start with a historical event and then ask what I can include in an archive of imaginative writing on this dark chapter in recent history. Unlike Forché’s anthology, I have not limited my corpus to poetry or to writing by those inside the prisons where the massacres occurred. Nonetheless, Against Forgetting offers a framework for conceptualizing a literary archive and then asking how the literature, whether lyric, as in Forché’s cases, or narrative, as in the case that follows, voices the tragedies or traumas against which it speaks.

Figure 1. Cover of Adineh, Tirmâh 1370 (June-July 1991).

In this search for a literary archive, I encountered Amir Hassan Cheheltan’s short story “Summer of 1988”.[6] In the BBC Persian piece “Intellectuals and the Killings of 67 [1988]” published in 2013, Faraj Sarkuhi laments the fact that Iranian writers inside the country remained silent about the massacre in the years that followed and cites Cheheltan’s story as one of the few exceptions.[7] Sarkuhi mentions that the story was published in the literary cultural magazine Adineh (of which Sarkuhi was editor-in-chief) in 1991, but beyond that offers no details about the story, why a short story might differ from a firsthand testimonial, of which there are now many, or, indeed, what kind of remembering fiction makes possible.[8] Like Forche’s anthology, it seems the very existence of an artwork and its framing in a particular episode in history proves the possibility of writing to resist forgetting.

I translated Cheheltan’s story into English in part to contribute to remembering the 1988 prison massacre. But now that the translation stands as its own kind of memory, I’d like to ask how the story performs as fiction. “Summer of 1988” bears witness to an episode of Iranian history that was, for many years, absent from the official record in Iran.[9] On record, the summer of 1988 marked the end of the devastating eight-year war between Iran and Iraq with Iran’s adoption of the UN Security Council Resolution 598 on 17 July 1988.[10] But the story makes no mention of a ceasefire and almost no reference to the war. Instead, it tells of a husband and wife, referred to as Matin and Mrs. Matin, who suffer as they await news of their son Fariborz.

Though the words prison or execution never appear, the narrative provides enough detail to make the parents’ experiences recognizable within the context of the massacre, at least for those already familiar with the events.[11] The parents have had contact cut off with their son, though we only know that through Mrs. Matin’s oblique statement that “they say visits have been cancelled”.[12] Eventually, an indifferent voice delivers the dreaded news by phone, telling Mr. Matin to “come pick up his personal belongings” without offering any explanation of the charges against the executed or where the body has been taken, much less condolences.[13] Lastly, a recurring and easily interpretable image of caged birds runs throughout the story. Among these recognizable details and events, however, the author never mentions other prisoners or their families, nor does he dwell on Fariborz’s political affiliation, except one mention of “leftist guerilla organizations”, which is to say that the narrative does not perform a collective history, and instead tells the story of one family as though it were the story of this one family alone.[14]

Just as the author never explicitly contextualizes the narrative in the larger massacre, the 1991 issue of Adineh that included “Summer of 1988” avoids explicit reference to the recent event, making no mention of prisons or crimes against humanity in Iran.[15] Rather, if the story or the journal bear witness, it is through the parents’ individual and presumably fictionalized or fictitious experiences. In other words, with very few contextual clues, “Summer of 1988” stands as a counternarrative to the state’s official position of silence on the executions. The act of telling one story is comparable to what Carolina Rocha identifies in the work of Argentine fiction writers who “used words to represent, to denounce and to testify, all of which posed a concrete threat to the univocality sought by authoritarian governments”.[16]

Of course, the internet now allows for different forms of remembering. Stories can circulate without the limitations that governments could place on printed material, especially in the 1980s and early 1990s, when the Iranian state held a “monopoly on the importation of paper, ink, print machinery, and more sophisticated equipment needed for the printing of books and journals”.[17] If censorship policies in 1991 required discretion from writers or editors to print any reference to the massacre, the less regulable space of the internet necessitates no such precaution. Thus, Cheheltan’s story now appears online in a version identical to that of 1991 – except for the following introduction:

“Summer of 1988” is the first story to be published in Iran about the massacre of political prisoners in 1988. This story appeared in the significant journal Adineh just two years after the tragedy. Amir Hassan Cheheltan recounts the event from this side of the barbed wire and concrete walls, in the family’s home. By narrating the suffering of constant anticipation, the fear and terror that the families experienced, he tells everything there is to be told about that bitter and painful summer.[18]

While the 1991 publication required reading between the lines to contextualize the story, the online version does much of that interpretive work, telling us how to read it, if not also why and what it is that we should remember.

In my translation, however, I follow the printed version and offer no contextual explanations in footnotes or otherwise, in large part because I want to ask not just what the story remembers but also what it forgets. It is perhaps risky to read it as a form of forgetting since this opens possibilities for misreading, ignoring, or, worse, aestheticizing or deriving pleasure from the real violence to which the story refers. Still, forgetting forms a vital component of the narrative, suggesting where the limits of remembering in fiction might lie, and what fiction must forget to carry out its particular type of remembering. Here, Dominick LaCapra’s essay “Trauma, Absence, Loss” offers helpful insights into the dialectics of memory and forgetting in literature.[19] Bearing witness in a story like “Summer of 1988” does not only entail a declaration of “they did this to us” or “this happened to me”, but also carries the potential for what LaCapra calls “working through”: that is, moving beyond being “possessed by the past and acting out a repetition compulsion” and toward a “reinvestment in life, notably social and civic life with its demands, responsibilities, and norms requiring respectful recognition and consideration for others”.[20]

When it comes to civic life, the context of the story’s original printing is quite telling. That the story appeared in a magazine published in Iran, as opposed to, say, a publication by exiles, and that the journal sought expressly to open a civic space by publishing “the views of intellectuals and literature independent of the political system” suggest that the story intends not only to record or relive the atrocity, but also to allow living through and beyond the event.[21] What the story remains silent about, or what it forgets, does not just become a mark of censorship, but rather invites reflection on how to articulate a tragedy from within a society where it is experienced and, in doing so, on how to begin to conceive of a return to civic life. 

Maybe the most profound silence or forgetting in the story is that of the collective suffering of the prisoners and their families or the collective identity of either. Of course, that the story focuses on the singular nature of the parents’ suffering is nothing new in fiction or in art, and it probably does not bear repeating what Adorno calls the “trivial […] doctrine of traditional aesthetics, which states that the universal must be particularized”.[22] Still, if I enter “Summer of 1988” into an archive of evidence of the prison massacre, then I must also note that, for the characters, it is not a massacre that occurs – it is the loss of their son; and, since the story is focalized through these characters, this means that it does not remember the political struggles or ideological clashes that led to their son’s imprisonment, much less that of all the other prisoners. Rather, it suggests that there is no history before the loss worth remembering, there is only the history that the parents try desperately to forget in their struggle to preserve their son. In the story, Mrs. Matin tries to erase every trace of her past, throwing out pictures, tearing phone numbers out of her address book, burning old newspapers and flushing them down the toilet. Seen together, these attempts at erasure suggest an acting out of trauma – what begins as a seemingly compulsory removal of incriminating evidence becomes a more compulsive disavowal of the family’s entire history.

Towards the end of the story, a young boy puzzlingly appears. While the recurring images of caged birds lend themselves easily to symbolic readings of prisoners and prison, the boy defies such straightforward interpretation. Matin receives two contrasting versions of events: one from the boy, who says poetically that he wishes to preserve his canaries in a beautiful and secluded corner of his garden, and the other from his mother, who says the boy butchers sparrows and confines them in cages to die. Likewise, the reader too, or at least this reader, is at a loss as to how to reconcile the conflicting versions. One reading could be that the boy represents revolutionary forces, whether those of the revolutionary state, which had only been in existence for eight years when the massacre occurred, or the revolutionary opposition groups, who had their own histories of violence. Regardless, in the boy’s version of events, a better world is possible and confining the birds bears a direct correlation to bringing about those better conditions. In contrast, his mother not only shatters this vision but calls the boy’s treatment of the birds sadistic and pointless. Matin doesn’t know which version to believe. But, when the dreaded news arrives, the narrative logic breaks down and he enters the surreal, dreamlike world that the boy has imagined for him.

The voice on the telephone seems to mark the last moment of recognizable reality in the narrative. As readers, we know exactly what the call means and what the voice on the other end of the line represents. Yet, after that, Matin’s life defies interpretation. This shift in the narrative suggests that for the parents, there is no reality after the loss of their son. Perhaps they forget, just as the narrative forgets, what may or may not happen following the event. Which is to say, the story bears witness to the singularity of the event or the trauma precisely by forgetting the rest of the characters’ lives. It demands that we remember this trauma on its own uninterpretable terms, and view the suffering as singular to recognize the universality of its devastation.

Figure 2. Sequence from Marjane Sartrapi’s Persepolis, 2004, p. 260.

There is also a more politically deliberate forgetting that the story performs. A reader familiar with the historical context might find it strange, even unrealistic, that a story set in Tehran in 1988 makes no mention of the war that just ended. Certainly, any serious historiography on the 1988 prison massacre contextualizes the events in the bloody but ultimately failed military incursion that one of the main opposition groups launched from Iraq onto Iranian soil after the ceasefire. This context would also explain the lack of widespread awareness of, much less sympathy for, the thousands of prisoners executed as so-called ‘opponents’ of a state that just survived a war that left hundreds of thousands of its citizens dead.[23] Marjane Sartrapi also tries to offer a scale to the tragedies in a memorable sequence in Persepolis, where the narrator’s father answers that “nobody knows exactly” but “many thousands, or rather tens of thousands of people” died during the prison massacre while “between 500,000 and 1,000,000” died as “victims of the war”.[24] But “Summer of 1988” forgets this context. The closest it comes to the war is with a reference to “the long lines for bread, meat, and cheese”, during which Mrs. Matin thinks only of her absent son.[25] In erasing or forgetting the war, the story resists the official discourse, remaining silent about events that pervaded public life and the visual sphere at the time.[26]

Here, too, the story (not to mention the entire issue of Adineh in which it is published) performs a purposive forgetting. It is as though the narrative must forget the context to properly remember the pain of losing a child. While the state calls on its citizens to remember their fallen soldiers or other war victims as the only mournable losses from the summer of 1988, the story demands a different kind of remembering. And in forgetting the war to remember the Matins’ singular loss, the story also permits the forgetting of details, like where the family lives, what party or ideological affiliation landed the son in prison, or even that executions beyond the one at the center of the narrative occurred.

This potential for loss is precisely what fiction offers the archives. It may be that the truth of the parents’ suffering, the recognizability of the feeling that they suffer alone, and that no history exists beyond the loss of their son, offer a place to begin ‘working through’. Stories that allow us to feel loss, as I venture “Summer of 1988” does – fictional stories that suspend, if not momentarily forget, the world beyond individual trauma – offer a path toward a more complete, comprehensive, and inclusive archive, an archive that might suggest how any reconciling of the past lies somewhere between remembering and forgetting.


References

[1] Carolyn Forché, ed., Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993).

[2] Forché, 30.

[3] Forché, 42.

[4] Anne-Marie McManus, “Trauma and the 1980s in Arabic Literary Studies”, TRAFO Blog, 9 June 2022.

[5] For background, see Amnesty International’s report “Blood Soaked Secrets”.

[6] For my translation of the story, see: Amir Hassan Cheheltan, “Summer of 1988”, trans. Samad Alavi, Michigan Quarterly Review 61, no. 2 (2022): 242–51. For the Persian, see: Amir Hassan Chihiltan, “Tābistān-i 67”, Ādīnih, no. 60 (August 1370): 60–63.

[7] Faraj Sarkūhī, “Rawshanfikrān va Kushtār-i 67”, BBC Persian, 18 September 2013.

[8] See, for example: Nasser Mohajer, ed., Voices of a Massacre: Untold Stories of Life and Death in Iran, 1988, Oneworld Book (London: Oneworld, 2020); Shahla Talebi, Ghosts of Revolution: Rekindled Memories of Imprisonment in Iran (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2011); and Jafar Yaghoobi-Saray, Let Us Water the Flowers: Memoir of a Political Prisoner in Iran (Amherst, N.Y: Prometheus Books, 2011).

[9] Stephanie Nebehay, “EXCLUSIVE U.N. expert backs probe into Iran’s 1988 killings, Raisi’s role”, Reuters, 29 June 2021. That’s not to say that there were no accounts by Iranian officials confirming that the executions took place. Ayatollah Montazeri, who at the time stood as successor to Khomeini as Iran’s supreme leader, wrote and spoke openly about his opposition to the killings during his lifetime, an opposition that ultimately cost him the supreme leader position. See: Iran Watch, “اعتراف به کشتار زندانیان سیاسی؛ گفتگو با منتظری”, YouTube video, 23 February 2020, 13:37.

[10] UN. Security Council, Resolution 598 (1987), adopted by the Security Council at its 2750th meeting, on 20 July 1987, United Nations Digital Library.

[11] See, for example: Mohajer, Voices of a Massacre, xxi.

[12] Cheheltan, “Summer of 1988”, 246.

[13] Cheheltan, 250.

[14] Cheheltan, 244.

[15] Although the issue includes a Noam Chomsky article with the provocative Persian title, “The Honor of Mass Murder” (iftikhār-i qatl-i ʿām), which appears on the cover as well. The article itself is an abridged version of a piece titled “What We Say Goes” that Chomsky published in Z Magazine in 1991: Noam Chomsky, “‘What We Say Goes’: The Middle East in the New World Order”, Z Magazine, May 1991. It deals with US foreign policy exclusively and offers no clues to the prison massacre.

[16] Carolina Rocha, “Bearing Witness through Fiction”, CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 9, no. 1 (March 1, 2007): 4.

[17] Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, “CENSORSHIP”, Encyclopaedia Iranica Online (Brill, August 30, 2020). 

[18] Anonymous, “Dāstān-i Tābistān-i 67—Amir Hasan Chihiltan”, Zameneh Tribune, 5 Shahrivar 1392 [27 August 2013], author’s trans.

[19] Dominick LaCapra, “Trauma, Absence, Loss”, Critical Inquiry 25, no. 4 (July 1999): 696–727.

[20] LaCapra, 716.

[21] Mihrdād Qāsimfard, “Sarkuhi: Ruznāmih’khwān-i Mustaqil-i Irān, Adinih rā Adinih Kard”, Radio Farda, 28 Abān 1392 [19 November 2013], author’s trans.

[22] Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1997), 201.

[23] Kaveh Shahrooz, “With Revolutionary Rage and Rancor: A Preliminary Report on the 1988 Massacre of Iran’s Political Prisoners”, Harvard Human Rights Journal 20 (2007): 227–62.

[24] Marjane Satrapi, The Complete Persepolis, trans. Singh Anjali and L’Association, Paris, France (New York: Pantheon, 2004), 258–60.

[25] Cheheltan, “Summer of 1988”, 245.

[26] For more on the war in the visual sphere see, Peter J. Chelkowski and Hamid Dabashi, Staging a Revolution: The Art of Persuasion in the Islamic Republic of Iran (New York: New York University Press, 1999).


Samad Alavi is Senior Lecturer in Persian at the University of Oslo. He holds a PhD in Near Eastern Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, and was assistant professor at the University of Washington from 2013 to 2018. His translation of Amir Hassan Cheheltan’s short story “Summer of 1988” recently appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review.


Further articles in the TRAFO series The Literary 1980s in the Middle East and North Africa:

Anne-Marie McManus, Trauma and the 1980s in Arabic Literary Studies, 09 June 2022


Citation: Samad Alavi, Against Remembering: The Fictional Truth of a Massacre, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 10.11.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/42534


Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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