In this short story collection, Rashidi (The Outcast, 2014) offers dark tales of rural Iran.
The setting of Rashidi’s fiction is one of meager village life, characterized by the ubiquitous “dust, bits of hay and the stench of dung.” In “Galeen Khanum,” a young girl is forced into an early marriage with a local lord, and the trauma of the consummation leads her to an unhealthy fascination with Islamic promises of the afterlife. In “Ashura,” a peasant boy has a disturbing first experience with the eponymous holy day, during which men lament the memory of the ancient Battle of Karbala by shedding their own blood with cleavers. In “Omar Koshan,” a family attends a yearly festival, the “rowdiest of carnivals, initiated by religious hatred, ever held anywhere in the history of humankind.” Ostensibly an occasion to burn an effigy of Caliph Omar the Cursed, the festival devolves into a chaotic excuse for insults and score-settling. Each of the 16 stories explores the intersection between the individual and an oppressive, tradition-dominated society: the people, lacking the language or vision to transcend the weight of inherited culture, generally come away worse for the encounter. Rashidi is an adept chronicler of village color; his tales are full of gossiping women in flowery chadors, scampering children, destitute beggars, dancing gypsies, scheming mullahs, and old men lazing with their chibouks and opium pipes. The world he creates is so detailed and frenetic that it feels like a documentary, not historical fiction. Most stunning of all is that Rashidi makes no attempt to romanticize the past: the livestock and excrement, the cold and dust, the threat of dangerous neighbors and of the wilderness outside the village make his Iran a legitimately unsettling locale. He doesn’t try to psychoanalyze his characters through a modern lens, but he’s clearly interested in the traumatic effects that the hierarchy and ritual of this world have on its inhabitants, particularly the children. The context of religious and ethnic history is often lost on the characters, if it’s even explained; even so, the ripples of tradition, embodied in the wealthy, the ordained, and the mad, influence their lives in ways that they cannot escape.
A hard-edged collection of finely wrought stories.