Extracted from Words, Not Swords: Iran Women Writers and the Freedom of Movement (Syracuse University Press, 2011). As I put pen to paper to jot down my recollections of the fourteen months I spent in Europe, I feel a bit apprehensive. I have to rely solely on what I can remember, and I confess …
New Cartography: Traveling Elsewhere
Barely twenty, shaken by her fragile health, her botched suicide attempt, and psychiatric lockup, with her reputation tarnished, her marriage in flames, her love affair with Khodayar ended and then betrayed by him in print, the pariah among Iranian literati found herself surrounded by lingering rumors and spiteful gossip. Tabloids masquerading as literary journals and investigative reporters–turned–literary critics invented and reinvented her with abandon. They made no distinction between a woman’s life and her art, between the poet and her poetic persona. But Farrokhzad was a born survivor. Her reserves of talent and energy were remarkable. Despite the public scandal and the private pain, she somehow managed to pull herself together and devote herself to the pursuit of poetry while developing new interests. To recuperate and regain her bearings, to get away from the tumult and restore her sense of self, she also decided to leave the country. So one hot summer day in early July 1956 (15 Tir 1335), she left Iran for Italy on a cargo plane. This was the first of many future trips inside and outside the country.
Farrokhzad went to Europe to start a new life and returned fourteen months later, her mind stretched and her capacities deepened. With a new surge of energy and independence, she challenged God, state, family, father, husband, lover, conventions, and gender roles in her poetry with even greater fervor. She also undertook a new literary enterprise for a woman. She published the travel narrative of her unchaperoned trip. Dar Diyari Digar (Elsewhere) first appeared in an eight-part serial in the literary magazine Ferdowsi in 1957. With its unpolished prose style, Elsewhere is certainly not a work of literary distinction. It is, however, a document of great significance for the information it generates regarding a period in its author’s life about which little is known. Featuring a young woman traveler, it is emblematic of a modernity associated with motorized mobility: planes, cars, trains.
Elsewhere begins with trepidation regarding the writing of a travel narrative. Is a fourteen-month journey worthy of recounting, ponders the author? Is her memory reliable, especially considering that she has lost her notes? Does she have anything new to offer her readers? she wonders. After questioning and validating the act of writing on such a subject, Farrokhzad proceeds to justify the trip itself. Hers was not an excursion for leisure or hedonistic gratification, she explains. It was for therapeutic purposes. It was prompted by the need for fresh energy and strength, for loosening constraining bonds and suffocating circumstances. It was a desperate search for breathing space, an escape from distress and discomfort. She had descended into such emotional chaos, she confides, that it felt as if she lived in a dark, dank cave. She needed to stretch her cramped wings, to find her way out of the murkiness in which she resided. She needed sunshine.
The space a woman occupied in the Iran of that time defined her. Given the strong cultural association between masculinity and mastery of the road, the image of an unescorted woman traveling abroad, surrounded by strangers in a foreign land, was hardly the most virtuous one. It invoked licentiousness and conjured menacing possibilities. It was a threat to the status quo, family stability, tradition. The first installment of the narrative was barely out before irate readers began to denounce its author as a pleasure-seeking hedonist. She was castigated for being a traveler, a female who had abandoned her proper place behind the walls of her family’s home and had ventured into forbidden territories, foreign countries no less. How could an un-chaperoned woman who escaped the controlling grasp of her family not be seeking illicit pleasures? Even the magazine’s proofreader took the liberty of changing the author’s statement from “My goal in going to Europe was not to see new things and seek more colorful pleasures and joys” to its exact opposite. Farrokhzad was outraged and complained about the distortion in the next installment. The man retorted with his own rebuttal in a footnote in the next installment, condemning the author angrily. “You have unjustly and unduly attacked me in this issue, blaming me for everything, Khanum-e Farrokhzad,” he writes. “All the employees at the printing house are my witnesses. Some of your words and even sentences cannot be read by anyone. And as everyone knows, our employees, like pharmacists, are experts in reading illegible handwriting. I am quite willing to put your handwriting to a test. If anyone can read it without committing an error, then you are justified in your criticism.”
Ironically, Elsewhere is scarcely a page turner. Readers seeking descriptions of romantic adventures or sexual encounters would have been disappointed. It offers a series of personal reflections rather than a display of the illicit actions of a “sinful” woman. Claiming that geographic distance is a catalyst for change, providing a physical space for further exploration of the self and the discovery of new inner landscapes, it chronicles the development of a mind exposed to new places and new people. “I was happy to be a foreigner among Italians,” writes the intrepid traveler. “This helped me better understand other people…and in the process I got to know myself better.” Portraying herself as the traveler of this internal journey, the storyteller of this tale, Farrokhzad created a narrative rich in self-revelation. She redefined herself, re-imagined the world she lived in, celebrated the theme of growth and rebirth.
During her fourteen months abroad, Farrokhzad was not an accidental tourist. Instead, she explored the new places she was visiting with conscious determination. Stepping off the beaten track, she participated in the culture of her host country. Wandering freely in unfamiliar places, she treasured the many pleasures of a country that did not restrict her. Protected by her anonymity, she ventured into public places without fear or accountability. She lived under no self-imposed curfew; challenged the conventions of urban decorum; walked bare-footed; cavorted with a group of children; flung herself in the water, the breeze, the sand; strolled the moonlit back alleys; went on long, solitary walks in the dark. She visited public places—museums, beaches, parks, gardens. She traveled on streetcars, journeyed in trains, sailed on boats, rode on the waves of the sea, enjoyed water fountains whispering in the branches of trees. She received the sun in its full glory. And all the while, she listened carefully to the eloquent poetry of nature—the flowing water, the traveling breeze, the carpet of rustling, flaming leaves, the dancing clouds, the falling rain. It was a free space for her, this foreign land, and she felt caressed by its magnanimous beauty and its many surprises.
Traveling became very important for Farrokhzad. For the remaining ten years of her life, she would travel extensively. She went from Tehran to Mazandaran and Ahwaz; from Beirut to Rome, Munich, and Paris; from Tehran again on her return to Esfahan, Mashhad, Tabriz, and Khuzestan; and finally to London again, Pesaro, and Berlin. She became a seasoned traveler in the course of her short life. These journeys—from one city to another, from one country to another, from one universe of definitions and meanings to another—stretched her mind to new dimensions. Although they indicate a dizzying, dazzling mobility, they also bespeak a sense of homelessness, perpetual wandering, and exile.