News out of Iran is often preoccupied with its youth. What about the older generation of women who stayed, fought, and made do after the revolution? Meet translator Goli Emami, who stared down the Islamic Republic.
The trends and tribulations of Iran’s growing population of young people—often framed through their subtle rebellions against the conservative regime—make good stories for visiting foreign correspondents. Less visible to Western reporters is the generation of Iranian women who were trailblazers before the 1979 revolution, when Iran was in the early stages of modernizing.
These now seventy-somethings made up a new class of professional women entering the job market in the decade leading up to the Islamic Revolution. In the years that followed, they fought to work in their fields through the turbulence and constraints of the new regime, paving the way for the next generation of women. They are role models without fanfare, who were forced to adapt to the laws and whims of the theocratic regime.
Eminent translator and literary scholar Goli Emami is one of these remarkable women. Over the past five decades, she has translated 44 foreign books into Persian, including Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” and four titles by Alain de Botton. She has persevered through job purges, censorship, financial struggles, and personal tragedy to rise to the top of her field, earning the respect of—and inspiring—a younger generation of Iranians.
In June 2018, Book City, a chain of bookshops supported by the municipality of Tehran, held a ceremony in their Elahieh branch in northern Tehran to celebrate the works of three prominent translators. One of these was Emami—a tall, handsome woman with striking head of white hair, styled fashionably short.
Emami tells me later, when I visit her Tehran home, that a young woman at this event approached her. The woman had been a student at Tehran University of the Arts, and wanted to thank Emami. She told her that the best books available to her while studying were the ones marked with the stamp of Farabi University—a relic of Emami’s early career curating the university’s library early, a more obscure period in her biography about which many of her admirers don’t know.
Few remember the short-lived Farabi University, where Emami once held the ideal job for a voracious reader with a passion for the arts. In 1975, Emami was recruited to curate the library for the newly established Farabi University. The brainchild of Farah [née Diba] Pahlavi, Mohammad Reza Shah’s French-educated wife, who along with her husband, the last Shah of Iran, was forced to leave the country during the Islamic Revolution. Farabi University was to complement Tehran Art University’s traditional curriculum with a new and modern program of postgraduate studies.
“[Diba] wanted it to become Iran’s equivalent of the Beaux-Arts in Paris,” Emami tells me, sitting in her small but immaculately decorated flat in north Tehran, which doubles as her working space. Farah Pahlavi promoted Iranian arts and also introduced the Iranian public to Western art and culture. Along with her cousin, Kamran Diba, she set up Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art and acquiring one of the Middle East’s first important collections of Western Art.
After studying language and translation in Germany, Emami returned to Tehran and started her career as a secretary at the Franklin Book Program, an American non-profit established in Iran in the 1960s to promote U.S. publications and support local publishing—part of President Truman’s Point Four Program designed to curb the reach of communism in developing countries during the Cold War. Iran’s program was the largest of 17 such ventures around the world.
At Franklin, she helped catalogue the in-house library, but more importantly, was given the chance to translate her first books into Persian. Among them was “Pippi Longstocking” by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, the first in a children’s book series about a rebellious and superhumanly strong young girl.
When she was asked to join the founding team at the new Farabi University in 1975—where her job would include selecting and procuring art books for the new university’s library—she jumped at the chance.
“There was no greater joy in life than opening the cartons of books that had just arrived from our dealer in London,” says Emami, who ordered her books unseen from publishers’ lists. By 1979, Emami had purchased 9,000 books for the university’s library.
Then, the Islamic Revolution happened. A wave of civil and secular resistance to the Shah’s increasingly autocratic rule resulted in widespread and paralyzing strikes and demonstrations in 1978, sending the Shah into exile in January 1979. His reign collapsed in February, and Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile and took power.
Almost overnight, Iran was transformed from a relatively secular, Western-looking authoritarian monarchy into an authoritarian, anti-Western theocracy.
There had been a strict system of censorship under the Shah, who did not tolerate any opposition from the press and often had journalists arrested or beaten. A sprawling network of security police and citizen informers chilled any speech or discussion critical of the Shah. But the Islamic Revolution brought in a further dimension of censorship over anything deemed immoral or pornographic, in the areas of arts, culture, and exposure to international ideas—that had been fairly uncontroversial in the Shah’s time.
This extraordinary censorship of the arts and literature would shape Emami’s life and work.
Within six months, the university’s Islamic Association had removed Emami from her position. They also merged Farabi University with three other colleges to form the Tehran University of Art, Iran’s largest arts university.
Although Farabi University folded even before it was fully launched, its spirit—and Emami’s careful curation—endured through the thousands of Farabi-stamped books that ended up at the Tehran University of Art. Years later, Emami would hear through friends that a former colleague who kept his job would work late into the night, covering the prints in books that might offend the new revolutionary managers’ sensibilities. He would stick pieces of paper over contentious images to save the books from vandalism or destruction.
Later, students at the university were surprised by the extent and form of the censorship of the library’s art books. A friend who studied there once told me that in images of nudes, genitalia were covered by tape or black marker, or crudely scratched out of the page entirely.
The months following the revolution were uncertain for the professional classes who had worked successfully in the the Shah’s time, particularly those working in the public sector and who had a Western education. They were viewed as loyal to the previous regime and “Westoxified”, a term used to denigrate Westernized intellectuals.
The revolution was like a flood that swept our lives away with it
Women had a particularly hard time in the new Islamic Republic, whose leaders quickly stripped away the freedoms they had under the Shah. Their presence in the public space was challenged at every turn, including what jobs they could hold and what they were permitted to wear. The lucky ones were offered forced retirement.
Many people weren’t given reasons for their dismissal, but in Emami’s case, an invitation to the Iranian American Institute—a cultural center that screened films and put on plays and exhibitions—was enough to make her suspect. A photograph featuring her and the rest of the university’s academic board with their patron, the Queen, on a visit to their offices, cemented the verdict that she was unsuitable to hold any position in the Islamic Republic.
“The revolution was like a flood that swept our lives away with it,” says Emami, lighting a cigarillo with perfectly manicured hands.
But they were not alone. Many people found themselves on the wrong side of the revolution’s vetting system. Universities were closed down between 1980 and 1983 to facilitate the cultural revolution, a term given to the process of purging Iranian academia from what the leaders considered Western, un-Islamic influences.
Emami and her husband, Karim, were not ones to stay passive. They also had two small daughters and a house they had not yet paid off.
“There was a bunch of us, me, my husband and ten other colleagues. We were all home with nothing to do and all we knew was books, so we decided to start a publishing house of our own.” They each put down 100,000 Rials, (a tidy sum of $1400 at the time but a mere $0.90 today) and launched their publishing company, Zamineh.
Working from home, they produced Bahman Jalali’s “Days of Blood, Days of Fire” Iran’s first photographic chronicle of the revolution. Jalali went on to become one of Iran’s most prominent documentary photographers, and “Days of Blood, Days of Fire” became a bestseller, selling more than 32,000 copies in two years. Its sales are still impressive in a country where print runs average 2000 copies, and most books don’t make it to a second edition.
Zamineh Publishing also produced cookbooks to generate income. Goli, who had lived in many places across Iran as a young girl because of her father’s job serving as a governor of various provinces under the Shah, had picked up regional recipes from friends and family. She would cook her recipes, and Jalali would photograph the food. [Two of these recipes are included below.]
In those early days, they were free to publish what they wanted. The Shah’s censorship machinery had collapsed and the new one had not yet been set up. By the time it was, they had published nine books. Reluctant to risk being turned down for permits from the new Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, they shut down their publishing house.
By 1981, during the earlier stages of Iran’s eight-year war with its neighbor, Iraq, Emami and her husband had opened a bookshop in the winding alleyways of Elahieh, a leafy neighbourhood in Tehran’s far north. Here, for 18 years Emami sold books, translated, and presided over impromptu salons for cultural figures who would drop in to chat for hours while they browsed.
Emami and her husband, Karim, had to navigate the regime’s system by doing whatever they could in their field to keep working. Karim found time to produce a Persian-English Dictionary in-between working as an art critic and literary translator.
But a few years into the new millennium, Emami had lost two things dear to her.
First, the bookshop closed in 2000, due to lack of funds. Selling books in Iran is a labor of love, and the typically low print runs and prohibitive costs of producing them make books a luxury. In 2005, Emami’s husband died of cancer. With Karim gone and her daughters both living abroad, Emami threw herself into her translation work. She translates every day, without fail, and has become an expert at weathering ups and downs of publishing in Iran’s unpredictable political climate.
During the eight years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, the censors at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance refused to issue a permit for her translation of Alain de Botton’s “Essays on Love”. But her publisher then re-submitted the book when Hassan Rouhani—Iran’s current president, considered a more moderate leader when he was elected in 2013—took office. This time, the book sailed through and is now on its ninth print run. Such is the random nature of bureaucracy in Iran.
Over the years, Emami has also learned to translate potentially racy or problematic sections in a way that will make it past the censors.
“You can’t translate a love scene, but you can allude to it. The readers are intelligent enough to get what’s going on,” she says. “Where it says [in the original text] they kissed, I write that their faces drew close. The rest, the readers get.”
Although both her daughters left Iran as teenagers and have not returned, Emami has no regrets about staying.
“Had I gone anywhere else, I would not be the Goli Emami that I am today. Time and the value of my work have been the best advocates. Now this same regime gives me prizes,” she says, showing me the transparent plexiglass trophy, bearing imprints of open books, that Book City gave her last year to honor her services to the publishing industry.
She is now waiting for her latest translation, “Love In Lowercase” by the Catalan author Francesc Miralles to come out in print. The book begins with a quote by Robert Brandt:
Enjoy the little things for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.
These two recipes are from Goli Emami’s in-laws, who are Shirazi. Natives of the city of Shiraz are renowned in Iran for their love of food and their recipes. “I chose these recipes, because they are not in any of the Persian cookbooks that are coming out,” she told me. “The Mastaviz khoresh takes a bit of effort, but who said Persian food should be easy to make?”
This is a recipe for a banquet. This khoresh—stew—is an obscure one, and it’s a little harder to make compared to other Persian khoresh dishes. The flavor is delicate, with pureed walnuts and yogurt, and its preparation too requires some patience.
1 Medium-sized chicken
One tub of Greek yogurt, preferably strained
2/3 small teaspoons of ground saffron mixed with a little water
A small piece of fresh ginger
Two cloves of Garlic
A bunch of spring onions
Cover your chicken (on the bone) pieces with water and cook with a whole onion, an inch of ginger and two cloves of garlic.
Once the chicken is well cooked sufficiently—the bones will easily separate from the meat—remove the chicken pieces and reserve the stock.
Pound the boneless meat until it turns into a mash.
Finely Grind the walnuts in a food processor.
Lightly fry the onion until it starts to turn golden, add the ground walnuts and the meat and continue to fry the mixture. Once the mixture has been sautéed, start to add the reserved stock a ladle at a time, stirring throughout. This will give you a smooth, textured base. Take off the stove and allow the mixture to cool down.
In a bowl, mix the eggs and the yogurt and the saffron mixture and stir until there is a smooth mixture.
Test the meat mix with your small finger for the temperature. If it’s cool enough not to burn your skin, add the yogurt and egg mixture whilst stirring. Don’t beat the mixture, add it gently; the yogurt and the egg mix must not curdle. Place on a low flame and allow the eggs to cook through carefully without curdling the mixture.
The khoresh is ready when the oil from the walnuts is released, making the porridge-like consistency glisten. Garnish with drops of saffron mixture, half walnuts, and the finely chopped spring onions. Serve with white rice and a plate of herbs with lots of spring onions. (Goli Emami likes to add lots of white pepper to make the dish a little hot.)
This is called “Peach Kufteh”, but there is no peach in this recipe. The name refers to the size and color of the kufteh balls, smaller than the usual kuftehs made in Iran, containing rice and some kind of legumes and always packed with herbs. The classic kuftehs are quite large, as the rice and legumes puff up as they cook.
This kufteh is an anomaly, because it’s actually more of a meatball, with little other than carrots to break up the minced meat. Maybe that’s why around Arak, in central Iran, they call this dish Hulu Kabab. In their recipe, the meatballs are made in the same way, but the sauce is just a sweet- and-sour sauce of vinegar molasses. The density of the meatballs resembles the skillet kebabs made across Iran as a quick dish with minced meat and tomato sauce to be eaten with rice.
Serves 6-8 people
3 large onions chopped finely and caramelized
½ kilogram (18 oz.) peeled and finely grated carrots
1 kilogram (35 oz.) minced meat (beef and lamb)
2 spoons dried mint
2 teaspoons freshly ground turmeric
3 spoons chickpea flour
1 cup of apple cider vinegar
½ cup of sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
First, chop the onions finely and in a deep pan, fry with enough oil to cover them. The trick for a good golden caramelized onion is to leave the chopped onions alone for the first ten minutes on a high heat. This will help evaporate the water out of the onion and allow the process of caramelization to begin. We don’t add sugar. The sugar in the onion once golden is sweet enough for Persian dishes.
Stir occasionally but don’t keep stirring as you will delay the process. Keep an eye on the onions so they don’t burn. Once the colour starts to go golden start stirring gently. Once the onions are fried golden, take half out of the pan and reserve.
Add a handful of the grated carrots to the onions and sautee, so the carrots are part cooked, now add the dried mint and allow the mint to as well.
Add two large glasses of water, the cider vinegar and sugar, a little salt and pepper and cover and leave to simmer. The sauce is supposed to be sweet and sour, adjust it to your taste and add anything else that takes your fancy. I added some chilli to add heat to the sweet and sour taste.
Mix your meat with the grated carrots, the turmeric and the chickpea flour. Originally, when households in Iran ground their own meat, the meat would be ground with the carrots. So, the finer the carrots the smoother the meatballs. Add salt and pepper to taste, and pummel the mix well.
Take enough of the mix to make a ball larger than a ping-pong ball, but smaller than a tennis ball. Flatten in your palm, place a pinch of the reserved caramelized onion in the middle and roll the meat into a ball with a smooth surface. Any cracks will open up once you put them into the sauce. Goli Emami sometimes adds sour cherry jam by putting one cherry in the middle of the meatball.
In a frying pan with a little oil, fry the meatballs until browned and sealed on the outside. Then place them in the simmering sauce. Once all the meatballs are in the sauce leave to gently simmer and cook through for 30 minutes. If necessary, add a little more water so you have plenty of sauce to use to serve the meatballs with rice, or with bread broken into the sauce.
Add some sultanas to the sauce to give it a bit of sweetness.