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Oxford professor examines concepts of liberty in Iranian history and poetry

[photo]
Dr. Homa Katouzian, professor in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University, lectures on "European Liberalisms and Modern Concepts of Liberty in Iran."

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Katouzian holds a seminar on Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad, as Dr. Vahid Behmardi (2nd from right), director of LAU's Graduate Program in Comparative Literature, and other attendees listen carefully.

November 25, 2009—

Dr. Homa Katouzian, Iranian-born professor in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University, examined European liberalisms versus concepts of liberty in Iran, as well as the work of the late Forugh Farrokhzad, a well-known female Iranian poet, in two separate presentations at LAU Beirut on November 18 and 19.

Both events were organized by the Graduate Program in Comparative Literature at LAU’s Humanities Department.

Katouzian’s first presentation, “European Liberalisms and Modern Concepts of Liberty in Iran,” on November 18, was based on a comparative study to contrast the ideas and forms of liberty that emerged from the late-17th century onwards in Europe, with the concepts of liberty in Iran during the latter half of the 19th century.

“In Europe, the state’s power was limited by laws and customs outside of itself,” Katouzian said, explaining that although Europeans at the time were run by absolute governments, power was still largely concentrated by powerful social classes outside the government.

“Unlike Europe, Iran had been run by arbitrary governments where there was no law independent of the state that constrained its power,” Katouzian added.

The elite classes in Europe, he explained, used their power and influence to protect their land and property which the state bore no authority to confiscate whereas in Iran, status or wealth offered no guarantee for one’s long-term class distinction.

“Someone who was rich [in Iran] … did not in fact believe that his children would also be powerful or rich as a matter of course,” Katouzian said. “On the other hand, someone who came from a very limited background could rise to become the chief minister — that’s why the composition of upper classes in Iran would change in the short run.”


Liberty in the poetry of Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad

Katouzian’s second presentation held the following day was a seminar on Forugh Farrokhzad, a late Iranian poet believed by literary experts to be one of the country’s most influential female writers in the 20th century.

Katouzian began the seminar, titled “Of the Sins of Forugh Farrokhzad,” by commenting on one of the poet’s most controversial works, Sin, which describes the pleasure of a sexual experience.

“Its enormous impact on readers and critics in and out of Iran is due to its apparently vocal, almost proud defiance against the social conventions and the condemnation that the poet knew to be mandatory for committing such sins, especially if the sinner was a married woman,” Katouzian said.

Farrokhzad, who lived from 1935-1967, expressed dark emotions in her writings, often detailing her feelings of guilt, remorse and intense suffering.

Her works were banned in Iran for over 10 years following the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Katouzian spoke about the torn relationship between the poet and her disapproving father who shattered her spirit as a young girl. Despite feeling frightened and humiliated by her father, Farrokhzad still wrote of her love for him and longed for their relationship to improve.

Some modern critics describe Farrokhzad as a feminist for breaking from social conventions with her sometimes shocking and promiscuous tales — a label Katouzian rejects.

“There is nothing in her work that actually reflects feminism in the sense of campaigning for women’s rights,” he said. “But there is that implication that she, as a woman, can live the life she likes to in defiance of the existing conventions and constrictions.”
 


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