Once Upon a Time

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Once Upon a Time

by Muhammad Ali Jamalzadah


A collection of short stories set in early-twentieth-century Iran; written in 1915-21, published in Persian (as Yaki bud va yaki nabud) in 1921, in English in 1985.


The stories address Iranian concerns of the early twentieth century, from the challenges of a modernizing society, to official corruption, foreign influence, political instability, the status of women, and questions of national identity.

Events in History at the Time of the Stories

The Short Stories in Focus

For More Information

Muhammad Ali Jamalzadah (also spelled Jamalzadeh) was born January 13, 1892, in Isfahan, Iran, to a progressive father who was a Muslim clergyman. A talented orator, the father, Sayyid Jamal al-Din Isfahani, denounced corrupt religious practices and lambasted the injustices of rule under the Qajar dynasty (1779–1925). He was consequently poisoned to death in 1908. His son soon left Iran, ending up in Beirut, Lebanon, where he attended the Antoura Catholic secondary school. Jamalzadah went on to earn a law degree from the University of Dijon in France, returning briefly to Iran before settling in Berlin, Germany, in 1916. There he supervised Iranian students for the Iranian embassy and wrote for Kavah, a Persian newspaper opposed to foreign intervention, which had long plagued Iran. At the beginning of 1921, Kavah published Jamalzadah’s short story “Persian Is Sugar,” and later that year added five more stories to produce Once Upon a Time. Some decades later, Jamalzadah moved to Geneva, Switzerland, where he worked for the International Labor Organization and taught Persian at the University of Geneva. He meanwhile wrote prolifically, producing numerous fictional works, most notably Rahab namah (1940; The Book of the Water Channel), Dar al-majanin (1942; The Madhouse); Qultashan divan (1946; The Custodian of the Divan), and Sarutah-iyak karbas (1955; Isfahan Is Half the World: Memories of a Persian Boyhood, 1989). In his fiction, he both satirically evaluated life in Iran and advanced the use of colloquial and idiomatic Persian in literature. Much of the humor springs from his juxtaposing speakers of different variants of Persian—out of the clashes of diction and dialect come some hilarious scenes. A pioneering work, Once Upon a Time helped chart the direction of the short story in Persian letters. Among the issues the collection addresses is the struggle for Iranian identity in the face of westernization and the central role of the Persian language in that struggle.

Events in History at the Time of the Stories

The emergence of modern Iran

Throughout the Middle Ages, Islamic cultures, including that of Iran, saw themselves as superior or at least equal to those of Christendom. In their view, their culture was the latest one spoken to by the universal God through his Prophet Muhammad. This perception changed, however, in the wake of the Mongol and Tatar invasion of the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries. The change was gradual but steady, as one Islamic culture after another found itself dominated by increasingly aggressive European powers, armed with gunpowder, new sciences and technologies, and the will to dominate countries everywhere. Their success gave rise to a genuine soul-searching among Muslims; some blamed Islam for their backwardness and powerlessness, while others believed the domination came about because they had deviated from the true path of their religion. In Iran, these two beliefs eventually manifested themselves in the growth of secularism and religious reform on the one hand, and what is known now as Islamic fundamentalism on the other hand.

The conversion of Iranian society to Islam was a phenomenon that started in the seventh century. Already by then the religion had begun to give rise to a basic subdivision—that between the Shi‘ite and Sunni sects. Members of the Shi‘ite sect believe that authority is transmitted through an individual called an imam, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatimah and her husband, Ali. Sunni Muslims, by contrast, base authority not in descent from the Prophet but on the sayings and actions of Muhammad. By the fifteenth century, an increasingly Shi‘ite Iran saw itself flanked by two powerful Sunni adversaries, the Ottomans in the northwest and the Uzbeks in the northeast. In the early sixteenth century, the first of the Safavid kings declared Shi‘ism the official religion of Iran. This enabled Iran to meet the challenge from its Sunni rivals, but the country ended up isolating itself from most of the rest of the Muslim world.

By the end of the eighteenth century two colonial powers had established themselves in the vicinity of Iran, the British in the Indian subcontinent and the Russians in the Caucasus Mountains and Central Asia. Iran’s encounters with these two powers, particularly its devastating wars with Russia in the early nineteenth century left it with a government powerless in the face of foreign intrusions but despotic at home. The country’s first efforts at modernization emerged in this climate, as the nation’s leaders struggled to maintain its independence and separate identity. By the mid nineteenth century, Iran had begun to send students to Europe, particularly to France, a country with no apparent designs on Iran’s integrity in contrast to Great Britain and Russia. Iran itself was about to adopt a European-style educational system, led by a technical school that came to be known as the Dar al-Funun. For the next century and a half, the country would try hard to balance the need to modernize against the need to remain connected to its native culture and the religious faith practiced by most of its citizens. In the process, it would experience periods of either half-hearted modernization or diverse efforts to return to its roots, both Islamic and pre-Islamic. It is this historical background that provides the context for Jamalzadah’s stories in Once Upon a Time.

Foreign and domestic relations

The twentieth century began ominously for Iranian independence. There was at first a promising development. The Constitutional Revolution of 1905–11, in essence a movement against autocratic rule and its foreign supporters, raised hopes for the establishment of a modern, independent nation. However, soon afterwards, the Anglo-Russian Agreement of 1907 divided Iran into spheres of influence, with Russia in control of the north, Britain in control of the south and east, and the two in competition for favor in the neutral zone at the center. The Qajar monarch, Muzaffar al-Din Shah (1896–1907), a weak ruler, granted concessions to the European powers who sought control of his country’s resources and squandered money from those powers on his travels. People began to demand limits on royal authority and on foreign influence and to demand rule by law rather than autocratic decree. Muzaffar al-Din Shah’s failure to respond to these demands led to protests by merchants, the clergy, and others in 1906. Under duress, the shah agreed to a constitution, drawn up by an elected assembly that, in turn, elected a parliament (Majlis) to represent the people. On December 30, 1906, the shah signed the constitution and five days later, he died.

In June 1908, the next king, Muhammad Ali Shah, tried to crush the constitution by having his Russian-led Persian Cossack Brigade bomb the Majlis building, arrest many of the deputies, and close down the assembly. But pro-constitutional forces marched to Tehran, deposed the king, and re-established the constitution. All this turmoil and Muhammad Ali Shah’s attempt to regain the throne with Russian support in 1910 threatened to dash Iranian hopes for independence. In the end, the Constitutional Revolution would fail, thanks to the interference of foreign powers and a campaign by tribal (Bakhtiari) chiefs against the Majlis. But the constitution itself would survive.

When World War 1 broke out, Iran declared neutrality but to little effect. The country became a battleground for Russian, Ottoman, and British troops, one that drew the Iranians themselves into the factional fighting. The Germans provoked the southern tribes of Iran against the British, who responded by creating an armed defense force, the South Persia Rifles. Then, as World War I drew to a close and Russia became preoccupied with revolutionary movements at home, the British seized the opportunity for greater control. They established the Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919, which, in effect, turned Iran into a British protectorate. But the agreement fueled opposition, and failed to win approval in the new Iranian parliament. A coup d’état was in the offing.

In February 1921, Reza Khan, a Persian Cossack Brigade officer, in collaboration with Sayyid Ziya al-Din Tabataba’i, a prominent journalist of the day, marched into Tehran and seized power. Their coup d’état toppled the rule of the Qajar monarchs, inaugurating a new era, and ultimately a new dynasty in Iran.

A few years after the coup, Reza Khan began a movement to establish a republic. However, the Muslim clergy objected, arguing that such a government would be contradictory to Islam. Reza Khan then worked towards changing the Qajar dynasty but retaining the monarchical form of government. Eventually, on December 12, 1926, he himself became monarch, and soon afterward crowned himself first king of the Pahlavi Dynasty. He assumed the name Reza Shah, shah being the term for a monarch or king. Full-scale modernization became an urgent issue under Reza Shah (ruled 1925–41). He promoted a Western lifestyle, an end to British and Russian occupation, Iranian control of banks and other financial institutions, the development of industry, and the creation of a modern educational system. At the same time, his government began gradually to limit the influence of the clergy, to foreground Iran’s pre-Islamic history, and purify the Persian language of its Arabic components.

In making all these changes, Reza Shah’s government was seizing on tendencies already at play during the time of the short stories. Ultimately his dynasty would affect almost every aspect of Iranian life, from politics and religion, to language, dress, and education. The contingent of Iranian students abroad contributed to the transformations too. His government continued to send students to Europe for an education and when they returned, they often did not revert to the national dress—a long robe such as clergymen wear for men and a head-to-toe black covering for women. Various Iranians abandoned turbans for all kinds of hats from Europe; shortly after the stories take place, the government would order civil servants to wear a shortened version of a Western hat, called the Pahlavi hat. In its effort to purify the language, at one point the government toyed with the idea of romanizing the Persian alphabet. Religious reformers like Jamalzadah’s father, Sayyid Jamal al-Din Isfahani, pushed for expanding Islamic studies beyond the central texts (Boroujerdi, p. 95). Economically Jamalzadah’s stories take place a few years before


In an attempt to increase security, the Qajars employed Russian officers to form the Persian “Cossack” Brigade in Iran in 1879. The Cossacke—Russian fighters, farmers, peasants, pioneers, and even outlaws—were viewed as tough, proud, uncouth backwoodsmen by many Iranians. At one point, Iran’s Cossack-led forces won command of three semi-Independent provinces previously governed by an elected council and a headman, and repeatedly the forces fought off other troops sent by Russian tsars, meanwhile looting caravans on their way across Iran. Although the Cossack officers inspired fear because of al! the raiding, they were commonly regarded as rabble rousing foreigners. Their forces nevertheless formed a dependable fighting unit Commanded by Russian officers until 1917, the Persian Cossack Brigade afterwards came under Iranian control, and at the command of Reza Shah its members were integrated into the Iranian army.

the major push toward industrialization, which began in 1925. Also there were relatively few educators, craftspeople, clergymen, or administrators at the time. The population consisted mostly of agricultural laborers, not a monolithic group since it included people from diverse ethnic (e.g., Azeris, Kurds), religious (e.g., Shi‘ites, Sunnis, Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians), and linguistic (e.g., Azeris, Arabs) backgrounds—although the Persian language predominated. The peasants endured a daily round of toil, anxious dependence on weather fluctuations, and the pleasures of life in a close community with a shared language and customs. When times were especially tough, young men would trek to nearby countries for jobs and funnel earnings back home. Over the years, thousands of Iranians sought work in Russia and the Caucasus region, which resulted in friction with the laborers there, since the Iranians worked for less pay (meagre perhaps by Russian standards, but a substantial amount to send back to Iran from their point of view).

Politics and the literary community

Occupied by the Allied forces during World War I, Iranians suffered from the weakness of their own government, which was unable to protect them from abuse such as that suffered by a character in Jamalzadah’s story “With Friends Like That” at the hands of a Cossack soldier.

Only at the end of Qajar rule did various movements spring up to push for changes in government, the status of women, and the like. Persian literature had reached a high level of excellence in the millennium before the Qajars, through the creation of epics, panegyrics, and ghazals (lyrical love poems) and through historical, mystical, and didactic writings. But under Qajar rule, it declined enormously. By and large, literary elites of the nineteenth century tended to be reactionary, to champion traditionalist Islam and to oppose modernity. They were, for the most part, hired hands of the Qajar dynasty, who imitated esteemed writers of the past and failed to address urgent issues of the present. By the end of the Qajar era, however, the literary elite had become a more complex mix of writers hired by the state and those who opposed one or another of its policies. Part of this elite stirred with new ideas stimulated by Western concepts and a liberal nationalist bent, pushing for modernism in all aspects of Iranian life, including literature.

Since the Constitutional Revolution (1905–1911), new writers had been campaigning against the artificiality and arbitrariness of traditional prose. Theses writers, stimulated by their contact with the West, promoted innovative styles and ideas in newly established journals. Encouraged by the new emphasis on modernization, their early grassroots activities evolved into a literary movement. With the publication of New Poetry by Nima Yushij and short stories by Jamalzadah and Sadiq Hidayat in the 1920s and 1930s, this literary movement became dominant (Karimi-Hakkak, pp. 3–5). The movement gave rise to new genres in Persian literature—the short story and the novel, and poetry that differed in meter and rhyme from classical verse. Fiction broke with the previously inflated, ornamental prose and began to adopt a simpler, more widely comprehensible language, closer in form and content to the way people spoke than in the past. And, in prose, as in poetry, writers stopped praising Muslim personalities. Literature, like the rest of life, became more secularized.

Tossing aside—or drastically modifying—traditional norms and forms, pioneering writers approached literature in a radically different way, as a conveyer of fresh ideas and precepts. The writers not only introduced new styles but also made revolutionary ideas intrinsic to their works, as Jamalzadah does in Once Upon a Time.

The Short Stories in Focus

Plot summary—“Persian Is Sugar.”

Altogether Once Upon a Time includes six short stories, of which three that deal with distinct issues of the day are treated here. The lead story in the collection, “Persian Is Sugar,” features four men who have come together in a jail in the northern port of Anzali, Iran. The narrator, a middle-class Iranian back from Europe, is taken to the jail after he disembarks. His “crime” is that he looks like a foreigner but carries an Iranian passport. In the makeshift cell, our narrator encounters two other prisoners. One is an Iranian clergyman (shaykh), who speaks a mixed variety of Persian and Arabic; the other a westernized Iranian, who speaks Persian with a French accent. Soon a fourth person is thrown into the mix—a simple apprentice at the local coffeehouse, who speaks a plain, colloquial Persian. All four have been confined for different “official” reasons but in truth are there because of the continual shifting of authority in the city, a byproduct of national instability. The story highlights the problem of communication in an environment of severe linguistic flux, deriving much of its satirical power from the four interlocutors’ attempts to overcome this barrier.

The story satirizes Islamic rituals and the religious establishment of the era through its description of the shaykh, quickly adopting a tone that remains irreverent thereafter.

I heard a hissing sound coming from one of the corners of the jail …. Something that I first took for a shiny white cat curled up sleeping on a sack of charcoal caught my eye. It was actually a shaik [sheik] who had wrapped himself from ear to ear in his cloak and was sitting seminary-style: cross-legged, his arms hugging his knees. The shiny white cat was his rumpled turban, part of which had come loose … and assumed the shape of a cat’s tail. The hissing sounds I heard turned out to be the salutations in his prayers.

(Once Upon A Time, p. 34)

Like the narrator, the simple apprentice, Ramazan, does not know why the authorities have arrested him, so he appeals to the shaykh for guidance. The shaykh, with “perfect declamation and composure,” utters: “Believer! Deliver ye not the reins of thy rebellious and weak soul to anger and rage for those who control their wrath and are forgiving toward mankind” (Once Upon A Time, p. 35). Ramazan is stunned by the shaykh’s speech. He can follow the shaykh’s voice but not the meaning of his words. Neither the heavily Arabicized Persian nor the religious terminology make sense to Ramazan, yet on rants


Like any other language, Persian has written (formal) and spoken (colloquial) styles of communication. The written form has changed far less over the centuries than the spoken form. “In our country,” Jamalzadah observes in the original introduction to Once Upon a Time, “the literary elite, when holding the pen to write, writes for the literati and ignores others, even the people who can read and understand simple compositions,” He continues, ’’our literary elite, when they write, ignore the ordinary people and writes an obscure composition absolutely incomprehensible to the ordinary, whereas, in all other civilized countries where progress has been achieved, simple and comprehensible writings predominate. (Jamalzadah, Yaki bud va yaki nabud, pp. 3, 5; trans, K. Talattof). Forging new ground in Persian letters, Jamalzadah insisted on writing the way people talk.

the shaykh: “Patience is the key to release. Spero that the object of our imprisonment shall become manifest ex tempore; but whatever the case, whether sooner or later, it most assuredly will reach our ears” (Once Upon a Time, p. 36).

Now sure that he will not receive any useful information from the shaykh, Ramazan turns to the westernized Iranian, only to receive another potent dose of linguistic confusion, this time from the other direction. He cannot understand the gentleman’s Persian, which is peppered with French words and is spoken with a thick French accent. Describing his own encounter with this westernized Iranian, the narrator refers to him as one of those gentlemen “who will serve as monuments to coddling, idiocy, and illiteracy in Iran until the Resurrection” (Once Upon A Time, p. 34). The narrator himself has a decidedly westernized appearance, but he can speak the language of the common people, which Jamalzadah describes as the “true, sweet language” of Persian. He is able therefore to quell Ramazan’s worst fear—that he has been thrown into the company of lunatics. The only one to fully understand the goings-on in this cell, the narrator emerges as the model to emulate. He adopts attributes of Western culture such as dress, which in Jamalzadah’s view do not undermine Iranian identity, yet remains Iranian in his speech. At the end, a new passport officer takes power, and all four prisoners are released as frivolously as they were arrested, on a whim. Taking their leave together, they enjoy a hearty laugh at the official’s expense when they see yet another new passport officer racing to replace him.


“Persian is Sugar” features, along with its three other main I characters, a Western-oriented gentleman, calling him a “Wog.” The expression is adapted from an Italian context, where it was originally used for the many Italians who sojourned in the United States and returned too westernized for the taste of many. Jamalzadah’s story speaks of a Frenchified Iranian as a Wog. He reads not a Persian but a French novel in the story, while another character, the shaykh, recites not Persian but Arabic holy verses. The story roundly satirizes both of them, thus conveying the author’s disapproval.

“With Friends Like That.”

In the company of a few fellow travelers, the narrator rides a coach from the city of Malayer to Kermanshah during World War I in order to visit his mother. The coach must pass through the town of Kangavar, which is in control of the Russians, against whom the Iranian nationalists are fighting. One of the passengers, a young, friendly Iranian worker named Habibollah (also called Habib) is bound for Kangavar to take charge of the family of his brother, who has been killed in the war. On the way the coach comes across a wounded Russian Cossack left to die in the snow. Dismissing the protests of his fellow passengers, Habib rescues the Cossack and bribes the coach driver to let in the extra passenger. As he removes the coin for the bribe, the genial Habib accidentally drops his purse, which ominously catches the Cossack’s eye. When they reach Kangavar, the Cossack hails some comrades and together they beat up Habib as his fellow passengers look on without lifting a finger to save him. Hours after the Cossacks shoot the amicable fellow dead, the narrator witnesses a scene that makes his blood boil and brings the story to a sardonic close: the Cossack whom Habib rescued approaches his lifeless corpse, steals his purse, and walks away with total impunity.

“Molla Qorban Ali’s Complaint.”

In the capital city of Tehran, a middle-aged man becomes a preacher, a reciter of the Quran and religious narratives. Illiterate, he learns his trade by memorizing the sermons he hears. He earns his living by reciting the passion of Hossein (in Arabic, Husayn), the third Shfite Imam, at various gatherings of the faithful. His neighbor Hajji Samad calls on him to perform a weekly recitation in his home because God has answered his prayer for the recovery of his only daughter, the young Gawhar. To make the blessing all the more effective, Hajji asks the young girl to give the coin to the preacher in person. In the third week, as the 16-year-old beauty is handing the coin to the preacher, her head-covering gets caught on a rosebush and slips to reveal her face and her long, flowing head of hair. Thus begins an obsession that the Molla (or mullah, a person versed in theology and Islamic law) cannot shake, despite hours of prayer, recitations, and tricks to distract himself. His obsession eventually keeps him from going out to work except to preach at the Hajji’s home. His wife sickens and dies from the financial stress of it all. Soon after, the beautiful Gawhar falls ill again and dies too. At the story’s end, Molla Qorban Ali finds himself drawn to the mosque where Gawhar’s lifeless corpse awaits burial. Alone with the corpse, Molla works himself into a frenzy and begins to violate the dead girl. He is seen, beaten, and arrested in the act. The story is narrated retrospectively by him from prison, where he has remained silent for seven years. The reference to love, the beloved, and roses, as well as Jamalzadah’s playful rendering of many expressions, reminds readers of the tradition of the love lyric in Persian. Jamalzadah, however, tells his story in a simple, comprehensible language accessible to all, remaining faithful to the goal of creating an idiom for modern Persian literature matching that in which the characters interact.

What constitutes Iranian-ness

In “With Friends Like That,” the narrator describes his superior at work in sarcastic terms, using an element of traditional Islam to do so, debunking both the traditional element and the superior.

The head of my office was a kind soul, a person of zest and enthusiasm, dervish-like with a mystic’s manner and the disposition of a Sufi: at peace with everyone and put off by disputes, uninhibited, considerate, and benign. His only faults were that he knew the mysteries of chess better than matters of finance and that he was more familiar with a deck of cards than with the cards in a ledger file or the accounts of our office income and expenditures.

(Once Upon a lime, pp. 65–66)

“Persian is Sugar” is equally ironic when it contrasts both the shaykh’s unintelligible Persian (“contaminated” with Arab-Islamic terminology) and the Wog’s Persian (equally “polluted” with half-digested French borrowings) to the narrator’s ordinary yet beautiful and sweet language of the man-in-the-street. Finally, “Molla Qorban Ali’s Complaint” shows a society victimized by tradition. The protagonist’s making love to a corpse underscores the problem of interaction between males and females in a society where the two sexes are generally constrained to view each other from afar. The story suggests that such a situation needs to be reformed and that tradition itself may be viewed as a corpse that holds an obsessive and unhealthy attraction for modern Iranians. Also being suggested perhaps is the idea that the beautiful aspects of a once living culture continue to hold a morbid fascination for modern Iranians, keeping them from moving forward.

All these messages coincide with the views of the new literary movement inaugurated by Jamalzadah and his peers. Perhaps foremost among these views was their high regard for Persian. They endorsed the language, considering it the most admirable part of the Iranian heritage, and set out through their writings to expose the damage done by the seventh-century Islamic conquest of Persia. The literary movement had specific objectives:

  • To denounce the use of Arabic terminology
  • To purify Persian by not using such foreign vocabulary
  • To promote a fictional language closer to common parlance than the conventional written style
  • To link ancient Iran to the present, expunging centuries of Islamic dominance
  • To introduce new literary forms

Although the movement’s members believed that traditional literary elements—fables, the epic form, standard symbols, and Quranic metaphors—were inadequate to address contemporary social issues, they did not abandon these elements. Rather they infused them into the new genres, often in a satirical manner, as Jamalzadah does in “Persian Is Sugar,” which features a shaykh saying prayers in an incomprehensible language and curled up like a cat. Such a preacher would no doubt fail miserably to communicate with the average Persian.

Interestingly, many scholars of Persian literature have categorized these innovative early-twentieth-century writers, including Jamalzadah, as “nationalists” (Yarshater, p. 34; Saad, p. 26). It is true that


In “With Friends Like That,” one of the passengers, an opium addict, counsels the narrator to escape grim reafity by smoking opium himself It will inure him to such gross but everyday injustices as that suffered by Habib and to the guilt of doing nothing to stop it Certainly the man was not alone in seeing opium as a viable remedy to the travesties of daily life, Iranians had in fact fong used opium as a medical remedy, as did the British, who imported much of Iran’s opium. The nineteenth century had seen the supply of opium burgeon in Iran, and the populace showed a growing addiction to the drug, “By the turn of the [twentieth] century,” explains one historian, “addiction to smoking was widespread, touching all strata of the society” (Poroy, p, 5).

nationalism influenced literary figures of the era, as shown by the anti-Russian tone in Jamalzadah’s “With Friends Like That.” In general, however, their writings did not acquire a specifically nationalistic character; the story just mentioned does not spare the Iranians, who passively accept a Cossack soldier’s savage injustice to one of their own and are therefore complicit in it. Like Jamalzadah, other major writers of the period—Hidayat, for example—did not champion nationalism. They in fact left Iran to live in Europe. A few stayed in Iran and produced works with anti-state rhetoric, even challenging the notion of an Iranian culture, questioning how one defines national identity in such an ethnically diverse society. Abroad and at home, writers reflected on and criticized many national


While Sunni Muslims subscribe to the belief that leadership of the Muslim community ought to be the result of consensus, the Shtite Muslims have historically advanced the notion of hereditary succession. After the Prophet Muhammad died, some argued that only someone as charismatic as he could succeed, both as a spiritual and worldly ruler. The Prophet’s descendants were thought to be the most qualified candidates. Husayn the third in the direct line of descendants from Muhammad and the man who had lost his life leading a revolt against the ruling caliph, was particularly revered and considered worthy of the title Imam (leader). His murder in the village of Karbala in modern Iraq in the year 680 c.e. became a watershed that deepened the Sunni-Shi‘ite divide in Islam. Within the Shi‘ite community, the narrative of Karbala became a source of recitations, the reservoir for a variety of themes and motifs on which preachers drew all year round.

In time, Husayn’s saga began to be commemorated annually by Shi‘ite Muslims in dramatic readings and passion plays that re-enact the circumstances of his death. To this day, during the Islamic month of Muharram, when Husayn was martyred, many ceremonies and activities take place. The climax of the holiday, on the day of Ashura (the actual day of the massacre of Karbala), is a mournful annual event Incidentally, children take advantage of the occasion to play games such as hide-and-seek, and young adults to avail themselves of a dating opportunity, since on the crowded sidewalks one can get close to the opposite sex. Others invite a preacher into their home to deliver a sermon, believing that they will be rewarded for this by God, In his sermon, the preacher recites the events of Karbala and the martyrdom of Husayn, typically narrating some of the dialogue in Arabic and inducing the men and women to weep. Like younger people, the adults take advantage of the opportunity to socialize, exchanging news and possibly jokes.

characteristics as they wrestled with the question, meanwhile embracing language as an uncon-testable element of Iranian-ness.

Sources and literary context

Jamalzadah wrote the lead story, “Persian is Sugar” in 1916, upon returning to Europe after a brief visit to Iran. He may well have experienced some administrative difficulties similar to the narrator’s during this trip. Another brief trip to Iran during World War I could have provided the material for “With Friends Like That,” since he spent a few months in Kermanshah at the time.

As noted, Jamalzadah was highly influenced by Western ideas. For the most part, his modernist and Western orientation is reflected in his choice of topics, his critical approach, and his questioning of tradition. He dealt with issues as diverse as the attitudes espoused by Western-educated Iranians, the injustices of the justice system, and the corruption that plagued the practice of Islam in his time. Again, he promoted the short-story genre, which has its most immediate roots in Western literary tradition. Jamalzadah also drew on Persian literary tradition, specifically on the anecdotal narrative of the maqamdh genre (see The Maqamat , also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times). Modern prose writing first became popular in Iran at the beginning of the twentieth century, especially in the 1920s, when Muhammad Ali Jamalzadah and Sadiq Hi-dayat established the genre as the main means of literary expression, a position until then enjoyed by poetry. Along with Hidayat, Jamalzadah raised the short story to a position of prominence it would enjoy until the 1979 Revolution, after which the novel replaced it in popularity.

Reception and impact

As indicated, most of the stories in Once Upon a Time were originally published in Berlin in the Persian magazine Kavah. When published in Iran a year later as part of Once Upon at Time, they met with stiff resistance from clerical leaders and a wildly enthusiastic welcome from progressive Iranians, mainly because of the stories’ innovative use of spoken Persian. The work especially caught the attention of the elites who were satirized. In a November 8, 1922, letter, Abd al-Rahim Khalkhali, a bookseller and scholar, informed Jamalzadah that Once Upon a Time has caused an uproar in Tehran: “Cries aimed against ‘infidels’ and shouts of ‘woe to our religion’ were raised like waving cudgels …. Because of your book, my bookstore was almost burned down and myself almost martyred” (Moayyad in Jamalzadah, p. 10). Despite the passage of time, the work remains offensive to some and immensely attractive to others.

Once Upon a Time had an undeniably democratizing effect on Iranian society with its use of spoken Persian, which attached the prestige of literature to everyday life, bringing these two spheres closer together than ever before. A few years after its release, scholars began to acknowledge it as the work that initiated Persian realism. At the beginning of the original Persian edition is an introduction by Jamalzadah that criticizes prevailing literary trends and calls for literary freedom. This introduction itself has gained distinction as the “manifesto that officially established the course of modern Persian fiction” (Yusufi, p. 105; trans. K. Talattof).

—Kamran Talattof

For More Information

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Jamalzadah, M. A. Once Upon a Time. Trans. H. Moayyad and P. Sprachman. New York: Bibliotheca Persica, 1985.

_____. Yaki bud vayaki nabud. Tehran: n.p., 1922.

Karimi-Hakkak, Ahmad. Recasting Persian Poetry: Scenarios of Poetic Modernity in Iran. Salt Lake. City: University of Utah Press, 1995.

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