My Father’s Notebook: Kader Abdolah’s Novel of 20th Century Iran

The English translation of My Father’s Notebook is the only book by Kader Abdolah that I’ve read. The novel is also my first and only encounter with the exiled Iranian writer who now lives in the Netherlands. But the issues Abdolah’s book highlight on life in Iran under the Shah, the heroic struggles of the leftist resistance movement, and the eventual ascendancy of the Islamist mullahs in the power struggle following the revolution of 1979, are all relevant and makes My Father’s Notebook a rewarding read.

The history of Iran, like the history of all hitherto human societies, is a history of the struggles between the oppressor and the oppressed, the exploiter and the exploited, the dominator and the dominated. Nowhere is this as clear as in that brief period called the 20th Century when Iran fell in the hands of successive authoritarian regimes – from the British colonizing power to the two Shahs and eventually the Islamist dictatorship. My Father’s Notebook is an attempt at coming to terms with this history.

The narrator Ishmael shifts between an account of a life of melancholia and nostalgia in the Netherlands and memories of his own life and that of his deaf-mute father, Aga Akbar, back in Iran. Ishmael makes use of his father’s indecipherable notebook, which is written in cuneiform, in retracing the past. Being deaf-mute, Aga Akbar developed his own unique system of writing from the ancient cuneiform of the first king of Persia carved on the cave walls of Saffron Mountain which he first visited with his uncle as a child.

Ishmael thus grapples with the recollections of a deaf-mute father who he assisted as personal guide and translator since his childhood – but he never completely understood. His accounts of his father’s notes give the reader a peek of life in the Iranian countryside. Aga Akbar is the illegitimate son of a noble. He serves as a guide to archaeologists visiting the caves of Saffron Mountain for the cuneiforms. He trains to become a carpet mender and becomes the most renowned of menders in his province.

Aga Akbar personally encounters the first Shah, who rides into his village to personally oversee the building of train tracks through the countryside, and for which Aga Akbar and his entire village volunteered. He marries the strong-willed countrywoman Tina, sires 4 children, and eventually moves from the village by Saffron Mountain to the city where his handicrafts skills are rendered useless as he becomes absorbed into factory work. Aga Akbar’s life story eventually intertwines with that of the younger narrator.

Ishmael goes on to study at the University of Tehran but subsequently dropout to pursue full time work as a professional leftwing revolutionary. His party agitates against the Shah, organize a clandestine movement, and wage a guerrilla war with the Cuban Revolution as their model. Of course, they were eventually outmaneuvered by the Imams. But more than the standard academic postcolonial valorization of exile, My Father’s Notebook gives us a glimpse into the lost promise held by the possibility of a genuine revolution in Iran.

This is the tragedy of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. After the mobilization of masses of Iranians toppled the authoritarian regime of the Shah, the Islamists led by Khomeini outmaneuvered other democratic, secular, leftwing forces and seized power. The mullahs initiated a counter-revolution that pushed the country in a regressive direction, back towards the restoration of a feudal theocratic rule of which the only thing new is it’s being propped up by the worst modern instruments of state repression.

The outcome of the Iranian struggle thus presents a strong warning about what a defeat for revolutionary left forces could mean. As in Germany and Spain in the 1930s or Chile in the 1970s, where the fascists won the hearts and minds of the petty bourgeois, the Islamists of Iran were able to win over large sections of the rising urban masses and a feudal landlord class that feared the prospects of genuine social revolution and the consequential redistribution of their rural estates.

The novel ends with the escape of one of Ishmael’s comrades from the Imam’s jails, an escape that symbolizes the militancy and indomitable spirit of the Iranian people. The spirit of resistance is still in the air in Iran even under the most repressive conditions, as the frequent outbreak of youth and workers protests in recent years have shown. It is the specter of this rising up of the Iranian people, and not US and Israeli war of aggression against Iranian sovereignty that spells the hope for real liberation of the people of Iran.


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