AUDIO: A New Chapter for Iranian Literature, Now in Hebrew

Iranian-born Orly Noy is giving Israelis their first taste of contemporary Persian literature, introducing them to Iranian humor and hoping to demonstrate 'how much we actually have in common.'

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Orly Noy, the Iranian-born writer, thinks her native country is fundamentally misunderstood by most of her fellow Israelis. She hopes to change this perception with two Iranian books she recently translated into Hebrew, now available in bookstores.

The first, "My Uncle Napoleon," published in 1973 and written by Iraj Pezeshkzad, is a comic, 1940's-era love story that makes fun of Iranians who somehow tend to always tie their tribulations to the British.

"The challenge was to get Israelis to see the Iranian sense of humor," said the 42 year-old Noy, speaking to Haaretz via Skype from Tampa, Florida, where she recently moved with her husband, a visiting university professor of communications, and their two daughters.  "It's not the first thing that comes to mind, I think, when you speak in Israel about Iranians. For me, it is the most dominant Iranian characteristic. The Iranian humor is very distinct. It's a very basic component of the collective Iranian figure."

Noy's second translation is Mahmoud Dowlatabadi's critically acclaimed "The Decline of the Colonel", set during the 1979 revolution and its violent aftermath. It describes the harrowing ordeal of a colonel in the Shah's army to recover and bury the body of his youngest daughter, who had been tortured to death after circulating leaflets opposing the new regime.

"This is an extremely disturbing, sad book," says Noy, who said she was "completely absorbed" by her nearly year-long translation. "It's a very insightful book about the tragedy of Iranian history in modern times."

Noy, who was nine years old when her family fled the Islamic revolution for Israel in 1979, says  her decision to translate "My Uncle Napoleon" -- what she called "one of the most popular novels in Iranian literature" -- was not a difficult one, though she did note the "challenge" of selecting a title that was, essentially, the first modern Farsi novel to be translated to Hebrew. "It's astonishing," she said. "You're talking about 6,000 years of culture and civilization, and not a single translation."

Dowlatabadi's "The Decline of the Colonel," written in the 1980's, was never published in Iran. The book and its author were considered subversive by the authorities.  It was printed in German and published last summer in English.

"What a brave man that author is, to make that statement in Iran today is extremely brave," said Noy of the 71 year-old Dowlatabadi, who still lives in Iran.

Beyond the difficulties of translating her complex mother-tongue to Hebrew, Noy also spoke of the challenge she faced in crafting a manuscript that would get "Israelis to read these books with empathy and with educated eyes and unbiased and unhateful eyes and really to connect or to sympathize with the Iranian tragedy, not gloating," she said.

"The thing I feared the most was that the 'Colonel' would serve for some Israelis as a justification or a proof of the cruelty of this current regime in Iran and that it would be all that they would take from this book:  'Look how barbaric they are,'" said Noy.  "Really, it's not the point of that book. The book presents the tremendous complexity of Iranian modern history."

Noy, a self-described "social and political activist," has served as a spokesperson and report-writer at Ir-Amim, an Israeli non-government organization that educates about the history and current politics of Jerusalem. She has served as the spokesperson for Keshev, the Center for the Protection of Democracy in Israel and was a producer, editor and presenter of a daily political talk show at All For Peace, a joint Israeli-Palestinian radio station broadcasting from Jerusalem.

She sees her translations as an extension of her activism, which she says "aims to bridge over the tremendous gap, or ignorance, that I see within Israeli society about Iranian culture, history and literature."

In Noy's left-leaning world-view, Israeli readers of the 'Colonel' will not only look at Iran, but might also look at themselves and see disturbing similarities of an experiment she apparently feels has gone awry:

"Another challenge was to get the Israeli reader to see how much we actually have in common," Noy says, "what happens when great ideologies and great thoughts and hopes and revolutions become violent and lose their humanity and just run all over people. I think that this is something very relevant to Israelis living, you know, the consequences of the Zionist revolution."

Orly Noy recently translated two contemporary Iranian novels into Hebrew.

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