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Source: Nicole Krauss - Washington Post

Dec 22, 2022

On Saturday, Taraneh Alidoosti was arrested in her home in Tehran because she condemned the execution of Mohsen Shekari, who had joined nationwide protests after the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini. Alidoosti is one of Iran’s most celebrated actresses and an outspoken advocate of human rights in her country, and for years I have been an admirer: Her emotional performances in two films of Asghar Farhadi’s — “About Elly” and “The Salesman” — left an indelible impression. Two years ago, I learned, utterly by chance, that she was also the translator of my work in Iran. I hadn’t even known that I had one.

When, in 2019, I became aware that my novel “The History of Love” had been translated into Persian, everything about that fact moved me: the unlikelihood of my work — American, Jewish, and sometimes dealing with Israel — finding voice in Iran, a place I’ve dreamed of much of my life; the courage and passion of the translator who made possible a conversation between two cultures whose governments condemn each other. As Iran doesn’t adhere to copyright laws, I never would have known of the translation had an Iranian friend not seen the cover posted on Instagram. It gave me joy, this sense of unbridgeable distances — cultural, political, linguistic, geographical — suddenly collapsing. Only after some months did I learn that the translator was none other than Taraneh Alidoosti.

It took me time to figure out how to reach her. In the end, it was Ahmad Kiarostami — who wrote to me after I published a short story that revolves around a film his father, Abbas Kiarostami, directed — who found a way to put me in touch. One day during the first bewildering spring of the pandemic, I wrote to her. I wanted to express my gratitude and to participate directly in the connection she’d formed between us, and I had a hundred questions: Why this book of all books? How did it find you? What are your days like there? Where do you find the strength to do what you do?

When my letter reached Alidoosti, her translation of “The History of Love” had already gone through 17 reprintings in Iran — a testament to her influence and the Iranian people’s interest in Western culture — and she was about to publish her translation of another of my novels, “Great House.” She had also just received a five-month prison sentence, suspended for the time being, for videos she had posted of young women being mistreated by the so-called morality police. She was living under quarantine with her then-7-year-old daughter; like me, she was divorced and struggling to balance her work with raising a child.

She found the arrival of my letter as unfathomable as reaching her had seemed to me: “But as you said,” she wrote, “is there anything more beautiful than these neat rays of harmony which connect us all from afar?”

She’d read “The History of Love” around 2009 — right after a series of brutally suppressed uprisings in Iran that followed the fraudulent election of that year. Many things had changed since then for her and countless friends, she wrote, and they all became, as if without choice, part of a political opposition — “as far as there can be activism in a country like ours.” She said that having friends in jail or with prison sentences hanging over their heads had become the new normal.

She also told me that literature was a vital part of her life and that she believed all she knew and all she had was somehow based on her close connection to novels. She had published stories herself and had written a popular blog, but as she became increasingly famous as a movie star, it was translation that allowed her to remain close to her passion without exposing herself.

“I’m so sorry there’s no such thing as copyright in Iran for foreign books,” she wrote. “Translators and even writers are not even paid sufficiently. Even publishers are struggling to make ends meet. What I was paid for [translating] the book is ridiculously little, but to be honest, that tiny sum made me happier than many big movie contracts.” She hadn’t known how I would respond to the translation, she wrote, but soon after it was published, when she was mourning the death of Abbas Kiarostami and was reading a story I wrote about one of his films, she “secretly felt the bond. … Through books like yours I am not alone. Through stories like yours I am not powerless, we are not doomed. Not everyone is silenced. Not all lives are in vain. There is time, peace, history, love and more importantly context. There are humans. There is a world that is way bigger than ours. There are women like you somewhere. Women like us. There are stories to be told, for years to come after all nightmares are gone.”

Alidoosti and I continued to correspond in the year that followed. We wrote intimately about our struggles as women, mothers and artists and our hopes, too; we talked about collaborating on an idea I had for a novel, a story about an American actress and an Iranian film director under house arrest. But her letters made clear her pain. “Living in Iran is a suffocating nightmare at this time. Covid and money inflation has brought the people to their knees, and not a word in protest is tolerated. We had executions recently that are not different from the ones before, but hurt more today.”

It was her protest of an execution that provided an excuse for her arrest.

But the real reason, of course, is that she is one of the most brilliant, respected, courageous and influential voices in Iran, an artist who has, at every chance, used her fame to draw attention to the oppression of her people and to demand their basic rights. Her nightmare, and theirs, is ongoing. In the words of her last Instagram post, sent to her 8 million followers before her account was shut down on Sunday: “Every international organisation who is watching this bloodshed and not taking action, is a disgrace to humanity.” I, like countless fans, know what it has meant to have her lend her voice and we will not rest until she is released and allowed to speak freely.

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