Interview with Iranian author Amir Hassan Cheheltan

"Literature is based on politics and eroticism"

Amir Hassan Cheheltan has not published a novel in Iran in 15 years. The 62-year-old author does intend to refrain from writing either about politics or eroticism, as censorship in Iran prescribes. In Europe, meanwhile, his works are enjoying increasing popularity. Eight books by Cheheltan have already been published in German. Interview by Nasrin Bassiri

Mr. Cheheltan, you write for German-language media and have published numerous novels in Germany. Why? Did you choose Germany or did Germany choose you?

Amir Hassan Cheheltan: Germany chose me. It all began when my articles started appearing in the German-speaking world – the first in the Suddeutsche Zeitung 20 years ago – in reaction to a series of murders of writers and opposition members being committed in Iran. The niche publishing house Kirchheim in Mainz subsequently approached my translator Susanne Baghestani and expressed an interest in publishing one of my novels in German translation.

You live in Iran, but travel a lot.

Cheheltan: I live with my wife in Tehran, but I often travel and have spent a lot of time in Germany. I like travelling. I really appreciate the cultural opportunities in other countries. Thanks to a scholarship from the International Parliament of Writers, I was able to live in Italy for two years. Then the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) made it possible for me to stay in Germany. I also spent a six-month stint as a guest at the Villa Aurora in Los Angeles, at the invitation of the Heinrich Boll Foundation. And then there are the shorter periods of time devoted to reading tours in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy.

Numerous Iranian novels have been translated into other languages in recent decades. It seems, however, that you hold the record. Why is that?

Cheheltan: It's hard for me to say what distinguishes my work from other authors. My novels are set in urban environments. Perhaps they are easier to translate because of my narrative style. But maybe it's also because my journalistic articles have made me more visible than my fellow writers.

Cover of Cheheltanʹs "Calligrapher of Isfahan" (published in German by C. H. Beck)
"The Calligrapher of Isfahan", published in German in 2015 is Amir Hassan Cheheltan's most popular book in German. The novel is set during the siege of Isfahan by Afghan troops in the 18th century. Calligraphy becomes a metaphor for the freedom of the mind in times of tyranny

Iranians and citizens of the world

You write in Farsi and your stories are set in the Persian-speaking world. Nonetheless, you write with world citizens in mind – how do you manage this balancing act?

Cheheltan: Of course, I am primarily Iranian. My language is Persian; I couldn't write a story in any other language. I grew up and was socialised in Iran and understand the world in Persian.

But as an author I donʹt just have my compatriots in mind, even though we share the same language and many common anxieties. If you only think locally, you draw a dividing line between "us" and "the others".

Yet we all share worries and needs, no matter where we come from. Love, loneliness, emigration or separation are issues that affect everyone. This connects the citizens of a country with global citizens of the world. Today, the world has not only grown together economically; we can no longer isolate ourselves culturally and literarily either. I regard myself as a citizen of the world.

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