Passion High At The Tehran Hopkins Club

Originally published in the New Statesman

The prospect of ploughing through the complete works of Ezra Pound would have the members of most British book clubs choking on their chocolate digestives in horror. Not so the Tehran Hopkins Club; over the course of six months last year, its members analysed and annotated the late poet’s every obscure scribble without so much as a Kite Runner or a Curious Dog in sight – and what’s more, they loved every minute of it.

“We’re united by a passion for poetry and a desire to promote it in Iran,” says Amir Azizmohamadi, who founded the Hopkins Club – named after the poet Gerard Manley – three years ago. “I think the majority of students in the club would much rather reform the system for studying English literature in Iran than disappear to England and study there.”

Meetings are held every Monday afternoon in the disused offices of the banned literary magazine Karnameh; dust coats the desks and the posters are all peeling, but such touches only amplify the prevailing revolutionary atmosphere. The members hail from a variety of backgrounds – from impoverished students to culturally concerned doctors and dentists – but all attend meetings with the kind of reverence that would humble those jaded by literary freedoms in the West.

Nor are their efforts purely recreational: when they’re done with a given poet, their notes are sent to translators, who prepare Farsi versions that are then printed and bound along with the original English texts. In a few years, they hope to have covered enough ground to publish the first Modern English Poets in Farsi – assuming they can find a publisher willing to take them on. “We like to think that all major movements begin with a handful of dedicated people,” says Maryam Akbari, a member since day one, “and that’s exactly what we are.”

Beyond dedication, however, the Hopkins Club lays claim to very little. Their mentors – a roster of literary luminaries including Foucault, Eliot and Derrida – offer advice that is mostly posthumous, and the club’s activities are extra-curricular, unofficial and entirely unfunded. Meanwhile, the nation’s academic curricula and publishing houses are at the mercy of an intellectual mafia allied to the current government – which under the new hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is edging ever further towards a closed state of post-Revolutionary Islamic purity. For now, Tehran’s monolithic Shahr-e Ketab (Book City) sells an abundance of purely non-threatening English-language paperbacks – including a frankly staggering amount of Victorian ghost stories – but in the light of increasing restrictions on foreign films and last month’s blanket ban on Western music, even this can’t be guaranteed for much longer.

As such, the Hopkins Club seems to be preparing itself for an undertaking of great cultural significance. Numbers continue to swell so rapidly that the offices at Karnameh are beginning to split at the seams. A new website has been set up as an open forum for Iranian literary enthusiasts as well as an archive for academic and creative writing of their own. Talks at the club – mostly by members – are booked up until April on subjects as diverse as modern Italian poetry and the philosophy of David Hume. In the meantime, the club has just finished analysing the work of the American poet Wallace Stevens, and is about to embark on an assessment of his contemporary, Hart Crane.

“I think the world has every other kind of literary criticism,” says Hopkins stalwart Sepehr Tabatabayee. “Marxist, post-feminist, queer theory; it sometimes feels like the only thing missing is an Iranian perspective, but I believe we’re finally moving in the right direction. The rest is hopefully only a matter of time.”