Experiences, Imaginations and Aspirations

Elaborating Kader Abolah’s Novel ‚My Fathers Notebook‘ as an anthropological observation

by Michael Anranter

Although in the Netherlands already, Ishmael has lot of memories to rework on. His father’s notebook and epigraphs in a legendary cave can’t be read by anyone anymore. So it’s the recent history of Iran and the memories of a growing child which migrated from the Saffron Mountain to Tehran and later the Netherlands. It turns out that the future of Ishmael in the Netherlands is determined by his experiences, but also by his continuous capability to aspire. The author of the novel is a man who studied in  Tehran and later had to migrate with his family to the Netherlands due to his engagement in the political opposition.

Before we can look at the differences between history and future, experiences and aspirations, it is worth to set up a framework for the communities Ishmael is in. I’ll therefore treat Kader Abdolah’s novel as an ethnographic field observation and argue with the stories and intentions of the main characters. As the novel has been written by a man who experienced some of the carefully described situations of childhood, political participation, prosecution and migration on his own. However it is the aim of this paper to show whether differences in aspirations and imaginations depend on qualities such as age or education. I’ll try to compare situations described in the novel but already in this early stage of the paper I suggest a fluid concept of culture depending on various interactions by different peoples. I’ll work on this assumption in the next chapter.


Religion and Culture

Ishmael is the son of Agha Akbar, a deaf-mute tapestry mender who grew up at the bottom of Iranian Saffron Mountain. According to Shiite traditions the Saffron Mountain is full of religious spirits and believes. Mahdi ebn Hassane Akskare, the last and twelfth prophet in Shiite beliefs, had been assumed to live in a cistern at the top of the Mountain. People who believe in this Islamic tradition are waiting for the return of the prophet and hope he’ll bring redemption. As I’m referring to a religious system, I’ll start with general assumptions on such systems and deliverance. According to Arjun Appadurai we can “[…] assume that the elements of a cultural system make sense only in relation to one another, and that these systematic relations are somehow similar to those which make languages miraculously orderly and productive.” (Appadurai, 2004: 61) This means there is a relation between religious beliefs of the people and their everyday lives and thoughts. In the novel Ishmael and his father discuss religious, as well as secular topics and therefore develop a system of abstract signs, combined in a single language in order to communicate with each other. Even though Ishmael’s father follows much more religious ideas than Ishmael itself, the symbols and signs became crucial for the discussions with his son, but also for discussions in a broader society.

Later in the records by Kader Abdolah the cave at Saffron Mountain, containing the cuneiform scripts and home to the twelfth prophet, becomes a contested and politically abused site. “The modernizing shah Kazem Khan wants to build a railroad through the mountain, but is persuaded by the locals to save it. Decades later, after the shah is overthrown by the mullahs, the holy place is exploited for political reasons, when Khomeini visits to reconnect Iran with its religious origins.” (Groes, 2006: URL) Those moments of controversies and clash of aspirations are another important development of cultural theory and enforce the idea of difficulties and differences on what a specific culture is made out of. A shared cultural, religious or social system does not necessarily produce a uniform idea on how society or individuals should develop and can therefore be identified best in contested sites.


The finely narrated episodes of controversies make it easy to follow the assumptions on culture as a system of flexible relationships and continuously changing perspectives of single actors in the novel. The assumptions by Appadurai do not just refer to those systems, but also confirm the status quo in theoretical approaches towards culture: “Culture is the recognition that the boundaries of cultural systems are leaky, and that traffic and osmosis are the norm, not the exception. […] (M)ixture, heterogeneity, diversity, (…) and plurality (are) critical features of culture in the era of globalization (and) reminds us that no culture, past or present, is a conceptual island unto itself, except in the imagination of the observer”. (Appadurai, 2004: 61f) As I’ve tried to make clear in the previous parts of this paper, such an ambivalent understanding of culture are a basic condition for the further  reading. The variety of interactions differ from one person to another and therefor cause an impossibility to predict future interactions or aspirations. On the other hand the anthropological ambivalence of future is situated in the possibility to analyze past sentiments and present aspirations in order to derive the peoples or societies needs and status, but we shall not use future assumptions for predictive statements, nor take them for sure.

The struggle within the dimensions of time

Back in Kader Abdolah’s novel, the main actor is constantly in struggle with all dimensions of time. In the early chapter of Ishmael’s birth, the author fetches an anecdote and changes the time of narration twice. At the birth of his son, Agha Akbar stood up and wanted to check whether his child was deaf and therefor screamed in the babies’ ear. People surrounding Agha Akbar became angry due to this energetic action and took the child away. For this moment Agha Akbar on his own felt abashed and worried whether he would have damaged the baby’s aural sense. (see Abdolah, 2006: 109) Ishmael instead remembers his father repeating this intervention every time he needed help, whether he was ill or tired in his childhood. Almost paradoxically for Ishmael this was the way he recognized his father attended difficult situations. The telling of this anecdote and Ishmael’s connotations intensifies the importance of the father’s intervention and is open to the future where those situations became rare and finally to an end.

Concentrating on differences in the early moment of Ishmael’s birth as a unique moment we can recognize some aspirations, rather than memories inscribed in the situation by Ishmael. In the more recent re-thinking of the anecdote by Ishmael (he’s already in the Netherlands), he connects some inspirations with this moment. Implemented wishes and aspirations on his life and work in the Netherlands are influenced by his dead father and show how experiences and feelings may  turn into aspirations and hope.


Comparing the moment of birth and later worries by Ishmael in times of political instability we can both times identify preoccupations regarding the own family. Shortly after most of the party leaders had been interned, Ishmael was forced to leave the country. “Abandon the country? I haven’t thought on this yet, not even for a single moment. How could I abandon my father, my mother and my sisters? I haven’t even said Good Bye to my wife and my little child. I had to give Safa (Ishmael’s wife) a phone call and tell her, that I had to leave for some months, maybe more, maybe less.” (Abdolah, 2006: 298) Hence we can see, that both characters had a strong feeling of responsibilities for their families and children. But regarding to the familiar integrity and health we can’t point out any differences between Ishmael and Agha Akbar.

As I’ve now shown that in the novel some interpretative differences pop up on unique moments, I’d like to compare the of both characters, by splitting their lives into a more detailed sections. I’ll analyze Agha Akbars migrations towards the city, as well as Ishmael’s migration to Tehran. The reason for this comparison lies within the relatively strong and overlapping relations between father and son. Both spent an intrinsic part of their lifetime in the same geographical, but also social spaces. Due to the handicap of Agha Akbar, his first son automatically became his translator, his ratio and his mouth. In the novel Abdolah describes: “Boys had little contact with their age-mates, because they belonged to the men”. (Abdolah, 2006: 118) Ishmael’s social context was therefore strongly related to his father’s one and provides to us opportunities for differences regarding age or communicative capabilities.

                               Agha Akbar

It was Kasem Chan who sent Agha Akbar to the city in order to improve self-confidence and horizon. Agha Akbar’s uncle had organized an employment and accommodation in Isfahan, a city which at those times was considered to be half of the world and heritage, giving a home to some of the oldest Persian mosques. (see Abdolah, 2006: 83) Although the intentions for the working experience was  part of Kasem Chans efforts and none of Akbar’s aspirations, the city called Isfahan deeply changed Ishmael’s father. In some narrations based on Agha Akbars memory, he talks on the magnificent bazaar and magic carpets, but also points out the feelings of homesickness. After a year and a half, his dream for coming home to Saffron Mountain finally came true.

Later, as Akbar was already father of four little children, and Tine’s husband, he once more wished to migrate in the city. Questioned by Kasem Chan, Agha Akbar explained that motorized vehicles, but especially girl-schools for his three female children had impressed and forced him to move towards the city. Although Agha Akbar and neither his wife had a fixed job, the family moved to the city with mixed aspirations and expectations. Soon it turned out, that both of the reasons mentioned by Agha Akbar had been at least partly pretextual. The desires of Agha Akbar had merely been connected to sentiments of love or at least interest in women.

At this point we may take a glimpse to different ways of interpretation and remember the motivations of young people trying to get in touch with new forms of society and knowledge. In his field report on Tikopia, an isolated island in the Salomon Archipelago, Raymond Firth states: “They (the young boys) want to become possessed of knowledge and property from which they can reap an advantage on their return – in social prestige as tellers of tales of breathless adventure which can be made to absorb the public interest in long hours of conversation; in the possession of priced tools and ornaments; in the acquisition of influence by acting as interpreter when a vessel calls; or even by making profit as teachers of what they imagine to be the white man’s language (Firth, 1936: 19) This experience by Firth goes beyond the inhabitants of Tikopia and describes crucial needs and aspirations of young people within an undefined society. I call this society undefined because of the new interrelations and connections which can be generated by meeting up with people from beyond. I’m here referring to culturally or geographically separated societies.

As we know too little about Agha Akbar’s first migration we cannot confirm the statement of Raymond Firth. It wouldn’t be appropriate to deepen on the intentions of Agha Akbar because of the lack of knowledge we have according to his thoughts. Nevertheless it is worth to mention the positive reputation of Agha Akbar when people recognized he had learned new techniques. The stay in Isfahan promoted him to a reputable men and a sight for sore eyes. This would at least verify the second part of Raymond Firths assumption. The difference between old and young and the general changes due to time in in terms of epochs, may turn out by analyzing Ishmael’s desideratum for migration.


This first hypothesis brought into discussion becomes clearly when we analyze the interests of mid-aged Ishmael. Already as a child the main character turns out to be interested in books, the ‚modernization‘ of society and adopted a critical perspective towards religious beliefs. Ishmael’s desire for books and a study in physics became the reasons for his migration towards the Iranian capital. New forms of society and knowledge lead him to further aspirations and made him become part of the resistance against the Shah of Persia. At this, we find confirmed Raymond Firth’s observations and can agree on the aspects of youth. We also need to admit that formerly compared Agha Akbar’s youth was influenced by insecurities due to his physical handicaps and disability to communicate in a comprehensive language.


Handicaps as relative deprivation

In his paper, Arjun Appadurai identifies differences in wishes and aspirations of poorer and wealthier people: “[…] in every case, aspirations to the good life are part of some sort of system of ideas […]which locates them in a larger map of local ideas and beliefs about: life and death, the nature of worldly possessions, the significance of material assets over social relations, the relative illusion of social permanence for a society, the value of peace or warfare. At the same time, aspirations to the good life tend to quickly dissolve into more densely local ideas about marriage, work leisure, convenience, respectability, friendship, health, and virtue.” (Appdurai, 2010: 67f) As we may talk about poorness as relative deprivation from opportunities to be part of a social community, we can distract the original concept from it’s economic roots and switch it towards physical handicaps such as being deaf-mute in the Iranian early 20th century.

In order to not attack people with less communicative possibilities Appadurai further declares: “I am not saying that the poor cannot wish, want, need, plan, or aspire. But part of poverty is a diminishing of the circumstances in which these practices occur. If the map of aspirations (continuing the navigational metaphor) is seen to consist of a dense combination of nodes and pathways, relative poverty means a smaller number of aspirational nodes and a thinner, weaker sense of the pathways from concrete wants to intermediate contexts to general norms and back again”. (Appadurai, 2010: 69) Compared to Agha Akbar, Ishmael started earlier to be in contact with other people and had the chance to get in touch with people of all kind. This was due to his possibility to speak, but also due to his efforts as a translator for his father. One of the most important meetings Ishmael had due to his father might was the dentist he once called for help. A year after his first meeting with Mr. Pur Bahlul got arrested, he was one of the most important leftist-theorists and well-known in the Iranian underground. (see Abdolah, 2010 :177f)


Without paying to much respect to the reasons which lead Ishmael to Tehran, the novel observes  some experiences in the capital city of Iran, which became crucial to him. Because of the nearly forced ultimate migration to the Netherlands, rather than migration as a part of personal aspirations, I wont deepen on this second migration. Still there are plenty of changes which formed Ishmael during his stay at Tehran. More dramatically we may argue that  the main actor undergoes a metamorphosis where the conflict between all three dimensions of times become very clear. “It became clear to me, that I’m the one who didn’t get along with my independence. I needed the burden of my father; otherwise I tent to lose balance. […] It was the dream of every Persian sophomore to study at the Tehran University someday, but there is a proverb which says: It is possible to get in, the question is, if you’ll come out again.” (Abdolah, 2007: 195f)

This is where we can see how differences in reality and imaginations on how it should be differ from each other: “To construct our own life by imagination means – in a temporal dimension – getting rid of the past, perceived as a predicament of the present, and embracing a fancy idea of the future in which we could realize our imagined identity”. (Kontopodis/ Matera, 2010: 7) Although students in Iran knew about the possible difficulties and political polarization at Tehran University, everyone tried to grasp his chance and dreamed of a better future. In the novel, Ishmael explains to his father: “What’s the matter? I wont die, I’ll come back. This study is a chance for me, good for you and for Tine.” (Abdolah, 2006: 189)


But this process of performing a different future is meaningful only within a collective. The knowledge on difficulties, as well as the knowledge on opportunities involves communities which are likely to build on ideas of otherness and similarities. “Therefore, performing the past, the present, and the future may lead to very different social relations and forms of collectivity than what exists now. This may happen if memory no longer appears as the main faculty of identity, but mimesis: defined by Michel Taussig as the cultural ability to create a second nature, the faculty to copy, to imitate, make models, explore difference, yield into it and become Other.” (Kontopodis/ Matera, 2010: 7) This means that aspirations differ from the source we take them out and therefore also agree upon Arjun Appaduraj’s conception of a fluid concept of culture. This also means that talking about a characters metamorphosis might be the wrong way to understand the changes. According to Matera and Kontopodis the materialization of aspirations and hopes do not lie within the individual, but in the group. If we’re clear on the moment of change, we therefore may argue, that the physics of the main character cannot change, but the social surroundings are able to. This is why we can talk about a metamorphosis of social surroundings and connected aspirations but not the metamorphosis of a single person.


From our ethnographic work (the novel) we cannot draw the conclusion that younger people are motivated by other interests and aspirations, than elderly people. Although responsibilities for other members of a family might make a difference in imaginations and aspirations for a better life, it isn’t possible to draw such a conclusion out of the novel. Still we can argue that differences in aspirations are directly connected to the amount and density of networks of diverse people. At this communicative handicaps might be seen as a relative deprivation, and therefore poorness. The acknowledgments by Matera and Kontopodis further lead us to the conclusion that people interact only within societies and are therefore limited to them in their possible aspirations. It is the only way to understand and point out what real opportunities and aspirations are. It seems to be much trickier with the capacities of aspirations; people develop them within fast-changing societies they live in. Therefore we may rise the question for the societies capacity to aspire.


Abdolah, Kader (2006): “Die geheime Schrift”, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, München (D), for this paper freely translated by Michael Anranter.

Appadurai, Arjun (2004): “The Capacity to Aspire: Culture and the Terms of Recognition”, in: Rao, Vijayendra; Walton, Michael (2004): “Culture and Public Action”, Stanford University Press, Stanford (CA).

Firth, Raymond William (1963, 1st edit . 1936): “We the Tikopia: A Sociological Study of Kinship in Primitive Polynesia”, Stanford University Press, Stanford (CA).

Groes, Sebastian (2006): “Far Away – Sebastian Groes on the meaning of exile and origins in Kader Abdolah’s powerful meditation, My Father’s Notebook”, The Guardian, URL: http://goo.gl/XlESCK, Last file call-up: 19.08.2013

Kontopodis, M.; Matera, V. (2010):“Doing Memory, Doing Identity; Politics of the Everyday Contemporary Global Communities“, in: Outlines – Critical Practice Studies, No. 2, pp. 1-14

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