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Textbook Changes: Iranian Fighter Slain In Syria May Replace Literary Giant Omar Khayyam

Omar Khayyam, the Persian mathematician, astronomer, and poet (left), may be replaced in Iranian textbooks by Mohsen Hojaji, a 25-year-old Iranian fighter killed in Syria.

Omar Khayyam is considered a giant of Persian poetry. His poems have been part of Iran's school curriculum for years. Yet students will reportedly no longer be able to read his rubaiyat in textbooks under a new plan.

Khayyam’s verses from the 11th and 12th centuries -- which have been translated into more than a dozen languages -- are among the works by top literary and poetry figures that have been removed from the country’s textbooks, domestic media report, confirming a list that has been making the rounds on social media.

Students are instead likely to learn about the life of an Iranian fighter killed in Syria, where the Islamic republic has helped prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime during the country's eight-year civil war.

The changes have triggered widespread criticism, prompting Education Minister Mohsen Haji Mirzaie to say the issue will be subjected to a “fair and expert” review.

Textbooks have been changed several times in Iran since the 1979 revolution and the creation of an Islamic republic to include religious discourse and promote revolutionary, Islamic values among youth.

Officials have suggested that the recently reported changes are part of an effort to bring the textbooks in line with the clerical establishment’s education policies, including the Fundamental Reform Document Of Education, adopted in 2011, that says the country needs an “education system capable of materializing [the ideal Islamic life], universal justice, and Islamic-Iranian civilization.”

Iranian poet Houshang Ebtehaj (file photo)
Iranian poet Houshang Ebtehaj (file photo)

A poem by Houshang Ebtehaj, a prominent poet who spent time in jail after the 1979 Islamic Revolution; two poems by Nima Youshij, who launched Iran’s new poetry movement; and short stories by at least two influential writers/novelists are among the works targeted for removal, according to Iranian media reports.

In addition, the reports say the name of prominent writer Mahmud Dowlatabadi, and Morteza Moshfegh Kazemi, the author of Iran’s first social novel, have also been removed from textbooks, while the name of Sadegh Hedayat, one of Iran’s greatest writers of the 20th century, has been removed from a story by another great 20th-century author, Mohammad Ali Jamalzadeh Esfahani.

"When you live in a [value-based] system, to preserve its nature you choose between two texts, the one that is closer to the beliefs and ideas of the establishment," an official in charge of drafting literature textbooks at the Education Ministry, Hossein Ghassempur Moghadam, told the daily Hamshahri in an interview published on November 3.

In another interview published last week, Ghassempur Moghadam said the textbooks have gone through many changes since 2015 and claimed no major literary work has been removed.

However, he added that there was a need to make room for figures such as Mohsen Hojaji, an Iranian militant who was reportedly beheaded by members of the extremist Islamic State (IS) group in Syria in 2017.

Hojaji has been widely praised by Iranian officials, who have said he sacrificed his life to keep Iran safe.

“We needed space to bring up Mohsen Hojaji’s martyrdom," Ghassempur said, adding that “it had priority” over celebrated 14th-century poet Hafez -- whose books of poetry, often celebrating the joys of love and wine, are found in almost every Iranian household -- and Saadi, also widely praised as one of Iran’s greatest classical poets.

Media reports said some of the works removed from the textbooks have been replaced with other works by some of the same targeted poets and writers, while others were replaced by the work of little-known poets endorsed by the establishment for their revolutionary and Islamic credentials.

Sadegh Hedayat, one of Iran's greatest 20th-century writers
Sadegh Hedayat, one of Iran's greatest 20th-century writers

In interviews, Ghamssempur appeared to confirm the reports, saying for example that Ebtehaj’s poem was not “suitable” for textbooks and that another of his poems that had been used also “didn’t serve our purpose.”

He said instead “a better poem” by deceased religious and Islamic revolutionary poet Salman Harati was added to textbooks.

Saeed Paivandi, a Paris-based professor of sociology who has written extensively about Iran’s education system, says the reported changes are aimed at the further “Islamization” of Iran's education system, which has been encouraged by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“Officials believe that in order to attract the younger generation they must increase the intensity of their religious and ideological propaganda in schools,” Paivandi told RFE/RL.

“They think that a large proportion of young people are turning away from religion and government ideology because of the weakness of propaganda in the education system and the mass media,” he added.

He also said students are often taught material that has “little literary value” and that the reported changes are likely to increase the volume of such content.

“For example, the lives of martyrs, religious or political figures favored by the government, or propaganda texts such as the life of a Christian girl who has changed her religion and become a Muslim,” he said.

Tehran-based poet Hafez Musavi told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda that the changes are yet another step in the wrong direction.

“This is the policy of the elimination of others.... But as we’ve seen in the past, it’s a failed policy,” Musavi said.

“By eliminating [these names] from textbooks, [authorities] won’t manage to erase them from Persian literature and the memory of our people."

Influential poet Ahmad Shamlou, who wrote about state repression, has been missing from Iranian textbooks for years.
Influential poet Ahmad Shamlou, who wrote about state repression, has been missing from Iranian textbooks for years.

Works by several prominent writers and poets, such as Forough Farokhzad, regarded by many as Iran’s most important female poet, or the influential Ahmad Shamlou, who wrote about state repression, have been missing from Iran’s textbooks for years. Yet they remain highly popular among many Iranians.

“The past 40 years have demonstrated that our young generation finds ways to access this type of literature and read it,” Musavi said.

Many, including prominent writer and researcher Bahaodin Khoramshahi, suggest that the move is likely to damage Iran's cultural identity.

"If we take away [even] this half-baked opportunity from our students to become acquainted with old literature, there’s no hope that they would try to learn more about such masterpieces anymore," Khoramshahi was quoted as saying by Iranian media.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is the author of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.