Searching for Identity in Iran’s Labyrinthine Bureaucracy

F.M. Esfandiary’s novel “Identity Card” was published in the mid-1960s. A dissection of the inhuman absurdities of the Iranian bureaucratic system, it is a book that has lost nothing of its relevance under the mullahs, as Ilija Trojanow, translator of the newly published German translation, tells Nimet Seker.

Mr Trojanow, F.M. Esfandiary’s novel was published over 40 years ago. Your translation is the first into German. What was it that brought the book to your attention?

Ilija Trojanow: The publication of the first edition in the USA. The Somali writer Nuruddin Farah, a very good friend of mine, gave it to me one day. When I began working on the “Weltlese” (world selection) series, I remembered it. I think it is still one of the most remarkable novels about homeland, its loss, return and the search for a new identity of one’s own; one, however, that no longer fits the given identity patterns of one’s home country. It is a very big and also a very evocative topic. In the 21st century it is one that is relevant to the lives of millions of people around the world.

The number of migrants is increasing all over the world; people are increasingly living, studying or working outside of their countries of origin. Of course it is a topic to which I feel very close, given my own life story.

To what extent was Esfandiary himself a migrant, a man between cultures?

Bild vergrössern The writer F.M. Esfandiary: His novel “Identity Card” tells the story of a man who needs an identity card to allow him to leave Iran. The plot itself becomes a symbol of the search for identity | Trojanow: He was from a diplomatic family; I myself got to know some of these children when I was growing up in Kenya. Life is very difficult for them, of course, because it is not just a matter of being uprooted once; they are constantly uprooting, moving to a new home every three or four years. This can sometimes have a traumatic impact. But he was obviously a real citizen of the world. He spoke many languages, travelled a great deal, and had friends from every phase of life, though he came from Iran originally.

The original manuscript of the novel was intercepted and confiscated at the Teheran post office in 1966. It did make it to publication, however. How did that come about?

Trojanow: It’s not something that is unique in the history of literature. It is quite astonishing how often this kind of thing happens when intelligence or other state institutions seize manuscripts. It turns out that either another copy exists, or one has to write the book over again. In Esfandiary’s case, the manuscript, which was written in Teheran, was re-typed, and with the help of two Americans, smuggled out of the country for publication.

In his foreword to the novel the author writes: “For those who do not know Iran, it may be helpful to point out that the following is a work of satire.” That sounds very embittered. How much is this a novel about Esfandiary’s own personal experiences?

Trojanow: The interesting thing about this novel is that it depicts Iran as a country subject to no particular political structure. It is set at the time of the Shah’s reign, but it could just as easily be today. Esfandiary describes phenomena such as bureaucracy, hypocrisy, dishonesty, corruption; things which have not changed at all over the years, irrespective of whether we are talking about before or after the Islamic Revolution. I find that fascinating because I deal very much with the culturalisation of problems and conflicts. I often have the suspicion that problems that arise and are carried on on a non-cultural level, then tend to be misinterpreted on the basis of false cultural explanations.

Bild vergrössern Timeless parable on fossilised power structures: F.M. Esfandiary’s “Identity Card” | We tend to look at Iran in a very particular sort of way; very seldom do I read that any of Iran’s problems are to do with an obsolete and torpid ruling elite, or with a blatantly imperialist attitude on the part of that elite, whose self-assurance rests on a history that stretches back several millennia. And with a level of corruption that is incredible and that is historically rooted. This means we are dealing with very deeply anchored ways of thinking and this needs to be discussed on very different levels, not just in the superficial sense of looking at who presently happens to be in power.

That is what is so interesting about the novel. Esfandiary creates a parable that clearly shows the powerlessness of the individual in the face of such structures. It would be too easy to refer to this as Kafkaesque; it is very much something that is universally human. It is the individual as the outcast, who chooses to go his own way. This figure however is not glamorised in any sense in the book. This is a man with many faults and weaknesses. His visit to a prostitute, for example, is very grimly described in terms of its moral dubiousness. In other words, he is in no sense a typical hero figure, but we do sympathise with him because we see that the individual is left bereft of value and dignity by exposure to such structures.

Esfandiary died in 2000. He was convinced that the 21st century could produce a society in which political, ethnic and national differences would be overcome. Why, then, did he write so pessimistic a novel?

Trojanow: The novel portrays life in the middle of the 20th century on the basis of his own experiences. It is actually a very typical novel for the 20th century, a century in which cultural and religious differences were politically exploited and led to unbelievable suffering. I think that someone who is motivated by the hope that we should not settle our differences by bashing one another’s heads in, that that kind of person, of course, is very much concerned that lessons should be learnt from the past and from history – and passed on as a warning parable to the readers of the future.

Written by Ilija Trojanow and published by Qantara on June 5th, 2009

Are you a transhuman?

The etymology of the term “transhuman” goes back to futurist philosopher FM-2030, formerly known as F. M. Esfandiary, who, while teaching new concepts of the human at New School University in 1966, introduced it as shorthand for “transitory human.” Calling transhumans the “earliest manifestation of new evolutionary beings,” FM argued that signs of transhumanity included prostheses, plastic surgery, intensive use of telecommunications, a cosmopolitan outlook and a globetrotting lifestyle, androgyny, mediated reproduction (such as in vitro fertilisation), absence of religious beliefs, and a rejection of traditional family values
FM-2030, a noted author, lecturer and consultant to business and industry died on July 8, 2000. FM was born with a conventional name but changed both his first and last names to reflect his beliefs and his confidence in the future. As he explains, “conventional names define a person’s past: ancestry, ethnicity, nationality, religion. I am not who I was ten years ago and certainly not who I will be in twenty years. The name 2030 reflects my conviction that the years around 2030 will be a magical time…In 2030 we will be ageless and everyone will have an excellent chance to live forever. 2030 is a dream and a goal.”
His childhood was spent in consulates, embassies and

government outposts around the world. He was equally at home in London, New York, Miami, Jerusalem, Damascus and Los Angeles. His formal education began in an Iranian primary school, continued in an English school, a French Jesuit school in Jerusalem, and a term in a girl’s convent school in Lebanon where he was the only boy. In the late 40s after attending schools in Europe he went to the United States and attended Berkeley, then U.C.L.A. He came to London in 1948 as a member of the Iranian team at the Olympic Games. FM served at the United Nations on the Conciliation Commission for Palestine, later leaving to devote his time to writing.

Day of Sacrifice, FM’s first novel, was selected by the New York Herald Tribune as one of the best novels of 1959. It has been translated into eleven languages and is on the required reading list of the U.S. State Department. In an interview with FM the writer noted: “…But there is a difference between Esfandiary and Camus. The latter is essentially a pessimist. It is the human condition that is absurd. Esfandiary is an optimist. He has hope, because he has a deep faith in man. He is convinced that technological progress, the contact of cultures, etc…. will free man from his present miseries. Given time, man will even deliver himself from his supreme tragedy — death. Man can be made perfect.”

FM moved from writing novels to writing non-fiction, changing his name along the way, and dealing with the human condition and the central themes which engaged him throughout his life.

FM appeared many times on network programs such as : The Today Show, Good Morning America, Live with Larry King, Future Watch, Not for Women Only and many others.

His views and forecasts were both provocative and visionary and uncannily right on the mark. At the time he made his forecasts both in his books and in the media they were controversial and viewed as impossible. Now we take many of them for granted. Just an example of some of his forecasts: in the 1970s and 1980s as everyone was concerned with the weapons race and security, FM’s projections showed the reasons for the de-acceleration of the arms race; as early as the 1970s he anticipated the breakdown of communism; while the Club de Rome and others made dire predictions, worrying about and raising alarms regarding scarcity of energy, resources, food and water, FM in an article published in The New York Times wrote about the Age of Abundance; in the early 70s he carried out and anticipated our current dress down mode; his book “Telespheres” anticipated telemedicine, teleducation, telebanking, etc.; as early as 1974 he was lecturing and writing articles about physical longevity and the possibility of physical immortality.

Alvin Toeffler, a friend and colleague of FM’s since the early 1960s, says about FM: “He is gutsy and truly a visionary…One doesn’t have to agree with everything he says to be refreshed by it.”

FM was the author of several non-fiction books:

Are You a Transhuman?, January 1989, Warner Books
“Telespheres”, 1977, Popular Library, CBS Publications
“Optimism One”, The Emerging Radicalism, 1970, W.W.Norton & Company, Inc. (F.M. Esfandiary)

He was also the author of several books of fiction under his old name, FM Esfandiary:

Identity Card, 1966, Grove Press
The Beggar, 1963, Ivan Obolensky, Inc.
Day of Sacrifice, 1959


This is a glorious moment in human evolution.
These are the years, the decades, when so far as we know for the first time in evolution, living beings have broken away from this planet to stream to other worlds.
These are the years, the decades, when so far as we know for the first time living beings on this planet are transforming their biologies to overcome aging and death.
Millions of years from now – wherever we are in the Universe – whoever we are – however we look – we will always remember these years.

We live at a rare evolutionary turning point yet our attitudes and ideologies have not caught up.
We are still too programmed by the oldworld psychology of failure, too hobbled by guilt and shame and self-doubt, too scarred by eons of suffering and privation – to fully appreciate the meaning of our New Age.
There is no philosophy, no ideology, no social or political system to define and guide our emerging situation in the world and in the Universe.
The UpWing philosophy is a visionary new thrust beyond Right and Left-wing, beyond conservative and conventional radical. Beyond all our age-old philosophies and ideologies.
We UpWingers want to facilitate the flow to the emerging post-industrial world.
We also want to accelerate humanity’s thrust to the next stage in evolution.

Specifically we want to marshall humanity’s genius to overcome our supreme tragedies – aging and death.
We want to help accelerate the colonization of our solar system and open up this infinite Universe of infinite space, infinite resources, infinite potentials.
We want to speed up the thrust to post-industrial telespheres, such as teleduction and telemedicine which can instantly provide services to anyone anywhere.
We want to help accelerate the surge to upcoming worlds of undreamed abundance. Clean, cheap, limitless energy. Limitless food. Limitless raw materials.
We want to help spread the benefits of the Biological Revolution, the new genetics, the Brain Revolution giving each one of us control over our own bodies, our own minds, our own emotions. Allowing us biological freedoms never before possible.
We want to hasten the evolution to universal telegenesis and universal parenthood where every child is genetically preplanned, every child wanted, every child cared for. We want to help liberate children from the traumas of exclusive parenthood that every child may belong biologically and socially to the whole world.
We want to move beyond Capitalist/Socialist economies to the upcoming teleconomics of Cybernation, Abundance, Leisure.
We want to advance beyond leadership and representative democracies to ELECTRONIC DEMOCRACY enabling everyone to participate directly and immediately in all important decision-making.
We want to help the thrust beyond feudal mud villages and decaying industrial cities to 21st century instant modular communities which fuse the best of nature with the new tele technologies and the new liberated life styles.
We want to help accelerate the thrust beyond nations, ethnic groups, races to create a global conscious-ness, global institutions, a global language, global citizenship, global free flow of people, global commitments.
We want to surge ahead in all these areas because we believe that all areas of life are increasingly interdependent – to advance rapidly in any one area, we must advance vigorously in all areas.
We want to spread a new triumphant spirit – an Optimism free of guilt, free of shame, free of self-denial. We want to spread the awareness that we are at the dawn of a beautiful New Age. There is a new Hope in the world.

We UpWingers do not belong to any political parties – we do not run for office, we do not seek power. We are a long-range movement with two principal functions:

First. We are catalysts. We want to inform, stimulate, uplift.
Second. We are activists. We want to launch projects to achieve our goals.

We UpWingers are resigned to nothing. We consider no human problems irreversible – no goals unattain-able.
For the first time in history we have the ability, the resources, the genius to resolve ALL our age-old problems. Attain ALL our boldest visions.

We need a new set of priorities, intelligent planning, commitment, vision. With these we can now accom-plish anything.


Published by Mahmag World Literature on July 27th, 2006