Amir Hassan Cheheltan, born in 1956 in Tehran, began writing stories at the age of twelve, inspired by his reading material—which included light-fiction classics from the West—and moviegoing with his mother. After graduating from a school of mathematics, it was impossible for him to pursue a literary career: “Writing isn’t considered a profession in Iran.” Instead, he studied electrical engineering. In 1976 Cheheltan published his first volume of stories, “Sigheh” (Temporary Marriage). His second volume, “The Still Window,” published in 1979, shortly before the outbreak of the Islamic Revolution, helped to secure Cheheltan’s breakthrough as a writer. From 1979 to 1981 he lived abroad, and he completed his studies in England. His return to Tehran took place under the effects of the Iran-Iraq War, and he was soon drafted and sent to the front. During this period he wrote his first novel, “The Case Against Qassem,” which, without further explanation, was banned by the censors. In a strictly limited edition, however, the novel could first be published in 2002. This would hardly be the last of Cheheltan’s works to be denied permission to go to press. Just the same, he has succeeded in publishing a total of six novels and five volumes of stories to date.
In the winter of 1998, as the situation in Iran for critically-minded artists and intellectuals became life threatening, Cheheltan too, found himself in imminent danger, not least of all because of his commitment to the Iranian Writers’ Association since 1977. In the spring of 1999, thanks to a International Writers’ Parliament grant, he was able to leave the country. With his wife and child, he moved to Certaldo (Boccacio’s presumed birthplace in Toscana) as a “writer in residence”. Here, far from the city of his birth, he wrote the novel “Tehran, City Without a Sky”. Tehran, which plays an important role in Cheheltan’s work, is repeatedly portrayed as an excessive, expanding monstrosity in which the last century of Iran’s highly varied history expresses itself through innumerable testimonies. History too, is mirrored in Cheheltan’s novels and stories, in which his staggering knowledge and imaginative powers bring past realities to life again—along with depicting his country’s present-day state in all its painful, enigmatic complexity. He handles the topic of immigration with equal intensity.
In 2001 the author returned to Tehran without the option of returning to his previous position as advisory engineer at the Center for Science and Research. Since devoting himself entirely to writing, he also works as an essayist and scriptwriter, which led to his writing the screenplay for “Cut! The Forbidden Zone” (2004), in which the aged mother of a fallen “martyr” of the Iran-Iraq War is interviewed. While Cheheltan’s penultimate novel, “The Morals of the Inhabitants of Revolution Avenue,” has been denied publication in his country until now, oddly enough, his latest novel, “Iranian Sunrise” (2007), was nominated for a national book prize. Intending to reject the nomination, in protest to the ban on publishing on his other works, the responsible representatives of the Republic of Islam made it known that, after their publication, a writer’s works are no longer at his disposal. German readers know Cheheltan for his insightful and sharp-tongued articles on the situation in Iran published in the Frankfurter Allgemeinen and Süddeutschen Zeitung since 2004. In 2007, together with Guy Helminger, he participated in the West-eastern Divan Project.
A board member of the Iranian Writer’s Association since 2001, most recently Cheheltan directs the literary workshop of the renowned literary magazine Karnameh, headquartered in Tehran, where he lives with his wife and son. Widely considered one of the most important, modern Iranian novelists of the so-called third generation, which, in part, began writing literature prior to the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Chehetan is the first Iranian writer to appropriate elements of slang into the written language, to “look directly into mouth of the people,” and, by doing so, to not only elevate the liveliness and authenticity of his critical realism, but also demonstrate what qualifies as charting new ground for others—a service meanwhile acknowledged through documenting a great many of his commonly used expressions in a new Farsi dictionary.
Amir Hassan Cheheltan experiences both recognition and moral conflict in his birthplace Iran. Though he speaks of himself as living in exile in his own country, reading his texts, works of fiction, and essays immediately underscores how deeply rooted in his culture, in his city, this writer is; how well he knows its history; and how much he loves this proliferating Tehran, which seems incapable of promising a future under its smog-ridden sky, and, instead, offers undeniable evidence of a ruthless past. At the same time, Cheheltan is well-acquainted with the West, where he lived for several years. By virtue of his observation skills, analytical grasp and empathy, he, like no one else, was made to engage in the cultural discourse. The many new ideas and surprising facts about Iran that we learn from him could never be found in a magazine report or televised news broadcast.