Passion high at the Tehran Hopkins Club

Observations on books

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 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.

"We're united by a passion for poetry and a desire to promote it in Iran," says Amir Azizmohammadi, 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 add to the atmosphere. The members hail from a variety of backgrounds - they range 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 poet their notes go to translators, who prepare Farsi versions that are printed and bound along with the original English texts. In a few years they hope to publish the first Modern English Poets in Farsi - assuming they can find a publisher.

"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. The club's 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 Iran's academic curricula and publishing houses are at the mercy of an intellectual mafia allied to the government - which, under the new hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is edging towards a closed state of post-revolutionary Islamic purity.

For now, Tehran's monolithic Shahre Ketab (Book City) sells purely non-threatening English-language paperbacks - including a staggering range 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.

In this context the Hopkins Club seems to be preparing itself for an undertaking of great cultural significance. Numbers continue to swell, so the offices at Karnameh are now barely adequate. A website has been set up - www.tehranhopkinsclub.com - which serves 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 2007on 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 begin an assessment of his contemporary Hart Crane.

"I think the world has every other kind of literary criticism," says a 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."

In a country notorious for glorifying its past, the Tehran Hopkins Club is striding defiantly into the future.

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2006 issue of the New Statesman, We were wrong about Sharon