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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The School Principal

Jalal Al-e Ahmad

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Title: The School Principal
Author: Jalal Al-e Ahmad
Genre: Novel
Written: 1958 (Eng. 1974)
Length: 135 pages
Original in: Persian
Availability: The School Principal - US
  • Translated by John K. Newton
  • With an Introduction by Michael C. Hillman
  • A different translation of The School Principal, by Girdhari Tikku, was apparently published in New Delhi in 1986

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Our Assessment:

B+ : engaging, simple, straight-forward story

See our review for fuller assessment.


  • "Among Al-e Ahmad's four published novels, The School Principal is the most widely read and highly regarded (.....) (A)t the time of its publication it exhibited an unprecedented, uncompromising realism and force in its representation of a specific contemporary problem involving explicit social criticism, with the portrayal couched in prose of appropriate directness, vigor, and informality." - Michael C. Hillmann, in his introduction to By the Pen

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The complete review's Review:

       The School Principal is a simple and relatively spare text, describing the one-year career of the narrator (a thinly disguised version of the author) as a school principal. A former teacher, he wants to escape "the teaching cage", and manages to get himself assigned as a principal.
       The school he is assigned to is a new one. Grades one through six are taught there. The school is located pretty much in the middle of nowhere, in a building given to the Office of Education for a twenty-five year term by a land-speculator. (He hopes the presence of a school will lead people to move there and build the necessary infrastructure to make a real neighborhood out of it.) Conditions aren't ideal -- there is no running water, for example -- but everyone seems to be able to make due.
       Teaching is done as best as the motley crew of teachers can manage -- the principal noting that "there was no further fear that the kids would get constipated from too much knowledge." Priorities are a bit skewed in this society: the janitor is the best-paid employee, making 300 tomans a month ("where the most experienced teacher is making 190 tomans !")
       The principal is vaguely devoted to his job: he wants to do right by the students, but prefers not interfere, letting his second-in-command deal with most of the day-to-day stuff (and not even appearing at school quite frequently). He does achieve certain successes, notably organizing the wealthier community-members to donate shoes (and clothes) to the poor students whose families could not afford them. "Shoes and shoes alone" he determines are the "fundamental and primary element" of "child training and education".
       The principal is irritated by the "complete total ineptitude" of the teachers -- by their meekness, their Weststruckness (so also one translation of the title Al-e Ahmad's most famous non-fiction work). But the society all around him is like that too. A teacher is locked up for not doing his military service. Another is run over by an American in a car accident -- but only too happy to accept a job from the foreigner in compensation. Things finally come to a full boil at school when one boy is sexually assaulted by another, the school principal finally losing control in his outrage.
       The principal wants to tender his resignation several times; at the end of the novel he finally does. He does not believe in the school-system -- or what is becoming of Iranian society. The examinations are simply "b.s.", the long years of studying for them leading only to:

(...) a new breed of men. Men full of fear. Paper bags full of fear and anxiety.
       The School Principal is an odd sort of social novel. The principal tries to be indifferent yet finds he can't be -- but he also forms no real close ties to practically anyone in the book. The children remain largely faceless, and even the teachers and school staff are mysteries. Personal lives remain almost entirely unknown: the principal several times wonders where the children go when they leave the school, what kinds of homes they return to. He can barely imagine it. And yet he too remains a cipher: he is married, for example, and yet we get almost no sense of his domestic life or his wife.
       The principal sees the ills of society yet his condemnation also recognizes that redress is not easy. It will not be possible to provide even such basics as running water for a while, bribery can grease all sorts of wheels, the spectre of religion still exerts great influence. This society Al-e Ahmad describes is undergoing a radical transformation in almost all respects -- late-1950s Iran, moving rapidly yet awkwardly towards modernization.
       Despite the very foreign subject matter (even contemporary Iran bears little resemblance to the world described here), The School Principal is an engaging read. Al-e Ahmad's brisk narrative style and very direct manner make for an appealing read -- and make it much more approachable than, for example, his more ambitious (and, to Western eyes, no doubt more "Iranian" (i.e. quasi-exotic)) novel, By the Pen (see our review)).
       An unusual but winning novella, well worthwhile.

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Jalāl Āl-e Ahmad: Other books by Jalal Al-e Ahmad under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Seyyed Jalaloddin Sadat Al-e Ahmad (جلال آل احمد) (1923-1969) was a leading Iranian author.

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