Born in 1943, journalist, sculptor, painter, and translator Mehdi Sahabi was a “cultural intellectual,” in the words of art scholar and writer Javad Mojabi, “one who other than his field of specialization had influenced the collective fate of a country, opening the way for the people to benefit from new ideas and thoughts.” Having left Iran in 1967 to study film in Italy, Mehdi Sahabi eventually enrolled in Rome University of Fine Arts to become a painter only to leave that unfinished as well. In 1968 he traveled to France and met his wife, Evelyn, with whom he had three children. He returned to Iran in 1972 with his family and started working as a journalist. “A good friend who was in charge of the foreign desk at Keyhan newspaper,” he says of his appointment with journalism, “gave me something to translate and if I remember correctly, they hired me part time on the very same day…. But I can say that my becoming a journalist was no accident; it had been in my mind and it naturally led me in that direction… I went beyond translating reports and news to do other things, like film reviews, preparing reports, travelogues, and such things. This lasted for almost 6 years.” A little after the Iranian revolution of 1979, and disgruntled with the course that events were taking, Sahabi and a group of Keyhan writers started publishing their own paper, Free Keyhan, which came out only for 10 issues. After this experience, he distanced himself from journalism and focused on translation, sculpture and painting. Evelyn and the children left for France.
Sahabi threw himself at translating diverse works of fiction by such writers as Yuri Nikolayevich Tynyanov, Alexander Alexandrovich Fadeyevm, Ignazio Silone, and Simone de Beauvoir. In 1984 he brought to Farsi Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. In 1985 came Shame, for which he received an official prize in ’87. In ’89 Sahabi held his first solo exhibit at Golestan Gallery in Tehran. “His Junkyard Cars,” writes gallery owner and translator Lili Golestan, “were not made of metal; they were tender. He had made them look tender, poetic. I called them poetic trash and he would laugh heartily.” Of this exhibit a critic wrote: “In paintings of Sahabi pure form dominates and it overshadows all written or spoken language…. The world of these paintings has history and geography, past and future, even though on the surface nothing takes place and an illusory silence covers everything; the showdown is between light and darkness and a sneaky tension passes from form to form, creating a sound that, if not today, will certainly be heard tomorrow.” In the same year, his first work of fiction, Suddenly Flood, was published. From 1990s onward, he held exhibits of his sculptures and paintings regularly. He also published the first volume of À la recherche du temps perdu, an 8 volume opus that took 10 years for Sahabi to complete. He acknowledged his debt to Proust in an interview: “[The author of À la recherche] insisted that art has nothing to do with the life of its creator…. The truth is that there has always been something in the life of the artist for which s/he has tried to compensate in his/her art.” In 1993 his translations of Great Expectation, David Copperfield, and Robinson Crusoe were published. In 1998 he held an exhibit of his masks at Aria Gallery in Tehran. Painter Parviz Kalantari found the Figurines , as Sahabi called them, “playful, but invested with a bitter irony,” to which the sculptor reacted in their interview: “I very much like the ‘playful characterization, and I am even thankful for it, because it is what I am precisely after and like to get across for a basic reason: I take playfulness to be first synonymous with honesty (like we find in children) and then for purity and authenticity (which we again find in children).” In 1999, Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art arranged for an exhibit of Sahabi’s works along with several other Iranian artists in Russia. In 2000 he showed his new masks at Aria Art Gallery. He called them “sketches” in which “accidents” and “experimentations” were their constitutive elements. “Art viewer have become used to seeing gloom and doom in works of art,” wrote Aliasqar Qarehbaghi in the brochure of this exhibit, “Sahabi is a painter who dares to paint with playfulness and whose works dare to bring joy to their audiences.” In January 2002 he exhibited his latest masks and called them Personnel Photographs. He also published a translation of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education in the same year. In January 2003 he showed the first set of his Birds at Aria Art Gallery. Another set nestled in the same gallery in 2006 and a translation of Madame Bovary was published. In an interview with Etemad Melli newspaper he explained: “I am always working on an exhibit and a translation at the same time. Full time all day, I pair literature and painting.” He showed his Murals at Golestan Art Gallery in 2008. These were inspired by Achaemenid motifs in Persepolis. His translation of Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir appeared in bookstores in the same year. Sahabi’s life became the subject of a film by Alireza Mirassadollah. The documentary captured him at work and in his trips to France, where his family resided. He died in Paris on 8 November 2009, in the same year that he published Balzak’s Le Père Goriot and Celine’s D’un château l’autre. Of the latter translation, writer, art critic, and translator Babak Ahmadi writes in this book: This final translation — or resting place — became the site of linguistic sorcery. [Sahabi) was able to render one of the most difficult works in world literature, which reflects the inner contradictions of its creator, a work at once rough-edged and sentimental, gone-wild and tender, galling and sweet, ugly and beautiful, to his mother tongue, Farsi, reflecting the same conflicting characteristics — bookish and plebian, poetic and vulgar. He achieved what no one but he could. Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Castle to Castle is somewhere between memory and fiction, the last refuge of fascists, with them and against them, in showing abhorrence for all that is base and fraudulent, all that is “bourgeois”, all that is putrid, a show of affection for a woman and a dying dog — an exhibition of love and hatred for life. Still, Ahmadi continues: Sahabi liked to be known through his paintings. Faced with the question “What are you doing these days?” I had many times heard him say, “Painting, old boy!” He once confided to me, “You know, I had always wanted to dedicate myself to painting only, or to making some of these boxes.” The box he was referring to was a painted wooden cube. In the middle he had placed a pyramid whose base was attached to the base of the cube. On the others two sides the half-face of a figurine could be seen happy and laughing. He said to me: “This is you! The smile is like your wily smile.” He was playful, cunning, and whimsical. Being tall and stout, with that in-your-face mustache, glasses, bald head, tailored coat, and deep voice, he was quite a sight, of the kind that children would point to their mothers, “Look at that guy!” The image of “that guy” would stay with them. He was a cheerful giant. One night he sang for us… he stood there in the middle of the room, put one hand behind his back, pulled his chest up, and sang on top of his lungs a forgotten songs from “the 50s radio,” humorous and strange, cheesy pop, but he sang with such dedication that everything became beautiful, everything…. And we didn’t know back then that Mehdi would die away from us and from a country that he loved so. Lili Golestan adds in this book: He was filled with joie de vivre. He was optimistic and positive. He wasn’t the type to nag. I had never heard him complain about the inadequacies of his life — which weren’t few. He was blessed with a big heart and with patience. He liked to be liked — and he was. He liked to be influential — and he was. He was humble and well-mannered. He would never boast of his erudition. He dedicated himself to what he was doing…. His presence was attractive and pleasant. If you criticized his work, he would stay calm but would at bottom be offended, of which he would say something to you every now and again. Sometimes the “now and again” would increase in frequency, to the point to sorry. Mehdi Sahabi is one of those whose absence I could never have imagined because he was always present, always there. The literary and artic scene in Iran has seldom counted such salubrious member among its ranks. He was mentally and behaviorally healthy. In our small circle of friends, his absence will always, always be felt. Sahabi’s body was brought back to Tehran to be buried in the Artist’s Section of the Behesht-e Zahra Cemetery.