September 20, 2007
Let us travel to Iran
Not the present-day, front-page, headline-grabbing, nuclear-developing, Holocaust-denying, Israel-hating Iran, but the Iran of just 20 or 30 years ago, as described in two newly published novels, Gina Nahai's "Caspian Rain" (MacAdam Cage) and Dalia Sofer's "The Septembers of Shiraz" (Ecco).
Although Nahai's novel takes place over the decade leading up to the 1979 Iranian revolution and Sofer's in the years immediately following it, both are beautifully written, absorbing and moving accounts of life in Tehran. Both concern Jewish families and tell their stories by alternating chapters among family members.
Although two novels do not a trend make, that won't stop me from declaring one: The Persian Jewish novel has come of age.
In "Caspian Rain," Nahai tells the story of Omid and his wife, Bahar. She is from a poor observant family; he's from a wealthy assimilated one. Although ostensibly narrated by Yaas, their young daughter, Nahai lets us enter each character's world and uses the specifics of their lives, the details of their class differences, their social standing as Jews in Iran and within the Jewish community itself, as well as the pressures from their in-laws, Yaas' school and Muslim society to render an emotionally complex portrait of a couple imprisoned each in their own way by marriage and family. But it is also Yaas' story, as she has a secret all her own, trying to make sense of it all.
At this point, although I don't want to give away any important plot points, let me reveal that I know Nahai. We served together on the board of the writer's organization, PEN Center USA. She is also a monthly columnist for this newspaper. However, those are just two of Nahai's impressive credentials.
Nahai was born in Iran and holds a master's degree in international relations from UCLA and an master of fine arts in writing from USC, where she currently teaches creative writing. She has consulted for the Rand Corp. and done research for the U.S. Department of Defense.
More to the point, "Caspian Rain" is Nahai's fourth novel. Her first, "Cry of the Peacock," (Crown, 1991), according to Nahai's own Web site, "told for the first time in any Western language the 3,000-year story of the Jews in Iran." Her second novel, "Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith," was nominated for England's Orange Prize, and the third, "Sunday's Silence," charts the intersecting lives of an Iranian Jew and a Christian fundamentalist in North Carolina.
Nahai's curriculum vitae, however, does not prepare one for the magical, dreamlike quality of her prose in "Caspian Rain." She does a beautiful job of ushering us through an Iran most of us don't know -- of colors and scents, of mountains and beaches, of slums and mansions. Her novel is filled with eccentric characters, including a bicycle-riding ghost brother, but it is the poetry and the emotional quality of Nahai's writing that will linger long after the book is closed.
By contrast, if Nahai writes of Iran in the most subjective of tones, Sofer, in "The Septembers of Shiraz," has brought a hard-edged focus to her description -- making objective details of her characters' experiences so real as to deliver insight not only into the Iran that was but in the Iran that has now come to be.
Sofer was also born in Iran, just before the revolution, and she fled with her family to the United States at the age of 10. She has a master of fine arts degree in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence, and this, her first novel, makes her accomplishment all the more impressive.
Sofer's story begins with the arrest of Isaac Amin, a wealthy Jewish gem dealer, by Iran's Revolutionary Guard. Being Jewish, he is suspected of being an Israeli spy; being wealthy, he is accused of having become so at the expense of the Iranian people.
His wife, Farnaz, tries to find out where he is being held and struggles to find a way to help him, even as her housekeeper turns on her, and her housekeeper's son loots their home and office.
Their young daughter is in class with the daughter of a Revolutionary Guard member and attempts to launch her own counterrevolution. Parviz, their son, is in New York studying to be an architect, but he is lonely and cut off and lives in the Brooklyn basement of a Chasidic family.
Sofer's tale provides insight into the anger of the Iranian revolutionaries and those who supported them, as well as how they justified their behavior to those they deemed their enemies.
On one level, Sofer's story would be no less powerful if it were set in Prague (think Kafka's "The Trial") or in Argentina (Timmerman's memoir, "Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number," comes to mind), but the nuances of Jewish life in Iran and of post-revolutionary Iran make the story distinctive and memorable. It is different, yet strangely familiar.
In recent years, there has been an explosion of memoirs, novels and even graphic comics about Iran. More recently, there has been an effort to collect the stories of Persian Jews, including through the establishment in Los Angeles of a Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History and the publication in English of Houman Sarshar's "Esther's Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews."
Why Iran? Why now, you may ask.
In part, it is incredible that such an old and established Jewish community is unknown to most of us, and that the life they led is, for the most part, no more.
Although Jews were reported to have lived in what is now Iran as early as the eighth century B.C.E., most accounts of Jewish life in Persia begin in 597 B.C.E., following Chaldean King Nebuchadnezzar's conquest of Judea. At that time, the First Temple in Jerusalem was ransacked, and 10,000 Jewish captives were taken to Babylon -- so when Bob Marley sings "by the rivers of Babylon" and weeps "for he remembers Zion," he is singing the song of Jewish exile.
Less than 60 years later, when the Persian king, Cyrus, conquered Babylon, he gave the Jews the right to practice their religion and to return to Jerusalem to build the Second Temple. Many Jews decided, however, to remain in what is now Iran.