Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Journey from the Land of No

Journey from the Land of No

A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran

By Roya Hakakian

I had just finished reading Najib Mahfooz’s The Children of Jebelaawi and then spent an hour with Krzysztof Kislovski’s Thou Shall Not Bear False Witness upon Your Neighbor when that I started a much delayed reading of Journey from the Land of No. By page twenty two I had already wiped my eyes at least three times and by page of one hundred I had a hard time keeping them open since sleep had overcome me, but I did not want to quit. A delightful book that mercifully was not called a memoir to mark it as real, but was written with such fluency of feeling and emotion and was spoke with so much love and sweetness that I had no doubt that every breath of it was true even if it might have had some touches of fantasy.

Hakakian disarms the reader when she disqualifies herself right in the beginning by writing to her editor, David, that, “When it comes to Iran, I’m anything but objective. The past and the events of the years that followed the revolution had biased me forever.” Indeed, a full awareness of bias is highest form of objectivity. Luckily, her editor thought that way when he wrote to her, “Tell me about them.”(p. 13)

Turning to the next page, my fears were completely gone when she wrote, “As a refugee …, when you have nothing left to guard, you guard your memories. You guard them with silence. You do not draw your treasures into the light, lest exposure soften their sharp … sad or gay …details.” And when I came to, “When you belong to a breed on the verge of extinction, a Jewish women from the Islamic Republic of Iran living in the Unite States, one small slip can turn you into a poster child for someone else’s crusade,” I felt our memories are in safe hands and the author will do her best not to violate the trust invested in her guardianship. I also felt reassured that there would be something promising from a girl who simply says, “It was nothing spectacular that made our bliss spectacularly complete:” (p. 25) I knew that I that I would certainly have something spectacular.

Hakakian takes us with her on a grand tour of her girlhood in the Tehran early in the revolution. In fact, it was a coincidence that I read her book following that of Najib Mahfooz’s. Where Mahfooz infuses the layers of human cultural growth from the creation of Adam and Eve to the modern time of industrial revolutions, eliminating the overlaps or the exceptions and leaving us with an idealized drawing of spiral repetition of historical development, Hakakian, through her magnifying glass, takes us into the real-life scenes of one of the latest layers of this historical monument: the early Islamic Revolution in Iran. In addition to her poetic style coupled with her literary facility manifested all through the book, her journalistic discipline seems to be firmly in charge of the narrative. There is not even a single place where the author is excessively emotional, manipulative, or even judgmental in her narratives to convey her opinions and her beliefs. What is even more impressive is that there is not even a temptation for it. She seems to be well aware of the value of her memories. Didn’t she tell us before?

Her story goes parallel to the Samad Behrangi’s The Little Black Fish. She sees herself as one of the small black fishes who want to reach the sea, to grow and learn. She sees herself in that very small sheltered pool of the family life which is just perfectly spectacular where she is loved and cared for, where her father stands as the embodiment of humanity and culture to the family and the community, and where there is a life in the words, poetry and literature, but she still feels the need to move into a bigger sea.

As she grows, the walls of this sanctuary extend to the extended family and that is where she recognizes that there are some not so spectacular barriers which could hinder her dreams to reach a bigger sea. The wedding of her cousin Farah, a marriage which is decided by wealth, parental standard of happiness, Hafez’s poetry, and a forensic doctor, in which neither love nor wisdom has any place, teaches her that a pure set of conventions governs life. Through various family anecdotes, she vividly paints the limited walls of this sanctuary. However, she never over extends them to a generalization or norm. I find it very daring on her part to criticize her own community, and her own religion, admitting that discriminatory laws and regulations are not limited to particular religions or cultures.

She goes beyond the border of her family walls. While she finds the bliss of friendship, she also meets the bigger world which is governed by other sets of conventions, and that is where she also learns about subversion. She learns about the life beyond the family in school, synagogue, student organization. Each opens some doors to her just to show another obstacle behind them. However, all through the narrative, she remains humbly as one of the small black fishes without promoting herself to the Little Black Fish.

Even though she comes from a younger generation than mine, Hakakian brings back, along with the part of Tehran and her life in it, some of the memories which were about to fade away from my mind: the memory of the wonderful friendships which I think is the dearest memory to any Iranian. Her friendship with Z; examining the life and exploring it together; watching Bibi, Z’s sister, taking her bath; following Z’s uncle’s solitary life; finding the exceptional in what is ordinary; taking pleasure in solitary contemplation; and above all finding a life beyond words: metaphor, though these are uniquely Hakakian’s treasures, still, like a museum object, a viewer has a share of them when they are on display.

Dismayed and disillusioned from what she is confronted by outside, expelled from her afternoon English class, and not “clean” enough to lead the hymns in her house of worship, she runs to the desolate streets of Tehran, just a few months before the revolution, barefoot, with her sneakers hung on her shoulders, straying in front of Tehran University, apparently after a demonstration had been scattered by police and the army, she watches the confused street and half closed shops where the people are wondering whether to continue the rest of the day or not, while delayed tears are forced out of her eyes by the residues of the tear gas, she hears a boy hiding behind a tree calling her, asking for assistance, to tell him if there is any soldiers are around. She shook her head for an answer. He asked her what she is doing there and where she lives, to which she signals him with her arm pointing to the right. “You’ve got to talk, I can’t read an arm yet. I’m only a sophomore.” With all the clips of film we watched on TV before and after the revolution, of all the demonstration, tear gas, burning tyres, flags and banners, students, soldiers and police, none so vividly brought the soul of Tehran to me, Tehran full of fear, full of chaos, full of youthful energy, full of tear gas and still full of humor and humanity. Where was she those times to make a report for Sixty Minutes [pdf]? (p.95)

What makes her narrative even more compelling is its simplicity. There is nothing grandiose or extraordinary to bewilder the reader, nothing calls for magic or superwomen to come to the rescue; it is all a simple affair of life in a very turbulent time. No heroism and no heart bleeding victimization, it is just a meaningful tale of a young women growing to maturity along with many others. In the very last few pages of her book, she meets her friend Z. She recounts that visit simply as:

In four years, Z had lost an uncle to grief, a brother to war, a sister to prison, and a mother to insanity. And there I was, a helpless pet, cooing to her to explain the inexplicable. Once her weaknesses mirroring my own had bonded us. Now her great share of despair was driving us apart. It made a giant of her while I was still a girl and frail. (p. 220)

I wish Hakakian perceived herself as we perceive her in the last chapter of her book. I wish she knew how I envy her for her realization of truth at that young age. If we would have realized what she learned at the age of eighteen, things would have been very different now. What if we would have felt responsible enough not sacrifice the truth for the sake of strategy and wise enough not to tint it by exaggeration and lying just to expedite the course of events? It is so heartwarming to read Hakakian’s account of life in those times. It is reassuring that her generation has grown wiser than ours and has come to such an awareness at that very young age. In her conversation with Z she writes:

… It is what she learned in prison that upsets her even more.

What did she learn in prison?

Samad had not been drowned… A poor swimmer, he had drowned on his own. … The anti-shah intellectuals of the time saw it as opportunity to pin it on the shah to fuel the public’s resentment of him. One of the pivotal legends … had been nothing but a hoax … A little lie between revolutionary friends. (p. 220)

I wished she would have looked at the final stage of her life in Iran with a celebratory regard. I wished she would not remember it with bleakness. If I would have found out about the lies we were told, I sure would have celebrated it, though the last scene in the balcony of her house with all the burnt books would excuse that little blemish of the book.

The book is truly a bundle of delight and pride, a book I heavily recommend to everyone to read, particularly to the second generation. There is a lot in it to be learned and to delight in. And even more, that Hakakian faithfully observed the ninth commandment, if not out of the religious zeal, surely for journalistic professionalism: She did not bear false witness upon neighbors. For that, history will be grateful.


Nazy said...

Salam Mina Jan. What a wonderful review of what is obviously a gem of a book. Your as usual thorough job of discussing its nuances has me sold on it already. I will be sure to read it and to share my findings with you. I came and I learned from you again. Your space is truly one of my most favorite places to visit, full of contemplation, thought, heart, and hope. You rock my friend.

Anonymous said...

FYI Roya just released a new book called Assassins of the Turquoise Palace that is getting rave reviews — part thriller, part crime drama — that covers how the German courts wrestled with a campaign of assassination against expat Iranian dissidents. I loved it and think you will too. Nytimes also enjoyed: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/18/books/review/assassins-of-the-turquoise-palace-by-roya-hakakian-book-review.html