Friday, October 05, 2007

Saffron Sky, A Life between Iran and America, by Gelareh Asayesh

A young, educated, pampered, highly-achieving Iranian woman who immigrated to the United States at a very young age writes her memoir. She came from a privileged background, and continued to live a privileged life in America as well. She is one among many second generation Iranian immigrants who occupy prestigious positions as doctors, engineers, computer scientists, university professors, lawyers and journalists. Even in her field, journalism, there are enough young Iranians for her to lose her novelty. She is not abandoned, she is not abused; she has not suffered. With my painful experiences of reading the solicited memoirs of the younger generation in mind, I found Gelareh Asayesh’s memoir a delightful exception. This is the second book in the row of this generation that has come counter to my expectation. Does it mean the age of Not without my Daughter is over? Just few months ago came the horror of Camelia.

Saffron Sky’s opening chapter put it off to a good start. In her short prologue, she recalls her new home in the Maryland and the first day she is not working outside and is left alone at home, writing:

I had achieved, purely by chance, a reincarnation of past happiness. I lived a dream of childhood days in Iran, when activity ceased in the heat of the afternoon sun, and the neighborhood slumbered in silence, and my grandmother’s garden filled with the sound of the wind in the apricot trees.

Asayesh is not the first of Iranian to seek her identity and her past, and to be nostalgic about it. She is not the first who finds it difficult to stop being Iranian and start becoming American, nor is she the first who does not know where one ends and the other begins. However she sees very clearly the blurry line drawn between the two. The book is partly an examination of what appears as bridges which seem easy to cross to reach the American side, and the experience of crossing these lanes which are, in fact, quite narrow if not impassible.

The fully aware young teenager finds, at a very early stage, that there is no easy way and what appears as easy is just a mirage. In Chapel Hills, North Carolina, they cross the roads very quickly and easily.

Sometimes during the first year we were overcome by the futility of holding on the past. Iran was far away, and piece by piece we started letting go of the old and embracing the new. I bought a pair of rust-colored corduroys. My sister acquired, amid great family tension, a boyfriend. Homajooon (mother) started cultivation African violets. Baba unbent enough to venture outdoors in flip flops instead of proper shoes.

As for being American, it takes more than mere adjustment; most of it comes from the difficulty of being Iranian in the past tense. The pain of what to do with our past remains to be solved. Carrying it into our life here? Forget it? Deny it? Simply be nostalgic about it? Asayesh tells us about her conflicted school years’ experience: Her memoir of high school years stands up well among her other chapters. “To fit in,” she feels, requires more than “studying well and behaving well. It requires growing faster than what an ordinary person takes to grow and it does not matter that in the end you just pretend that you have grown.” She founds soon:

But in America childhood seemed to end early, to be replaced by cultivated cynicism that masked both vulnerability and immaturity. I was still a child, with a child’s joy in simple and pleasures and a secret delight in the safety of rules and restrictions. Going to high school in America felt like a violation of my childhood, an abrupt and painful loss of innocence.

In spite of what she knows and all that happens counter to her intuition or upbringing, the inevitable must be met, one needs to grow and survive. It is at her prom that she arrives at the decision to fulfill the unspoken agreement of an immigrant:

That night, the web of belief and expectation that bound me broke apart and formed a new pattern. I slipped the tight moorings of my heritage and began to yield to the imperative of the here and now.

Later on she writes:

When I was in high school and college, I longed to be delivered of the burdens of the past, to be free to belong in the world of my peers. Now that I lived outside the constraints of family and culture, I discovered in myself a need to belong in ways that transcended the superficial acceptance of my friends.

It is not only the past which is haunting her; the present, daily existence, appears as ghostly as past, where she is dealt with as a third person, when everyone is trying to cut her from what she had been, and she has to assent to it.

"You know, it says in the Bible those people over there are descended from jackals.”

"Actually, I’m from over there”

He looked at the TV screen above the City Desk and said, I have nothing against the Iranian people. I had a roommate once who was Iranian. He was really nice.”

What is missing in her life is not only the tangibles, she craves, indeed, for something whose nature she is not fully aware of, though, but she feels its absence. Once, covering a murder story—a young women was murdered and was left in the middle of field—she writes:

Once death had been noted on the murder tally, it was forgotten. But the experience haunted me. At night, lying in bed in the silent apartment I shared with a largely absent roommate, I was overwhelmed by the sense of being alone in a cruel world. Cut off from family and friends, I felt myself adrift. There were no buffers between me and life’s harsh realities, no cocoon of familiarity and routine to shelter me no one’s love to anchor me.

She can draw a line between “belonging” and “getting adjusted to” or attaining the "approval of the judges," and it is "belonging" that she seeks, belonging to herself, for which she must first come to terms with her past and with her Iranian being.

Though she became an American in the ways of thought and language as well, still she sees in herself something which others are unable to see, her “Iranian inside,” though it is too far away, with a big gulf which she desire to cross, but feels it is impossible.

In 1990, when I obtained the green card that cemented my foothold in the West and permitted travel to and from Iran, it was instinct that drove me to return. With that first trip back, I began the long slow road toward resurrecting a buried self. And vowed I would never suffer that inner shriveling of an isolated core, the immigrant’s small death, again.

And again:

Though, in practice we stayed here because it gave us better life. Because we had endured so much in leaving Iran; and it was too hard to go back.

 Interestingly enough, being from the holy city of Mashhad, most of her trip is spent there as well as the villages and other noted towns in the area. And there, one of the first places we visit with her is the Shrine and we hear her aunts talking about the pilgrimage. Asayesh’s recounting of the pilgrimage as the “a pilgrimage of soul” might very well be a two-edged sword. I felt a religious tone in her secular trip; it was indeed her pilgrimage of her body and soul to the shrine of her being Iranian.

No, her trip to Iran was not a lavish feast she would invite us to. Indeed we, the reader, did not matter at all. It was not a grand tour for the American tourist there either. She did try not portray the better side of Iran and the so-called Iranian heritage. No grandiose Iran this and that, but a humble, modest, and honest report of one’s trip back home as if it had taken place in her absolute privacy. As if she was not seen, as if she had no witnesses. The book came from the depth of her solitude, as if she were whispering to herself.

She tells us she always brings back plenty of saffron flowers to enclose in the Christmas cards she sends to her friends; I found her whole account of her pilgrimage as a bundle of saffron flowers sent to all of us readers, I sensed its aroma. It may be my medievalist side which attaches such a mystique to aroma rather than color, and it is from my medievalist side that I can even appreciate more the mystique she brings us with her book. True, young as she is, with such an earthly profession, journalism, the word “mystique” might sounds a bit out of order, but I did not have the heart to dismiss whatever comes to me from those delicate description of her grazing site with anything less than aroma.

It is not only the various circumstances and feelings that she is fully aware of. She seems to be aware that she would probably be one of the last who sees some of the Iranian artifacts, rituals and ways of life and characters that very soon all depart and end up in the time capsules in museums. Whether she is describing her attendance in the public bath or her dialogue with her aunt over the installation of the European toilet seat and paper holder for her American husband; whether she is describing the slaughter of a sacrificial lamb or the mourning passion plays; a wedding or family visits; drinking tea with a total stranger in a tea houses by the road or taking a nap in a public gardens after the meal; going to the cemetery or shrines and praying with her aunt or getting into arguments with her secular friends; all and all equally come with an aroma since they have emerged from a truth-loving soul.

She seems to return home with her hands full. She is content with her pilgrimage since she has gone there in earnest and she returned fulfilled.

This is a book which I do recommend to all, as usual, to our younger friends, Barzin, Parisa, and Payam, Sarvin and Nasim, Tammy and Rad and Sina and Parsa and Ava, Tara and Amir Hussein, Shahrouz and Rouzbeh and Sharareh. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


Marcello Di cintio said...

Greetings Mina.

My name is Marcello Di Cintio. I am the author of Poets and Pahlevans: A Journey Into the Heart of Iran. I would be interested in being a 'guest blogger' on your site. If you have the time, please drop me an email. My address is

Best regards,

Gelareh Asayesh said...

Dear Mina,

Thank you for the thought and heart you put into this reading of my book. You were right in thinking the story was a private act shared publicly. This was one of those books you write to understand the pain at the heart of your life. I know that many immigrants share it, and hope that reading Saffron Sky will help them find their way through their own emotional landscape. Our journey from one land to another describes an is my belief that if we are able to bring it full circle, we can go home again, even as we make our peace with the dual meanings of the word "home."

All the Best,


cbarbano said...

Janet and I look forward to reading your book. We just spent a day together. You and your Iranian and American identity struggles at UNC are still part of our fondest memories of our time together there with you. My spouse is Arab (Syrian) and he faces his cultural identity struggles on a daily basis still. I hope I can convince him to read your book as well.
Cathy Barbano

Maryam said...

I am reading this book and I love it so far. There are a lot of things that happen to Gelareh that I can relate to and have actually experienced on my trips back to Tehran. It's unbelievable.

susan said...

where are those exerpts from? like the page number wise... i would like to see paragraphs before and after those exerpts to get a clearer idea...