On the eve of the 2013 presidential election in Iran, Shahar Delijani invites us to look at what past elections have meant for three generations rooted in post-revolutionary Tehran from 1983 to present day. This is a novel that reads like a memoir, tracing the experiences and thoughts of Iran’s disenfranchised and dissident population. If ever you wondered what it must have been like to be a part of Arab Spring as it played out in massive demonstrations in Tehran, this is one woman’s attempt to share that experience and its roots in Iranian society and its diaspora.
From the opening scenes of a prison birth to the later reminiscences of a woman receiving someone else’s clothes from prison officials after the death of her husband while in custody, this is inflammatory stuff, heart-breaking and heart-hardening stuff. The effect of events like these on families and personalities is charted and surmised, each generation seemingly adding to the ranks of the disaffected. By this count the opposition to the government in Tehran will never go away but instead grows daily. Conversations among the psychologically traumatized characters in this novel echo what was heard in Beijing after the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. This kind of disaffection isn’t going to evaporate without boiling first.
I am not as familiar with customs in the Middle East as I am with those in Asia, so I find the fictional personal interactions recorded here fascinating, supposing that this records faithfully a middling wealthy and cosmopolitan slice of Iranian society. And, though it doesn’t necessarily make good novelistic technique, I enjoyed reading of young male/female relationships. I am struck with the conservatism on one hand and the liberality on the other.
This is Delijani’s debut novel, and while she still has room to grow as a novelist, this book illustrates storytelling. I don’t think the two things are necessarily the same. I never felt involved in this story, but watched from a distance the interactions between characters. Surely there are overlaps in customs, feelings, and intentions, especially among Iranians displaced to the West, and yet I felt a great distance. This could be age (hers or mine or the characters'), or it could be one of the stages of cultural familiarity: Geert Hofstede, Dutch guru on the dimensions of culture, once posited that people go through stages of recognition when encountering another culture. At first, without our own cultural markers, we feel disoriented and distant, as though “we are different from them.” Gradually, as we become more familiar and discover that these are humans, too, we begin to think “we are all the same.” As familiarity grows into deep knowledge, we move back to “we really are different.” I think I am still at Stage 1 with Iran.
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