Let Us Travel To Iran
This fall, I am asking you to 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 the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, where this column also appears. 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.
For the next several centuries, the Jewish community in Persia flourished. The biblical books of Jeremiah, Ezra, Daniel and, of course, Esther (the Purim story), all make reference to the Jews of Persia. Scholars recorded the oral law in the form of the Babylonian Talmud — a text studied to this day. Jewish poets, scholars, philosophers all made their home in Persia.
Beginning in the second century, as Zoroastrianism grew in popularity, minority groups in Persia, including the Jews, suffered attacks and prejudice. However, it was the conquest of Iran by Islam in the seventh century, when Jews and other non-Muslims became second-class citizens called “dhimmis” and were forced to pay a special tax. Over the next millennia, the fate of Persia’s Jews waxed and waned, suffering massacres, forced conversions or persecutions under certain rulers, while being given greater freedom by others.
In 1925, conditions changed substantially for the Jews with the advent of the Pahlavi regime, under Reza Shah. Non-Muslims were no longer considered “unclean,” and he abolished the restrictions on Jews, such as the ghetto. Nonetheless, anti-Semitism flared occasionally, particularly at such moments as when Iran sided with the Nazis and at the time of the founding of the State of Israel.
In 1941, Reza Shah was forced to abdicate, following an Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran. Nonetheless, his son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi succeeded him as shah and by 1953 consolidated his power. He launched a series of actions to modernize Iran, while at the same time increasing his power and repressing dissent.
The shah’s regime was an era of unparalleled freedom and prosperity for Iran’s Jews as they rose to positions of prominence in many fields.
Under the shah, Jews came to believe, as they have in every society where they have been allowed to be free, that they were Iranians, same as everyone else. History proved otherwise.
With the benefit of hindsight, the experience of the successful, wealthy, assimilated Jewish Iranians of the 1960s and ’70s was a rare historical moment. Their rise in Persian society throughout the Pahlavi dynasty — from the slums and ghetto of south Tehran to the highest ranks of society — could be seen as comparable and as rare as that of the Jews in Vienna around 1900, in Berlin in the 1920s or Budapest or Warsaw in the 1930s. Those eras were not paradise for all Jews, but they now seem fleeting memories, nonetheless.
The shah was deposed in 1979. It is estimated that 85 percent of Iran’s Jewish population has fled the country since then. There are today more Iranian Jews in Los Angeles (approximately 35,000) than there are in Tehran (an estimated 25,000).
The Persian community are double exiles — forever contained in their exile first to Babylon and then from Iran. Perhaps that is part of why they are so special.
Living in Los Angeles, as I do, one of the added benefits has been getting to know members of the Persian Jewish community, as well as being exposed to Persian culture and cuisine (Javan is on our speed dial for home delivery).
Los Angeles and Beverly Hills have their share of wealthy Persian Jewish families living in a world some have dubbed “Tehrangeles.”
A few years ago, my wife and I were invited to a party at a Persian home (where the husband, coincidentally, is a successful gem dealer). The party was called for 10 p.m. Most guests didn’t show up before 11 p.m., and when they did, there was wonderful food served on large platters, with even more amazing sweet desserts and mint tea.
The men were all in suits, the women were all dressed elegantly, coiffed, in makeup and wearing serious jewels. The dance floor was crowded; there was a disco ball and a DJ playing dance hits sung in Persian.
Among the couples I spoke with, I found a great warmth and a certain detachment, which I understood. This is the language of exile; these are the immigrants and the immigrants’ children, the first and second generations, who have come from an older culture to one that at times finds them foreign.
One other thing: The displays of wealth — the enjoyment of wealth — which is sometimes seen among Persian Jews is something that I recognize, as well. It is no different from the way the wealthy German Jewish families I knew in New York pretended to take their wealth for granted or the affection of Hungarian Jews for chandeliers in their homes.
To me, this is just a secular form of “hidur mitzvah,” which roughly translates to beautifying the deed — the Judaic Martha Stewart-like concept that beauty in presentation enhances the ritual — that, for example, ornate tabernacles, well-decorated sukkahs, a beautifully set table, even dressing well for synagogue, are all pleasing to God.
Which brings me back to the Persian Jewish novel.
Its time has come because writers, as well as readers, are always looking to reclaim the world that is no longer. From the last century, one thinks of Stefan Sweig writing about Vienna or Joseph Roth writing about Berlin in the 1920s or Giorgio Bassani writing about the “Garden of the Finzi Continis” (Sofer did a segment for NPR’s “All things Considered” and talked about how well she relates to that novel). Sweig called his memoir, “The World of Yesterday,” and there is always the compulsion to record how it was, particularly when world history convulses personal history.
Beyond that, when a writer asks him or herself that crucial series of questions: What is mine? What is the story I know better than others? What is the best story I know, what territory or landscape is mine and not others? What is unique? — they often find themselves drawn back to their childhoods or, as Irving Howe put it, the “world of our fathers.”
By revisiting the lost world, novelists try to re-create and reimagine those worlds, to let others know what happened, to explain it to others and perhaps to themselves, and in so doing, they arrive at a greater truth in the telling.
Both Nahai and Sofer lead us to a Tehran that no longer exists. Yet neither work is an exercise in nostalgia.
Nahai’s “Caspian Rain” lets us experience the conflicts of lives before the revolution, while Sofer’s “The Septembers of Shiraz” illuminates the moment (always too late) when we realize how change will affects us.
The specificity of the Iranian Jewish experience deepens the characters, rendering them more credible, and, because we understand the choices before them, it makes these novels more universal in their appeal. If that doesn’t seem logical, consider the worldwide popularity of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stories.
So let us travel to Iran. With Nahai and Sofer to guide us, we can still experience the drama, the conflicts and the pleasures of a lost world.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward.