Rabeah Ghaffari: To Keep the Sun Alive
Tales of exile, particularly involuntary exile, are not uncommon. Writers seem to go into exile more than most and people who go into exile do sometimes turn into writers, writing about their experiences. I have to admit that my favourite in this genre is neither fiction nor modern. It is Alexander Herzen‘s Былое и думы which has been published in English in a four volume work called My Past and Thoughts, which I can highly recommend.
This novel, though much of it is set in pre-revolutionary Iran, starts with exile. Indeed, the description of Shazdehpoor, in exile in Paris in 2012 is superbly done. He makes his living writing the names of tourists in Persian script. (His neighbour in the street, Madame Wu, does the same in Chinese script.) Demand for his work seems to be drying up, particularly on that day when gypsies are selling sunglasses for viewing the solar eclipse, expected that day. He was as displaced as them [i.e. other refugees], and as anonymous—a single unseen thread in a haphazardly woven carpet. We can see that there is some evidence of a former elegance. He reminisces about another world, on the golden plains of Naishapur, in the orchard of his family. White snowy flowers clung to branches of the apple trees. Soon we are transported back there, to 1979, where we meet him and his family, again with a solar eclipse expected in the not too distant future.
The orchard belongs to his brother-in-law, Akbar, and Akbar’s wife, Bibi-Khanoom, generally known as Bibi, and the matriarch of the family. The orchard is described in some detail on this spring day and it seems, at first glance, like a sort of paradise. But there is trouble in paradise. Akbar was a lawyer but took early retirement because he was getting tired of the way defendants were dragged off to secretive military tribunals and never seen or heard of again. He and Bibi have no children of their own but have an adopted eleven-year old son, Jafar, who cannot or will not speak.
On the day the novel starts, the family have one of their regular get-togethers. The family includes Shazdehpoor, a widower, who was married to Akbar’s sister. He has two sons: Jamsheed, who was a rebel and is now an opium junkie, and Madjid, who is better-behaved. Shazdehpoor is a fokoli< - the pseudo-modernist social type who was neither truly knowledgeable about the modern West nor sufficiently versed in Persia and Persian traditions. Fokoli comes from the French faux-col, i.e. detachable collar. He dreams of Europe, buys item from an English catalogue and listens to Western classical music. Akbar has an older brother, Habib, who is now a mullah, with strong views on religion and the current political situation in Iran. He had hoped to marry Bibi but, when she got engaged to Akbar, he turned to religion.
On Bibi’s side, we have her niece Ghanam and her husband, Mohammad. Mohammad says of Ghanam that she is not his wife but his prison guard. They have a teenage daughter, Nasreen, who has the usual teenager issues. She is also in love with Madjid and they have been having a passionate affair, unbeknown to their family, but known to Mirza, Bibi’s Afghan servant.
Outside, things are not looking good. There is considerable conflict, involving the religious people, the Shah’s secret police and the anti-government, anti-religion students. It’s coming to a head. You can feel it in the streets. In the dormitories. You should see the students huddled around in earnestness.. We learn the points of view of the various family members. Shazdehpoor, for example, thinks the arrival of Islam in Iran was a great tragedy, while Habib, of course, takes the opposite point of view. Madjid has studied all points of view but he himself has opted for a general anti-establishment point of view.
We follow the stories of the main characters, including some back story, against the background of what we know will be a revolution. Naturally, all these characters react in different ways. Some carry on with their life, as though nothing is really changing. Others are more concerned. One or two get involved somewhat. Habib, in particular, does get involved. Interestingly, Ghaffari indicates on more than one occasion that a small deed can lead to something greater – the butterfly effect. One particular incident involves a young religious man who, in anger, stabs another young man, a fokoli, and kills him. We know his reasons. Habib becomes involved and realises that he can use this young man to help bring about the religious revolution he seeks, which he does, making him a martyr.
The story develops as the revolution approaches and people start taking sides, not always, as far as our characters are concerned, the obvious ones. Moreover, and inevitably, our characters also get unwittingly dragged into the revolution and do not always come out well.
Ghaffari is very clear on her condemnation of the Islamists, both as regards their views, and their strategy and tactics for gaining power. However, there is another group she criticises and that is foreigners. We follow the activities of the Imperial Sugar Company of Persia, located in Naishapur, where this novel is set. (In an interview she commented There was a Belgian sugar cube factory in Iran. They had a Persian magazine for sugar. I took the tobacco revolt and the oil embargo and I spun it into the sugar factory story.) The company was founded and run by Belgians and they massively exploit the locals, both the workers and the farmer whose land they are using. A revolt, led by a man who was the great-great grandfather of Madjid and Jamsheed, brings about changes. She also mentions the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh, engineered by the US and UK, which increased anti-US feeling and indirectly led to the 1979 revolution.
Madjid and others had hoped for a revolution which would overthrew the Shah, the SAVAK (though they are not mentioned by name in the book), the privileged classes and US influence. Clearly, when it looked as though the revolution would be a religious revolution they were not happy but it was too late to change things.
Sexism is, of course, alive and well in Iran. We see two cases where the father essentially ignores his daughter in favour of his sons, in one case leading to a terrible tragedy. We also see attacks on women during the revolution, particularly women not covering their head or wearing make-up.
Ghaffari tells a first-class story, enhanced by the story of Shazdehpoor and his time in Paris. We follow this story throughout the book. Indeed, he has the last words of the book. While he is a symbol of the fokoli, he also represents exiles, both Iranian and others, who are exiled from their own country, who miss their own country and who cannot really fit into the country where they now live, whatever its advantages and democratic traditions. Indeed, while the development of the revolution, how different people reacted to it, the nastiness of both the Shah’s regime and the new regime and the interesting mix of characters in the families whose story we are following are all fascinating and, in themselves, make this book a really good read, I must admit to a certain affection for Shazdehpoor, a man who did not fit in to pre-revolutionary Iran and certainly does not fit in to contemporary Paris, a lost soul if you will, and isn’t all great literature more or less about lost souls?
First published in 2019 by Catapult