Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Cypress Tree: Kamin Mohammadi (Iran)

Kamin Mohammadi was nine years old when her family fled Iran during the 1979 Revolution. Bewildered by the seismic changes in her homeland, she turned her back on the past and spent her teenage years trying to fit in with British attitudes to family, food and freedom. She was twenty-seven before she returned to Iran, drawn inexorably back by memories of her grandmother's house in Abadan, with its traditional inner courtyard, its noisy gatherings and its very walls
steeped in history.

The Cypress Tree is Kamin's account of her journey home, to rediscover her Iranian self and to discover for the first time the story of her family: a sprawling clan that sprang from humble roots to bloom during the affluent, Biba-clad 1960s, only to be shaken by the horrors of the Iran-Iraq War and the heartbreak of exile, and toughened by the struggle for democracy that continues today.

This moving and passionate memoir is a love letter both to Kamin's extraordinary family and to
Iran itself, an ancient country which has survived so much modern tumult but where joy and resilience will always triumph over despair.

This was without a doubt, one of the finest written books that I have read this year, a deeply moving and personal tale which is part family history, part history of the nation of Iran. I say without hesitation that it is a must read for all those wishing to know more about the more recent jistory that has shaped Irans turbulent past, and to gain an insight into the Iranian soul.

Iran is a country that despite the media reports, I knew little about (in modern times at least), my thoughts being confined to media images of women clad from head to foot in black and men chanting in religious fervour in order to keep those women subjugated and hidden. I am not sure why I felt this or where those thoughts came from, as the few Iranian men whom I have known and worked with have not been like this at all.

One of the highlights of this year was for me watching the Sitting Mens Volleyball final during the Paralympic Games, in which Iran played. The women there were certainly not clad in black and appeared to be enjoying themselves as much as the men, but I guess that when you take Iranians out of Iran, they are that nuch freer to express themselves in all ways, and this book only served to demonstrate that. It is a cliche, but you can take the woman out of Iran, but you can never take Iran out of the woman and so it is that the author, despite her Western upbringing, having left her Iranian roots behind at the age of nine, has this constant longing to return home.

What struck me most of all was not so much the factual history, but the way in which this affected and continues to affect those involved. The women paid a high price, that much is true, but so did their men, being forced to flee quite literally for their lives, their personal identity and sense of self being so closely tied to the nation that they were born into and called home. The way in which this revolution happened was almost insideous, with people seeming not to know what the consequences would be - one moment they were protesting about the corruption of their leaders and politicians (sounds familiar), and the next they were praying from the rooftops and in the womens cases, their courtyards, being forbidden to leave their own homes in clothes that were deemed unacceptable. The wheel though turns, and one day those same men and women shall rise up and demand a reversal back to more free and liberal times. 

As another reviewer so eloquently stated, Iran is within this book, almost a character in its own right, with all her contrasts and foibles - harsh and demanding on the one hand, but beautiful and expressive as well. This book is a book of contrasts, filled with colour and beauty, but also with pain and despair, which will  no doubt be hugely cathartic to Iranian refugees. It paints a picture too of a nation of contrasts, where nine year old boys are brainwashed into acting as mine sweepers in order to reach paradise, but where educated women hold down responsible jobs and live independently in their own homes. This book paints a vivid picture of an evoctive land where the sounds and smells come to life, the landscape, culture and food, but most of all the bond that exists between ordinary families and the lengths they will go to to protect each other and maintain those bonds.

As the author states at the end of the book Iran is like the cypress tree that has grown for thousands of years and weathered all the storms. Like the tree, Iranians have learned to bend to the prevailing winds, but are not broken. One day they will rise up and claim what it rightfully theirs, the freedom and independence that we in the West take so much for granted.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Somewhere Home: Nada Awar Jarrar (Lebanon).

This remarkable novel tells the story of three women, each of them far from where they came, all of whom are still searching for somewhere that can be called home.

This book was published by Heinemann in 2004. It has been out of print since 2005.

Maysa returns to the house that was her grandparents' home , in a village high on the slopes of Mount Lebanon.

Aida, long a traveller far from the land of her birth, returns in search for the man, a refugee, who was so much more of a father to her than her own

Salwa, who was taken from her homeland when a young bride and delivered to another family, another country, returns to find the person she once was.

This was a beautifully written, almost lyrical book about the lives of three Lebanese women and their extended families, all of whom are coming to terms in some way, with the need to find somewhere that they can call home - or indeed, to return to that place that once was home.  
The three women are all different in some ways, yet there are all the same, for they all feel to varying degrees, the same emotions - the reasons behind these emotions may differ, but the need is the same, the longing to return to a place of safety and security that represents to them their roots and their identity.
When we meet the first of three women, Maysa, she is a young woman who has returned to her ancestral home in the foothills of Mount Lebanon in order to give birth. Her husband meanwhile, is living in the city of Beirut. Maysa chooses to remain in the house after she gives birth, and after her daughter leaves to join her father in the city, but eventually the child reunites them, and Maysa finds that home is not a place, but rather where the heart is - with her family.
The second woman in Aida, who returns to Beirut as an older woman in order to reclaim memories of her own childhood, in particular of the Palestinian refugee who despite his own family, was more of a father to her than her real one, who fled many years before. The most moving for me at least, of the three characters was Salwa, an elderly woman who looks back on her life from her hospital bed, in  Australia (so she is indeed far from home) surrounded by children and grandchildren, listening to her stories and looking after her needs.
The book as with others from this part of the world, explores many themes, including war, emigration, early marriage and not least of all, the role that women play in these societies. One is left feeling that despite their submissiveness, these women are in fact strong characters, whose lives and identities are closely entwined with their families, in whom they play a pivotal role.
The book left me with an overriding sense of sadness, with tinged with a sense of hope - hope that things for these women and for those real Lebanese women (and of course the men with whom they share their lives) will do and has got better, as they rebuild their once beautiful city and their own disparate lives. This is a book that I would strongly recommend.