Monday, July 03, 2006

Let Me Tell You Where I Have Been

Let Me Tell You Where I Have Been:
New Writing by Women of the Iranian Diaspora
Edited by Persis Karim

Ey khoda een vasl raa hejraan makon,“ says Rumi. God, do not let this union become a hejraan. The Persian word hejraan begins with a sigh and breaks like a sob. It cannot be translated into English. Yet in her poem “Separation,” Iranian-American poet Farnaz Fatemi hints at the meaning:

“…I have learned too much
about movement, not enough about
how the heart can translate
the language of separation into words.”

Let Me Tell You Where I Have Been translates the language of hejraan into English. The result is deep literature sometimes surpassing what could have been said in Persian. Perhaps circumstance has led the writers in this collection to appreciate an extra dimension in the opening verses of Rumi’s Mathnavi:

"Listen to the reed for it tells a story,
complaining of separations"

Rumi too was writing in a land far from his ancestral home. His mystical desire to return to the Beloved is rooted in the earth of his birthplace. Like some of the contributors in Let Me Tell You, Rumi’s exile began when he was just a child. His family was driven away by the Mongol invasion. This thirteenth century social upheaval decimated Iran’s population and gouged deep wounds in the Iranian psyche.

The trauma of Iran’s 1979 revolution has now added another scar. Many of the modern day Rumis in Let Me Tell You have been driven away by the revolution and Iran’s subsequent war with Iraq. How the pain is expressed in writing reflects individual personalities. Gelareh Asayesh is mystical. She says, “With that first trip back [to Iran], 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.”

Niloofar Kalaam’s “The Sun Is a Dying Star” seems a rambling Jane Austen dilemma of love and money in marriage, but suddenly snaps into harsh focus as a powerful tale of imprisonment and rape.

Parinaz Eleish makes her lament this way:

"And my brother’s off to war.
How thoughtlessly beautiful the persimmons
Feel in the bloody dusk.
I long to hang from a tree
Watch my grandmother pray in the shade.
For even one more day."

Refusing to board the back of a bus in Tehran, Mitra Parineh’s American-born female character explains to her aunt, “We did this with black people in our country, a long time ago. How can you be serious? I will not ride that fucking bus.”

To which the aunt replies, “Stop it. This is not your country. This is not your people.”

Yet a few pages into the story the ache of hejran begs for reunion:

"Ay Khaleh, she says to me and sighs big. I am listening carefully, hoping she'll say something
and it occurs to me for the first time: why do we do this in Farsi? I call her Khaleh, Auntie, and
she calls me Khaleh back. I think of my father. Baba, Daddy. Baba Joon, he calls me, Daddy
Dear. They reverse the casual term of endearment and it becomes that-- endearing,

Yes “they” do speak with the voice of their beloved, and the effect is more than endearment, it is oneness. It is “they” being “us.”

Michelle Koukhab’s hejraan manifests in her yearning for the tender touch of tradition in the postpartum ritual of the public bath, where

"Sisters wrap my mother’s waist with egg yolk
and chick-peas paste…

[In America] I can have children, but no healing ceremony.
In my healing of parts below the navel, I can only spread

Glue with tongue depressors. This gap opens sometimes
Between the places we are born and the places that we live."

Hejraan in English.

Yet with poetic irony some of the writers protest that their Western refuge is not far enough from tradition. Sheila Shirazi, perhaps after a bitter breakup:

"…The hands of the cultural clock
are closed ‘round my throat…
Are you happy now, Maman, Baba?
No more fucking."

Some have concluded that their Western refuge is no refuge at all. In an excerpt from Funny in Farsi, her best selling panegyric on America, even Firoozeh Dumas manages a suppressed ouch. “My relatives did not think Americans were very kind,” she complains timidly. But the Iranian American writer PAZ is more colorfully outspoken:

"[Before the 1979 revolution] one of my favorite memories is of the time when Becky
showed me how to use a red plastic Barbie golf club to get myself off, and then subsequently
to get her off as well. After we were done playing in the lazy, sun-strewn desert
afternoons we would slip away to Becky’s apartment to eat an early American supper....

[After the 1979 revolution] Becky’s family stopped inviting me over for pork
dinners.TheWright sisters, who were my favorite orange tree pals, were no longer allowed to
come over in the afternoons to play. Their father who was a minister at the Presbyterian
church around the corner, stopped dropping by to have enlightened religious conversations
with my father. And someone—to this day I don’t know who—blew the cover on my sexual

It was 1979 and I realized that my whole world has shifted. I was going to have to reinvent
myself so I could belong in America, belong to my Muslim Iranian family, belong to a world
which didn’t like me as I was. I had a long, hard road ahead of me."

For PAZ politics was a slap in the face to wake up to the realities of tribalism, while for Poet Sanaz Banu Nikaein the awakening moment comes every time she looks in the social mirror, "I am an Iranian with terrorist tattooed on my forehead…."

The brilliant Azadeh Moaveni needs no awakening to politics. Her book Lipstick Jihad sometimes dazzles with insight. The excerpt in Let Me Tell You is one of her dimmer moments, but it does reveal an interesting phenomenon—how Iranian-Americans import Western values into Iran. When an Iranian girlfriend seeks advice about a romantic partner, Moaveni offers this bit of naïve American feminism:

"So I tried to explain that like many men, her boyfriend was intimidated by how much he
wanted sex and that it was easier for him to vulgarize intimacy than admit that she (a mere
girl/woman) controlled the supply of the most powerful physical experience of his existence.”

Supply?? Capitalist feminism at its most crass! The politically savvy Moaveni would agree that righting of Iran’s policy towards women is more urgent than any military preparations. Gaining the women’s support is not only a human rights issue, it’s a matter of national survival. Therefore, we look to thoughful people like Moaveni to think out-of-the-box, to discover new, workable solutions that do not trigger Iran's immune reaction to transplantation. Western feminist rancor has proven counter-productive even in the West.

And in return for such Western exports, what have these Iranian-American women writers imported from Iranian culture? Its most valuable treasure—Iran’s literary tradition. Mimi Khalvati’s poem in the ghazal style of Hafez is such an astonishingly beautiful love poem I am tempted to reproduce it here in its entirety. But it feels like sacrilege to put such gentleness through computer hardware. Read it in the book.

Some Muslim Iranian-Americans don’t place the Koran on their Haftsin table anymore. The excesses of the Islamic Republic have inclined them to decorate the traditional spread with a book of Hafez instead. Perhaps Diaspora Iranians should start a new custom. Each year place the new book that has most clearly expressed our hejraan. I nominate Let Me Tell You Where I Have Been as the Haftsin book of the year.

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