Caspian Rain

Listen to interviews and read reviews and excerpts from Caspian Rain.

  • Gina Nahai's Caspian Rain
    Caspian Rain – English


 

Nominated by MacAdam Cage Publishing for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize

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“One of the Best Books of the Year,” Chicago Tribune

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Winner of the Persian Heritage Foundation Award

 
 
 

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Praise

“This novel is nothing less than a literary sensation, not only because it revives Iran’s past in a heavenly precise prose, but also since we will all too soon desperately look for books which explain this country. To truly understand Iran, you have to read this novel.”

— Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

 

“Entrancing…Caspian Rain is a beautiful study in disappointment and ineffable loss, in the conflict between duty and desire. Nahai shows her characters just as they are, damaged. They are keenly aware of how they’d like to change their lives – and of how limited their options really are.”

— Los Angeles Times

 

“Nahai evokes even peripheral characters in vivid detail: the daughter of Argentine exiles (and suspected Nazis) blares tango music from her window and shows up at her parents’ funeral with a hot-pink flower behind her ear; a former student activist, broken under torture by the secret police, scavenges for dead women’s hair…”

— New Yorker

 

“A glimpse into a largely alien culture. Nahai tells [the] story with elegance and insight.”

— New York Times Book Review

 

“Nahai’s power as a story-teller flows from her desire to weave the brutal facts of modern Iranian history with fantastic narratives of familial rupture and political displacement. American readers will be absorbed by [her] colorful evocation of the characters. From her clear-eyed yet deeply emphatic perch in the New World, Nahai sounds the emotional costs of exile as she explores the trauma of loss for her fellow émigrés. She is, after all, that subculture’s finest chronicler.”

— Chicago Tribune

 

“…beautiful and haunting…Nahai’s narrative skill and linguistic talent shine”

— San Francisco Chronicle

 

Heartbreakingly captivating, Nahai’s novel nonetheless evokes hope…darkly enticing…Set in pre-revolution Iran, this somber, beautifully written novel is a look into the unfulfilled lives of a hugely dysfunctional Iranian Jewish family and a far-reaching story of the ever-persevering human spirit…Nahai’s writing is poetic, with provocative turns of phrase over which to pause…”

— Miami Herald

 

“Nahai deftly creates the smells and daily routines of an old Tehran neighborhood…[and] a colorful cast of quirky characters.”

— Washington Post

 

“Caspian Rain guides readers deep into the inner sanctum of one painfully divided family in the years leading up to Iran’s Islamic Revolution…Nahai has you hooked from start to finish…Her unusual yet effective narrative flow portrays this world in a way that leaves behind the typical ‘veils and misogyny’ stereotypes most Americans know from contemporary Iran. And yet, Nahai’s story gives colorful narrative to the cultural forces at play in the years leading up to the arrival of Islamic fundamentalism in this most misunderstood country…an uncommonly poignant tale. Caspian Rain is an English major’s book—even the smallest aside reinforces the book’s overarching themes of loss and exile. Each detail, each character Nahai conceives is, as Yaas notes, ‘Tragic to the core, but also mesmerizing.’ ”

— Chicago Sun-Times

 

“Readers are allowed a singular look into the world of Iranian Jews and their hierarchy…This lyrical and literary novel is beautifully written.”

— USA Today

 

Vivid and accurate…In Caspian Rain Gina B. Nahai demonstrates that suffering is a cultural imprint…Perhaps Nahai’s intention is best illuminated by the naming of her characters. In Persian, Omid means Hope, Bahar means spring or renewal, and Yaas means Poet’s Jasmine. But Yaas also means sorrow. It is our job to understand the relationship of the three, and to unravel the web they’ve woven around loss.”

— San Jose Mercury News and Contra Costa Times

 

“This tender story, set during the shah’s rule before the Iranian revolution, has the inevitability of Greek tragedy…[Nahai] offers readers a striking recollection of the sounds, smells and landscapes of her native land. This is a beautifully written picture of a culture caught between the modern West and ancient Islam.”

— Providence Journal

 

“Like drops of acid, Gina Nahai’s words burn the pages of this moving novel about the fate of women in pre-revolutionary Iran. Nahai’s alluring poetic style draws us into the lives of her female characters. We identify with their hopes and desires, but we also sense their frustration. Beneath the novel’s calm and captivating prose is a powerful testament to Iranian women’s fight against oppression.”

— Ms. Magazine

 

“…beautifully rendered, with passages that urge rereading…Nahai is a born storyteller. Her novel resonates with an almost audible vibration, as though she had curled up next to you on a rainy evening and begun to spin her tale.”

— Portland Tribune

 

“Spirit, a mystical tone, sharp social analysis and telling detail inform Caspian Rain, Gina Nahai’s fine novel about Iran in the ’70s, before mullah rule replaced the monarchy of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in the Islamic Revolution…vivid…singularly poignant.”

— Fort Worth Star-Telegram

 

“Nahai’s compelling novel depicts one family’s tale of alienation and loss…a vivid study of a broken home.”

— Entertainment Weekly

 

The interlocking tales read like myths; Nahai’s writing is compassionate even as it indicts.”

— Los Angeles Magazine

 

“Gina B. Nahai’s beguiling fourth novel Caspian Rain provides a fascinating glimpse into the lives of a lost world — those of Jewish-Iranians living under the Shah…[it] sheds light on the hypocrisies, emotional deprivations and inter-class tensions within the city’s Jewish community. Nahai’s group portrait is rich, complex and unsparing, rendered with a highly professional prose style.”

— Tennessean

 

A story that blooms into full imaginative flower…In an indication of Nahai’s talent and powers of invention, she invests her narrative with a strong tragic inevitability…vivid and credible cast of characters, and a visual sense of Tehran and Iranian society as experienced by Jews living under what was, for them, the liberal policies of the Shah.”

— South Florida Sun-Sentinel

 

“[Nahai] focuses on one family, humanizing a people and a place that, these days, are more often associated with uranium-enrichment programs and sponsorship of terrorism…she’s deft at painting a bleak picture that we want to look at—not as a morbid curiosity but as thoughtful, often heartbreaking art.”

— Paste Magazine

 

Caspian Rain is a thrill to read. Heartbreak and hope fill the pages. Nahai delves deep into fear, love, jealousy, and obsession—and with evocative language, and a rich and complex story, takes us to another culture.”

— The Brooklyn Rail

 

“…beautifully written, absorbing and moving…magical…[Nahai] 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…the poetry and the emotional quality of Nahai’s writing will linger long after the book is closed.”

— Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles

 

“Gina Nahai’s powerful storytelling voice illuminates an intriguing foreign culture and blasts our preconceived views of Iranian Jewish émigrés. Nahai, a gifted and poetic writer, deserves a wide readership both for her ability to humanize a country many Americans perceive as hostile and extreme and for the light she sheds on Iranian Jewish history and culture.”

— San Diego Jewish Journal

 

“Remarkable…Caspian Rain offers a troublingly beautiful portrait of an array of characters as families disintegrate and dreams go awry. There is so much empathy in a book laced with cruelty and so many inventive flights of fancy in a novel deep in traps made of false hope. This is a smartly executed story of longing and emptiness and of both cacophony and silence.”

— Jewish Book World

 

“…lovely and graceful…Nahai’s writing is poetic and original, sometimes stark and sometimes transcendent…Poetic and original”

— BookReporter.com

 

“Yaas recounts the story of her family’s unraveling against a rich cast of secondary characters…Caspian Rain is a moving mother-daughter story with a wealth of interesting characters.”

— The Feminist Review

 

“[Told] in a unique, rhythmic voice that’s equal parts hope and cynicism…Caspian Rain gracefully depicts the dynamics of a divided family by taking us through the diverse spheres and structures of Iranian society not often glimpsed in English literature.”

— Venus Zine

 

Caspian Rain is a beautifully written book about the constraints of living in a Middle-Eastern culture. Focusing on the lives of two Jewish women living in Iran during the rule of the Shah, it is an intimate portrait of hope betrayed, lost, and regained…[a] poignant story.”

— Curledup.com

 

Caspian Rain is a fascinating, tragic coming-of-age story…Some beautiful writing and a compelling story…A rare glimpse into one family’s inner sanctum prior to Iran’s Islamic Revolution.”

— Bookmarks Magazine

 

“…a beautifully written inside view of Jewish-Iranian culture…Gina B. Nahai captivates with this tale of Iranian despondency the same way Isabel Allende opens the confusion and horrors of Central and South America.”

— PopSyndicate.com

 

“Nahai’s prose is at once elegant and tinged with melancholy…An enlightening glimpse into an unfamiliar culture and society. While the societal constraints—especially against women—might be a little difficult for some to relate to, the family divided, sadly, is a theme that is universal.”

— Laist.com

 

Riveting family drama and compelling historical fiction…The multiple ways Jews and Muslims intersect is also clearly presented, offering a fascinating glimpse into Persian life prior to the 1979 insurgency. Richly detailed, emotionally intense, and tremendously moving, this work is highly recommended.”

— Library Journal (starred review)

 

“Nahai’s story of a haunted Jewish family in Tehran during the shah’s last years possesses the dark beauty and harsh lessons of a fairy tale…Nahai’s poetic and cathartic drama speaks for all silenced women, for all who are tyrannized.”

— Booklist (starred review)

 

“In her stirring fourth novel, Nahai explores the struggles of an Iranian family in the tenuous decade before the Islamic revolution…a poignant tale of a damaged family.”

— Publisher’s Weekly

 

“Nahai’s alluring poetic style draws us into the lives of her female characters…captivating prose…a powerful testament to Iranian women’s fight against oppression.”

— Ms. Magazine

 

“Filled with hope and despair, Caspian Rain is Nahai’s most emotional and inspiring novel yet. Nahai’s heroine — the inspired and inspiring Yaas — learns the lessons of obedience, subservience, and forbearance, and then chooses a surprising and unexpected path.”

— Lisa See, author of Peony in Love and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

 

Unexpected and heartrending, but also witty, elegiac, sophisticated and edgy. Caspian Rain is a beautiful book.”

— Chris Abani, author of Graceland and The Virgin of Flames

 

“In Caspian Rain, Gina Nahai writes with subtlety and grace about the unappeasable forces of culture, class and family which shape the life of a young girl growing up in Jewish Tehran before the mullahs.”

— Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander and Paint it Black

 

“With her fourth novel, Gina B. Nahai establishes herself among the top rank of writers of her generation. In Caspian Rain, she brings to stunning life a cast of characters that continues to haunt the reader.”

— John Rechy, author of City of Night

 

Caspian Rain once more proves Gina B. Nahai’s ability to create through her wonderfully lyrical prose a fictional world that, while rooted in a particular culture and history, is universally relevant and appealing.”

— Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran

 

“In exquisite, poetic vignettes, Caspian Rain tells the intense story of a mother and daughter in search of approval within upper-class Iranian social circles. Ultimately though, what they struggle towards is acceptance from one another. Nahai’s writing is a graceful balancing act between the lush and the stark. Her gorgeous sentences cut to the bone.”

— Christina Garcia, author of Monkey Hunting and Dreaming in Cuban

 

“Gina Nahai’s beautifully written novel Caspian Rain is evocative and poetic, with striking images that remain in the mind long after they are read. It is also a heart-wrenching examination of the tragedies of women caught in the net of gender, history, family secrets and the unbending laws of high society. But ultimately it is a celebration of the human spirit — the moments of joy and courage and risk-taking that make all our lives worth living.”

— Chitra Divakaruni, author of Mistress of Spices and Queen of Dreams

 

“Lovers of the art of storytelling should know Gina B. Nahai. Much more than a fascinating, page-turning glimpse into the tribes and classes of Iran, Caspian Rain is an exquisite novel which, like a Ghost Boy on a bicycle, will continue to magically haunt its readers long after its ending.”

— Sandra Tsing Loh, author of Depth Takes a Holiday and A Year in Van Nuys

 

“Gina Nahai, a gifted storyteller with a unique and powerful voice, invites us into a strange, unsettling but ultimately beguiling world, a place of both pain and enchantment. Remarkably, she allows to glimpse the hard realities of life in contemporary Iran in a new and unaccustomed light while, at the same time, she shows us that the innermost truths of the human heart are truly universal. Caspian Rain is both timely and timeless, an important book that comes at just the right time.”

— Jonathan Kirsch, author of A History of the End of the World

 

“In Caspian Rain, Gina Nahai takes us on a privileged journey into an Iran a contemporary traveler can only hope to know through fiction — an Iran before the Islamic Revolution where women could aspire to independence and dream of larger lives. Through the eyes of her 12-year-old heroine, we see a whole society mirrored, a society enmeshed in superstition but struggling to emerge into modernity. A heroine — and a book — to embrace. I was mesmerized.”

— Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey, author of A Woman of Independent Means

 

“If writers do indeed write what they know, then Gina Nahai has a PhD in the human heart. Her characters inhabit their culture and their time so profoundly that her readers do too; from moments of magical realism to years of anxious drifting and struggling, Nahai’s characters are as much in search of themselves as the turbulent nation they live in.”

— Patt Morrison, author of Rio L.A., Tales from the Los Angeles River

 

“The writing in Caspian Rain is so lyrical and flowing that you almost forget just how hard life can be for someone who is doomed to forever be an outsider. Bahar, who marries above her station, finds that she is isolated from both the family and society she marries into and the family and friends she left behind…Nahai has written a novel that illuminates a complex society while offering up a very specific and moving story of one woman’s desire to maintain her dignity and tenuous standing within that diffident society.”

— Laura Hansen, Bookin’ It (Little Falls, MN)

Audio

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Synopsis

In the decade before the Islamic Revolution, Iran is a country at the brink of explosion. Twelve-year-old Yaas is born into an already divided family: Her father is the son of wealthy Iranian Jews who are integrated into the country’s upper-class, mostly Muslim, elite; her mother was raised in the slums of South Tehran, one street away from the old Jewish ghetto.

Yaas spends her childhood navigating the many layers of Iranian society. Her task, already difficult, becomes all the more critical when her father falls in love with a beautiful woman from a noble Muslim family. As her parents’ marriage begins to crumble and the country moves ever closer to revolution, Yaas is plagued by a terrifying genetic illness that is slowly robbing her of her hearing. Facing the prospect of complete deafness, Yaas learns that her father is about to abandon her and her mother, and so she undertakes a desperate, last-ditch effort to save herself and her family.

At once a cultural exploration of an as-yet unfamiliar society, and a psychological study of the effects of loss, Caspian Rain takes the reader inside the tragic and fascinating world of a brave young girl struggling against impossible odds.

Excerpt

She’s sixteen years old — a young woman in a city with blue mountains.

She’s walking to school with her books in her arms. She has on a faded gray uniform, a pale lipstick that she has had to hide from her parents and put on only after she has left the house. It’s a golden spring morning, the light as clear as polished glass, the air imbued with the scent of poet’s jasmine that blooms on slender vines everywhere in the city. The sun is just rising behind the tall maple trees that line both sides of the Avenue of the Peonies, creating a gallery of light and shadows where the girl’s image is by turns eclipsed and illuminated and eclipsed again — until she turns the corner onto the Square of the Pearl Canon and emerges into a sea of brightness.

As she steps off the edge of the sidewalk she feels a breeze, looks up in time to see a cloud of cherry blossoms rain down on her like a blessing. She lets out a cry of joy, opens her arms and turns full circle amid the flowers. Her books fall to the ground and her papers fly into moving traffic but she’s laughing because she knows this is a good omen, a sign from the heavens that her luck has turned for the better. Any moment now, she thinks, providence will sweep toward her with a flap of its giant wings, land on her shoulder, and transform her life.

Once upon a time in a land of miracles.

When she looks down again, she’s standing inches away from the shiny bumper of a car. A dark, angry man in a chauffeur’s cap and uniform is leaning out the window and yelling that she should look where she’s going, get herself killed under someone else’s car if she wants, just don’t mess up his tires. The girl isn’t frightened by him at all. From where she’s standing, she can see her own image reflected in the tinted black windshield of the car, see the flowers that have been caught in her hair, in the folds of her skirt, on top of her books that lie around her feet. The driver is still livid, hurry up and get off the road you’re holding up the boss people have work to do, but instead of moving out of the way, she leans closer to the car, peers through the glass at the passenger in the back seat. She has blocked the entire lane now, and cars are honking from every direction but she takes her time picking up her books. God damn it girl, you’re just a kid, you have no business causing a nuisance for people bigger than yourself, don’t you know how to behave in civilized society? the driver yells again, but the answer is obvious.

This is what my father sees as my mother stands before him that early spring morning in the city of my dreams: he sees a girl of limited means and abundant spirit.

*

Of all the stories I will tell about my mother, this is the one I cherish most. I like to see her at the point of inception, the moment that would set the course for all our lives and all the stories that followed. And though I know the end even before I have said the first word, I like the possibility, the promise inherent in each new telling, of a different finish.

*

The girl on the street — her name is Bahar — would not stand out in any crowd. She’s not particularly beautiful, or smart, or endowed with exceptional wit, but she has a zest for life, a wild and irrational optimism that is alarming because it is so out of sync with the reality that surrounds her. Her father — my grandfather–is a former cantor’s apprentice who has not managed to rise to the ranks to which he had aspired, and who now sings at weddings and funerals instead. Her mother works in the house as a seamstress. She takes orders from rich Jewish and Muslim women who send their maids to bring her fabric and thread, and to pick up the work when it’s done. The women hardly know the seamstress’ name, don’t trust her with anything more expensive than plain cotton or wool. They have her sew sheets and table-cloths, their children’s school uniforms, their husband’s caftan pajamas, and they’re always complaining that she can’t make a pattern to save her life, can’t even cut a straight line but still, she’s honest and doesn’t steal fabric, and she has mouths to feed, it’s just a form of charity, this, and besides, no one charges as little as she does.

There’s a son who has never worked a day in his life, who goes around in a second-hand suit and a borrowed tie. He pretends to be rich when everyone knows he wants for his next meal, lives off his parents instead of helping support the family. His one asset in the world is a deep and baritone voice, and this alone has got him convinced that he should be an opera singer. He has never seen a real opera and wouldn’t know where to go to see one, but he loves the idea of being allowed on stage so he can showcase his talents, earn the adoration of fans, become famous. As it is, he doesn’t sing anywhere but at the homes of friends and relatives, and he only knows the lines to one song — a little-known and quite possibly mangled thing called “Granada”, which he sings in his sixth grade English-as-a-second-language accent. The rest of the time, he sits on the roof of Sorrento Restaurant on top of Pahlavi Avenue, sipping iced coffee which he gets free from the waiters who humor him in the slower hours, reading government propaganda in yesterday’s paper and bragging to the handful of other patrons about a life they all know he does not lead and a future they know he will not reach, but what’s the difference anyway? It’s all illusion when you think about it and who’s to say what is or isn’t likely? Wasn’t Reza Shah an illiterate soldier one night and king of the country the next?

Real life, the Opera Singer likes to say, does not always rise to the occasion.

There’s another son who has died when he was only ten years old but who keeps coming back, dropping in on the family without any warning or invitation and staying for as long as he wants before he takes off and breaks his mother’s heart as if for the first time. And a third one still — the youngest of the three boys and probably the smartest too. He’s realized early in life that there is no great advantage to being either poor or Jewish, and so he has converted to Islam, married the daughter of a rich mullah who has promised him a great deal of money in this world and seventy-two virgins in the next. He’s changed his name from Moshe to Muhammad, printed his picture in every newspaper in the city under the heading “Jadid-al-Islam” — new Muslim — and he’s doing a fine job of convincing everyone he’s worthy of his new station and newly acquired wealth.

Jadid-al-Islam’s parents don’t dislike him for converting as much as feel contempt for him: he couldn’t tough it out as a Jew, they say; he chose the easy way out. Still, they can’t shake the embarrassment his conversion has caused the family and so they go around pretending he’s still a Jew, invite him to funerals but not weddings, ask if he could please leave the wife at home when he shows up on Cyrus Street where they live, if he could take off the Muslim Aba when he comes around, think about his unmarried sisters whose chances at a good union have forever been spoiled by his selfishness.

The sisters’ chances, in truth, had been less than stellar even before Jadid-al-Islam’s conversion. The oldest one has already passed the age by which young girls become old maids. She stays at home plucking chickens and washing rice, waiting for the suitors who didn’t call when she was fifteen and eighteen and who certainly won’t call now that she’s nearing thirty. She looks for them in the black lines cast by coffee grinds at the bottom of the fortune-teller’s cup and in between the lines of Omar Khayyam’s poetry, listens to her parents chastise her for not managing to find a husband as if a man is something you buy at the fish market — put on your best smile and someone is bound to follow you home — but even they know there is more to her fate than meets the eye, that she’s neither beautiful enough nor rich enough to be able to overcome her parents’ circumstances or the damage her brothers have done to her desirability but they blame her any way, blame her and their own destiny because of course they can’t blame God — that would make them ungrateful and make Him angry; it could always be worse, you know, and besides, other girls in the family have managed to find a husband. Even Tamar, the cousin who’s so dark, everyone thinks she’s Arab, eventually got married, and you know that’s no small feat, given how fiercely Iranians hate Arabs, call them “rat-eaters” because that’s what those savages do — they conquered half the world only to burn the books and tear the tongues out of the heads of any poets or philosophers a nation had produced and where are they now anyway? Still wandering the desert with their camels and many wives, watching the world leave them behind.

The second sister, thank heavens, is married and has two kids and she’d be just fine, really, she could have herself a good old time if she didn’t raise her husband’s ire so often.

The husband is a doctor who barely made it into medical school — everyone knows this because the results of the college entrance exams are printed every year in the daily newspaper for the world to see — and who may or may not be a real doctor at all; he may be a hack, really, though he claims he’s a “psychiatrist,” treats crazy people as if a person’s brain is like a bone you can reset, or an appendix you can remove, since when does the soul get cured with a couple of pills? Who died and put him in charge of saving the Lost anyway? Still, it’s nice to have a son-in-law you can call Doctor, even if he does lose his temper once in a while. After every beating, he takes her onto the roof of their house and locks her up in a room with a broken window through which a hundred pigeons fly in and nest. It’s a drafty, frightening place — too cold in winter and dangerously hot in summer — and the kindly psychiatrist keeps his wife tied to a pole with a padlock on the door and the key in his own pocket. Twice a day, he sends his children — a son and a daughter — to bring food to their mother, but he refuses to allow the neighbors or her family members to visit her while she’s in confinement, leaves her there for days on end until the house in overrun by dirt or he gets tired of the meals his nine-year-old daughter has to make for him in her mother’s absence. Then he sends for his wife’s parents to come to the house, gives them the key to the pigeon room so they can free their daughter. She emerges with her hair matted from dust and pigeon droppings, and her face and hands scratched from too many pigeons landing on her. She stands before him terrified and trembling, her eyes sewn to the ground because she can’t stand to see her children looking at her in that state and, after a long apology to this savior-of-all-human-minds, sets about cleaning the house and cooking a meal before she’s even allowed to take a bath.

Some families, I have learned, are stranger than others.

I used to like this — their strangeness — about my mother’s family. It made them fascinating in the way that fairy tale characters are fascinating — tragic to the core, but also mesmerizing. It never occurred to me, at first, that I might have inherited this strangeness, that I might have been born into the same weird spell and, with it, the solitude of the charmed.

A Word from Gina B. Nahai

What do you do with a loss you can neither cure, nor accept, nor overcome?

In the beginning, there was only this question. It was one that I had grappled with for nearly my whole life, and that had become more urgent in the decade before I started Caspian Rain.

I grew up in the Iran in the “glory years” of the Shah’s reign. We had a thriving economy and a seemingly stable social order, but we also had a history that dated back twenty-five hundred years — much of it marked by war and natural disasters, by foreign occupation and internal strife, personal tragedy and collective grief. We were — are — a nation of survivors, but one that has been marked, in ways that are too fundamental to alter easily, by our experience of loss. We were defined as much by our achievements, as by our longings, as much by our desires, as by our failure to fulfill them. We did not, as the saying goes in the United States, “make lemonade from lemons.” We did not believe, as Westerners seem to do, that we could transcend our natural disadvantages, or overcome man-made obstacles, or escape our past.

Instead, we wore our grief like a crown of thorns, carried it around all our lives and passed it down to our children. In every household, we kept a painted glass jar — like the bottles that release the genie in Western cartoons — adorned with pearls and drawings. They were called “tear jars,” used to collect our own, and our loved ones’ tears in times of great sorrow. We cried into the jars and kept our tears so our children would inherit them.

I left Iran at age thirteen — at first for boarding school in Europe, then for university in the United States. Looking back in the years prior to the Islamic Revolution, I saw was a nation caught between the desire to free itself of the constraints of old beliefs, and the instinctive urge to hold on to what it knew. I saw a people that was fascinated by the West’s confidence and audacity, that tried to comprehend, even imitate, the West’s optimism, but that remained haunted by its own memories: a nation that no longer had a need for the tear jar, but that had no taste for American lemonade.

I saw this same people — survivors of yet-another devastating turn of history — migrate to the United States and Europe in decades after the revolution. I recognized in them the same convergence of hope and skepticism that I grappled with in my own life; I saw the same tension between what they would like to believe in — that every loss is an opportunity for success, every tragedy a prelude to conquest — and what they had learned through generations of experience. The older I became, the more losses I endured, the more vital it became for me to reconcile these two forces. So I invented little Yaas and her parents, placed them in the jaws of misfortune, and gave them the riddle to solve.

 

The enigma of Iran
(or Why American policy-makers should read more fiction)

The fundamentalist mullahs of Iran rule the country through the unwavering support of a special military police force called the pasdaran. This is a corps of zealot Muslim men eager to become martyrs in the fight against the Great Satan and its “Zionist” allies. In Tehran where they breed terror for their merciless and abrupt justice, one of the best known and most feared of the pasdaran goes by the name “Clint Eastwood.” He arrests his victims by putting a gun to their head and breathing the words of his all-time idol: “go ahead, make my day.”

This — a simultaneous love of all things Western and a burning hatred of the West — is at the heart of the present clash between Iran and the United States. It is both the cause of, and the cure for the thirty-year-old stalemate that began with the advent of the Islamic Republic and has worsened since the coming to power of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The emotional ties that bind the people of Iran with the idea of America have proven indestructible over time. They have transcended generations and ideologies, changes of government, open conflict and proxy wars. But to make use of that bond, to employ it in the fight against the ever-spreading fever of fundamentalism, must first understand the duality between faith and culture, the conflict between modernity and tradition that has defined Iran (and its Arab and Muslim neighbors) for over a millennium.

Why does a country where the first-ever declaration of human rights — freedom of speech, religion, and thought — was issued over 2,500 years ago, now denies its citizens the most elementary forms of self-determination? Why did a revolution aimed at restoring to Iran a secular, democratic, modernist government, suddenly embraced the canon of fundamentalist Islam? Why, in the most recent presidential elections, did a nation that, by all accounts, is dangerously weary of the tyranny of the mullahs, willingly elect the most extremist of candidates in the running?

The answers to these questions lie not in the self-serving dogma of political activists, or in the shallow and shortsighted policy papers of American think tanks, but in the honest and objective narrative of Iranian writers, the many-layered truths, the history buried within their tales. Iran, as any civilization, is defined most thoroughly by the stories it spawns.

Awards

Nominated by MacAdam Cage Publishing for the National Book Award, 2007

Nominated by MacAdam Cage Publishing for the Pulitzer Prize, 2007

Selected as “One of the Best Books of the Year,” Chicago Tribune, December 2007

Selected as “One of the Best Books of the Year,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 2007