The Luminous Heart of Jonah S. is an eye-opening depiction of Iranian Jews in exile in America. From the very beginning, this immigrant community has generated controversy. In Los Angeles, where there are more Iranian Jews than anywhere else in the world, including Iran, they are largely viewed as insular, enigmatic, and reluctant to integrate. Nahai draws from real events, including the brutal, unsolved murder of an Iranian Jewish businessman attributed by many to his wife; a devastating Ponzi scheme perpetrated within the Iranian Jewish community by one of their own; and an ongoing and very public fight between Los Angeles city leaders and the head of its most powerful union. Hers is a depiction of Los Angeles as a “Third World country” –a city divided not so much by geography as by ethnic, religious, and economic considerations. She explores not only her own tight-knit (mizrahi) subculture, but also the tensions between it and the ashkenazi and sephardic, even Muslim Iranian subcultures. As with much of her previous writing, her observations–at once sharp-sighted, tragic and hilarious–are bound to cause great controversy, resistance, and soul searching within her immediate community.
That word, aabehroo, is one of those for which no equivalent exists in the English language. It alludes to the impression that others hold of an individual’s virtue and respectability. To have aabehroo means that the world regards a person in high esteem. To lose it — or, more literally, to have it leave the person — means he will live in shame unless he somehow manages to get his aabehroo back. You may be born with aabehroo because of your family history, but holding on to it requires a great deal of restraint and self-sacrifice. It means making sure you do everything in compliance with society’s idea of what is right, that you live honorably and protect the sanctity of your family’s name and reputation. It means being capable of feeling deep, personal shame before an exacting, infinitely multitudinous jury.
You have to have lived in a place like Iran, Leon thought, grown up with a strong sense of propriety and shame, and feared the judgment of others, in order to understand such a word. You certainly can’t imagine what it means, really, if you’ve lived most of your life in America. In this land of perpetual hope and endless good fortune, this country built on the promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”— where else in the world is happiness a right? — where even the dead look good and healthy, dressed up and painted and coiffed in the coffin as if on their wedding day, there’s no awareness, perhaps no need, nor would there be any tolerance, of that kind of sacrifice.
Leon could see how Kayla, born and raised in Los Angeles, might throw the word around so carelessly or deride her parents for being concerned with the judgment of others. If not for his own Iranian past, he might share Kayla’s scorn.
As it was, however, he had nothing but appreciation for this and other aspects of a culture that valued grace, harmony, and spiritual growth above all. Even this emphasis on aabehroo, while stifling if carried to an extreme, signaled the importance of individual righteousness to a society’s well-being. Raphael’s Son and his ilk were not representative of the Iranians Leon knew; they were unfortunate aberrations and as such, alas, stood out from the crowd.