Let’s add a bit of fire to your book club reading with this book about Iran by Kamin Mohammadi.
It begins, rather dauntingly, with dense chapters of Iranian history and Kamin’s family history, both of which are complicated matters. I admit I stopped trying to make sense of it and lost track of all the uncles’ names (the book shows a family tree though the kindle version doesn’t), but I did enjoy the way these chapters give a rhythm to the story which was unlike western fiction. I got a real sense of how details are so important to this culture and understood why Kamin was introducing us so diligently. In the same way Māori will tell you an iwi history to give you a real sense of who they are and where they came from, Kamin carefully lays out the past for us.
For me the story really got started when Kamin and her family flee the revolution in 1979 and she steps in to the narrative. Colleagues and neighbours disappear but her father, an oil company director, seems slow to realise his own danger. He is on a list. The family go on a short holiday to relatives in Tehran and keep going, to the airport and away.
Kamin describes the dislocation and adjustment to English life. The girl from a highly connected multi-layered family is sent to boarding school, and those of us who grew up on childhood stories of institutional British life will recognise the loneliness, the one friend, the acceptance, the assimilation. Kamin becomes very much an English girl in her teen years, rejecting her Farsi language and paying lip-service to the culture at home. Her mother glows with exotic elegance in grey England but her high-status father is diminished and her sister is not mentioned after a while. Perhaps they fall out.
There is a rose tint as she looks back at family life in Iran. Tables are always overladen with superb dishes, the fruit is plumper, the smells are more delicious, the people more beautiful, sunsets more spectacular. Childhood is easy to idealise, but these are reminiscences of a very privileged life. Anywhere in the world would be a downer after that. Karim is a refugee with a private school education and riding lessons in Hyde Park (who rides in Hyde Park?). There is no comment on the fate of Iranians displaced without their oil-money millions.
Karim becomes a modern, western woman. She hides from her parents her youthful escapades in the discos, dates with boyfriends, the freedom of expression her career as a journalist gives her, yet her embracing of English culture still has a backward glance and eventually she goes back to find her roots.
There were a few places in this book where I wondered what the poor people were doing the period she describes: the revolution that overthrew the shah, the dictatorship of Khomeini and the terrible eight year stale-mate war with Iraq. We can probably guess they weren’t having riding lessons in Hyde Park.