Jewish Persia, Embroidered
New Novels Stained By Iran’s Past.
Caspian Rain by Gina B. Nahai (MacAdam Cage, $25) and The September of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer (HarperCollins, $24.95), both set in Jewish Tehran, bookend the revolution that transmogrified Iran in 1979. Neither mentions this event directly very often, but its giant shadow, bloodstained around the edges, looms large.
The books are so very different in style that their similarities are all the more striking. In Iran, it seems, Jewishness is an inescapable taint, but a faint one, something that can be covered with perfume and makeup by those Jews rich enough to afford them. Religion itself is the acting out of vaguely understood, mistily remembered rituals; there is neither passion nor comfort in it. The Jewish world mirrors the larger Iranian one in which it is embedded; class can be measured to many places beyond the decimal point, and getting the calculation wrong can lead to significant disequilibrium. Families might not be loveless, but love is not shown easily or often.
Caspian Rain is an elaborately written (at times overwritten) story of a girl born to parents who do not love each other. Meant to be a boy, meant to cement the parents, instead Yaas drives them farther apart. (As bad as it is to be a Jew at all in this Tehran, as very bad as it is to be a poor Jew, it is infinitely worse to be a female one.) Her mother is the daughter of a family of grotesques, Dickensian in their twisted oddness, who are referred to only by their attributes: The Seamstress sews; Pigeon Sister repeatedly is tied up by her husband, The Psychiatrist, and always ends up covered with bird droppings; The Opera Singer sings. Each has her or his own specific deformity, physical or mental. (“Some families, I have learned, are stranger than others,” Yaas tells us.)
The family is almost entirely without money; her father is the son of a rich, loveless family, the Arbabs’ grotesquerie springing from its devotion to status over feeling. The marriage of Yaas’s parents is accurately forecast by their own parents to be a disaster. Yaas’s father, unable to love until he sees a mysterious, exotically beautiful woman, a woman with a capital- P Past (and frankly entirely unbelievable, even on the book’s own terms), is struck senseless with mad, undying passion and abandons his family, first emotionally and then physically. Her mother, unexceptional except in her desire to experience life, experiences instead only bitter frustration. That this story is not going to end well is foreshadowed throughout the book. “I nod and inch closer to her,” Yaas says, with characteristic portentous glumness, “and then we begin to walk, down the alley and through the intersection, onto the long stretch of street at the end of which, I sudden know, is nothing but despair.”
The September of Shiraz also focuses on a family with a daughter. The Amins are rich; the father, Isaac, is a self-made jeweler. In the book’s opening pages he is arrested and taken to prison, an incident introduced with: “When Isaac Amin sees the two men with rifles walk into his office at half past noon on a warm autumn day in Tehran, his first thought is that he won’t be able to join his wife and daughter for lunch, as promised.” Although Isaac is captured because he is thought to be a Zionist spy, he is the only Jew in the jail; most of the other prisoners are Muslims suspected of being communists or freethinkers, or are related to enemies of the state. As he languishes, mainly left alone, sometimes interrogated, sometimes tortured, occasionally treated with what comes close to kindness, his wife and daughter try to pretend they believe he will come home; in Brooklyn, his son tries to begin a new life.
The daughter, Shirin, age nine, takes an action both brave and foolhardy, impulsively stealing an incriminating document and covering up that potential life-saving, life-ending act.
The love that binds this family, while complicated, is palpable. Their Tehran, though, is a more dangerous place than it was for the Arbabs just a few years before. The sense of doom pending in that book has changed; now the sky has already fallen, in slow motion. Sofer gives readers a feeling for how the nightmarish changes that render familiar things monstrous can happen in real life, in broad daylight.
Joanne Palmer is director of communications at United Synagogue and editor of CJ:Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism. She writes as always, in loving memory of Shira Palmer-Sherman, z”l.