An Iranian writer recalls her youth in the Land of No'It is perhaps the direst disaster that can befall a writer: the loss of his or her cherished books, diaries, notebooks, the ultimate evidence of the writer's existence, wiped out. It means the severing of crucial personal relationships, perhaps not yet articulated or even fully comprehended, from the words and writers of the past. It means a re-creation, in the purest sense, of the individual. And yet this immolation sometimes works the phoenix trick. This blow struck Roya Hakakian when she was 17, the youngest in a once-prosperous Jewish family in Iran on the verge of revolution. Looking back on that frightening era more than 20 years later, she captures her experiences in a haunting memoir, Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran.
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God" . . . and the word created order out of chaos. Religion aside, the first phrases of Genesis are a succinct and powerful metaphor for the act of writing. The word is the expression of the essential self, and the manner in which we re-create our universe. Hakakian thought she had understood pretty well the upheaval of the late 1970s and early '80s in her native Iran the deposing of the Shah, the increasing sway and eventual consolidation of power by the Ayatollah Khomeini and the purges that followed but once she began to write about that time, the act of writing both clarified and reshaped those events.
"Everything came into focus," she said in a recent interview, "and I was able to make sense of things I thought were unconnected. You get engaged with your own memories, as if they were discrete. You don't think how to present them, how they should be arranged, what context they should be in." She also discovered how thoroughly the power of the word had affected her life. Hakakian, who has written poetry in Persian and translated the poems of Emily Dickinson (and who writes with the automatic rhythm of a poet), early on discovered that storytelling was a kind of code, and that she could bring into being a whole world just by writing in her notebook. She also discovered that despotism fears the Word (she tells a story of how she and her friends escaped into the mountains with books of poetry only to discover they had been censored before printing) and that the crudest form of the Word the splashing of the graffiti "Johoud," which meant both "Jew" and "dirty," on the wall of their home could be a terrible weapon.
Finally, in one of the most engaging sections of the book, she meets the teacher who will inspire her, the Harpo Marx-ish Mrs. Arman, who encourages her not only to write but also to find the great refuge that is literature.
That she owes much of her intellectual fearlessness to her upbringing is clear. First one and then all three of her brothers must eventually flee to America for anti-Shah activities, and when an almost cartoonishly fundamentalist Muslim takes over as principal of her school, Roya discovers that using words to make fun of the mini-tyrant empowers her and endears her to her fellow pupils.
It is also clear from her memoir that her family's religion was central to her life in Tehran, and to the reversal of fortune they encounter. But oddly, it was something of a surprise to Hakakian. "I never thought that having been a Jew had played a part in who I was until I finished the book," she says, "and if asked, I don't think I would be able to articulate it, but I was clearly affected by being raised as a Jew. I sat down to write as a secular Iranian girl who had witnessed a revolution, but when I finished I realized how much more there was to the story."It was a complex, often confusing identity. Her family seemed truly observant only at Passover, and yet it violently opposed her uncle's going outside the religion to marry a Muslim woman. The Jewish Iranian Students Organization was where Roya and her friends spent their evenings, but it was founded to hurry the assimilation of Jews into secular Iranian society. There they mimeographed editorials about the war with Iraq, the perfidy of the U.S. and even the struggles of the Palestinians under the "Zionists." And despite the enthusiasm with which the Jews of Tehran embrace the post-Shah regime, they quickly become familiarly and ominously segregated. Non-Muslims are ordered to drink from designated water fountains. Non-Muslim shop owners must display signs in the windows identifying the business as such; Jewish doctors who rush to treat wounded soldiers are rejected as "dirty." And by the time her father seeks to renew their passports, they are rejected.
Finally comes the ultimate blow, and one that is delivered, in the name of her safety, by her own father. He burns Roya's notebooks, her records, her Dostoyevsky and Jane Austen. "It is time," her father says, with the heavy drumbeat of a concerto's climax, "we leave for America."Since coming to the U.S., Hakakian has worked as an associate producer at "60 Minutes" and directed several documentaries, including the critically admired "Armed and Innocent," about child soldiers in Africa.
Hakakian now lives just outside New Haven, and occasionally contributes essays to Connecticut Public Radio. Though she has begun work on another book, she says it is not about Iran. Eve Zibart is a writer for The Washington Post and the author of numerous books, including The Unofficial Guide to New York City.