This is a transcription of Episode 18 — “SSoP Podcast Ep. 18 — Iran: Revolution, Poetry, Storytelling, and Spices.”
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode, we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.
Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.
David: We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
[cheerful theme music]
David: Hello, welcome to Episode 18 of Strong Sense of Place. Today, we’re getting curious about Iran.
David: I grew up in the United States and I grew up during the Iranian hostage crisis.
Melissa: Same I was 11 years old.
David: I was kind of my first, like, here’s what they’re all about.
David: So when I think of Iran, the thing that pops to my mind is older men with white beards in black shouting Death to America. Would it surprise you to find out that it is not quite that simple?
Melissa: It would not. We have a lot of things to say about why it is not that simple.
David: It’s not. It’s the Middle East and it’s complicated. And there’s a long history. Are you ready to get started on that voyage?
Melissa: Yeah, let’s just let’s just jump right into it. First, a little context. Iran is the second largest country in the Middle East and is located in Western Asia and it’s bordered by the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. But it is important to note it is not an Arab country.
David: Right. And they get upset if you do say they’re an Arab country.
Melissa: Right. Because the definition of an Arab country is one that speaks Arabic language. The primary language in Iran is Farsi, which some people in the West call Persian, but Iranians refer to as Farsi. Iran is, as we’ve already alluded to, very complex and multifaceted and multicultural. And the history is very long. So I’m going to try to give a brief overview so that we have some context for the books we’re going to talk about today.
Melissa: There are three primary time periods that we can kind of pop into to get a foundation.
David: Where are you going to start?
Melissa: We’re going to start with ancient Iran. Until about 100 years ago, Iran was called Persia. This will probably sound familiar to you if you’ve ever petted a Persian cat or stood on a Persian rug. About 2500 years ago, the Persian Empire stretched all the way from Greece to India. It was enormous.
David: Toughly defining like what the Middle East is today.
Melissa: And it was remarkable for a few reasons. First, it was the world’s first superpower.
Melissa: The rulers concentrated their power across thousands of miles, and this was 500 years before anybody had even imagined London or Paris in Europe. The Persian leader was Cyrus the Great, and he allowed the kings who ruled the areas that he conquered to continue to rule. And that’s how we came up with the phrase ‘King of Kings’ because he was the uber king over all of the other kings.
David: The king boss.
Melissa: The second thing to note is that it was really the first multicultural, multireligious, multilingual empire. And again, because he left the areas that he conquered kind of continue to be who they were. As long as they paid taxes, everything was fine.
David: Right. So they could continue to worship the gods that they wanted to and continue to have the culture and language and music and whatnot that they wanted to.
David: As long as they were coughing up the dough.
Melissa: These ideas of kind of autonomy with taxes were so powerful that they inspired Thomas Jefferson 2000 years later when he was writing the U.S. Constitution. Last big, bold idea from the Persian Empire: They did not have slaves.
David: Also, women were equal. Women were considered equal 2500 years ago. I think you can make an argument that Cyrus the Great invented human rights, which is a big deal.
Melissa: Yes. Sadly, the Persian Empire fell to Alexander the Great in 331 B.C.E.
Melissa: Let’s jump to 1978.
Melissa: Yeah I know it’s a big jump.
David: It is!
Melissa: That was the year of the Iranian Revolution. And like most revolutions, it was very complicated. Just prior to that, Iran’s culture was pretty heavily influenced by the West. They had jazz, they had rock, modern fashions. They had American movies and TV and Simmin’s Beauty Rest mattresses.
David: Yeah. Seeing pictures of Iran before 1970 were really dissonant for me.
Melissa: Yeah, women are wearing short skirts, and it looks like the ’60s everywhere else. It’s amazing. There were open universities. They celebrated freedom of religion, but they also had the Shah as their leader. Most of the people didn’t trust him and for good reason.
Melissa: Among other things, he had secret police that rounded up his enemies to torture and kill them. People would just disappear from their homes, off of the street. He was pretty ruthless in suppressing the devoutly religious part of the population, which was a problem for a lot of people.
David: Yeah, there are a lot of devoutly religious people there.
Melissa: Yeah, he made it illegal for women to wear headscarves, that kind of thing. And when people protested, he had them shot. Ultimately, three groups — the intellectuals, communists and the religious — teamed up to kind of throw him out. They were successful. He left Iran on the 16th of February, 1979, never to return. This seems like that would be good news. So far, so good.
David: Yes, we’ve thrown off the oppressor.
Melissa: Except that this created a power vacuum. And that is where the Ayatollah Khomeini comes in. With the help of his supporters, he established himself as the one true leader of Iran. And almost overnight, the country that had previously been pretty open and eating Kentucky Fried Chicken and watching Columbo was now a theocracy led by one man who had not been elected.
Melissa: And he had no interest in managing the economy or diplomacy for other countries. He was interested in growing the religion of Islam. So in 1979, that’s when Iran reverted to Islamic law, and women were dropped in status. They were considered mentally and legally inferior to men. And this is also when we get the hostage crisis of 1979. 52 American diplomats and citizens were held hostage for 444 days. I was 11 years old; this had a huge impact on me. Because every day you would get up and go to school and think. ‘They’re still being held hostage.’
David: Right. And newspapers were printing the daily number on the front page and that kind of thing.
Melissa: Yeah, it was a creepy countdown. So those were pretty dark days for people in Iran and in other parts of the world. And, you know, as you alluded to earlier, like, this is the version of Iran that people our age and younger are most familiar with.
David: Mm hmm.
Melissa: On a happier note, the third time in Iran’s history that’s really remarkable is right now, because the Iran of today it’s got a duality, right? It’s still a theocracy. Yeah. But underneath that, there’s a rich, vibrant, growing culture of young people. It seems to be changing back to, at least a little bi, the way it was before the revolution. 60 percent of college graduates in Iran are women. 40 million Iranians have access to the Internet. 70 percent of Iranians are under the age of 30. It’s turning more toward a youth culture and not those angry old men screaming, death to America. There’s punk rock, there’s death metal. There are skateboarders in Tehran. Alcohol’s outlawed. But you can find it if you know the right people. And I think it’s important to note that the situation for women is very different than, say, Saudi Arabia.
Melissa: In Iran, women are fully integrated into life. They can drive, they can vote, they work. They get a full education. And you will see women wearing headscarves because those are mandated by law. And there are people who, you know, participate in the daily prayer. But generally speaking, Iranians are not the extremely religious people that I think traditional media kind of leads us to believe. Some Iranians are practicing Muslims and others don’t practice at all, even though it is a theocracy. They are also Jews and Christians in Iran.
David: But building churches and temples is illegal.
Melissa: Yes, they kind of have to be the ones that were grandfathered in before the Revolution. So all of this is to say, if you are a curious traveler, there are plenty of good reasons to visit Iran.
Melissa: First and foremost, by all accounts, everyone from Rick Steves to random travel bloggers says that the Iranian people are the nicest, warmest, friendliest people you could run into on your travels. I thought this was so sweet. One blogger whose account I read of his trip said that pretty much everywhere he went, strangers would place their hand on their heart and bow slightly and say something like, ‘Thank you for visiting my country. You’re welcome here.’ And how they seemed genuinely excited that people from other parts of the world were coming to their country because they love it.
David: Oh, that’s nice
Melissa: I think it’s it’s easy to forget when most of what we read is headlines that are filled with strife — it’s easy to forget that people who live in these and different countries love their country. It’s beautiful. They understand their history. They love their architecture. And it is their home, and they’re excited to share it with other people.
Melissa: One of the other things that I think might surprise people if they haven’t dug into what it’s like in Iran is that it is not all desert. I think our kneejerk reaction is everything in the Middle East is sandy and dusty. There are four distinct seasons in Iran. There are beautiful mountains. Some of them are volcanic, craggy peaks, snow on the top. It has fantastic skiing. There are two salt deserts. There are also beaches along both the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea with swimming and snorkeling and jet skiing. And there’s a very rich history of storytelling and poetry, which I want to talk about for just a minute.
Melissa: Poetry is a thing in iran. A thing with a capital T.
David: One of the must-visit sites in Iran is the temple where they buried one of their poets. And it’s beautiful and lovely. And people line up to put their hands on this guy’s tomb and recite the verse that they’ve memorized.
Melissa: Oh, that’s really nice. Poetry is kind of part of everyday life in Iran in a way that is not in the United States.
David: Yeah, I kind of felt like maybe a similar thing would be popular music, right?
Melissa: You know, reading poetry aloud is very common and it’s considered one of the best ways to learn about life and how to be human. The poems are considered didactic. They’re teaching you —
David: How to live a good life.
Melissa: Yeah. The most popular Persian poet in the United States, and he’s in fact, the best-selling poet in the United States, is Rumi. He was a 13th century poet, Islamic scholar, and Sufi mystic. And he wrote more than 5000 poems, often dealing with themes of love and humanity. I do have a favorite poem that I thought I would share before we jump into Two Truths and a Lie.
[middle eastern music]
Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving. It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vow a hundred times. Come, yet again, come, come.
David: Oh, that’s nice.
Melissa: I love that one.
Melissa: To wrap up on this Iran 101, which is just, like, the fastest romp through thousands of years of history and culture.
Melissa: It’s unclear what’s going to happen there over the next 20 years because the current leaders are aging out and the young people are awesome. And that makes me feel really optimistic.
David: Yeah, I agree. I was reading an essay about the history of Iran. The essayist pointed out that Iran’s history has been very turbulent. But we know one thing for certain and the one thing for certain we know is that the future belongs to the youth. And I thought that was —
Melissa: That’s very powerful and awesome.
David: Yeah, and universally true.
Melissa: I know we’re Olds now. We’re handing everything over to young people.
David: I’m feeling great about that at the moment. But yes. Are you ready for two truths and a lie?
Melissa: I am OK.
David: I’m about to say three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is a bold-faced lie. Mel does not know which one is false. Here we go. Statement one. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are all blocked in Iran. Instagram is not. Number two. There is an indoor mall in Tehran that is larger than the largest indoor mall in the United States, and three, there is an ancient underground city in Iran. It was once lost, but was found again when a dog brought home a human femur.
Melissa: Whoa, that’s my favorite one. Let’s see. I think the first statement is true because I know there are Iranian influencers on Instagram.
David: You are correct. That is true. So the government blocks about 50 percent of the top five hundred websites in the world, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. But mysteriously, Instagram is OK.
Melissa: Because everybody likes to look at avocado toast.
David: And pictures of kittens. [laughter] Which brings to mind the old grouchy guys with the white beard sitting around a computer being like, ‘Oh, it’s so cute! Kitty! Make the Bulldog skateboard.’
David: According to an article in the L.A. Times, about 63 million Iranians have an Instagram account, and there are only 80 million Iranians total. So that’s 75 percent of everybody.
Melissa: That’s amazing.
David: Yeah, and they use it for everything.
Melissa: I was going to ask if you use it as a way to communicate with each other.
David: Yeah, it stands in for eBay and Amazon and Facebook. It is a huge center for e-commerce.
David: Yeah. You can buy clothes and electronics and cars and houses. One of the many advantages of the digital marketplace in Iran is that it’s full of original avant garde designs and photos that shop owners couldn’t display in bricks and mortar. It’s a bit of a gate for freedom of expression that way.
Melissa: That’s so cool.
David: But people can and do get jailed and worse for what they post on Instagram.
Melissa: That’s not cool.
David: It’s not cool. While we’re here, I should point out that while Twitter is banned in Iran, the supreme leader has an account that he uses almost every day and 800,000 followers.
Melissa: That is very hypocritical.
David: It’s very hypocritical. And then this gave me some cognitive dissonance. Recently, the supreme leader used his platform to suggest that people should wear masks and obey social distancing. And he supported the Black Lives Matter movement.
Melissa: Wow. I feel like someone just stuck a whisk in my head and scrambled my brain. I’m going to be chewing on that for a while.
David: Isn’t that amazing? Yes. Yeah. So that’s true.
Melissa: That is true. OK, very large mall… Hidden City, I’m going to say. I want the hidden city to be true, so I’m going to say that one’s true.
David: Ok, there is an ancient underground city in Iran. The construction dates back to 224 B.C., a long time ago. It’s in a desert. We don’t know why this city exists. One theory is that the local people got tired of enemy invaders, so they built an underground city they could escape to. It’s between four and 18 meters deep. That’s 13 to 60 feet that they somehow built with shovels.
David: It’s got chambers and tunnels and long halls that might have been for particular families. There’s ventilation and fresh water. There are entrances hidden throughout the town that’s on top of it now. It seems to have been designed to be defensible. For instance, you have to go all the way to the bottom of the city to get in and then come back up toward the top. There are curved tunnels that seem to have been designed for ambushes. There are deep pits with trap doors that appear to have been placed to trick invaders.
Melissa: I love everything about this.
David: It was in use for about a thousand years until people forgot about it. Tales apparently circulated about it. I was thinking about this, and I was kind of like, ‘It’s unclear to me if it’s cooler if somebody knew about it and then died with the secret, or if there were a few people who knew —
Melissa: [whispers] and they were a secret society with special tattoos, so they could identify it.
David: Yeah, like that.
Melissa: Was it really discovered because a dog found a bone?
David: No, that was the thing I was lying about. [laughter]
David: That was the lie. It was found because some guy was digging a sewer in his front yard.
Melissa: Oh, that’s way less romantic.
David: And he happened upon it, which must have been shocking.
Melissa: Yes, I imagine that would be a huge surprise.
David: Also, someone on TripAdvisor said the best thing about the underground city is there’s a coffee place at the end of one of the tunnels there. You can get a coffee that’s a mixture of coffee, cardamom, rosewater, and chocolate, which has been brewed for eight hours.
Melissa: That sounds so good
David: They said it was delicious.
Melissa: That just got added to my list of things I have to do in this lifetime.
David: So that means —
Melissa: The enormous mall is true.
David: True, yeah. So I always thought that malls were very American, very USA, and it’s possible that was true. But that time is over. The largest mall in the US is the Mall of America, just outside of Minneapolis. It’s about 4.7 million square feet or 400,000 square meters. It’s huge. You and I spent the day there once. Wikipedia says it has enough space to fit seven Yankee stadiums inside of that area. Tehran has a bigger one. It’s three times as large.
Melissa: Holy cow.
David: Twenty one Yankee stadiums. It’s 15 million square feet or 1.4 million square meters. Also, it’s kind of amazing to me. I haven’t been. But from what I’ve been able to gather, it’s not, like, ‘We need a Sephora and then a Jamba Juice and then L’Occitane. Boom. Done!’ Instead, it looks like at least part of the mall, they’ve created these beautiful spaces designed around what they’re selling. So, for instance, there are big, gorgeous, tiled rooms with chandeliers displaying huge rugs. There are pieces of art, just this kind of bazaar feeling to it.
David: There’s an enormous chunk of the mall that looks like a library with enormous bookshelves and dark wood paneling and lots of places to sit. It’s called the Book Garden, and it’s got a library and several bookstores there.
Melissa: That’s fantastic.
David: There’s a movie theater that has 12 IMAX cinemas. How do you fill 12 IMAX cinemas?! There are museums and a car showroom and a five-star hotel. There’s marble floors and fountains just everywhere.
Melissa: And this is in Tehran.
David: It’s interesting because I never really thought of Tehran is a shopper’s paradise. But there you go. I should mention the Mall of Tehran is still not the biggest mall in the world. For that you need to go to Dubai. I should also mention that the Mall of America isn’t even the biggest mall in North America. For that, you’d need to go to Canada’s West Edmonton Mall, where they welcome something like 34 million customers annually. That’s it. That’s Two Truths and a Lie.
David: Are you ready to talk about books?
Melissa: I am. I’m very excited about the books I’m sharing today. Everything I read for Iran was great.
Melissa: My first book is Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram. This book just melted my heart. It is a YA coming-of-age story and it’s narrated by our hero Darius, who is adorable. He’s half-Persian and he lives in Portland, Oregon, with his mom and dad and his sister, whom he absolutely adores. So Darius is named for Dariuss the first, Darius the great, the third Persian King of Kings. But he does not really feel super empowered the way someone who’s named after a king might. He’s pretty nerdy, is super into Star Trek and The Hobbit. He speaks Klingon, not Farsi. He’s lonely, he’s overweight. And he kind of picks on himself a little bit for being overweight, and he’s depressed. Like clinically depressed.
David: You have described most of my childhood right there. [laughter]
Melissa: I laugh because weren’t we all like that?
Melissa: The other thing worth noting is that his relationship with his father is a little rough. They obviously really love each other, but his father is also depressed. They’re on the same medication, and they see the same doctor, which Darius at one point remarks is kind of a weird thing — that he and his dad see the same doctor. But I also really love how this book is removing some of the stigma associated with depression, like, he’s very matter of fact about taking his medication. And he actually says, ‘My brain just makes the wrong chemicals’.
Melissa: It’s very refreshing to have him so honestly dealing with his depression like he doesn’t handwave it away. He’s not Pollyanna at all. But he’s also not only defined by that. It’s really handled, I think, just beautifully. One of the things he and his dad actually enjoy doing together is watching Star Trek: The Next Generation every night. This is really sweet moment every day where they sit down together and watch the show. So that’s our hero, Darius. The action kind of takes off when his grandfather, who lives in Iran, is diagnosed with a brain tumor. And he and his family go to visit for the first time. So this is his first time really digging into his Persian heritage and meeting his family that lives in Iran. It’s also his first time making a really good friend because he meets an Iranian boy named Sohrab, and they become buddies.
Melissa: It’s told in the first person from Darius’s perspective. And he is just so sweet and really good natured and a little insecure. He’s just a really lovely kid. My heart just ached for him because he’s bullied at a school, and he really has a lot of anxiety about the trip to Iran. One of the reasons I love this for Strong Sense of Place, in particular, is that as we’re seeing Iran and meeting his family through Darius’s eyes, we learn a lot about the culture and what family dynamics are like. He’s there during the Iranian New Year, which is called Nowruz. Big deal, big celebration. That was really fun. The families gathered and they’re eating and drinking tea. And it was really, really nice. There’s so much wonderful detail about food. It made me so hungry. Amazing kabobs and rice dishes and amazing desserts. There’s a treat called quottab, which are little pastries filled with crushed almonds and sugar and cardamom and then deep fried and dusted with powdered sugar.
David: That sounds fantastic.
Melissa: I want one. Right now.
David: Yes. That a little coffee. That’d be great.
Melissa: The other thing that’s really fun is the Daria’s and his family travel throughout Iran and go to tourist sites because they haven’t been there. So it’s a vacation, and they’re taking us to Persepolis and beautiful mosques and this famous garden. And because Darius is seeing them for the first time, we get really vivid descriptions of them. So there’s this nice little travelogue piece that I really, really enjoyed. Through his time in Iran, Darius has a lot of feeling and kind of comes to grips with understanding more about himself. And then there’s this really gut-wrenching part when he has to go back to the United States, because that’s where they live. It captured so well that feeling of being a teenager where — he didn’t want to go in the first place. Right. They made him go. We had all this anxiety about that. Then he got there and he loved it, and he met all of these people who he really cares about. And now they’re taking him away from that. That is so much what it feels like sometimes when you’re a teenager, like you have no control over what happens to you and your emotions are so big and everything is so dramatic. And I thought it was really, really well done.
Melissa: I have to admit, this is one of those books that made me ugly cry at the end. I think my tally of books that made me cry is up to four or five now. And not because it was sad because not like something sad happened that made me cry. It’s just so moving. And I think as we already alluded to, it made me kind of reconnect with my teenage self. Feeling like an outsider and pudgy and just awkward all the time and wanting so much for your future but scared to hope for it and not really sure how you’re going to get there. And just kind of in a muddle. ust kind of woke up all those feelings, I think. But in a nice way is really good. The author, Adib Khoram, is also half-Persian and from the Midwest. I follow him on Twitter. He seems like an absolutely lovely person.
Melissa: I get the sense there’s a lot of Adib in our hero Darius, and I enjoyed that very much. The sequel to this book recently came out; it’s called Darius the Great Deserves Better and is the further adventures of Darius now that he is back in the United States and dealing with this new version of himself that he discovered in Iran. That is Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khoram.
David: My first book is Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi. Persepolis is a graphic novel. It’s a graphic novel that turns up on a lot of lists of the best graphic novels of all time. It’s part of the canon now almost NPR and Wired and Rolling Stone have all praised this work up with the best of them. Just if you like graphic novels and you haven’t read Persepolis —
Melissa: What are you doing with your life? [dave laughs]
David: Persepolis is a two-volume autobiographical book about growing up in Iran during the 1978 Iranian Revolution. I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone to tell you that this would be a truly awful time and place to be coming of age.
Melissa: And it’s it’s about a little girl, too, right?
David: Yeah. She’s ten when it starts. Yeah. Marjane is working out what life is. She’s just old enough to remember the relative freedoms of the pre-revolutionary era. But that’s not what’s happening now. The cover features a very grouchy-looking girl wearing a hijab. She’s 10 and it’s1980. The book kind of reminded me of The Diary of Anne Frank in this kind of parallel of there’s a girl growing up and she’s trying to figure out things at the same time that the world outside the door is exploding. So we get her struggling with bad boyfriend choices at the same time that we get her consoling friends whose parents have disappeared.
Melissa: That’s a lot for a little kid to process.
David: She starts by telling you what it was like to show up to school and be told that she has to wear a veil. And the children have the response that 10=year=old children would have, which is, ‘That’s silly and it’s uncomfortable. And I don’t want to wear that.’ And they throw it on the ground and then the teacher has to figure out how to get them to comply with this new idea. And then in the graphic novel, she talks about how they divided the boys and the girls into different schools and how she lost friends that way.
Melissa: Oh, yeah, I hadn’t thought about that, that prior to the revolution they would have been going to school together.
David: Yeah. And now they’re separate and not equal. Her mother protests the veil. She has her picture taken and it’s published in a bunch of magazines. And after that, her mother dyes her hair and wear sunglasses so she won’t be recognized on the street. And we are now, like, I don’t know, six pages into this book. It does a really remarkable job of sort of presenting you with these cultural shifts on a local level. Politics is about people, and all politics are local. And you see how that is playing out for her as a 10-year-old girl in this new world. And she’s not old enough to have formed the opinion that this just sucks. She’s just trying to mold herself to conform with what’s going on.
David: So she ends up sort of hitting this emotional chord that simultaneously terrible and sweet, which is very kind of impressive and moving. The stories are told episodically, so it’s a fast read. They’re a couple of pages and we’re on to the next thing she manages to weave in history and the events of the time. So you get to know a lot about Persia and Iran. I think one of the best relationships in the book is the one between Marjane and her grandmother. Her grandmother is loving and kind and has seen a lot of stuff and want Marjane to have a better life. But she’s wise and her grandmother is trying to guide Marjane through these sort of treacherous times without upsetting her.
Melissa: That would be a very tricky balance.
David: Yeah, and that story, again, is told from her perspective. And yet it comes across, which I think really speaks to how well this story is told. Ultimately, Marjane is sent by her family to study abroad. In 1983, she arrives in Vienna, Austria. She’s 13 and she’s without a lot of her family and she’s an outsider. And this is the second volume of Persepolis. It’s more or less an exploration of prejudice and its damaging effects. If anything, I thought the second volume was better than the first. There is a panel in the book that I thought was really impressive. The text for the panel, the image is she’s just leaving the house. She’s, I think 15 or 16, and leaving the house.
Melissa: In Vienna or Iran?
David: Iran. The text says, ‘The regime had understood that one person leaving her house while asking herself, Are my trousers long enough? Is my veil in place? Can my makeup be seen? Are they going to whip me? No longer asks herself, where is my freedom of thought? Where is my freedom of speech, my life? Is it livable? What’s going on in political prisons?’
Melissa: I feel like somebody just punched me in my solar plexus. It’s really good. While you were talking about the changes that happened and trying to explain them to children and young people, making sense of being a young person while the world is exploding outside — just made me think of everything we’re going through right now with the pandemic and how kids are, you know, teachers are wrestling with kids wearing masks at school and yeah, during a lockdown you have so many questions you have to ask yourself when you walk out. It’s hard to think about the rest of your life when there’s kind of trauma happening outside.
David: When the now is so big, right? Trying to figure out what you’re supposed to do in this moment overwhelms what you’re going to be doing in two weeks or two months or two years from now.
Melissa: It sounds like a very relevant read, in addition to introducing us to ideas about Iran.
David: One of the things that I really like about graphic novels is that when they’re done well, there’s sort of an emotional shorthand to it. The characters are telling you how they feel. There’s no text, they’re explaining it, you can see it. And the line suggests sort of mood and temperament and you can produce visuals that are suggestive of what’s happening. A drawing can represent a dramatic moment so quickly that it’s a shock. And that happens in this book. There are moments where there’s a panel where everything before it changes in this one panel. You process it just like that. It’s just that quick to pick up. Everything turns right now. Just as a graphic novel, it is very successful. As a description of what it was like to live in Iran at the time, also very successful. As a description of what it’s like to be a young person trying to make the best of what could be a traumatic era, also very successful.
Melissa: Sounds great.
David: Yeah, I highly recommend it.
Melissa: One of the hardest things about doing Strong Sense of Place is that when we record the shows, I realize there are at least two more books that I want to read.
David: Yeah, I should mention that this book was turned into an animated movie by its creator.
Melissa: Well, that’s awesome.
David: Yeah, she has since gotten into to film work and that’s kind of her thing. She started with this piece. The English version features the voices of Gena Rowlands, Sean Penn, and Iggy Pop. It was nominated for an Academy Award in 2008. So, yes, I highly recommend Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi.
Melissa: Two of the books that I’m recommending today sort of pay homage to the legend of Scheherazade, so I want to talk about that a little bit. So as we found when we did our episodes on Scotland and Morocco, Iran also has a long history of oral storytelling. It’s usually practiced in the streets, like, in the squares and also in coffee houses. And there’s a visual form where they would hang a canvas painted with elements of the story and tell the story in front of this painted canvas.
David: Oh, that’s so nice.
Melissa: Isn’t that cool? Perhaps the most legendary storyteller is Scheherazade.
Melissa: Who is the narrator from 1001 Nights. So here’s the story.
[middle eastern music]
Melissa: There was a monarch and he learned that his first wife was unfaithful to him and he decided that he would marry a new virgin each day and then behead the previous day’s wife. That way, he could ensure that she was always pure. Kind of a grim beginning. When he’d killed 1001 women, he was introduced to Scheherazade and against her father’s wishes, she volunteered to spend one night with the king. She had a plan.
Melissa: She begged the king to let her say goodbye to her sister. And within the king’s hearing, she told her sister a story. The king stayed awake, listening all night, and as night turned to morning, Scheherazade ended her story with a cliffhanger. And so the king spared her life because he needed to know what was going to happen next.
Melissa: The next night and every night after Scheherazade wove tales that kept the king spellbound, always leaving him anticipating the next story. And when 1001 nights had passed, the king had fallen in love with Sheherazade and made her his queen.
David: And that’s how Scheherazade invented episodic television.
Melissa: Exactly. [laughter] OK, so everyone just talk about the back of your mind, because the next two books I’m going to talk about have some of that Scheherazade-esque flavor to them. My second book is Everything Said Is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri. This is classified as a way novel, but it’s way in the same way that, say, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak or Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl are.
David: So, palatable to children but with adult themes.
Melissa: Yeah, the protagonist is a child, but the story is emotionally complex and resonant. So kids can read it, but there is plenty here for adults. I had a really hard time getting ready to talk about this book because my notes just say ‘wow, wow, wow.’
David: That’s not useful.
Melissa: This beautiful, articulate novel rendered me incapable of forming good sentences.
Melissa: The author and his protagonist have just such a strong voice. I was just hooked immediately. The story opens when our hero is talking to his middle school class and Oklahoma. His name is Khosrou, but everyone calls him Daniel. He’s got dark skin and he’s hairy and his butt is big. He’s Iranian and now he lives in Oklahoma. This, as you might imagine, is a huge adjustment. And the book is basically Daniel telling us the story of his life. It swoops and swirls through time and place as he tries to help his classmates and, I think ultimately himself, understand who he is and how he ended up here. He has very few memories of his life in Iran because he left there when he was seven or eight, and these memories have become really, really precious to him. But as he remembers them and he tells the stories, they also become embellished as stories do when you tell them over and over. And this is where the Sheherazade vibe kind of comes in. He’s very aware that he’s spinning tales, but he also has the sincerity of a little kid just trying to tell you the things he knows.
Melissa: As the story progresses, we learn about his grandparents in Iran and why he and his mom and his sister came to Oklahoma. Spoiler: secret police and middle of the night escape are involved. As his narrative kind of jumps around in time, we get snapshots of what his life is like now in the United States. The writing in this book is just remarkable. I highlighted so many passages I may as well have just highlighted the whole thing.
David: I’ve done that.
Melissa: Yeah. I mean, like there are places where it’s just one sentence, but a dozen times on the page. And then there are places where it’s like three pages of highlights. I want to read you the opening because the voice is so good:
All Persians are liars and lying is a sin. That’s what the kids and Mrs. Miller’s class think. But I’m the only person they’ve ever met, so I don’t know where they got that idea. My mom says it’s true, but only because everyone has sinned and needs God to save them. My dad says it isn’t. Persians aren’t liars, they’re poets, which is worse.
Melissa: How do you not fall in love with that kid immediately?
David: Plus, you know, keep going!
Melissa: Yeah. Tell me more. And every chapter, every paragraph, every sentence you get to the end of it and you think, tell me more. I devoured this thing. One of the things that I think makes this so impactful is that we’re getting Daniel’s emotional reaction to the events that he’s telling us about both as the child that he was when he experienced them and with the hindsight of an adult.
David: So there are things where he’s presenting it as, ‘Here’s what I remember from when I was 10. Which may or may not be true. But that’s how I remember it.
Melissa: Yes. So we get his emotional reaction at the time and also see it through the lens of someone remembering it and having processed it a little bit.
David: That’s a tricky piece of writing there.
Melissa: It really is. This is going to sound weird, maybe, but it reminded me a little bit of Jane Eyre because that’s also how we experience the things that happened to Jane. We get the raw emotion of her being locked in the Red Room, but then she’s reflecting on it and she is a little bit more understanding of why that happened to her and why she felt the way she did. And that’s what we see with Daniel, too. A little bit, just a little bit of context for what he’s experiencing and that, I think, is what makes it a richer experience for older readers. He also recounts details in a way that is very honest and descriptive. There were times when I gasped when I was reading — Ilaughed and it made my eyes sting. I had very overt emotional reactions.
Melissa: For example, he describes his grandmother like this:
Of my grandmother Maman Massey, Baba Hajji’s wife, I have three memories. The first is her feeding me sweet dates dipped in thick yogurt she made. The second is her sitting on a wooden stool, weaving a Persian rug in the dark on a giant loom hidden deep in the cellar of their house. The third is her voice on the phone from across the world when I realized I would never see her again.
David: Well, what are you supposed to do with that?
Melissa: How do you not? Right now my eyes are stinging! This is also perfect for Strong Sense of Place because it is rich with detail about Iranian culture. He seamlessly weaves in Persian history and traditional folktales with his family stories. So even though a lot of it is set in Oklahoma, you are transported to Iran. And it’s really fascinating to see how his life before contrasts with this American culture that he’s just been dropped into. I think it really highlights how challenging that would be to go from your culture with your family on literally the other side of the world, and then suddenly find yourself in Oklahoma where they think your food smells funny and they think everyone from your country is a liar.
Melissa: The subtitle of this book is A True Story. The author Daniel Nayeri lives in New York City now, but he was born in Iran, and he did spend a few years as a refugee before immigrating to Oklahoma with his family when he was seven. He lived much of this book. And he said that when his grandfather died 13 years ago, he realized he had only one memory of him and would never make any more. And that was the catalyst for remembering as much as he could and writing this book. That is Everything Sad is untrue: A True Story by Daniel Nayeri.
David: That sounds really great.
Melissa: It was fantastic.
David: I mean, I’m having an emotional reaction to your review. [laughter]
Melissa: Yeah. He also seems like a lovely man. Fun fact. He’s also a professional pastry chef.
Melissa: So he can not only spin a great tale for you, he can feed you something delicious.
David: New friend goal.
David: All right. My second book is Searching for Hasaan: An American Family’s Journey Home to Iran by Terence Ward. This book starts back in the 1960s. There’s this family, and they’re living in Iran. The father in the family works as an oil executive. He’s got a wife and four sons. They’ve got a lovely house in Tehran and they have a cook. And his name is Hassan. The beginning of this book is almost like Disneyesque. There’s Dad and he’s hanging out on the porch and he’s smoking a pipe and he’s listening to jazz records. And Mom, who is lovely throughout the book, is charming and warm and delightful. And she’s working in this walled garden with this gardener she doesn’t really like and trust, but that’s not important. And then there’s this cook. He’s a happy man and he’s making these delicious dishes like lamb kabobs and pomegranate duck and basmati rice. And he’s telling these four boys stories from Arabian Nights —
Melissa: Another Sheherazade.
David: Yes. And explaining the culture while he does that.
Melissa: That sounds amazing.
David: Yes, they adore him and he adores them. The cook has a family. He’s got a wife, Fatima, and the son Ali. It’s almost too much. They’re part of the picture. It’s just a lovely, lovely scene. And then one day —
Melissa: What year is this?
David: In the ’60s, late ’60s, 1965 or so…
Melissa: The nice times.
David: The nice times. And then one day the family decides that they need to move back to the United States. One of the boys is going to a boarding school, and they don’t want to be across the world from him. And so in 1969 they leave Iran and they return to the U.S. and they leave Hassan behind. Time passes. The Iranian Revolution comes and goes. Everybody gets older. During this whole period, mom keeps wondering what happened to Hassan and his family. They have a picture of him that they keep in the kitchen. The boys grow up, and they do great. One is a lawyer, once a professor at Harvard. Three of them are professionally involved in the Middle East in one way or another. And then one day, one of the boys is working in Saudi Arabia, and he realizes that he can get a visa to enter Iran. And so he cooks up this idea that he’ll get his family back together — the mom, the dad, the four boys — and they’ll go back to Iran together.
Melissa: Big adventure!
David: Big adventure. The boys are in their forties and fifties and mom and dad are in their 70s now. Every U.S. official tries to explain that you should not do this.
David: This is a bad idea.
Melissa: Why do they think they shouldn’t do it?
David: One official says Americans are strongly advised not to visit the country. And the author says ‘The moderate mullah has just been elected president.’ And the official says, ‘And public floggings have tapered off.’
Melissa: Oh, what year were they thinking of going back?
David: It’s 1998.
Melissa: OK, yeah, because for the show I did a little research on what it’s like to visit Iran now. And you know, if you read travel bloggers, they’re, like, ‘It’s not a big deal. It’s safe. It’s safe for women. It’s safe to visit.’
Melissa: This was before that.
David: Yeah. Yeah. When they finally kind of commit they’re advised to memorize the address and phone numbers of the U.S. Embassy. That was a chilling detail for me.
Melissa: That would be very unnerving.
David: Not even write them down — memorize them. Eventually the family gets back together, some of them reluctantly. One of the sons says, ‘You know, Dad, I have two sons to worry about.’ And the 73-year-old dad says, ‘So what? I have four and I’m going.’ [;aughter] So, yeah, 1998, they’re going into Iran and they’re going to look for their old friend, the cook Hassan. That turns into a 700-mile quest by minivan.
David: They’re accompanied by two Iranians, one of whom they believe is a spy for the state. The other one they trust a little bit more. This is a great book for Strong Sense of Place. It starts in Shiraz, and it travels all the way to Tehran. Everything is described: food and companions and the ancient sites they visit, people they encounter, they go to bazaars and they go to holy sites, but they also visit gas stations and villages with dirt roads and just nothing else. And along the way, we get descriptions of the history and culture of Iran itself.
David: A lot of this is kind of a nostalgia trip because they loved the country they left. The author is looking for an Iran that exists, but I think you have to squint to see it now. He’s not shy about telling you the good things and the bad things that he finds, but he’s definitely optimistic and excited about the world he encounters. I had to kind of get behind him a little bit. He’s got a perspective that he wants you to have. But the book as a whole is a really good read. And I was really caught up in whether they were going to find him and how they were going to find him and all of that stuff. And along the way, you see a lot of Iran. And it’s it’s great if you’re looking for a modern picture of Iran, or you want somebody to try to convince you to visit, this is a great start. That is Searching for Hassan: An American Family’s Journey Home to Iran by Terence Ward.
Melissa: That sounds awesome. It sounds like that would be a good companion with Darius the Great because you would get a non-fiction and fictional account of Americans visiting Iran. My final recommendation is Disoriental by Négar Djavadi. When people say, ‘What’s a great book you’ve read recently?’ this is one of those books that pops into my mind, separate from Strong Sense of Place, this is an amazing piece of work. It is really beautifully written novel. It almost has the flavor of a fable sometimes because, again, like Sheherazade, the heroine of the story is weaving tales for us.
Melissa: It tells the story of pre- and post-revolutionary Iran through the life story of Kimiâ, who is our heroine. Before I jump into the setup of the novel, I want to talk about the author and the title just a little bit, because I think it gives some context for this story. The title is Disoriental, and it combines two words désorienter, which is French for ‘one losing her orientation or direction.’
Melissa: Hmm. And Oriental, which means anyone from the east. The author Négar Djavadi was born in Iran in 1969 to a family of intellectuals who opposed the Shah and then also the Ayatollah Khomeini. She arrived in France at the age of 11 after having crossed the mountains of Kurdistan on horseback with her mother and her sister.
Melissa: Yes, big dramatic adventure in real life.
David: I can’t imagine taking two kids on a trip like that.
Melissa: Yes, her mother must be made of some tough stuff.
David: Yeah. Both managing just the children’s physical needs, as well as trying to frame this emotionally somehow —
Melissa: And manage your own emotional state. So that’s kind of the back story for how this novel came to be. So let’s get into the story.
Melissa: Our heroine is Kimiâ, and she is a natural born storyteller. She is also very sardonic and somehow also vulnerable at the same time. Her voice! Like Everything Sad is Untrue, this is another novel where the voice just grips you from the first page. There are times when I was reading it, and I just kind of like sucked in my breath a little bit because what she’s saying is so honest and not necessarily flattering to her.
Melissa: She’s not trying to make herself appear to be anything other than who she is. And I just loved her so fiercely. She’s an amazing character. And when we meet her, she’s sitting alone in the waiting room of a Paris fertility clinic. We aren’t entirely sure why she’s there, what kind of appointment she’s waiting for. Is she expecting good news? Is she expecting bad news? Is she the one seeing the doctor? Like, we don’t know any of that. And while she’s waiting, she just starts unspooling her family’s life story and slowly revealing what brought her into this room at this particular time.
Melissa: So we learn that she’s an exile from Iran because her father was a dissident journalist. She is the granddaughter of a woman that was born into a 19th-century harem. And her family’s story is very folkloric, it’s multilayered. There are larger-than-life characters. Her great grandfather had 52 wives and his estate in Mazandaran. Mazandaran is a province in the north of Iran that has green hills and mist in the morning. It sounds very beautiful and very magical. That’s how she describes it.
David: The pictures I saw that area kind of reminded me of maybe woodsy Colorado.
Melissa: Yeah, really beautiful and not what I expected.Because we think of Iran as being desert. So we also meet her parents who had a very passionate and powerful love for each other, but also felt equally as strongly about the Revolution, which makes their relationship very complex. And super dramatic. And, like, their commitment to each other and their commitment to the Revolution has a huge impact on their family.
Melissa: We also meet a massive extended family of uncles and her sisters and cousins and friends, and all of them are essential to understanding how Kimiâ became who she is. And, of course, all of this personal stuff is playing out against the Revolution of 1978 and 1979.
Melissa: For members of our audience who might not be completely up on the details of the Iranian Revolution, this book does a great job of weaving the historical details into the narrative in a way that is invisible. She does such a great job of providing the context you need for what’s happening outside of their house while talking about what’s going on inside their house. Really well done. So you don’t even notice that you’re learning. One of my favorite things about a novel! Early on, Kimiâ references something that she calls the event. It remains a little mysterious for a while, and her narration kind of loops and swirls around until she finally reveals what the event was. But we as readers don’t know what it is for a while, and it’s very Sheherazade-like to keep us waiting to see what that thing is. But having said that, you always feel grounded in the story. I felt like I was in very capable hands. I always knew who she was talking about, what period of time we were in, how this was going to connect to something else that she told me. It’s very, very well done.
Melissa: I mean, this probably goes without saying, but it has a very Strong Sense of Place, particularly when she’s describing the pre-revolution life that she and her family enjoyed. There’s this really awesome scene where they go to a French supermarket, and she’s talking about the delicious things they bought: Nutella and there was Dannon yogurt and Zests soap. Those are things that until I read that book, I didn’t know I should be associating with life in Iran. I knew that there are parts of the Middle East where people spoke French because of French colonialism. It didn’t occur to me that you would be buying brie and French cigarettes in Tehran. So that was really fascinating to me.
Melissa: She also talks about the cardamom seed cookies and orange blossom water crepes that one of her relatives makes. Yeah, the food sounds so good. It’s very cinematic and very suspenseful, which is not a surprise because the author is also a screenwriter and a filmmaker in France. Kimiâ is a very compelling narrator. She’s really smart and funny and willing to kind of take jabs at herself. But then she’ll also say something really vulnerable that is like a little bit of a gut punch. The thing that I really loved about her is that the adult version of her that we meet is a mash-up of all of the ones that we meet in the stories that she tells. So there’s the tender child and the angry teenager and the troubled adult and the sister and the daughter and the lover and the friend — she feels like a real person.
David: The way you’re presenting that, she kind of is, right? It sounds like she’s, like the other book you talked about, pitching a fictionalized kind of account of her own life.
Melissa: I’m not the only one who love this book. It was a finalist for the National Book Award, the PEN Literary Prize, the Albertine Prize, and the CLMP Firecracker Award.
David: Firecracker Award! that actually won a firecracker award. I didn’t know that was a thing!
Melissa: She won the 2019 Lambda Literary Award and the Albertine Prize, which is — this is cool. The Albertine Prize is an award for contemporary French fiction that’s been translated into English.
Melissa: And yes, the translation is fantastic. That is Disoriental by Négar Djavadi.
David: Those are five books we love set in Iran. There are good times, and there are good stories and Iran has lots of both. Visit our show notes at strongsenseofplace.com, for links and details. Mel, can you tell us about the special blog posts you wrote for this episode?
Melissa: One of the books I didn’t have time to talk about is Song of a Captive Bird which is a fictionalized biography of the Persian poet Forugh Farrokhzhad, who is a fascinating modernist woman poet from Iran. When she was asked about being a woman poet, she said, ‘What is important is humanity not being a man or woman.’ And her work was considered so scandalous it was banned after the Iranian revolution. To cut to the chase, I will have a blog post about her and some of her poetry. We also have a roundup of lots of really stunning and compelling Instagram accounts. And we have two Persian recipes for food and fiction, a really delicious kabob and beautiful jeweled rice dish. Those all will be rolling out over the next two weeks.
David: Thank you for listening to Strong Sense of Place. If you want to help us out, you could tell somebody you know.
Melissa: I have a challenge for everyone.
David: What’s that?
Melissa: I think everyone should make it their mission to try to tell two people —
David: Two peopl!t
Melissa: — about our podcast. Just pick two people you like, tell him about the podcast.
David: Accouple of readers. Also, while we’re on the subject of growing the audience, we are looking into advertising, so if you know a way to reach readers like you that is reasonably priced, drop us a line. I’m [email protected]
Melissa: And I’m [email protected] And you can send us email anytime you want.
David: Mel, where are we going on our next episode?
Melissa: Our next adventure are taking us to the most populous country in Africa, Nigeria and its capital city of Lagos.
David: Thanks so much for listening and we will talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of Mazur Travel.
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