Portraits of May

Portraits: Of a young Rebecca Solnit finding, and fending for, herself; of the nature of dictatorships and revolutions by Ryszard Kapuściński; of Eastern Turkey under the veil of its dramatic landscapes by Zülfü Livaneli; of Paris and the poet through the vantage point of Henri Cole; of the unfortunate visage of Skylark by Dezső Kosztoláni. These are some of the extraordinary faces I met on this month of May.

It is not nearly celebrated enough, says Solnit: “The sheer pleasure of meeting new voices and ideas and possibilities, having the world become more coherent in some subtle or enormous way, extending or filling in your map of the universe…this beauty in finding pattern and meaning,” this thing called Reading.

Even so, here we are. The readers (ironically, the ones least concerned about faces), the ones who, by turning each page, celebrate best these encounters, these awakenings, these flights.

“At least I had books. Closed, a book is a rectangle, thin as a letter or thick and solid like a box or a brick. Open, it is two arcs of paper that, seen from the top or bottom when the book is wide open, look like the wide V of birds in flight.” — Rebecca Solnit, Recollections of My Nonexistence
“I’ve always believed that poetry exists in part to reveal the soul’s capacity for compassion, sacrifice, and endurance. For some of us, this satisfies a basic human need, like air or water, but a poem must also have music, imagery, and form. Because there is a kind of nakedness or authenticity in poetry that is associated with truth, on many days I haven’t got the guts for it, and I fail. But when I succeed, there is nothing in life — except love — that equally verifies my existence.” — Henri Cole, Orphic Paris

Ryszard Kapuscinski: Shah of Shahs

“As a journalist, I say: Long live the magic. Kapuściński is an advocate for all who have chafed in a straitjacket called the house style, seen their lyrical phrases slashed for space, cursed the whole pedantic army of editors and fact checkers… he is a journalist’s writer, an example of what so many of us would love to be — if only we had the nerve.” — Christopher de Bellaigue

When one has had their fill of different accounts of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, fiction and nonfiction, Iranian and foreign; when an ample idea of its unfolding and its chronology has finally taken root; when details and events have been repeated enough and begin to sound redundant unless they are written with an exceptional voice and perspective; it is time to read Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuściński — my personal cherry on the top of an Iranian Revolution literary stack.

It is not the book to read if one prefers a sequential list of events, a full cast of characters, an emotionally-charged dramatization, or a detailed portrayal of the Shah. This is not a portrait of the last Shah of Iran, neither is it a consummate portrait of a nation. From the collected clutter on Kapuściński’s hotel room desk in Tehran emerges a portrait of the nature of dictatorships and revolutions.

I can only wish he elaborated on that extravagant celebration that the Iranian despot held in Persepolis in 1971, which contributed to the flames of revolution, and in which the first guest to arrive at the event was Imelda Marcos. I would have loved for Kapuściński to have written a book about the Marcos family and our own EDSA Revolution!

For a Filipina reader and albeit dormant journalist, the writing method is illuminating and the subject hits close to home. There are too many passages that feel as if he were describing my own nation’s recent history. But then again, “The rather small arsenal of political tricks has not changed in millennia,” observed Kapuściński, who reported on twenty-seven revolutions during his illustrious career as a journalist.

Within a corrupt government, “Whoever tried to be honest looked like a paid stoolie.” “The higher up, the fuller the pockets,” and in that world, “development” has an entirely different meaning. “Any dictatorship appeals to the lowest instincts of the governed,” “A despot believes that man is an abject creature. Abject people fill his court and populate his environment.”

That a fed and entertained populace does not always signify a free society is a truth that burns: “A terrorized society will behave like an unthinking, submissive mob for a long time. Feeding it is enough to make it obey. Provided with amusements, it’s happy.”

And this is what he says about truth: “It takes a long time for a truth to mature, and in the meantime people suffer or blunder around in ignorance.” I’d like to believe, however, that reading the writings of Kapuściński speeds the process.

At the back of my mind, this question: Is Iran in the cusp of another revolution?

Farnoosh Moshiri: At the Wall of the Almighty

“What did I do with my hands as a free man?” he asks himself.

A bearded guard leads him from his solitary confinement to another cell. He is on a leash, and he knows that he is in the central prison of the Holy Republic. This is all he knows. Severe torture has made him forget everything else, including his name.

With such a dismal opening, one can excuse why I shelved this, the heaviest volume on my Iran book stack, for over a year despite my deep fascination for the region and its extremely underrated writers.

My personal reading prompt for September was to go through an NYRB editions reading spree. But is there a more pressing reading prompt than the ongoing protests in Iran? I realize that we — as readers, and through our reading choices — have the power to call attention to things happening across the world and to rally with those who need a voice.

I instantly felt it was time to meet this unnamed character who is forced to admit guilt to an unknown sin that, along with his name, he cannot recall. Through daily episodes of psychological and physical torture, he slips in and out of consciousness, reality and dreams. Fragments of his childhood and of his life tease his sanity, the key players of society whose ideologies and actions lead to the revolution take shape in his mind, and the story unfolds. He begins to remember Sahar, a twin sister whom he loved deeply; and by and by his desire to die begins to be replaced by the desire to know what happened to her.

‘Sahar is dawn,’ I say, ‘the end of darkness, when the sun comes out. Daylight trapped in night.’

Categorized as a work of magic realism, I find that the magic realism is, at first, subdued, but one which crescendoes into an anarchy. Readers who are not enthusiasts of the genre should not be dissuaded, however, because we eventually recognize that it is merely our tortured character’s memories and hallucinations merging with reality, metaphors, and childhood fantasies.

This is Farnoosh Moshiri’s first novel, but its depth and calibre surpass many works by more established writers. I have not read a more harrowing ending, but I also have not read a more excellent Iranian novel.

Here is an apt literary device condemning oppressive governments that incapacitate people to distinguish nightmare from reality, and condemning regimes that engender systemic mind-conditioning that edge a nation into losing its identity — those tyrannies that ultimately coerce you into forgetting who you are.

What are we doing with our hands as free men and women; what are we doing with freedom? I ask myself.

First of all, we defend it.

Satrapi: Embroideries | Slimani: Sex and Lies

“If women haven’t fully understood the state of inferiority in which they are kept, they will do nothing but perpetuate it.” Leïla Slimani, Sex and Lies

“I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” — Harriet Tubman

It was the hottest month of 2019 in Morocco, and I was at a station in Chefchaouen waiting for my bus to Fez. Even with my nose buried in a book, I had an odd feeling that someone was watching me. 

Sure enough, when I looked up, two large eyes framed by a hijab glinted and stabbed me like the blades of a koummya. I could see she was seething. I had to glance around and check if the anger was meant for someone else, but her sustained glare guaranteed that they were directed at me.

She said something to the man beside her who turned his back towards me while she continued to glower. Admittedly, my first instinct was to glower in return.

Then I remembered where I was; a foreign country whose laws are not known to be very kind to women. Confused, I immediately lowered my head to avoid trouble.

And there it was. The offending sight. The bag’s leather strap strung across my body had unbuttoned my dress shirt and revealed an undershirt and a little bit of chest!

I who had been so careful about dress codes in my travels, I who wore a buttoned-up long-sleeved shirt over an undershirt over a bra despite the temperatures rising up to 46°C during the day, accidentally exposed a little bit too much of my body in one of the worst places to have a wardrobe malfunction.

I felt so embarrassed, horrified, and even guilty.

As soon as the bus arrived, I hurriedly boarded to avoid bumping into the couple. I saw them saying goodbye to each other. A worried look now replaced the anger on her face as her expressive eyes followed the man inside the bus.

Imagine the horror on her face when she saw through the window that the man’s seat number was the empty one right beside mine — her man would be sitting beside this immoral woman for 4 to 5 hours!

I hid behind my scarf for the rest of the trip while next to me, he showered himself with crumbs from the pastries that he ate.

– – –

I had an incredible trip to Morocco, but despite being amply covered, I have never been catcalled more in any of my travels; I was followed by a stranger through the alleys of Fez; and two random acquaintances in Marrakech said they wanted to marry me. But somehow it was that incident with the woman that made me shudder. It accented how difficult it must be to be a woman in such a place.

This memory came back to me while reading Leïla Slimani’s book. Coincidentally, it was exactly on this day when I left for my Moroccan adventure three years ago.

– – –

Feminist voices from Islamic nations have been part of my reading life for quite some time already, and I don’t wish to write another cliché by saying that reading this made me grateful for the liberties I take for granted — even though it still rings true.

Sex and Lies is a broader and more serious version of Marjane Satrapi’s hilarious graphic novel, Embroideries. They both bring to light the double standards of men and their laws, and the many predicaments of what it means to be a woman in such a setting.

Let us take note that this setting is such where love and affection are as taboo as sex; where women are not allowed to feel desire; where religious pressure and social humiliation lead to nearly six hundred abortions carried out in secret every day and hundreds of women die as a result of the appalling medical conditions in Morocco; and while men can sleep around all they want, they require “virginity certificates” from their brides; hymen restoration clinics exist (which is not far from the kind of “embroideries” Satrapi hints at); and it was only in 2014 that article 475 of their penal code was amended, two years after a sixteen-year-old took her life after being forced to marry her rapist. The rapist who married his victim could avoid punishment under article 475.

Each important female writer has their own approach to broaching the subject of women in repressive cultures. Iranian Marjane Satrapi does it with humor while Moroccan Leïla Slimani curiously makes a case for a healthy relationship with traditional, religious, and cultural backgrounds. I am not Muslim but I think it is significant how she did not make this into an assault on Islam. (Although she does mention the soullessness of certain sects.)

“I try to explain that a society in which women had more freedom would not necessarily be contrary to the faith but rather could allow us to protect women better.”

“For the Muslim religion can be understood as primarily an ethics of liberation, of openness to the other, as a personal ethics and not only a Manichaean moral code.”

“Muslims can turn to a long written tradition, led by scholars, that saw no incompatibility between the needs of the body and the demands of the faith.”

While Sex and Lies unveils real and enraging accounts of the unnatural demands their society imposes on their women, it remains hopeful for a Morocco in transition. Another thing that stood out for me was how many of the women who shared their stories recounted that it was reading books that opened their eyes. Leading by example, Slimani highlights the necessity for women to use their most powerful weapons at hand:

“If… Scheherazade appears a magnificent character, this isn’t because she embodies the sensual and seductive oriental woman. On the contrary: it is because she reclaims her right to tell her own tale that she becomes not merely the object but the subject of the story. Women must rediscover ways of imposing their presence in a culture that remains hostage to religious and patriarchal authority. By speaking up, by telling their stories, women employ one of their most potent weapons against widespread hate and hypocrisy: words.”

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani: The Woman Who Read Too Much

“The woman is you,” remarked those who saw me with this book.

I can only hope to be half as courageous.

But who is she? “To read is to pray,” she taught. “To write is to trust.” Her words had claws, they said, but at the same time they recognized that her silence were double the weight of her words.

She believed in these: That sometimes, illiteracy was fear; that truth conquered fear; that denial was difficult in the face of truth; that the best told lies can prove short-sighted before the long truths of eternity; and that there was no escape for those who took refuge in their ignorance. And of pride? “Love had nothing to do with it.”

Who was she again? Throughout the story we only know her as the woman who read too much. All the women in the book were not given names. Set during the Qajar Dynasty in the 1800s when literacy among women in Persia was not encouraged, and the details of their lives were largely invisible and unrecorded — as it had been for centuries, and as it had been for most parts of the world; this clever literary trick by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani is most likely a curtsy to Virginia Woolf who wrote, “For most of history, anonymous was a woman.”

“No marker on her grave then? None.” Her death is something readers will know right from the beginning. Her story is written in such a peculiar way that it moves forward while moving backwards simultaneously, proving that the best of these Iranian women writers are masters not only in subtlety but also in form, and one can only try not to blink and miss allusions or be helplessly lost.

“History is filled with screams that are ignored.” The reading woman is executed for what she stands, for opposing unreasonable orthodoxy, “for stating the obvious rather than for deviating from the truth,” condemned for showing other women “how to inscribe their lives on the pages of history… giving them the tools by which to be autonomous.” Her death only fanned the flames of the emancipation of women, especially the emancipation of the mind.

Nakhjavani surprises us in the afterword by revealing that the woman who read too much; who, after all, had a name, was a real woman. Tahirih Qurratu’l-Ayn, the symbolic mother of literacy in Iran.

I glance around my library as I write and wonder at the sudden awareness that, on my shelves organized by geography, the Iran section is the only one where women authors outnumber the men. What better way to honor her!

Here in the midst of “look how far we’ve come” and “miles to go before we sleep,” reading this makes me ponder on the women who came before us; back to Enheduanna (2286-2251 BCE), a woman, the first known author, and to the endless library of history we long to fill… and read.

We’ve always had the rights of the mind at our disposal. We need only take up courage to use them.

The world changed when definitions of womankind were altered.”

Negar Djavadi: Disoriental

“Freedom is an illusion. The only thing that changes is the size of your prison.”

Disoriental. We know what the prefix implies. But the clever wordplay refers to more than something that is non-oriental. It alludes to the disorienting, the experience of being uprooted abruptly from an oriental into an entirely contrasting and unfamiliar culture — the tragedy of exile.

“I can tell you that you have to disintegrate first, at least partially, from your own. You have to separate, detach, disassociate. No one who demands that immigrants make ‘an effort at integration’ would dare look them in the face and ask them to start making the necessary ‘effort at disintegration.’ They’re asking people to stand atop the mountain without climbing it up first.”

Although this novel has the familiar background of a young person having to flee Iran during the Islamic Revolution, this takes a step further. The main character dispenses her own unique commentary on Iran’s political events in fragments, but this delves more into its aftereffects on the internal climate of an exile.  

“To be honest, nothing is more like exile than birth. Being torn, out of survival instinct or necessity, with violence and hope, from your first home, your protective cocoon, only to be propelled into an unknown world where you constantly have to deal with curious stares. Every exile knows that path, like the one from the uterine canal, that dark hyphen between the past and future which, once crossed, closes again and condemns you to wander.”

Hers was a personality I could not initially relate to, and so I shelved this a while ago. Returning to it weeks later and reading a little bit more, the dissonant feeling turned to empathy, and by the time I got to the last page, I was crying for this character who had nothing in common with me.

“After so much time and distance, it’s not their world that flows in my veins anymore, or their languages or traditions or beliefs, or even their fears, but their stories.”

And so I’ve learned that stories are written for the sake of the writer and stories are read for the sake of the reader; so the first may pursue connection and the latter empathy.

Marjane Satrapi: Persepolis

March 2021

“The regime had understood that one person leaving her house asking herself: Are my trousers long enough? Is my veil in place? Can my make-up 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 the political prisons?”

“In every religion, you find the same extremists.”

The title takes after the capital of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, but it is an autobiography presented as a graphic novel written and drawn by the author! The two volumes of Persepolis chronicles the life of Marjane Satrapi growing up in Tehran witnessing the downfall of the Shah and the Islamic Revolution, living through the Iran-Iraq War, her high school years in Vienna, and her university life back in Tehran under the Islamic regime.

Persepolis is a memoir, a historical record, a political statement, but also an extraordinarily creative reading experience. I had not realized that comics could be this powerful! It is an honest account of a life and a nation, and I admire how it sends out a strong message of how crucial it is to educate oneself to attain freedom, especially the freedom of the mind.

She expounds these thoughts in a later interview with Emma Watson, “I have lived in a dictatorship. There was a ban on everything! Was I less free in my mind? No, I wasn’t. Did I become a stupid person? No, I didn’t. Because no matter how much they looked at me, they could not get into my mind. That belongs to me. And that is under my control if I decide it is. And I can only decide that if I train it. If you don’t use it, it shrinks, and if you use it, it grows. So it is up to us.”

_ _ _

P.S. In Volume I, published in 2000, we see a very young Satrapi wishing to be an educated and liberated woman like Marie Curie; and in Volume II, she promises to make her ancestors proud.

Remarkably enough, her 2007 animated movie adaptation of Persepolis premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and won the Jury Award.

In 2019 she directed the biopic “Radioactive” starring Rosamund Pike as Marie Curie.

Watching both films over the weekend turned out to be yet another excellent toast to Women’s Month!

Dalia Sofer: Septembers in Shiraz

The Iranian Jewish main character adds a layer of complexity to an already convoluted political terrain, and that is what sets it apart from the few books I have read about the Iranian Revolution.

Isaac Amin, a poet turned wealthy gemologist, is arrested and accused of being an Israeli spy.  His ethnicity and his status incriminates him. He is guilty of the blatant sin of being a wealthy Jew.

But who can hope for a fair trial? “If you think there is going to be a trial you’re going to be very disappointed.” There is only interrogation and torture.

Dalia Sofer writes with a slow burning suspense and unravels difficult matters with a remarkable ease.  From affecting scenes of prisoners reciting poetry to each other, to dialogues that confront social issues, to thoughts about religion and family, she breathes into them beautiful subtleties and realities that are literary pearls.

I judged this book by its cover. There seemed something saccharine about it that it took me a while to pick it up. But because of a long-standing personal intention to piece together a literary tapestry of the Fertile Crescent, I finally read it.

How wrong I was! There is absolutely nothing saccharine about post-Revolution Iran or in the physical and psychological tortures of their prisons.

The novel moves back and forth between Isaac in prison, his wife and daughter who take control of their situation in individual ways in Tehran, and a son studying architecture in New York.  We see almost nothing of Shiraz, and it takes a while to understand that Septembers of Shiraz is a wistful metaphor and allusion to brighter days that have become irredeemable.

Jasmine Darznik: Song of a Captive Bird

She is known in the West as the Sylvia Plath of Iran. As if the name Forugh Farrokhzad is not enough.

Although I understand the comparison because of the early and tragic deaths, of troubled lives we wouldn’t hope to emulate but whose courage to immortalize raw emotion we secretly envy, the turbulent relationships, also their notoriety of speaking against the constraints that society imposed on women and paving the way for other women in literature — but Forugh Farrokhzad is Forugh Farrokhzad to me. The rebel poet of Iran.

“𝐓𝐡𝐢𝐧𝐤 𝐚𝐛𝐨𝐮𝐭 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐰𝐫𝐢𝐭𝐞𝐫𝐬 𝐲𝐨𝐮’𝐯𝐞 𝐦𝐨𝐬𝐭 𝐚𝐝𝐦𝐢𝐫𝐞𝐝. 𝐖𝐡𝐚𝐭 𝐡𝐚𝐬 𝐠𝐢𝐯𝐞𝐧 𝐲𝐨𝐮 𝐬𝐨𝐥𝐚𝐜𝐞 𝐢𝐧 𝐭𝐡𝐞𝐢𝐫 𝐰𝐨𝐫𝐝𝐬? 𝐖𝐡𝐚𝐭 𝐡𝐚𝐬 𝐠𝐢𝐯𝐞𝐧 𝐲𝐨𝐮 𝐜𝐨𝐮𝐫𝐚𝐠𝐞? 𝐈 𝐜𝐚𝐧 𝐠𝐮𝐞𝐬𝐬 𝐭𝐡𝐚𝐭 𝐰𝐡𝐞𝐧 𝐲𝐨𝐮 𝐡𝐚𝐯𝐞 𝐛𝐞𝐞𝐧 𝐦𝐨𝐯𝐞𝐝, 𝐢𝐭’𝐬 𝐛𝐞𝐞𝐧 𝐛𝐲 𝐚 𝐰𝐫𝐢𝐭𝐞𝐫 𝐰𝐡𝐨 𝐡𝐚𝐬 𝐫𝐢𝐬𝐤𝐞𝐝 𝐡𝐨𝐧𝐞𝐬𝐭𝐲.”

Hers is one of the strongest female voices in Iranian literature. I first came across her poems in an anthology featuring a thousand years of Persian poetry by women and in a film by Abbas Kiarostami, and subsequently the haunting poetry that she extended to filmmaking in 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘏𝘰𝘶𝘴𝘦 𝘪𝘴 𝘉𝘭𝘢𝘤𝘬. It is an extremely moving and artistic documentary about a leper colony in Azerbaijan, from where she afterwards adopted a son of the colony’s two inhabitants.

When I learned that Jasmin Darznik had written a well-researched book on her life, I was intrigued. Written in the first person in a most lyrical and revealing voice with generous layers of pain and art, this is that book.

“𝐎𝐧𝐜𝐞, 𝐰𝐡𝐞𝐧 𝐦𝐲 𝐩𝐨𝐞𝐦𝐬 𝐰𝐞𝐫𝐞 𝐛𝐚𝐧𝐧𝐞𝐝 𝐛𝐲 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐧𝐞𝐰 𝐫𝐞𝐠𝐢𝐦𝐞 𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐚 𝐩𝐮𝐛𝐥𝐢𝐬𝐡𝐞𝐫 𝐰𝐨𝐮𝐥𝐝𝐧’𝐭 𝐬𝐭𝐨𝐩 𝐩𝐫𝐢𝐧𝐭𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐭𝐡𝐞𝐦, 𝐡𝐢𝐬 𝐩𝐫𝐞𝐬𝐬 𝐰𝐚𝐬 𝐛𝐮𝐫𝐧𝐞𝐝 𝐭𝐨 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐠𝐫𝐨𝐮𝐧𝐝. 𝐀𝐬 𝐢𝐟 𝐩𝐨𝐞𝐭𝐫𝐲 𝐜𝐨𝐮𝐥𝐝 𝐛𝐞 𝐝𝐞𝐬𝐭𝐫𝐨𝐲𝐞𝐝 𝐥𝐢𝐤𝐞 𝐚 𝐛𝐮𝐢𝐥𝐝𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐨𝐫 𝐚 𝐛𝐨𝐝𝐲. 𝐁𝐮𝐭 𝐚𝐫𝐭 𝐰𝐚𝐬𝐧’𝐭 𝐥𝐢𝐤𝐞 𝐭𝐡𝐚𝐭. 𝐀𝐫𝐭 𝐜𝐨𝐮𝐥𝐝 𝐬𝐮𝐫𝐯𝐢𝐯𝐞; 𝐞𝐯𝐞𝐧 𝐰𝐡𝐞𝐧 𝐬𝐮𝐩𝐩𝐫𝐞𝐬𝐬𝐞𝐝, 𝐞𝐯𝐞𝐧 𝐰𝐡𝐞𝐧 𝐨𝐮𝐭𝐥𝐚𝐰𝐞𝐝, 𝐢𝐭 𝐜𝐨𝐮𝐥𝐝 𝐬𝐮𝐫𝐯𝐢𝐯𝐞 𝐟𝐚𝐫 𝐰𝐨𝐫𝐬𝐞 𝐟𝐚𝐭𝐞𝐬 𝐭𝐡𝐚𝐧 𝐟𝐢𝐫𝐞.” 

Amir Ahmadi Arian: Then the Fish Swallowed Him


Out of all the post-Iranian Revolution books I have encountered, this one is rather unusual. Here, the revolution takes a backseat. Or does it?

Published in 2020, perhaps it is heralding the era of significant literature on the revolution’s longterm effects.

Named after the prophet Jonah, Yunus is a bus driver arrested during a strike, and sent to Tehran’s most notorious prison where his descent into absurdity deepens.

At first glance, the physical belly of the whale is Evin prison. But given a closer look, the psychological belly of the whale is madness and totalitarian politics from which there is no reprieve for this Yunus; and its haunting effects on the psyche, lasting.

The novel is unnerving, but even more so when the reader remembers scripture and realizes… Wasn’t the prophet Jonah sent to warn the people?