June 15, 2021
The clues appear unhurriedly through sardonic remarks and thoughts, a twisted streak here and there, and then it suddenly registers. You are inside the mind of an antihero — someone you are not meant to like, but a character necessary for probing into an individual and a nation’s psyche beyond the conventional point of view.
Hamid Mozaffarian carries the cracks of his dysfunctional childhood into adulthood as a broken man and hurts those closest to him. He becomes an idealistic revolutionary and lands a position as an interrogator for the new regime. And in what he describes as the germinal act of his downfall, he betrays his own father.
But didn’t his father, under the corrupt regime of the Shah, also betray his closest friend to the dreaded secret police? So we see how the same vein of treachery and weakness course through history, albeit under different regimes.
Yet this is a man who is aware of his brokenness and his faults. Hamid wrestles with himself as he begins to become disillusioned with the Revolution: “How can we become the very beast we combatted? How do we reconcile… what we could have been with what we are becoming?”
“Homemade alcohol, black-market gasoline, glassy-eyed addicts, smugglers, pushers, sweaty men passing the hours in downtown teahouses amid the clatter of saucers and cups, people blindfolded and spirited away only to be distilled later into names on execution lists in newspapers—these things, which I, like others, had been witnessing, flashed in my mind. These were the makings of an underground parallel city shadowing the so-called pious city above, the scaffolding of a professed republic that like the monarchy preceding it did not dare to look at its own reflection save in a draped mirror. So our revolution had been accomplished, but what of it? And what of us?”
Through the darkness, we see slivers of hope as he attempts to become a better man, but the consequences of his past sins continue to engulf him, and he often allows it to drown him.
Written with the command of a great 20th century existentialist, the clarity with which Dalia Sofer navigates the absurdities of human contradiction and the perplexing intricacies of the Iranian Revolution is astounding. This book, although published in 2020, can make the reader believe that it came from that golden era of novelists who also identified as philosophers and psychologists.
It is a series of painful events, but one passage reduced me to tears. It is when his father dies and leaves him an old edition of The Epic of Gilgamesh with the inscription: “To my son, Hamid, this was my first copy of this timeless tale, which I studied in school, in 1948. I hope you will one day receive from it all the beauty that I failed to teach you. With love, Sadegh Mozaffarian.”
This is where we grasp Dalia Sofer’s genius in subtleties by alluding to the region’s literary treasures. The Babylonian society in The Epic of Gilgamesh was an Eastern society where community was also most likely upheld over the individual; and where, despite the ephemerality of the individual, his actions are believed to affect not only himself but his community and their collective destiny and history.
Hamid also ponders on the Persian classic, Attar’s The Conference of the Birds — the story where a flock of birds go in search of the mythical bird, the Simorgh. At the end of the life-changing journey, it is only then that they discover that in the Persian language “si” means thirty, and “morgh” means bird. Thirty birds. Together, they find, and together they are, the Simorgh.
In Sofer’s words, “There is no such thing as a solitary act in family life or in history.”
For isn’t the dissolution of the individual the downfall of a nation, the same way the betterment of the individual is to a nation’s advantage?