Robin Yassin-Kassab


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AriaA sightly edited version of this review appeared at the Guardian.

Unwanted by her father so abandoned by her mother, a baby girl is found under a mulberry tree in wealthy north Tehran. Carrying her home to the impoverished tenements of the southern city, Behrouz – an army driver who, motherless as a boy, had once pretended to be a mother himself – names her Aria. Usually a boy’s name meaning “the Iranian race”, Behrouz intends the musical sense of the word – “little tales, cries in the night”. This ambiguity continues – as Aria grows, she wavers between opposed categories – rich or poor, educated or illiterate, orthodox Shia Muslim or something else. Years later Behrouz reflects on his charge: “she had somehow acquired the ability to be two things in one”.

His neighbours are generally hostile to this illegitimate child. “I bet with those blue eyes that girl’s a Jew or a jinn’s daughter,” says one. And Behrouz’s wife Zahra – the first in a line of false or flawed mother figures – beats and neglects the orphan, often locking her on the balcony. Her bad behaviour is glaring, but Zahra turns out to be a complex character. One of the many strengths of this strong debut by Iranian-Canadian novelist Nazanine Hozar is that every character is contextualised and therefore humanised by an explanatory back story.

And the balcony isn’t so bad. Here Aria is able to communicate with Kamran, the neighbour’s cleft-lipped son, who climbs a tree to deliver bracelets and sweets, whose love for Aria will develop through the years, and whose bitterness after rejection helps shape his later career.

Aria finally finds relief from Zahra, and makes an upward jump in class terms, when she is adopted by Fereshteh, childless heir of the Ferdowsi family, who are ex-Zoroastrians, and once silversmiths to the shahs. Aria calls her ‘Mana’, almost but not quite her Mama. The minor characters populating Fereshteh’s urban palace are distinct and memorable – the foul-mouthed old servant Massoomeh, Fereshteh’s brief husband Mahmoud, and uncle Jafar, a piano-tuning, coin-polishing, newspaper-washing obsessive-compulsive.

By now a feisty child, prone to throwing things and asking embarrassing questions, Aria settles nonetheless into a comfortable north Tehran life of parks, ice cream parlours, and modern schooling. Of her new friends, Hamlet, son of a rich Armenian businessman, is briefly abducted by an angry mob, and Mitra is deprived of her father, arrested for his leftist activism.

If Aria embodies Iranian complexity, this story of her young life – she’s born in 1953, shortly after the US-backed coup against prime minister Mossadegh – serves as a vehicle for the national story of the quarter century leading up to the 1979 Islamic revolution. Hozar shows rather than tells the reader of the economic divisions and swelling resentments that precipitated the change. The social tension rises steadily as the novel progresses, adding to its compulsive pace. And her method of describing the paranoid and increasingly febrile political environment through the perspectives of children and teenagers is surprisingly effective, communicating key historical information alongside a general sense of mounting confusion.

Behrouz, meanwhile, arranges for Aria to spend time with Mrs Shirazi, whose significance for Aria is apparent to the reader long before it is to her. Details of Aria’s origin are slowly revealed, and her fate changed, by a swirl of hints, secrets, letters, and a mysterious stash of money. Tehran’s diversity is expertly conjured in this section – its cinemas as well as its self-flagellating Ashura processions, its opium dealers on bicycles, its Polish immigrants, and Jews, Christians and Bahais as well as Muslims.

Perhaps the strongest character in this warm-hearted book is the warm-hearted Behrouz – gentle, long-suffering, and the one steady and reliable person in the flux of Aria’s life. His stories told from the steering wheel – of the mythic king Rustam, the phoenix, Mount Damavand, the valley of the assassins – evoke the symbolic riches of Iranian culture accumulated over seven thousand years.

But “when something is that old it begins to crack”. By the late 70s the people of the university and north Tehran, the bazaar and the south city alike are engaged in political meetings – leftists and Islamists competing and cooperating – and in the distribution of illicit cassettes on which speeches by the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini are hidden between songs by Abba and the Beatles.

The final section, when Aria is herself a mother and therefore newly vulnerable, is dominated by curfews, riots, food shortages and snipers on the rooftops, then Khomeini’s triumphant return from exile, vowing that he doesn’t seek power for himself.

“Aria” is a hugely enjoyable book crammed with artful devices. Margaret Atwood describes it as “a sweeping saga, a Doctor Zhivago of Iran.” Notwithstanding some slightly underwritten sections, its skilful blending of personal and political drama, along with its broad scope, richness of setting and vitality of character, gives it something of that epic quality.


Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 15, 2020 at 10:44 pm

Posted in book review, Iran

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