Sunday, June 21, 2009

Once Upon a Time in Iran

by Libby Hellmann

Not long ago I went to a high school reunion and talked to a classmate I hadn’t kept up with since graduation. She was one of those people you're not friends with, but you aren't enemies; we just traveled in different circles. For some reason (maybe because I was published, maybe not) she came up to me and said she wanted to tell me her story. Naturally I said sure and grabbed a glass of wine. We sat down in a corner.

From high school she went on to college where she became an activist against the Vietnam war. A few years later she met a young Iranian man who was studying in the US. They fell in love, she married him, and they moved to Tehran. There was only one problem. It was 1978, and within a year, the Islamic revolution shattered their world. She observed first-hand the optimism and hope that first accompanied the fall of the Shah, the gradual realization that the freedom and democracy Iranians had hoped for wasn’t coming, the rise of fundamental Islam, the oppressive dictates of Sharia law.

As a sophisticated young woman raised in America, she especially chafed at the restrictions on women. After a while, she found the situation intolerable and begged her husband to let her go home. He refused. And since a woman needs her husband’s permission to legally leave the country, she became a virtual prisoner. Ultimately, she couldn’t even leave the house without his permission.

Somehow she managed to get herself smuggled out of Iran and into Turkey where she eventually made her way back to the US. In some ways, her story is similar to Not Without My Daughter but in her case there were no children involved.

End of story, right?

No. Last fall I’d just finished DOUBLEBACK and was casting around for my next book. My former classmate’s story -- and the issues it raised kept picking at me: a powerless woman, an epic revolution, international politics, and conflict in all sorts of permutations – it wove a powerful spell. I couldn’t resist, so I fictionalized her story, added a murder, and started to write.

I’m just about half way through, and the recent post-election events in Iran have mesmerized me. I’ve been following them on Twitter (btw, Marcus, Twitter has more than proved itself in my mind). In fact, I feel as if I’ve stepped into a time warp. The revolution 30 years ago was extensively covered and written, and there's a wealth of information-- and novels -- about it, but seeing the passion of today’s protestors is unsettling. We all know what happened after the protests then, and it seems to be happening again.

I am in touch with several Iranians who now live in the US. As you might expect, their reactions have been cautious, even jaded. Most feel that because the power is now disbursed among the mullahs, not concentrated as it was under the Shah, any real hope of change is illusory. At the same time, the mullahs are divided --some champion reform, some don't. So, underneath the cynicism, I sense a kernel of hope. How can there not be? The cycle has begun again, and even if nothing happens immediately, it’s clear that the repressive nature of Islamic fundamentalism is fraying.

For the sake of my Iranian friends, as well as everyone involved in today’s post-election protests, I continue to watch and hope for a happy ending. Meanwhile, I'm going back to finish my classmate's story.

Btw, if anyone wants to know what life in Iran was like just before the fall of the Shah, I highly recommend ROOFTOPS OF TEHRAN by Mahbod Seraji. It’s a compelling story, and beautifully written. We’ll be hearing a lot more from Seraji.

Enough from me... what do you think about it all?


Sara Paretsky said...

Insightful and timely. Thanks Libby

RaB said...

I too am hoping for a happy outcome - though I'm not sure what it will be. I enjoyed "Reading Lolita in Tehran" and the perspective of an academic trying to function in the university system during and after the revolution. Look forward to reading your classmate's story someday, Libby.