My Roots Were Somewhere With You
“What is a country? A country is a piece of land surrounded on all sides by boundaries, usually unnatural. Englishmen are dying for England, Americans are dying for America, Germans are dying for Germany, Russians are dying for Russia. There are now 50 or 60 countries fighting in this war. Surely so many countries can’t all be worth dying for.”
I’m Writing You from Tehran
These lines from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 always bring tears to my eyes and grief to my heart. It reminds me of my classmate, Sahar, who was arrested in 2015 and has been a political prisoner ever since. She and I weren’t very close, but reading literature connected us.
Years ago, in one of our discussions of Catch-22, Sahar read these lines of the novel to me and then shared her own definition of a country. A country was not where she was born or raised; for her, a country was anywhere in this world that she would feel safe and respected. Even with just one fist of soil beneath her feet, for her that would be home. Later, after she had been banned from attending classes at school because of her political activities, I asked her, “Was it worth it?”
“It’s always worth it to sacrifice your life for the soil that made you become who you are now,” she said.
Truth be told, she had a deep bond to Iran and would never be indifferent to it.
Over the past decade, I’ve often imagined what it would be like to live beyond the unnatural boundaries of this country and to have a bigger picture of what makes a country. But to be honest, there has always been an extreme emotion inside me that ties me to my roots. These kinds of roots are what made people like Delphine Minoui—a French-Iranian journalist and writer—leave her life behind in Europe to rediscover half of herself through her roots.
I’m Writing You from Tehran—an autobiography—shares the story of Minoui’s return to her family home and the changes she witnesses in Iran’s social and political atmosphere in the late 1990s. Like a documentary film, the book unravels the political and social incidents which happened during three periods: the post-revolution and the pre-reform era, the reformists and Khatami’s presidency, and the post-Khatami’s presidency and the Green Movement.
The first period describes Iran at the time of the revolution, followed by the eight years of the Iran-Iraq War, and shortly after that the beginning of the construction period which mostly refers to the moderate presidency of Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani. By the time of the revolution, for political and social reasons, some Iranians fled the country and stopped visiting their families in Iran. This is what Minoui’s father did. “At our home in Paris, Iran became a taboo subject,” she writes, though her memory of Iran extended to the summer of 1978 and her Babai—her grandpa.
After the revolution, the political relationship between Iran and the West became dark. This affected both Iranians inside of the country and those living abroad. “I was stopped by the police! They called me a ‘towelhead!’” Minoui’s father said. Minoui notes that after a particular moment her father called himself ‘Henri’, “Except for the H of ‘Homayoun,’ this pseudonym had nothing in common with his given name. Powerless to change his country, he changed himself.”
What is painful at this particular period is that although Minoui’s surname is Iranian and she is Iranian by her father’s side, she introduced herself as wholly French. “I concluded that I was French. One hundred percent. Nothing in our home led me to think otherwise. We spoke French. We dreamed in French. When, during each first day back to school, the teacher asked the country of my origin, I would respond, ‘France! without hesitating.” This sort of alienation afflicted many Iranian emigrants and also the generation born in exile. Minoui is the product of her father’s separation from his country and his severed roots.
In 1992, Betty Mahmoody’s Not Without My Daughter garnered international attention that had a very negative influence on Minoui. “‘And you?’ they asked me. You’re not afraid that the same thing will happen to you?’” And, “‘Is it because your father is Iranian that you don’t wear miniskirts?’”
The unfair judgments of people around Minoui, her identity crisis, and the desire to rediscover her origin persuaded her to attempt to transcend clichés of Middle Eastern heritage. She made the Iranian media the subject of the Master’s thesis, and what that meant was that she needed to return to Iran.
One of the things which I really liked about I’m Writing You from Tehran is Minoui’s deep bond with Persian poetry, especially Hafiz, the classic Persian poet who influenced Goethe. Although Delphine’s mother tongue is French, the translations of these poems—read by her Babai, who had represented Iran at UNESCO in the ’50s—inspired her. Her bond with poetry and Babai—who died before her return to Iran—symbolize the roots she is attempting to rediscover.
1997 is an essential year for Iranians, both inside and outside the country. The rise of the reformists in Iran and their success in the election—with 70 percent of the vote—represented a new face of Iran internationally. Liberalization, reform, freedom of expression, constructive diplomatic relations, the idea of the free market, and foreign investment were all Khatami’s goals that attracted global attention. “Iran for all Iranians,” was Khatami’s motto, and this gave hope to many Iranians who wished to return to their country. His grandiose motto didn’t work—such as the many political refugees in the Iranian communities in California—but somehow it worked for Minoui, and she came home.
Minoui sees and experiences Iran differently, as an outsider looking in. The concepts of inside and outside become a theme in the book, and she is reminded of a quip. “You know the famous Iranian joke?” she writes. “Under the Shah, we used to drink outside and pray inside. Today, we drink inside and pray outside!” How Iranians appear in politics or in public is very different from what they are like in family gatherings in and other parts of their lives. This is especially true for the younger generation, and Minoui’s experience and contact with young Iranian girls and boys, and with reformist journalists and politicians, helps her to understand the Iran that had continued to grow and evolve in her absence.
She bears witness to the many changes that have taken place in Iranian society: in art, in music, and in the political atmosphere. She chronicles the rise of experimental theater among Iran’s young generation and alternative rock bands such as O-Hum—which puts Hafiz poems to music—and also the changes and growth of Iranian movies that have gained international acclaim. Most importantly, however, she witnesses traumatic political events and movements—1999 Iran’s student uprising, and the so-called “chain murders.”
What I like about I’m Writing You from Tehran is its myriad female characters. Sepideh, Sara, and Fatemeh are each compelling and distinct, with different fates and futures. The combination of these women gives the book a distinctly feminine infrastructure. Characters like Niloufar and Leyla reflect a Westernized image of Iranian woman. Others wear miniskirts at mixed parties, dance and drink, listen to Madonna, smoke, and don’t care what other people say about them. For these women, their lifestyle is a form of redemption.
The most contradictory character in the book is Fatemeh—the wife of Mahmoud, who is a member of the Basij militia. Although Minoui’s friendship with Mahmoud and Fatemeh seems exaggerated and sometimes strains credulity, Minoui grows with these people and rediscovers not only Iran but also the potential complexity of the mind. The description of Fatemeh’s transformation and her trip to Dubai, where she eats lunch at McDonald’s, and Fatemeh’s experience of reading Gone with the Wind, emphasizes contradictory aspects of her personality.
However, the character I loved most was Sepideh, an innocent but knowledgeable young student whose fate is tragic. A supporter of Khatami and reform, she later becomes a reformist journalist—but during the Green Movement she is imprisoned. Studying and working in Iran, I’ve known many girls like Sepideh—girls like Sahar. For Minoui, Sepideh is a symbol of Iran’s young generation, who voted for a new country in 1997. Like her father, who sacrificed his health in the Iran-Iraq War, Sephideh is the sacrifice of the reformist movement. What I really admire about Sepideh is her courage to fight for what she believes. I’m Writing You from Tehran is not only Minoui’s journey to Iran, it is also Sepideh’s political quest. Her cries on the phone on the night of Ahmadinejad’s success in the 2009 presidential election leads directly to the 2009 protests—the Green Movement.
The early pages of I’m Writing You from Tehran—translated from French by Emma Ramadan—reminded me of a scene of the American movie Argo, directed by Ben Affleck. The plane takes off, Kathy and Joe Stafford hug happily while crying. In the summer of 2009, when her plane is readying to depart Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport, Minoui feels relieved. “The taxi rolls along gray lines. That’s all we can make out in the darkness, gray lines as far as the eye can see, marking out the road to the airport. Outside, beyond the window, the night devours the last forbidden words I heard…. The plane takes off. What does a person think about once she is free?”
Minoui’s dark and gloomy description of Tehran’s atmosphere in the summer of 2009, on the night she said an unwanted goodbye to her roots, shows her transformation. She is no longer that one hundred percent French girl: “I left your country without looking back, how could I say good-bye to a rediscovered part of myself?”
I believe Minoui became not only an Iranian, but also a citizen of the world, and mostly a citizen of the Middle East. In the years since, she has lived in both Tehran and Paris, traveling as a journalist to Beirut, Iraq, and so on. Tellingly, she named her daughter Samarra—an Arabic given name—indicating that Lebanon became a second, or third, home after her farewell to Iran.
I might not have the same political views as Minoui, but nevertheless I feel connected to her. I too like the idea of a country, of thinking beyond boundaries, and Hafiz’s poetry. And like the title of her book—which betrays her roots but appeared in English for American readers—I’m writing you from Tehran.