""We stormed every classroom, inscribed our slogans on the blackboard . . . Never had mayhem brought more peace. All our lives we had been taught the virtues of behaving, and now we were discovering the importance of misbehaving. Too much fear had tainted our days. Too many afternoons had passed in silence, listening to a fanatic's diatribes. We were rebelling because we were not evil, we had not sinned, and we knew nothing of the apocalypse. . . . This was 1979, the year that showed us we could make our own destinies. We were rebelling because rebelling was all we could do to quell the rage in our teenage veins. Together as girls we found the courage we had been told was not in us."" In Journey from the Land of No Roya Hakakian recalls her childhood and adolescence in prerevolutionary Iran with candor and verve. The result is a beautifully written coming-of-age story about one deeply intelligent and perceptive girl's attempt to find an authentic voice of her own at a time of cultural closing and repression. Remarkably, she manages to re-create a time and place dominated by religious fanaticism, violence, and fear with an open heart and often with great humor. Hakakian was twelve years old in 1979 when the revolution swept through Tehran. The daughter of an esteemed poet, she grew up in a household that hummed with intellectual life. Family gatherings were punctuated by witty, satirical exchanges and spontaneous recitations of poetry. But the Hakakians were also part of the very small Jewish population in Iran who witnessed the iron fist of the Islamic fundamentalists increasingly tightening its grip. It is with the innocent confusion of youth that Roya describes her discovery of a swastika--""a plus sign gone awry, a dark reptile with four hungry claws""--painted on the wall near her home. As a schoolgirl she watched as friends accused of reading blasphemous books were escorted from class by Islamic Society guards, never to return. Only much later did Roya learn that she was spared a similar fate because her teacher admired her writing. Hakakian relates in the most poignant, and at times painful, ways what life was like for women after the country fell into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists who had declared an insidious war against them, but we see it all through the eyes of a strong, youthful optimist who somehow came up in the world believing that she was different, knowing she was special. At her loneliest, Roya discovers the consolations of writing while sitting on the rooftop of her house late at night. There, ""pen in hand, I led my own chorus of words, with a melody of my own making."" And she discovers the craft that would ultimately enable her to find her own voice and become her own person. A wonderfully evocative story, Journey from the Land of No reveals an Iran most readers have not encountered and marks the debut of a stunning new talent.
Political upheavals like the fall of the Shah of Iran and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism may be analyzed endlessly by scholars, but eyewitness accounts like Hakakian's help us understand what it was like to experience such a revolution firsthand. The documentary filmmaker and poet was born to a prominent Tehran Jewish family in 1966, two years after the Shah had exiled Islamic fundamentalist leader Ayatollah Khomeini. As Jews in a largely Muslim world, the family knew how to live respectfully with their neighbors. With powerful illustrations, Hakakian relates how, in 1979, when the Shah fled and Khomeini returned triumphant, she joined the cheering crowds. Khomeini's revolution seemed liberating, but before long, the grip of the Islamic extremists tightened. Women were put under strict surveillance; books and speech were censored. Anti-Jewish graffiti appeared. As the targeting became more visible--being made to use separate toilets and drinking fountains, being required to identify their businesses as non-Muslim--many Jews emigrated. After Hakakian describes the teacher who risked her job to give her high marks on a "subversive" paper or grips readers with the tale of how she and her teen buddies barely evaded the morality police, readers just want her to leave, too, which her family did, in 1984. Hakakian's story--so reminiscent of the experiences of Jews in Nazi Germany--is haunting. Maps.
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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June 27, 2005
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Excerpt from Journey from the Land of No by Roya Hakakian
NEW YORK CITY, JULY 13, 1999
It was an ordinary morning at the office. wrapped in a heavy sweater, sleeves pulled over fingers hiding from the arctic indoor summer temperatures, I had every reason to expect this to be a day like any other. CNN was on. A pile of several major dailies lay on one side of my desk, and on the other was a second stack of magazines I had brought back from the Delta Shuttle courtesy stand. The first order of business was to answer e-mails, which I usually managed to do while sipping a tall cup of latte. I glanced at the names in the in-box, keeping an eye out for any breaking news on the Associated Press wire service. The telephone rang.
"Hi, Roya. This is David, David Unger, calling from the New York Times."
"Oh, hi! You are . . ."
"An editorial writer working on a piece on the recent student uprisings in Iran. You come highly recommended as a source. Is this a good time?"
No. It was not a good time. It was never a good time to talk about Iran. I rarely did. But this call, I knew, I had to take. Thousands of students had taken to the streets in the largest pro-reform demonstration since 1979. Now, in the demonstration's third day, the students were calling on the newly elected president, Mohammad Khatami, to join their movement against the "hard-line" elements in power, mainly the supreme leader, Seyed Ali Khamenei. Many had been arrested. A few had disappeared, among them Elahe, a dear friend. And sitting in my office, watching the news, seeing young men and women face the riot police, their shirts bloodied, their faces hidden under rags, thugs charging at them with batons, seeing them be clubbed and fall to the pavement, was all too familiar. All too frustrating. There was nothing I could do to help them or my missing friend, except to talk to an editorialist. In my guilty helplessness, I had placed all hope in the New York Times to save Elahe, the students, and Iran itself in a sharp cluster of five hundred words or less. So I said, "Yes. I have been expecting your call. But hold on for just a minute, please."
This was simply a call between a television journalist and her colleague in print. Still, I got up from my chair, peeked into the hallway, and quietly shut my door. This was a call about Iran; no call could be more personal. We began talking.
I had expected to hear from David. I had also expected the conversation to proceed as it often does with Americans. They come, I had decided, in two kinds: the misinformed, who think of Iran as a backward nation of Arabs, veiled and turbaned, living on the periphery of oases and fairly represented by a government of mullahs; and the misguided, who believed the shah's regime was a puppet government run by the CIA, and who think that Ayatollah Khomeini and his clerical cabal are an authentic, homegrown answer to unwarranted U.S. meddling.
The first group always amused me. In their company, I would blame every appalling trait in my character on my "Bedouin upbringing." Walking along Coney Island beach on a hot summer evening, I licked the drops of ice cream off my palms, and when I saw the shocked look on my date's face, I explained that my lack of etiquette was due to a childhood spent in a land where napkins and utensils were unheard of. His believing blue eyes welled with tears of empathy.
A college roommate once asked what my family used for transportation in Tehran. I told her we kept six camels of various sizes in our backyard. My father rode the papa camel, my mother the mama camel, my brothers the younger camels, and I the baby camel. While my roommate's common sense was still in the grip of political correctness, I went on to design a fantastically intricate grid of four-legged traffic regulations for bovines on even days and equines on odd.
But that second group-those misguided Americans-exasperated me. Bright individuals abandoned inquiry and resorted to obsolete formulas: America had done Iran wrong. Therefore the clerics cut ties with the United States. Therefore the clerics were leading the nation to sovereignty. These individuals had yet to realize that though Iran's rulers fervently opposed U.S. imperialism, they were neither just to nor loved by their own people. This second group had not accepted the notion that the enemy of their enemy was yet another enemy.
It took only one question for me to decide that David belonged to the second group. He asked, "Do the 'reformists,' backed by President Khatami, stand a chance against the 'hard-liners'?"