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Childhood in a changing nation

Journey From the Land of No A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran Roya Hakakian Crown: 246 pp., $23

August 15, 2004|Gina Nahai | Gina Nahai is the author of several novels, including "Sunday's Silence" and "Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith."

The epigraph to Roya Hakakian's memoir is a poem by Seamus Heaney in which he likens the act of writing to that of staring into a bottomless well: Through the darkness, the face that stares back at the writer is invariably his own.

That everything we write is about ourselves is not a novel idea. The only difference between a memoir and other forms of fiction (I use that word here intentionally) is the writer's claim of truthfulness -- given, of course, the caprices and limitations of memory. Ultimately, though, a writer's challenge is to speak not only of herself but to the reader: to establish, through that sometimes magical, often elusive process, a connection with the reader that transcends you or me and that arrives at a larger, more universal, understanding of us.

If held to that standard, "Journey From the Land of No" is a work in progress.

An acclaimed poet and a former producer for "60 Minutes," Hakakian has set out to recount her experience as an Iranian Jewish woman through the Islamic Revolution and under the reign of the ayatollahs in Iran. That she promises an account more authentic, perhaps more accurate, than the myriad others that have been rendered throughout the last 23 years, is both touching and unfair.

"What you once witnessed," she says early in the book, "is the story that brought journalists to your doorstep, but they left without the scoop. What you once witnessed is what scholars sought in the archives but did not find. What you once witnessed is what biographers intended to write." The many writers and directors of memoirs and documentary films about Iran and Iranians in the last three decades may feel, not without justification, that witness has indeed been borne and that archives have been fed even before Hakakian decided to speak.

Still, it is true that every person's experience represents a different version of the same truth, and Hakakian does have a wonderful gift for defining certain telling subtleties. She manages this admirably when speaking of her mother's generation of Jewish Iranian women, or when she paints the lonely desperation of a middle-aged neighbor at the crossroads of life: "In that dim light, in the corner of the couch, barely blinking, not reading, radio silent, the television rarely on, she was an old spider, stuck to her own web."

Given Hakakian's strengths, therefore, a reader may not mind her sometimes overblown self-image (the many references to herself as "a genius" or the lengths to which she goes to establish that she was the smartest, most gifted student in her grade year after year). The reader may also overlook some failed attempts at lyricism (using the literal translation of the word Roya, her first name, in English, she says, "[T]hroughout 1984, Roya, the dream, had only nightmares") or even forgive the instances where that lyricism has degenerated into bad poetry. (Having described a cousin's act of applying makeup as "the operation of a lone goddess," Hakakian takes us through the entire process only to warn that the girl's one limitation was with eye shadow: "Shadows were her only weakness, as she sometimes had trouble applying them without having them dust her eyelashes. Shadows, alas, the shadows!")

No doubt the Western reader, still largely unfamiliar with the daily rhythms of life in the East, can find pleasure simply in watching that world through the window provided in this book. Nevertheless, there is one essential element sorely missing here, and its absence glares like the white face in Heaney's well: It is that of personal and political perspective.

Beginning with her childhood, Hakakian describes in great detail her family and early surroundings. She spends an entire chapter recalling her handsome, Westernized Uncle Ardi, his baby blue BMW and his scandalous love affair with a Muslim girl. When his mother forbids him to marry the girl, Ardi storms out of the house and, in a blind rage, drives into an elderly man in a village somewhere between Tehran and the Caspian shore. What follows in Hakakian's account is astonishing by default: Bailed out of jail, Ardi escapes to Israel, where he will not only avoid facing his victim but also forget his Muslim lover in favor of a Jewish wife. The family, we are told, misses him terribly, but no one -- including the author -- seems to question his escape or recognize it as the act of cowardice that it is. Having treated us to no less than 21 pages worth of Uncle Ardi's attributes, Hakakian provides one sentence to justify his escape: "A Jew had run over a Muslim.... Would there be justice, especially if the old man died?"

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