Angela Meyer reviews Iran: My Grandfather by Ali Alizadeh
Iran: My Grandfather
by Ali Alizadeh
Transit Lounge, 2010
Reviewed by ANGELA MEYER
Iran’s fascinating, in parts beautiful and in parts horrific history is worthy of account: the contextual conflict; religion versus progress; and all the complex in-betweens. So many good intentions, misinterpretations, capitulations, and fluctuations has this country endured. Its citizens have swayed with vicissitudes, standing up and being beaten down, feeling that one thing is right until it goes too far, feeling that the other thing is not right at all. And then big, shadowy players like England, Germany, and the US have entered with their devastating and oft confusing (for the citizens, for the reader) interferences.
Ali Alizadeh’s Iran: My Grandfather, is the history of Iran through the lens of the author’s grandfather Salman Fuladvand. From Salman’s birth in the democratic Iran of 1905, through to his death as a disenchanted man attempting to find peace as a Sufi poet in the ‘70s, Salman witnessed the rise and fall of revolution, injustice; and knew that terror, in the form of the reactionary rise of Islamic fundamentalism, would become worse after his death. Having never been a Muslim, by the time he died, Salman had stopped believing in progress.
Alizadeh begins the book with a moving but not entirely necessary explanation of his reasons for writing the book. All his points are valid: ‘I have read many accounts of what went wrong in Iran, the trouble with Islam, and the like, and yet I am left bored, unsatisfied and disembodied’ (p. 5), but the main, novelistic narrative of the book speaks for itself. The (albeit justified) forthright anger of this front section might alienate some readers – the kind of readers who, perhaps, should be reading this book, the better to understand Iran’s rich history and the bold, destructive interference of Western powers.
The end of this chapter explains why Alizadeh has chosen his grandfather as the lens, and it becomes more evident, throughout the book – as his grandfather’s life was absorbing, privileged and vital, spanning many eras. He writes: ‘His life is not a crystal ball but a mirror. I’d like to see myself, and also you, reader – you and humans like us, in the mirror’ (p. 7). The book is not just a history, it’s an exploration of belief and error, of passion and disappointment, of individual and collective fate – fate sometimes autonomous, and on many occasions forced into shape by some external force.
The main, effective body of the book is written as historical fiction – the author’s grandfather’s life-story is intertwined with the life of the country. The book is never dull or dreary, but passionate (without being as forceful as the prologue.) It’s absorbing and informative simultaneously.
When the Qajar monarch was deposed in 1925 and Reza Khan took over as Shah, Alizadeh’s grandfather, Salman, became a policeman and was required to undertake military training. His pregnant wife, Tahereh, disagreed with the new Shah’s plans for modernising Iran. On p. 35, they argue over baby names. Tahereh wants an Iranian Muslim name, but Salman says: ‘Stop being so melodramatic, sweetheart. I think we should choose original Persian names. Names that Iranians used before the damn Arabs and their Islam invaded us.’ This micro-conflict is representative of the simmering differences throughout the population through many tyrannical, or short-lived, well-meaning, rulers over the following decades. One of the Shah’s impositions in 1935 was the banning of the veil for women, which Salman agreed with – his mother was a feminist and he himself believed women should be emancipated. But an incident is depicted which is very strong in the way it portrays the confusion of the clash between forced ‘freedom’, and choice: A woman refuses to remove her veil and Salman, as is his duty, must remove it by force.
‘He hears the woman whimper as he grimaces and, without looking directly at her, first tears off her face mask and then the long black fabric of her chador. She shrieks as though he were raping or stabbing her. Startled by her reaction, Salman lets go of her. She falls to her knees and starts beating herself over the head.’ (pp. 62–63).
Such a scene is frightening and difficult for the reader. Salman is our hero, and yet, we feel much empathy for the woman, who cannot contemplate Salman’s reasons for baring her – she cannot comprehend the law. This scene is also an emotional precursor, in microcosm, to later violent uprisings against secular laws and secular rule, or any kind of rule or aid that is not Islamic. But of course – there are reactions and then there are outrageous and terrible and fanatical reactions. And Alizadeh lets the reader make up their own mind, or allows them to contemplate the complexity of the chain (and loop) of actions and reactions in Iran’s history.
The ‘Great’ Reza Shah’s ideas and his hunger for power became larger, and as is always the case in these situations, opinion against power was quashed. Salman, in the 1940s back in his hometown as Police Chief, was certainly beginning to question the leader he once looked up to. A Prince being held in the jail of his district is killed without a trial, and Salman asks his Sergeant: ‘Do you think [Reza Shah] is steering the country in an ethically and politically viable direction … Or do you think, as I do, that his modernism is giving way to totalitarianism?’ (p. 80). Indeed the Shah and Nazi Germany were in cahoots, and Salman lost an eye standing up to a German scholar whom he suspected of using construction funds to buy Iranian archaeological treasures for museums in Europe.
After the Shah finally stepped down and Iran was taken for the Allies, the new Shah proved his mettle by publicly doing justice to the ‘perpetrators’ of the last regime. In this, Salman was falsely accused of the murder of the Prince who had been in his custody. He was sent to Qasr Prison – where, over the ensuing chapters, he undergoes much change and resolves himself to accepting a kind of powerlessness, passing through madness, to a shaky kind of peace. The story follows the family’s destiny until Alizadeh himself left Iran with his family as a teenager. It describes the rich, first world Iran of the 1970s, the Islamic uprising, the US involvement in bringing the Ayatollah into power. It suggests why the Ayatollah was accepted as an alternative voice to the people – tired of their megalomaniac Shah and in the absence of leftist/intellectual voices, and it references the Iraq/Iran war, with its horrific death toll. When Salman’s voice has passed, Alizadeh himself becomes the ‘mirror’ for the reader.
The writing itself is absorbing and polished. The structure works, in particular the intertwining histories: the microcosm of a grandfather’s life and the macro narrative of the country. The narrative is also peppered with aptly cryptic translations of Sufi poetry – which is something Salman was comforted by in prison. The complexity, the abstraction – these are things Salman can understand, not reason nor faith. ‘The rose that does not assume the heart’s colour/Shall be mired in the mud of its quintessence’ (p. 165).
One comes away with a feeling of heaviness, sadness and a sense of hope – for the understanding of people, for a diminishing role of greed, for countries of such rich and scarred history to one day be ruled as independently and fairly as possible, and for more books like this to be published and widely read.