Friday, March 06, 2020

Iran: To Keep the Sun Alive, by Rabeah Ghaffari

I'm beginning to realise that the books I enjoy most by authors from other countries are those where the author left and moved to the west at a fairly young age - say late teens - or at least has a considerable amount of education in the west. (America, Canada, the UK, Australia etc). And they are often female. This is not really surprising, but a bit disappointing - I would really like to enjoy books written by someone from a very different country, who has lived in that country their whole lives, and sometimes I do, but such books seem hard to find.

So we have the book in the previous post written by a Syrian male who lived there most of his life before leaving for political reasons - which I didn't enjoy all that much. (I wasn't alone in this. A review in the Irish Times described it as having "a tone between male porno fantasy and misogyny".)

And then there is the book that is the subject of this review. It is a powerful piece of storytelling that I found myself thoroughly immersed in. Set around 1979 with the Iranian Revolution just around the corner, it follows events in the lives of one extended family. Every week they gather for lunch at the home a retired judge and his wife, Bibi-Khanoom. The characters include their adopted son, Jafar, who never speaks, Bibi-Khanoom's grand-niece, Nasreen, and the judge's brother, a Mullah, Shazdehpoor, the son of his dead sister, and Shazdehpoor's son Madjid.

Madjid and Nasreen fall in love. But he is attracted by revolutionary ideals, and leaves for the city where he falls in with radical students, only to become disillusioned. Meanwhile back in his home town of Naishapur, things are coming to a head, when, on the day of a solar eclipse, an important Muslim holy day happens to fall on the same day as an ancient Persian festival. In this festival young men jump over a fire and chant, "to keep the sun alive". The conflict of the two festivals will prove disastrous for the judge's family.

Framing the chapters set at the time of the revolution are passages describing Shazdehpoor's life in Paris, many years later, when another solar eclipse prompts him to recall what happened so many years ago.

The story is richly layered and full of lyrical prose. The problems of belief are sympathetically described and none of the characters are in the least one dimensional - both the fundamentalist viewpoint, and that of the more liberal members of the family, are given a fair hearing.

Rabeah Ghaffari was born in Iran and now lives in New York City. To Keep the Sun Alive was published in 2019 by Catapult (New York).

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