Poetry and revolution
Hakakian's book is a seemingly simple yet complex
composition of at once tender and bitter memories
January 18, 2005
December 1977 marks the beginning of Roya Hakakian's
Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary
Hakakian commences her autobiographical tale just prior to the
country's most turbulent period, in its recent history, tempts
us to anticipate an Anne Frankian tale of brutal hardship. At best,
the reader foresees a callous ride through the 1979 Iranian Revolution,
and at worst, a solemnly grave ending.
On the contrary, we witness our story's charming and spirited
ten-year old heroine pen her way out of an imaginably grim youth.
In her first published book in English, Hakakian expresses deep
empathy, longing, and affection for her native country, its language
and culture; she has published volumes of poetry in Persian,
including translations of works by Emily Dickinson. The author
portrait of her childhood on the brusquely woven canvas of Diaspora,
in consciously alert series of scenarios.
Just what is it that makes Journey from the Land of No a must
read? After all, this is a story whose ending we know from the
outset; it is written on the book's dust jacket! "Roya
Hakakian is a former associate producer at CBS' 60 minutes
and a documentary film maker. She is the author of two volumes
of acclaimed poetry in Persian... She lives in Connecticut."
Furthermore, Hakakian's tale is no different from what
millions of teenagers experienced during those still inexplicably
mutinous years. Millions of Christian, Bahai, Jewish, Atheist,
Sunni, Shi'i, etc... Iranians went through assorted variations
on the same theme of setting out on a journey of hope and finding
the boundaries of their private and public lives increasingly constricted.
If not at first hand, almost all Iranian, and non-Iranian readers,
are familiar with the events in the book through dozens of memoirs
and hundreds of other books, articles, and documentaries that have
been published and produced, since 1979.
Roya's subtly yet manifestly poetic language is enough
reason to urge any reader to pick up the Journey and [re]live through
the events of a childhood riddled with expectations, turmoil, and
irrationality with equal degree of engagement.
Like her father, Roya wrote and, later, crafted poetry to comfort,
console and defend herself, "[My father] locked himself in
a room for days to forge his own brand of remedy: compose a poem
for the passport officials!... Thrilled by his creation, he
smiled the smile of a great schemer on the verge of pulling a most
vicious trick on his unknowing adversaries."
As academics 'problematize' human issues and conflicts,
Roya the poet/ writer/ film-maker sensualizes them to great effect. "I rhyme to see myself, to set the darkness echoing," she
quotes the magnificent Noble Prize winning poet, Seamus Heaney.
experience of growing up Catholic in the pre-dominantly Protestant
Northern Ireland no doubt has provided Roya with comparable testimonials
As an Iranian Jewish woman, Roya's poetics functions
in the same curative and self-defining fashion as Heaney's,
and her father's, have done before her. In Journey, we learn
how poetry has served Hakakian as a most expressive device, helping
her get through times when women and members of minority groups
-- identified equally by ideological conviction as religious
or racial divide -- ,
found themselves under stern social and political restraint.
Poetry and revolution are the stuff of Roya's tale! By
the time the author had led the "Passover Rebellion of 1979" -
demanding her own and her classmates' right for days off
during the religious holiday - Roya had shed the "ghetto" attitude.
She had adopted her countrymen and women's contemporary Revolutionary
spirit to claim civil liberties. As a documentary filmmaker, Hakakian
continues to do the same; in Armed and Innocent, a film commissioned
by UNICEF and in collaboration with Robert DeNiro, she deals with
the subject of the involvement of underage children in wars around
The author is well aware of enduring social conflict, as a child.
Her own experience of growing up in Iran was at once integrative
and equally self-marginalizing. Roya confesses that whilst a teenager,
she attended Raah-e Danesh Hebrew Day School, spent her evenings
with The Jewish Iranian Students Organization, and her weekends
with the Dreamers - a group of Jewish friends - climbing the Alborz
mountain, just outside Tehran.
Not surprisingly, leading such self-isolating lifestyle resulted
in what Hakakian explains as the shift in her mood whilst being
with Jews or Muslims. Being with Jews was "effortless, like
being in my pajamas." Whilst being with a mixed group of
Jews and Muslims was "like being in my party dress... the
fabric itched... [Yet] I liked how it changed me... I liked
how all of us reshuffled to put on our dress as a family."
Throughout the following twenty-five years, millions of Iranians
living away from home have been wearing Hakakian's "party
dress," with a pinch here and an itch there..., wishfully,
and hopefully, "liking how it changes them."
In a recent article entitled, "Fundamentals of an Iran
in Exile," Hakakian further explicates her saga, contextualizing
it in her own manifestly empathetic fashion, "The five years
following the 1979 revolution and the way in which they had affected
the Jews of Iran were difficult to sum up, though all the alarming
signs existed... But life had worsened for everyone I knew.
In some ways, life had worsened for our Muslim friends, neighbors
and colleagues far more than it had for us. Whereas Jews had lost
the opportunities to thrive academically and professionally, secular
Muslims who didn't share in the new regime's outlook were losing
At one point, Roya recalls her Muslim friend, Z, telling her, "You
are Jewish, wherever you go you can get a visa, what about me?"
Hakakian's book is a seemingly simple yet complex composition
of at once tender and bitter memories enough to rouse our homesick
longings. Whilst polite, bourgeois Iranians beat around the bush
when talking about their personal lives - god forbid IF we ever
do - Roya weaves mystic tales out of everyday encounters and common
experiences. Again, they are common because there have been shared
by millions of people!
In Journey from the Land of No, Hakakian has produced a delicately
tender and poetic book in the tradition-in-the-making of Iranian
women's memoirs which have been making their way up international
best-seller lists: Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran,
and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, Vols. I & II.
Like Nafisi and Satrapi, Hakakian is an Iranian woman who proudly
recalls images of her daring country women like "Dr. Zohreh
Abedinzadeh, the chief of the nations' atomic experts, surrounded
by men in white;" and, her favorite, "Pari Khanoom,
the nation's first woman trailer driver."
Satisfying Westerners' ravenous appetite for the myriad
faces of Life in the East, most especially of Middle Eastern women,
Journey serves as a luscious and satisfying meal! Moreover, this
tale just may alter or moderate their biased understanding of Iran,
Iranians, and their relationship with fellow Jewish country men
and women. Most Americans I have spoken with do not even know that,
even today, Iran has the largest community of Jews in the Middle
East, outside Israel. (Frankly, as a gentile, even I was surprised
to find this out!)
In "Fundamentals of an Iran in Exile" (though, not
in Journey!), Roya explains, "What drove Jews out of Iran
[was]... not an anti-Semitic nation. Our neighbors prayed for
our safe passage, and marked our departure by throwing water behind
us for good luck. Our friends shed tears as they saw us to the
airport to bid us farewell."
At the end of the day, however, the book leaves us wanting more.
Hakakian often concludes her chapters abruptly as she suddenly
wraps up each scenario; she leaves her readers vacillating between
probable intentions and conclusions. If only she gave us more clues
in her poetics, more wit, more reminiscence, ... or more facts
we would, then, part her company more satisfied!
As an already devoted fan, this reader certainly hopes that in Journey:
the Sequel, Hakakian pushes 'more' boundaries "to
pry into root, to finger slime, to stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into
some spring... " That she takes 'more' time ... to
explain herself. That she continues to "rhyme" and "to
set the darkness echoing" louder, more pronounced.
"Courage, Roya, Courage!"