Looking over war-torn Khorramshahr

Of War and Men

By Behzad Sadeghi
Princeton, New Jersey

Naamey-ee beh Donya (A Letter to the World) by Ismail Fassih. 1995, Iranbooks, Inc. Bethesda, Maryland. 257 pages, $15.95.

I am completely bewildered by current state of Persian fiction. By that, I mean the subjects written about, as well as writing techniques and editing. Iranian writers must have lost it or they may be experiencing some sort of writer's block.

I keep searching for that glitter of hope at the end of a depressing tunnel, always looking forward to new writings, hoping to come across something that can be taken as a sign of progress to restore my confidence in Iranian writing. So when the opportunity came to review Esmail Fassih's latest book, Naamey-ee beh Donya ("A Letter to the World"), I didn't hesitate to accept.

Donya is told in a Fassih's usual non-linear, first-person style. If the reader can get through the irrelevant and boring details that keep popping up all through the story and offer no support to the main events, this book gives a brutally vivid image of the war, seen by a somewhat impartial observer.

We may have not seen Iranian war writers in the same caliber as Tim O'Brien and Pat Barker to tell stories about the forgotten Iran-Iraq war, but Fassih's depiction of the war throughout the story is indeed long overdue in Iranian literature. He offers a casual glimpse of daily life during that horrific period of the war with Iraq when Iranian cities were constantly pounded by bombs and missiles. He displays, almost effortlessly, the desperate condition of urban life, much as he honestly dissected war-time human relationships in his masterpiece, Zemestan-e 62 (Winter of '83).

Donya is the story of a 20-year-old American woman, Angela, who becomes romantically involved with a middle-aged Iranian man, Jalal Aryan (a permanent fixture in almost every one Fassih's novels), who is temporarily visiting the U.S. during the seventies.

Angela and Jalal are crafted to parallel -- even if this parallelism doesn't appear believable at times -- the images of pre-revolution Iran and the U.S. Angela is young and naive (the U.S.) and Jalal is experienced and has tasted the bitterness of history (Iran).

The story opens up during the most intense period of the war in Ahvaz, when Angela and Jalal are looking for Angela's missing son Mehdi (the name and its significance in Shi'ism is no coincidence). The opening is quite gripping, as the narrator gives us a brutal glimpse of the war through vivid images of war-torn Ahvaz, with air raid sirens going off.

During all the misery throughout the story, human endurance is examined under the most intense sufferings. The characters --notably an old army general and his wife, who have imprisoned themselves inside their seemingly suffocating apartment in northern Tehran -- all and all give testimony to the fact that human nature is unbelievably resilient and can endure some of the most unbearable situations.

In spite of this, Donya is more about Jalal as a middle-aged man, with a dark past (irrelevant to the story but relevant to the writer's analogy), who has met a young and beautiful American woman, who appears very much in love with him. Meanwhile Jalal seems completely emotionless at times which makes the reader wonder why any woman would fall in love with him in the first place.

Angela's missing child, Mehdi, is from her marriage to an Iranian whose character is never fully developed. The fate of this child seems to be the same as the fate of the relationship between Iran and the U.S., which I will leave for those interested in the story to discover for themselves.

However, most of the story is about Jalal's nostalgic feelings, his drinking (admission to drinking and drugs in post-revolution writing is a rarity in itself. That's probably one reason why Fassih could not publish the book in Iran for three years and eventually decided to print it in the U.S.) and his dry wit which seems unreal at times.

One does not have to look too deep into the story to feel the nationalistic and nostalgic tone in the narrator's voice. Or to find racist remarks made toward Arabs. The story suffers from inconsistency when the narrator, at times, sounds like a reporter going through war-torn areas, giving detailed accounts of the situation.

At other times, Donya turns into glimpses into the writer's diary (giving painfully detailed accounts), the same fate many other Iranian writings suffer, such as Simin Daneshvar in her last effort, Jazeere-ye Sargardani (Isle of Bewilderment).

Fassih quotes Emily Dickinson at the beginning of the novel that, "This is my letter to the world that it never wrote to me" (translated from Persian). One can't help but think that it may have been better if it had remained unwritten.

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