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Last week, Roya Hakakian was chosen as a DeWitt/Wallace Reader's Digest Fellow. Last January, when she was a fellow at the MacDowell Colony for artists, she made this presentation at the Peterborough Historical Society.

The sound of words
In words, in literature, we wrapped ourselves and waited

By Roya Hakakiann
August 24, 2003
The Iranian

Good evening,

I don't know if readings can be dedicated to towns, but if such a thing is possible, I'd like to dedicate tonight's reading to your town, to Peterborough. For nearly four weeks, I've been prancing around my studio, calling home every few hours, to say with a surprise that has yet to abate:

"Mom, they deliver my lunch in a basket!"

It's of course not just about the lunch -- though supremely sumptuous. It's about a dream that has been delivered to me or to which you have delivered me. It's about having finally arrived at writing, at a dream identity.

Ladies and gentleman,

I am a writer. I am an Iranian, a Jew, an American too. But into these identities I was born or upon them I reluctantly arrived. But not this one. Even as a little girl, I didn't entertain wedding fantasies but only those of my grown up self, toiling over pages. I had watched my father spend an entire afternoon fine-tuning a poem and decided that I could spend a lifetime doing just the same.

I adored Persian as a language and kicked around words in my head all day, the way my friends kicked around a ball. My mind was made up by the time I turned twelve and I didn't equivocate when I was asked what I wanted to do when I grew up.

But the country beat me to growing up. In February of 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran from a fifteen-year exile and within two weeks, 2,500 years of monarchy ended. Just like that, in two monosyllabic words: Shah gone! And within a year, so did two-thirds of Iran's Jewish population, a community whose history in Iran preceded that of the Moslems by several hundred years. Within five years, my family was contemplating political asylum.

I kept on writing through those years. Not because I wanted to. But because everything else was slipping away. Bad writers were appointed editor-in-chiefs of literary magazines. Good writers were banned from publishing. Great writers were executed. It was no longer safe to write. It never had been in Iran.

The Shah's secret service, SAVAK, had harassed artists for many years. But whereas the old SAVAK agents were mere bureaucrats just doing their jobs, the new religious zealots were performing God's will. It was the worst of times. But I resigned myself to my bad habit, like a hopeless drunk. This is merely a metaphor, ladies and gentlemen, as all alcoholic beverages had by then been banned in addition to music, dance, most sports, even chess.

Under those circumstances, literature was no longer a hobby or even a vocation. It was a panacea. The panacea. Women could no longer appear in public without full Islamic uniforms. Images of all things we had once enjoyed had been defaced, covered or transformed into things we no longer recognized -- with their details fast fading from our memory-- until one day nothing but a faint outline remained. And each time those outlines were conjured, they faded even more. I suppose it's why taking photographs, exposing precious images to light, is prohibited in museums.

Until at last, the only thing still intact was sound. Only sound. The sound of words. In words we could remember the past and we could project into the future. In words, memory and hope joined. In words, in literature, we wrapped ourselves and waited.

The piece that I’ll read to you is a moment of my life on the Alley of the Distinguished, that's what the Alley was really called believe it or not, in 1978, just before the rule of the Pahlavi dynasty ended and Ayatollah Khomeini returned. It's a rough draft, from the middle of my book, with which I've been toying at the MacDowell. So rough that when you see its final polished version in the book, feel free to say, "oh yeah, we showed her how to fix it."

This reading is dedicated to you because this is the very fist time in my life that I have been acknowledged as a writer without being subsequently harmed. On the contrary, I've been having a blast. You have officially inaugurated me and for that I'm indebted to your town, even to your state, its woeful politics notwithstanding.

So, without further ado, I will read to you from a chapter called "The Rooftops"... (The book will be published in early 2004 by Crown)

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By Roya Hakakian




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