December 1977 marks the beginning of Roya Hakakian's Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran. That 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 paints the 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. The Irishman's experience of growing up Catholic in the pre-dominantly Protestant Northern Ireland no doubt has provided Roya with comparable testimonials and encounters.
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 world.
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 their lives.”
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.