AZADI: PROTEST IN THE STREETS OF TEHRAN
By Saideh Pakravan
Parallel Books, $16.95, 356 pages
When the history of the 2011 Arab revolts is written, it may be forgotten that the first pro-democracy uprising in the region was not Arab, but Persian. In June 2009, two years before a wave of democratic revolts swept through Tunisia, Egypt and a half-dozen other Arab dictatorships, hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets to protest an allegedly rigged election. Iran’s theocrats suppressed it bloodily, although their repression was subtler than bombing their people from the sky or machine-gunning them from rooftops and hovering helicopters as the regimes in Libya, Yemen and Bahrain have done.
Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen provided “happy endings” as the people overthrew their dictators, but their revolutions did not end there. Rather, they entered their most fascinating phase - not so much the hard work of teasing a fledgling democracy from the catacombs of authoritarianism as that of harsh counterrevolution. As the Egyptian army bans all protests, clears sit-ins from Tahrir Square with lethal force and forbids newspapers from criticizing it without submitting to the scrutiny of a censorship committee, what guidance can literature provide about what happens to revolutionaries in the eerie silence of their uprising’s aftermath?
“Azadi” provides an answer of sorts. The recently published novel inspired by the Iranian turmoil offers a cautionary tale for the morning after. Its protagonist, Raha, is a pretty, uptown girl from a well-off family. She is detained at an anti-regime protest, and the Islamic republic’s moral guardians imprison and rape her.
Typical of the largely apolitical urban middle class that donned green wristbands and took to the streets in June 2009, Raha and her boyfriend, Kian, swapped the luxury of a Westernized bubble tolerated by the Islamic republic in exchange for their political apathy and erupted in anger. In return, the regime repressed them while denouncing them as “Westoxified” as a means of marginalizing them. As far as the official media were concerned, those calling for civil rights were nothing but cultural fifth columnists for Iran’s enemies.
So author Saideh Pakravan’s introduction of Hossein, a working-class 20-something soldier in the Revolutionary Guard who plays anti-protagonist to Raha’s descent from privilege to trauma, is particularly fascinating. After colliding, these inhabitants of parallel universes come together by means of a literary ploy.
Ms. Pakravan employs some deft character development that tugs at our emotional chords, but perhaps her greatest achievement is - through the comedy of misinterpretations that Hossein and Raha’s interactions are - the highlighting of Iran’s foundational tragedy: a sophisticated but segregated society whose classes hardly communicate.
“We’re running these little circles round each other, putting into words watered-down versions of what’s on our mind, keeping so much more unmentioned inside,” Raha thinks to herself as she and Hossein tiptoe around each other’s biases. “We live in a society with too many impossibilities. Like everyone here, we don’t say what we think, and sometimes we hardly dare think for fear of consequences, of retaliation, retribution. We transport to our private life what we’re so accustomed to doing in our public life. I feel stifled at never being able to express what’s in my heart.”
Ms. Pakravan escapes the self-inflicted ghettoization that often afflicts Iranian liberal urbanites writing about other Iranian liberal urbanites for an Iranian liberal urbanite audience by narrating her book through multiple characters, all rendered in the first person. The intensely realistic characterization with which she endows her different characters enables their narrating voices to adopt the mannerisms and vernacular of their social backgrounds.
Unlike other recent fiction offerings set in contemporary Iran that lack conviction in their renderings of the Iranian psyche and its motivations, Ms. Pakravan’s book has that sheen of authenticity, thanks to her Iranian roots.
Some memorable personalities include Raha’s uncle, a cynic old enough to remember pre-revolutionary Iran; Mr. Shahrvandi, the consummate Revolutionary Guard insider beset by doubts about the Islamic republic’s direction; and Gita, an Iranian-American who parachutes into Tehran in its most critical hour to provide a much-needed outsider perspective. Farsi-learners will enjoy the large number of colloquial Persian words and expressions sprinkled throughout the novel, helpfully supplemented by their English translations.
Though the narrative lacks sparkle, it is brought alive by Raha’s extraordinarily realistic rape scene and her dilemma, in its aftermath, over whether to publicly take on the Islamic republic and seek some accountability.
So what is the take-away from these revolts, Arab and Persian? That establishing a new society is harder than ripping up an old order - which in turn is harder than getting together with like-minded people on a social network and planning nonviolence.
As Raha contemplates her personal trauma cast upon the ruins of her generation’s uprising, she wonders what the meaning was of having “those demonstrations, the marches, the slogans? What did they think, those people wearing green, what did I think? That things could change? That we could speak, write, act, without being afraid? It doesn’t work that way. Not for a long time, it doesn’t. People are kept down, sometimes for decades, crushed by a regime as grotesque as it is heartless.”
But in a rally that represents the book’s ultimately hopeful message, Raha goes on to contemplate how, “overnight, the accumulated pressure makes everything explode, the prison doors open, walls are pulled down, an impossible order is destroyed and gone without even its dust remaining. Oppression is doomed, I know that. History is our insurance for the future.”