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Five More to Go: Shokoofeh Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree [in The Booklist Reader]

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar

Although the page facing the title of Azar’s first novel to be translated into English clearly states, “Translated from the Farsi,” the linguistic enabler remains anonymous; the publisher’s official line is, “the translator of this book has asked not to be named out of fears for his/her safety.” Author Azar is no stranger to danger, having escaped to Australia as a political refugee in 2011. Her fiction rings too true, bearing witness to the heinous atrocities suffered by bewildered everyday citizens in Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution that overthrew the monarchy and installed Ayatollah Khomeini’s brutal regime.

The titular, albeit mournfully ironic, enlightenment happens to Mom at 2:35 p.m. on August 18, 1988, atop the greengage plum tree at the exact moment when her son, Sohrab, is hanged without trial and his body is about to be dumped into a mass grave with hundreds of victims of the same injustice. Sohrab is her second murdered child, the first having been Bahar, who was burned alive at 13, and whose death doesn’t prevent her from existing among and communicating with the living. The future of the family’s surviving child, Beeta, remains threatened. Despite the relentless tragedy, Azar’s narrative exudes fairy tale charm driven by moments of deep connection that ultimately celebrate human and humane bonds unbroken even in death.

So we’re only a couple weeks into the new year, and Iran has dominated the headlines. Before jumping to politically manipulated conclusions, why not pick up a book? Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis graphic titles (Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood and Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return) have become undeniably enlightening classics. For all its faults, Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran certainly put a spotlight on women’s lives in Iran (try Fatemeh Keshavarz’s Jasmine and Stars: Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran as an antidote). Beyond those best known, here are five more notable books for further reading.


The Last Days of Café Leila by Donia Bijan

Set in a quiet corner of Tehran, the eponymous Café Leila is a welcoming haven, where family and strangers alike have gathered for decades. Seeking solace and refuge after discovering her husband’s infidelity, Noor, a San Francisco nurse, with her teenage daughter, Lily, packs up and returns home to her father, Zod. Despite the politics and revolution ravaging the country, Zod’s kept the doors of Café Leila open to all for decades. Beyond the Café’s walls, the cultural and political restrictions hold fast, but Noor finds the sanctuary she needs, even as her daughter Lily – desperately missing her father and her friends – feels like she’s become a virtual prisoner. Mother and daughter must find new ways to communicate, not only with each other, but while navigating an uncertain, unfamiliar world. Through three generations of displacement, The Last Days of Café Leila deftly, gorgeously explores identity, belonging, families (by blood, by choice), and the ties of unconditional love.


Refuge by Dina Nayeri

Here’s the seemingly simple narrative: a father and daughter are separated and spend the next two decades both avoiding and yearning for reconnection. But Nayeri’s sophomore novel – which adds manifold layers of repeated displacements, political turmoil, mutable identities, disturbing choices, family dysfunction, and even chronic drug addiction to a nonlinear exposition spanning decades, continents, and countries – is anything but straightforward. In June 2009, militant incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed victory in the Iranian presidential election, sending reverberations around the world. Over the next four months, Bahman Hamidi will finally realize that he must extract himself from his homeland, while his daughter, Niloo, for the first time since she fled Iran 22 years earlier, will reclaim her Iranian origins by inserting herself into an Iranian refugee community in Amsterdam. As their stories overlap, the result is both a commemoration of the ties that bind us and an indictment of the estrangement that isolates, and even kills, us.


Song of a Captive Bird by Jasmin Darznik

As the only daughter in a traditional family, Forugh experiences strict expectations of gender that nearly stifle her spirit. She escapes her stagnating marriage, even if it means losing her adored young son; separation is the price she must pay as she matures as a writer, hesitantly then stridently steps toward independence, and refuses to be silenced by the violent horrors of the autocratic Shah’s reign. She seeks freedom and inspiration in love affairs, survives personal betrayals and public vilification, and finds contentment and companionship with a wealthy friend. Denigrated and celebrated both, Persian poet and filmmaker Forugh Farrokhzad becomes a hopeful beacon for Persian women during the widespread tumult of 1950s and 1960s Iran. Tehran-born, U.S.-raised Darznik relies on “Forugh’s own poetry, letters, films, and interviews as source material” for her debut novel, which culminates in spectacular testimony to a creative force whose searing voice has survived censorship, bans, and too-early death.


The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali

Kamali’s stupendous sophomore title stars two young lovers torn apart by class, politics, and history during the violent tumult of 1950s Iran. A Tehran stationery shop becomes the setting where schoolgirl Roya and activist Bahman fall in love, become engaged, and almost marry. Despite their devotion – enabled by shopowner Mr. Fakhri, who is himself no stranger to thwarted first love – separation proves inevitable. A devastated Roya is eventually (miraculously) sent to college in California with her sister Zari. She marries patient, adoring Bostonian Walter, experiences setbacks and celebrations, but never quite forgets what could have been a very different life. Six decades pass and septuagenarian Roya walks into another stationery shop, eerily familiar, to learn that Bahman lives in a retirement facility nearby. Their reunion is destined, and finally both lovers will have their lifelong, elusive answers.


Zahra’s Paradise by Amir and illustrated by Khalid

“The authors have chosen anonymity for obvious political reasons.” When you know something like that about a book – that lives were willing to be risked to get a story out – how could you possibly not read it? Written by Persian activist/journalist/documentary maker Amir and illustrated by Arab artist Khalil, Zahra’s Paradise began as an online serial web comic. To ensure worldwide access, the series was released simultaneously in English, Farsi, Arabic, French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Korean, Hebrew, Portuguese, German, Swedish, and Finnish. The story – set in the aftermath of Iran’s contested June 2009 presidential elections, which declared incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad victor – was considered that important. Now with Iran back in daily headlines, the urgency to read Zahra’s Paradise grows ever stronger. One brother disappears, another brother searches frantically, and families beg for information, witness the horror, and dream of peace.


Published: “Five More to Go: Shokoofeh Azar’s THE ENLIGHTENMENT OF THE GREENGAGE TREE,” The Booklist Reader, January 15, 2020


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