Rating 4 stars
Read for Women in Translation Month.
Goli Taraghi is a popular Iranian writer, a best seller in Iran whose stories have appeared in a number of anthologies. The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons is a collection of her short fiction, her first collection published in English. The translation is by Sara Khalili. It brings together ten stories about Iran under the last Shah, and life in Tehran and in exile after the Revolution.
Taraghi is from the previous generation to Négar Djavadi. She was born 30 years before her compatriot and fellow exile. Her experience of the key moments in Iran’s recent history inspire a different perspective in her stories. Her characters are the people against whom Kimiâ measures herself in Disoriental. Some of the stories are from the perspective of men, as the members of Iranian society with the most freedom to move from place to place. The majority of the women in the stories are restricted to the domestic sphere. They have thoughts and opinions, but their activities are more limited.
These are tales about traditions and holding onto normality in a world turned upside down. The turning of the characters’ worlds ranges from leaving behind adolescence, escaping an abusive husband, and realising the life you’re leading is a compromise, to losing your home, leaving your country and being thrown into gaol as a consequence of the Revolution.
Not all of the change is tumultuous. It made for poignant reading, meeting characters whose lives had changed in subtle ways, trying to go about their daily lives in the usual way, and yet ever fearful of being accused of doing something wrong. It’s not really the same thing, but at times the pandemic lockdown has felt as though life has changed forever and normal activities, like visiting friends, catching the bus, mooching around shops, have become transgressions.
After the Iranian Revolution, the normal lives of Taraghi’s characters might continue or end at the whim of the Revolutionary Guard. The fear and paranoia in The Gentleman Thief, the first story in the collection, was similar to what I’ve read of Jewish experiences at the beginning of the Third Reich – people feeling that their freedom and their possessions could be taken from them by the governing regime at any moment, because they have broken a rule or not shown the required support for the regime, the summary seizing of possessions becoming something to guard against.
A passage in the third story in the collection captures the confusion that the Revolution wrought.
There is unrest at the university. Someone is giving a speech and the crowd salutes the Prophet and his family. Outside the university walls there are pictures of Imam Khomeini hanging from tree branches and peddlers are selling roasted beets and potatoes. An old woman stops me and shows me a photograph of her martyred son. She cries. The sidewalk is crowded with street vendors selling religious books, jeans, and sneakers. A little farther away, a guerilla fighter is teaching people how to use an Uzi machine gun, and in the shadow of a tree, a man with his wife and children are sitting on a blanket eating lunch.
Amidst all the uncertainty and fear, the domestic and the social continues. Relationships teeter on the edge of failure, tensions heightened, personal space contracting. Social gatherings are held, nights out attended, in the knowledge that arrest and a flogging might follow. People go to work, visit museums formed from the confiscated belongings of the absent, go shopping, gain an education, but against a backdrop of uncertainty.
Those who leave Iran long to return, those who stay veer between believing things will get better and regretting that they didn’t leave, too. Some of them find different ways to escape the change in the city, the tension and suspicion of friends and neighbours, the violence of revolution. Some of them abandon their former ways of living and escape to the countryside, to villages, to the desert. The characters who leave in this way are always men, and the way Taraghi writes them made me think of the men in Murakami’s books, unwilling to accept responsibility for their present situation, running away to places where they are unknown.
Before the Revolution, Iranian life wasn’t without conflict. Life under the Shah could be difficult, too, particularly if you supported the Tudeh Party or the government of Mohammad Mossadegh. The story The Flowers of Shiraz has the coup against Mossadegh in 1953 as its backdrop. It’s a story about teenage love, but it’s imbued with the changes that are beginning in Iran, that eventually lead to the Revolution. The Westernisation of Iranian society under the second Shah also introduced conflict between the modern and the traditional. New status symbols like maids and drivers are described by Taraghi as “change that both pleased and perplexed”. In The Encounter, the choice of a single mother to hire a nanny has terrifying and confusing consequences.
I came away from these stories with a sense of a nation split in half. One side of society is liberal, open to experience, open to difference, sensuous and poetic, the other finds security in rules, conformity and the regularity of religious observance. Even without the religious element, this divide between two extremes of being is familiar. In Britain, I see it in the current politics, in the responses to the pandemic, in the growth of right wing ideologies, in our social media bubbles and echo chambers. Somewhere in the middle are the people who are simply trying to get by, not engaged in the debates between the competing factions. It seems universal, and it seems to exist everywhere that the British, Americans and Russians, individually and collectively, have interfered and destabilised.
It’s not all tension and fear. There’s a lot of humour in these stories, too, much of it dark. The melodramatic responses to some of the situations drew a smile from me, as the characters throwing their hands in the air know that they are overreacting for effect. I particularly liked the Pomegranate Lady in the collection’s titular story, and the way the narrator of the story reacted to her unworldly ways. The Pomegranate Lady might not have the same life experiences as the narrator, but she knows how to get what she wants. The comedy of their shared journey is vaudeville, akin to the work of Norman Wisdom, but it ends on a more black comedy note, not so far from the twists of Inside No 9.
There is also symbolism across the stories. Poplar trees appear regularly. In the mythologies of many cultures, poplars stand for strength, endurance and transformation. In Taraghi’s stories, the characters who notice the poplars are often in a state of transformation and seeking a way to endure their current circumstances. Porcelain bowls also put in frequent appearances, symbols of refinement and privilege, the breaking or loss of which speak for themselves. Silk carpets, too, which often have stories woven into them, carrying stories and traditions through time, are precious objects in some characters’ lives, and sources of mockery for others.
A common thing across the three works of Iranian fiction I’ve now read is the normalised use of opium as a recreational drug. The Blind Owl is the story of an opium addict. Kimiâ’s father in Disoriental socialises over an opium pipe, as do some of the characters in Taraghi’s stories. It made me wonder whether the sense of openness, the dreamlike width of the prose in all three books has its roots in a storytelling tradition that grew out of yarns spun over an opium pipe.
This has been another fascinating look at the history and present of Iran and the lives of Iranians. It is broader in outlook to Disoriental, thanks to these being short stories, windows into the lives of a variety of people.