An historical novel covering the length of the twentieth century.
For Pomegranate Heart
Pomegranate Hearts : Rouhi Shafii, ISBN:095444814-6, Shiraz Press, 2006, Price : £9.99
Available at: www.Amazon.co.uk
‘Pomegranate Hearts’ is an historical as well as a political love story, set in the city of Kerman (Karmanieh as stated in the ancient maps) in the south east of Iran. The story spans the length of the twentieth century. Suri is the fifth girl born into a wealthy Karmanieh family. Mute and neglected by her natural family, she lives with her mother’s special maid, Fatima and when she reaches the age of reason, which is seven, she is ordered to move back into the heram and live in the shadow of her sisters. At the age of 12, Suri is married off to Javad, a Russian-educated socialist and outcast who is three times her age. Javad waits for Suri to grow into an adult and in the meantime teaches her reading and writing and so communicating. Suri falls in love with Javad and flourishes with time, becoming well known among the Karmanieh elite. For 10 years Javad and Suri live a happy life with their 3 children; Sara, Shireen and Sasan. In the early 1940s Javad decides to return to Russia to fight the Nazis. He never returns. Suri is left with three children and a broken heart. She manages to fight the traditional society and send her children to Tehran to study. The children spend their early adult life in the midst of the Shah’s Americanisation and later get caught in the whirlwind of the Revolution. Years later, Shireen travels to Russia to obtain information about her father and from among the decaying KGB archives the truth emerges. ‘Pomegranate Hearts’ is a comprehensive review of twentieth century Iran and the country’s complicated relations with her closest neighbour, Russia. As a storyteller, the author has written the novel in a lyrical language which combines wit and delightful descriptions of nature, especially that of Kerman and the surrounding desert, where the novel was born.
According to Emily Regan Wills, who reviewed the book for the Journal of International Women’s Studies (May 2007 Issue), ‘the story aspires to be an Isabel Allende-like mix of real political intrigue and fascinating characters. The book shines at depicting the world of its characters and gender seclusion and the household politics of servants and housekeepers. Karmanieh is brought alive through magical-realist descriptions of conscious landscape, responding to the suffering of characters and to political developments. It is told in a storyteller’s voice, weaving elements of nature, myth, and personal history into a whole.’
According to Dr Parastou Donyai, who spoke of the book in the London launch (Nov 2006),
“Pomegranate hearts is a novel about ‘freedom’, lack of freedom and the associated consequences. At times there is no inherent freedom; at times existing freedom is removed; at times freedom is bestowed like a heavenly gift.
Freedom must be considered in the light of the prevailing social norms. Early on, we are introduced to one of the traditions in early twentieth-century Iran. The protagonist Suri writes: ‘men lived in the biruni, which were the outer buildings in each household compound and women were confined to the andaruni, which was protected by high walls. I wondered how they could remain such silhouettes; shadows moving under the cover of night, their voices never heard, and their faces covered from the sun and the moon. Captive birds caged and hidden.’ Retrospectively Suri is questioning the many facets of this absence of freedom in women’s lives. They are restricted in their movements, separated from the outer world that belongs to men, and deprived of power and control. But we must remember that at the time this was a way of life. The strong women in Pomegranate Hearts crave freedom, fight for freedom and relish every last drop of what freedom they have. From birth, through life and even afterwards. Shireen writes of her own funeral: “I do not want borrowed funerals in borrowed lands. Let the wild-eyed, long-haired gypsy girl dance with the merriest of songs, reminding me in my borrowed coffin, of my homeland and her snow-covered mountains, her stormy rivers. Let the congregation attend with any dress code they like. Let them bring the food they like and plenty of wine, if they may. By passing away into the other world, getting to know my new neighbours, if I find a bunch of them, I want to share a glass with each of those sinners; Bernard Shaw, Khayam, Hafiz, and that wanderer, womaniser, whom I have loved all my life, Sa’adi of Shiraz. Before you lower me down, splash the earth with particles of that everlasting sun that barely sets in my homeland. No prayers please. I will choose my own prayers if I may. The music must not be forgotten; the best of Iranian tar. You are free to wail or dance but just to the music. If you wish to invite an Akhund to the ceremony, make sure he gets quite drunk and dances with the music. You are free to remember me whichever way you like, or forget me the day after. But do not talk of me as if I had been a saint all my life. If you talk of me, talk of me as a woman, with goodness and badness, with loves and losses.”
According to Isabelle Romaine who wrote a review for Exiled Ink magazine ( 2006), Rouhi Shafii draws our attention to the implications of our actions and our decisions in History. Her text in suggestive and poetic. Favourite metaphors such as ‘desert’ and ‘milky way’ abundant. Implicitly we are reminded that Iran is traditionally renowned for its love of poetry and beauty of nature.
Rouhi Shafii’s comments on Pomegranate Hearts gives a clear picture of the purpose behind her text: Pomegranate Hearts’ is the essence of my life experience and knowledge of the world. In today’s world, where Iran is often placed in the midst of much controversy, reading the history of the country, not through academic books but a novel which familiarises the reader with the wit and humanism of her people and her natural beauties, is a rewarding experience.
The publisher, Shiraz Press announces “proud to have launched this wholesome, insightful novel set in twentieth-century Iran. ‘Pomegranate Hearts’ is a journey into the life and culture of a people little-known to the West. Entertaining, moving and thought-provoking, this love story holds its ground among the very best.”
Available at www.Amazon.co.uk
Pomegranate Hearts, short extracts:
In the midst of winter, suddenly an early spring showed on the horizon. The sun stood at the equinox, the heat woke the nature from her deep sleep, the heap of snow slid down the domes, forming layers of ice over muddy streets which crunched under footsteps, melted and streamed down the brooks. Nature was yawning, stretching, brightening, birds were singing, flower buds rippling, farmers ploughing. All unaware that winter had not yet departed, but waited in the shade of the moon planning his next return. Should he suddenly decide to return, gale-force winds and snowstorms would regain life and an embargo would put the city under an icy siege.
Winters disfigured Karmanieh. Barren, lifeless as far as eyes could see. Cold, crisp as much as the skin could endure. Gardens and orchards were stripped off their glamour turned into skeletons. Frozen brooks lined along frozen streets. Hungry wolves howled at nights. Crows shrilled throughout the days. Beneath the ancient trunks of poplar and cypress trees in the gardens encircling Haji Amir, the wave of multicoloured shrubs and flower beds, which in the spring and summer mirrored and oceanic paradise, turned into piles of dead, grey compost where worms crept over each other and snails dreamt in their shells of a life which would some day stream out. Woven tightly to last longer, crow’s nests at the top branches barely protected, initially remained undamaged but eventually were scattered by further storms and high winds, urging the birds to rebuild on love’s arrival.
Stretching forward a generous hand, in the year 1920, the mild weather encouraged the household to greet the spring earlier than expected. My grandmother, Alieh Khanum turned a blind eye to the winter’s possible return. A Commander-in-Chief, she tightened her chador around her waist, rolled up her sleeves and supervised preparations. From dawn to dusk. Extra hands were called in to assist with extra work. First curtain were brought down, cushions were uncovered and sheets and towels were all piled in the laundry room. Constant hot water was boiled in copper pots stationed on stoves in the adjoining kitchen. And three women squatted on the floor, soaking, scrubbing and squeezing for three consecutive days. Then it was time to rinse the mountain of washing in the central pond. Hammering on the ice didn’t break it but frightened the tiny goldfish beneath who rushed to safety. Alieh Khanum reluctantly retreated from the ritual and silence resumed. The fish retuned to bed, and washing was lined up on the hanging ropes, dancing with the breeze, drying in the sun. China and silverware were unearthed from the trunks, crystal lamps and chandeliers giggled noisily while receiving brilliance. Dust, mud and dead leaves were brushed aside, giving way to a broad smile which sat at the gate. Waiting.
………………….Ismat khanum didn’t detect the mocking tone in the God’s last words. Kneeling, she apologised and promised she would obey Her orders. But still pleadingly, she murmured: ‘dear God please relieve my daughter from her agonies.’ Then taking courage from her own words, she added: ‘after all, You know how difficult it is for a mother to see her child suffering!’ And in her bewildered mind she wondered how God would cope with Her own pregnancies and whom She would pray to, in order to gain absolution and comfort?
…….Waves of dark clouds once again on the attack gathered strength near the peak of the snowy mountains soon to send storms of hail for the punishment of sinners. A piercing flush from the fading sun struck at the purity. Layers of snow thundered down into the plateau and landed at the door of the delivery room. My mother was cluttering her teeth with such intensity that the noise frightened the wasps buzzing around the fruit basket. They ran for safety and disappeared from sight. Under the beam of the holy shrines, the saint whom my mother had befriended during the previous nine months sighed in despair and washed their hands off the whole matter. Forgetful as they were, they glimpsed at her, yawned and turned finished his chants and mid-day prayers had come to a close. The congregation was hurriedly searching among the rows of waiting shoes at the exit. The deafening shrill of the crows ceased. The beggar dervish, who routinely passed through the street at that time of the day, chanting forcefully, asking for charity stopped abruptly. On the veranda, the mother cat alarmed, heralded her kittens to the nearest shelter. Silence flashed through the andarun, spilled into the biruni and whirled out, encircling the city of Karmanieh, my new home.
In that day of the year 1920, a rough hand pulled that tiny body of mine out and for that I screamed and screamed but no sound came out of my mouth. The passage was dark and frightening, the road narrow and I was gasping in the darkened silence. The midwife held me upside down. My arms were dangling and my legs were wide apart. My lashes were drawn by the impulse of curiosity and I saw through a blurred screen, the intensity of gazes fixed upon one spot. Instantly the midwife entered a state of frenzy and I was dropped from her clasp. I was snatched in mid-air. Silence spread its wings over the moment and floated through time and space. Silence and I became one interlaced entity, though I did my best to move away and enter the world of noise.
……….A familiar smell, moistened by the sweet incense and the warmth of an arm entwined around me and a deep sleep landed on my tired body. I returned to my own territory, filled with passion and craving. Outside, the world was coming to an end. An unleashed energy had lifted the earth up and splashed it into the sun’s eyes, almost blinding him. The light was confusingly looking for a corridor to pass through and its rays clashed with each other. The blast poured over the city and buried the inhabitants under an unprecedented snowstorm. A number of shanty dwellings collapsed, chimneys fell and narrow alleyways filled with snow, doors and some houses were blocked from the outside. The tornado of winter 1920 was the hallmark of the day I, Suri set foot in this world.
How have I been able to remember details of the first few years of growing up to become a real wife to my husband is not much of a mystery. The clue is hidden among the journals I have kept since the day I learnt to write. How did it come my mind to register what I had not been able to speak out and keep them safe from intrusion? Well, I do not know. I only remember that once Javad taught me writing, I developed this urge to put my thoughts down and to quickly hide them in fear of discovery.
…….That pyramid of tender love between Javad and I began to build up steadily, softly and in the passing of ten years. Brick by brick, stone by stone, moulded in and interlaced by the essence of human dignity, carved deeper into the life of a girl, who eventually grew out of her muteness.
The first four years Javad ignored the fact6 that I was his wife. He made it clear from the very first day that he had no intention to act as a husband, rather he saw himself as a tutor, an older relative who wanted to drive me out of the shell that has imprisoned me. I grew up to decide for myself to fall in love with him and take him into the deepest corners of my soul. I grew to see that he was my mentor, my husband, my world and the arch of my existence. Finally, I became his wife just as I reached fifteen.
The reception to mark the unveiling of Karmanieh women was held at the governor’s grand mansion, located in the middle of a well-kept Persian garden, outside and away from the heart of the city.
…..The grand reception hall sparkled in its mirror walls and hand carved painted ceilings. The governor’s wife, a tiny slim-built lady of fifty years, with searching eyes and a once well-shaped neck, now sunken into her shoulders, carrying the experience of living abroad, standing at the door in her stylish velvet dress and feather hat to welcome the guests. She and the reception room kept their smiles until the last guest arrived and the party started.
….Suri was among the few who were at ease throughout the reception. Over years and whenever there was an opportunity and as part of her education, Javad khan had talked to her, showed her photos and sketched full pictures and descriptive details of life outside the enclosures of Persia; where men and women walk hand in hand on the streets and nannies take the children out in their prams and ladies dress up to accompany their husbands on social occasions. As a mark of respect men touch the tip of their hats as a lady approaches and passes by them.
Now, self-awareness and confidence poured out of Suri’s figure as she walked in and smiled at the governor and held out her hand to shake his. Gone were the days she was taken into the town square to look at the world through the holes in her ‘roubandeh’. A small sack of potato, rolling, halting, wondering, looking. That looking-glass had long broken into thousand pieces.
…………And the time was passing and happiness was stretching to the horizon. For almost ten years Suri sojourned through the euphoria of a contented life and a peaceful existence. Safe, sound, assured. Asleep, hidden from sight were worries. Gods of happiness, of calmness, o0f soothing nights and cooling days had stationed their headquarters nearby, just close to the door.
And further down across the city, deep in the desert, throughout the country and in the vast world, a hidden terror had began to surface and spears. Twentieth century. Twentieth century was the century of delinquency and gruesome revelation in human history. From the onset, it took its inhabitants not by surprise but through the erupting volcanoes of wars, upheavals, revolutions and coups.
…..While memories were still fresh from the trenches of the First World War that killed millions and set ruins to towns and cities and the bloody Proletarian Revolution in Russia was passing through its infancy to become a rival to the world of capitalism, rumours travelled mouth to mouth, house to house and across the globe of yet another war. A hidden terror was emerging in full force, sweeping across, sparkling fire and burning millions alive, destroying nations.
………..The Second World War, the by-product of greed and blind racism, was crating the plague of a giant rising from the land of Beethoven and Schiller. Hitler. Hitler emerged and took power with the intention to set the world ablaze. Stalin was yet to replace him or walk alongside him as a mass murderer. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Pinochet, leaders of all shades and races and faiths were yet to emerge. Javad happened to become one of the victims of this war.
Imagine you are sitting in the shade of a passion tree, near the edge of a blue pool, with your dearest friend, on this most comfortable bamboo chair, sipping sherbet out of a tall crystal glass. The heat is taken away from the air and the onset of autumn is waiting across the street on the high branches of the ancient trees that had lined along side the Pahlavi avenue.
…..then the bell chimes and the servant walks towards the entry phone in slow paces. We put down our glasses and hold our breath. Mimi makes a face indicating that she did not expect anyone at this hour of the day. We hear a muffled conversation, sit upright, stand on our feet, walk towards the door to the family room and wait. Negar approaches unhurried and points to a well-dressed, old gentleman, who is standing in the middle of the reception room. For a moment I am in total shock. Mimi’s eyes widen and then move to inspect the authenticity of the visitor.