HOPE in Iran

2012-05-25 08:57

‘Boarding school was hell. It was like going back to the 1950s; you had two inches of water in your bath, and it was run by Christian spinsters with hair like the Queen. It was really horrible. I had the time of my life.”

Writer Kamin Mohammadi is recalling the strange paradox of her school days.

Sent to British boarding school at the age of 10, after her family was exiled from Iran during the Islamic Revolution of 1979, she got none of the latitude a political refugee might expect today.

But once acclimatised, she flourished.

“There was nothing pluralistic about my school. The adults were unsympathetic. I didn’t get any kind of acknowledgement of my situation. I didn’t grow up with a strong sense of my own identity as I might do now, where there’s so much respect for other cultures. I just had to fit in. Which I did, really easily and quickly.”

This supple sense of self is something you can see in her today. It’s also a national trait she pays tribute to in her memoir The Cypress Tree, noting that Iranian people “bend and bend on the wind, but?.?.?.?never break.”

That’s not to say her tensile strength hasn’t been tested. Kamin grew up in the small town of Ahvaz, surrounded by a noisy clan of aunts, uncles and cousins.

This warm family unit was dispersed when revolutionaries targeted her oil worker father for arrest.

The Mohammadi family fled to London. They rented a small flat in Notting Hill and got on with managing the exigencies of British life.

Kamin carved out a career as an editor at Conde Nast and didn’t return to Iran for 17 years.

“I’d had lots of blanks about my childhood,” she says.

“There were lots of things I should have remembered but didn’t. And in those trips to Iran that started in 1996, I suppose I was uncovering (them) slowly. It was traumatic, because it meant having to dig right into part of my history and my family’s history.”

These holidays back home, coupled with the gradual reclamation of her Iranian identity, seeded the beginnings of The Cypress Tree; a meditation on history, family and exile. Yet mining her past came with its own set of problems.

“As Iranians, we’re taught to not talk about our family in public, not to talk about personal stuff, and I noticed when I was writing that kind of conditioning was deep inside me. When you’re writing about other people’s lives, it’s quite tricky to navigate how much you reveal and how much you don’t.”

She admits she was “nervous as hell”, about showing the final draft to her father and forcing her family to confront the pain of separation all over again. But her fears were unfounded.

“My mother didn’t stop smiling for three months. Suddenly her cousins were ringing her up from all over the world. Instead of making them relive the trauma of the revolution, the book was making them relive their lives and their childhoods together.
That’s what I hadn’t thought about in all my trepidation; that I’m telling their story and maybe it’s traumatic, but there’s amazing value in feeling that something terrible that’s happened to you has been witnessed.”

It’s not just the need to see their own experiences articulated that has meant Iranians at large have embraced the book.

In the age of the misery memoir, when the most harrowing histories are parlayed into six-figure deals, Kamin’s clear-eyed, measured take stands apart.

“There’s so little out there about Iran that’s positive. Of course, there’s a lot of darkness in my country, and that needs to be aired. But when it’s all that’s published, you get a skewed view of a country. I wrote a book about how lovely Iran is, and how much I loved it and how happy we were there. And I’ve had a lot of big reactions from Iranians, who have thanked me, for writing about the country they know.”


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