Local Author Sheds Light on Politically Charged Iran of the 1960s
Review of Zohreh Ghahremani’s book, Sky of Red Poppies
Monday, October 10, 2011
Photo by Jim Roland
A former contributor to the Persian Cultural Center's newsletter, Peyk, Zohreh Ghahremani has authored a compelling fictional novel about school friends turning into women at a politically charged time in Iran under the Shah. Set in the 1960s, the novel follows the lives of Shireen and Roya, bright teenage girls full of hope, conviction and idealism. However, after Savak (the Shah’s secret police) enters their school and forcibly removes a fellow student who then disappears, our protagonist, Roya, begins to realize that, in stark contrast to the promise of the Shah’s White Revolution, their lives were more like the red poppies that, despite their harsh surroundings, continued to endure and bloom spectacularly every year without fail on the mud roof of the school’s greenhouse. Roya forms an intuitive unease about a constant yet undefined threat to her personal and school life. Her father will not have Savak mentioned in the house and acts as though there are eyes and ears everywhere. Looking out onto the mud roof through her favorite picture window at school, Roya feels a connection to the poppies:
"Each day, the poppies seemed to reflect my own feelings of joy, sorrow, even fear. They spoke of hope, yet the danger hidden in their essence, that mysterious scent of opium, frightened me. With no gardener to care for them, they rose from that mud with pride, yet bent their heads in modesty. And, although I didn’t know a happier shade of red, they reminded me of sorrow."
Roya’s friend, Shireen, personifies the poppies in Roya’s world more than any other person. Shireen is a quietly devout Moslem who even prays at school. It is Shireen who gives Roya the forbidden book, The Little Black Fish, to read. When Roya fails to see the import of this children’s tale about the fish who bravely seeks to broaden his horizon by going in search of the ocean, Shireen underlines these words:
"Death can come at any moment, but…what matters is that my life, or death, should have a profound effect on the lives of others."
Roya eventually realizes that Shireen is a member of a political opposition group, Fadaiyan. The girls’ paths thus diverge. Roya pursues her medical studies while Shireen immerses herself in her cause. While Roya’s path eventually leads to the United States, Shireen’s leads to prison, torture and grief. Having managed to invest the reader in the lives of these girls, Ghahremani takes us on the journey of their lives through to the dawning of the Islamic Revolution. Is the Revolution what Shireen wanted? Does Roya ever make it back to Iran? Does she ever forgive her father for banishing her from her homeland because he feared for her life?
Ghahremani’s writing is dotted with poetic references and is beautifully lyrical in its style. Just like Roya’s picture window at school through which she admires the poppies, Ghahremani’s story provides us with a window through which we can view the past, both political and personal, and pay homage to those who have left imprints on our hearts and minds. The conclusion of the novel leaves one with an impression that is captured in a poem the sixteen-year-old Shireen reads to Roya by their picture window at school:
You are gone, yet so many flowers come with spring
I am not the only one serenading you; thousands sing.
I scatter on your path one sky of red poppies.
Red poppies, the mirthful gems of the evening brimming.
-- This review was originally published in Peyk Magazine, Edition 131.
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