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Arts & Culture

Poetry, magic and a war-torn childhood in 'A Girl Called Rumi'

Author Ari Honarvar and the cover of her book, "A Girl Called Rumi"
Brian Sherwin / Forest Avenue Press
Ari Honarvar is shown in an undated photo. Her book, "A Girl Called Rumi" was published Sept. 21, 2021.

San Diego author Ari Honarvar's debut novel is set in her hometown of Shiraz, Iran during the Iran-Iraq war.

San Diego author Ari Honarvar was born in Shiraz, Iran, and grew up during the throes of the Iran-Iraq war. Her debut novel, "A Girl Called Rumi," was published in late September.

"A Girl Called Rumi" follows a nine-year-old girl, Kimia and her family — and a strange, mystical storyteller. Set in fragmented, multiple points of view that hop between 1981 to 2009, the book beautifully captures the complexity of a family's experience, both in moments of catastrophic divergence and harmonic convergence.

A childhood in conflict

Kimia's life in post-Revolution Iran is drawn from Honarvar's own experience. When she was young, women in Iran lost their rights to sing or dance, even run in public. Honarvar tried to dress like a boy for as long as she could, but freedom of expression was stifling for her city of Shiraz.

"We were being attacked from outside, but also from within. There was an actual war, and people were so on the edge that they would have a heart attack when the door would slam. I wanted to bring that kind of element — what happens when a whole region is thrown into the crucible of oppression and war, and what happens to relationships."

In the opening scene, Kimia is out on a simple errand for her strict and fiery-tempered mother, but a spectacle distracts her — a stage in the city square with a trio of musicians and a mysterious old man.

"I wasn't supposed to be there. I'd been on my way to the bakery to buy naan for dinner. But then — the siren call. What nine-year-old can resist a story?"
From "A Girl Called Rumi"

Kimia is enthralled, her bread money forgotten in her hands, until a bomb is dropped nearby.

"A fiery sun rose behind the stage, sending sparks over the rooftop. It took a moment for me to grasp that this wasn't part of the show. All around me people rushed about, their faces contorted in screams. But a strange silence had enveloped me. I was motionless in the midst of the chaos, staring at the storyteller."
From "A Girl Called Rumi"

Honarvar wanted the book to explore the overlap of childhood and conflict — for families unable to leave war zones but also for refugees, and the impact leaving home has on someone.

With the layers of both fear of air raids and the loss of entertainment and social freedoms associated with post-Revolution Iran, Kimia and her family and friends had to find joy wherever they could.

"Our favorite pastimes became a crime — playing cards, backgammon, music, dancing. So we had two choices, one to take risks that could end our freedom or life, or two, become resourceful in how we brought in joy to our lives. I relied on this soul-saving power of poetry and storytelling, and I chose to do both small and large acts of defiance against the injustice against women and me," Honarvar said.

Finding joy in a war-torn world

The parts of the book set in 1981 are peppered with near-constant air raid sirens or tiny details that shed light on the reality of living in fear: Kimia's mother fixing the tape on her bedroom window, a once-pond turned bomb shelter, or a scarf purloined from rubble.

"Everyone carried around transistor radios because our lives had become kind of just in case — just in case something happens, we have to have this — everyone carried one and we would go, depending on where we were, we have to either go to a basement, a makeshift shelter," Honarvar said of her own childhood.

In one particularly vivid scene, Kimia has a sort of revelation while in the bomb shelter.

"Sitting there cross-legged, looking at the dusty, tear-stained faces of my schoolmates, I saw for the first time the beauty of being so close to death. Time slowed and the shelter appeared in Technicolor as I marveled at the flimsy web of life sagging and shivering precariously. I wanted to throw my head back and laugh. I wanted to rip off my scarf. To the music of an untimely rooster crooning in the distance and cries of the girls, I wanted to dance a wicked dance."
From "A Girl Called Rumi"

One ritual between Kimia and her best friend, a boy called Reza, subtly illustrates the everyday realities of living through the region. Whenever they meet, they first ask each other "Do you have water today?" and "Do you have electricity?" Their answers are always no, and it always feels like a sweet joke — joy in the book is often hued with reality, trauma and fear.

Honarvar doesn't shy away from darker themes, either. In several intense portrayals of torture or self-harm, the book deftly sheds light on the realities of surviving conflict.

Poetry and stories to sustain

Honarvar grew up surrounded by poetry, and bequeathed that background to Kimia's family.

And when Kimia and Reza meet with the storyteller, they use fake names, initially out of fear of giving away personal information or getting in trouble. But when Kimia announces her make-believe name, Rumi, it becomes a way of adopting the poet's voice and power.

Through the storyteller, Baba Morshed, Honarvar plays with the twelfth century poet Attar of Nishapur's masterpiece, "The Conference of the Birds," which Honarvar said is an allegory for spiritual enlightenment achieved through crossing seven valleys. The storyteller's tales center around the Simorgh — the collective of the birds originally thought to be a sort of deity to the birds, but is soon discovered to be the birds themselves.

"I also wanted to talk about a story of childhood friendships and family bonds at a deeper level, the omnipresent yearning for liberation from suffering," Honarvar said. "Our protagonist gets to get drawn into this mythic tale and tap into the mystical realm that sustains her through terrible circumstances."

Rumi's poetry is shared between the characters, sometimes as revelations, sometimes as proverbs. One line they keep coming back to is from Rumi's "Divan e Shams":

"Did you know your suffering is your treasure? Alas, you are the veil covering your treasure."

Honarvar will sign and discuss her book as part of an author showcase at Mysterious Galaxy, in person, on Sunday, Oct. 24 at 11 a.m.