by Terence Ward (Houghton Mifflin 2002)
Terence Ward describes a trip he and his family made in 1998 back to Iran, where they had lived in the 1960s, when he and his three brothers were children. They have only happy memories of their idyllic life in a well-to-do neighborhood in the north of Teheran–especially of the family cook, Hassan Ghasemi, who was like a second father to them. Hassan taught them about Iranian culture, told them traditional stories and legends, and was a significant influence on them as children. But after the Ward family left Iran to return to America, the Wards and the Ghasemis lost touch. In 1998, spurred on by the youngest brother, Richard, they all returned to the Islamic Republic to search for the Ghasemis, with only the half-remembered name of a tiny village as their guide.
The book follows them from Shiraz to Teheran, along with a driver, a guide, and a translator (it is never made very clear how much Farsi they knew or remembered, although I would assume that when they were children, they knew Farsi well) . They begin the trip with some trepidation, but soon discover that what endeared Iranians to them in the 1960s has not really changed. Iranians are still hospitable, warm people, and they respond positively to the Wards’ friendliness. They encounter Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians living under Shari’a. The reader learns that much of what we consider to be “Western” culture really originated in ancient Persia: belief in a messiah, angels, archangels, and the devil, as well as the concepts of good and evil; life after death; heaven, hell, and purgatory; and the last judgment (Ward attributes this information to the Cambridge History of Iran). The book presents information about Iranian history, culture, literature, and politics in an easily understandable format. I liked learning about the great 14th-century Iranian poet and humanist, Hafez. One of his poems, cited in the book, seems to speak directly to the fanatical mullahs of today:
Do not judge us, you who boast your purity–
No one will indict you for the faults of others.
What is it to you whether I am virtuous or a sinner?
Busy yourself with yourself!
Each in the end will reap the seed he himself has sown.
Every man longs for the Friend, the drunkard as much as the awakened.
Every place is the House of Love, the Synagogue as much as the Mosque.
This has inspired me (not normally a seeker of poetry) to read more of Hafez’s work! He speaks to us through the centuries as if he were alive today (but he died in 1390).
Finally, although we tend to see the mullahs’ rule in Iran as a universally bad thing, Ward shows the many positive changes that have come about in Iran since the revolution, including a more equitable distribution of wealth than under the Shah, who cannot be called a humane, enlightened ruler by any stretch of the imagination.
I loved this book, and I learned a great deal about Iran from reading it.