There were so many books by Iranian authors I could have read for this blog post that I had a hard time choosing just one. I finally decided to do something completely different and read a graphic novel, written in comic book form.
The Complete Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, is a largely autobiographical tale of the author’s life after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Born in 1969, Marji attends a co-ed French school in Tehran. Her parents oppose the government of Shah Reza Pahlavi, but appear to be caught unawares by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism after the Shah is deposed. Suddenly, Marji’s school is no longer allowed to have co-ed classes, and all the girls are required to wear the veil. The repressive government imposes draconian penalties on anyone caught in violation of the new morals standards, and political prisoners, including some known to Marji and her family, are summarily executed. To complicate things even further, Iraq invades Iran, and the terror of airstrikes and other horrors of war make living in Iran increasingly unbearable.
Marji is a very precocious and outspoken girl, and while her parents are exceptionally supportive of her, they begin to fear for her safety in a society where women have few rights. I would have expected the family to relocate to another country, as some of their relatives did, but instead, Marji’s parents send her to live in Austria at the age of fourteen. At first, she stays with a family friend, but before long, the friend moves her into a boardinghouse run by nuns.
As a strong-willed young person living in a free country without adult supervision, Marji predictably begins to do things that would have been unthinkable in Iran, often involving sex and drugs. She manages to graduate from high school, but a breakup with her cheating boyfriend sends her into a tailspin and she ends up living on the streets for a short period of time. She decides to return to Iran.
Iran has not changed for the better in her absence, however, and Marji is still as determined as ever to live life on her terms. She has a boyfriend, and the two of them attend the university. They decide to get married, since the law in Iran really doesn’t allow them to have a romantic relationship otherwise. It becomes increasingly clear, however, that a woman like Marji will never adjust to life under the fundamentalist Islamic regime.
Reading a graphic novel was a new experience for me, and I enjoyed it. While the stripped-down prose leaves little room for lyrical descriptive passages, the drawings help to fill in a lot of those blanks. The author’s use of this medium presented a very clear picture of her life.
[Note on the translation: Persepolis was originally published in parts, with different translators. According to Wikipedia: “In 2003, Pantheon Books published parts 1 and 2 in a single volume English translation (with new cover art) under the title Persepolis which was translated by Blake Ferris and Mattias Ripa, Satrapi’s husband; parts 3 and 4 (also with new cover art) followed in 2004 as Persepolis 2, translated by Anjali Singh. In October 2007, Pantheon repackaged the two English language volumes in a single volume (with film tie-in cover art) under the title The Complete Persepolis.”]
After reading about Satrapi’s life in Iran, I decided to read Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison, by Jason Rezaian. I had been meaning to read this book ever since I heard the author and his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, speak at the Book Passage Travel Writers & Photographers Conference in Corte Madera last year. Rezaian was born in the United States to an Iranian father and a U.S. mother. He moved to Iran in 2009, where he became the Tehran Bureau Chief for the Washington Post. Three days before they were scheduled to travel to the United States in 2014, he and Yeganeh, also a journalist, were arrested by Iranian authorities and accused of espionage. The charges against them were never clear, although one particularly laughable accusation had to do with a Kickstarter campaign Jason had initiated to try to bring avocados to Iran. The Iranian authorities could not understand the concept of Kickstarter, and assumed that “avocado” was some kind of CIA code word. Eventually, Yeganeh was released on bond, but Jason was left to languish in prison in Tehran for about eighteen months before he was finally freed through diplomatic efforts in the midst of the Iran nuclear deal negotiations.
Neither of these books gave me much inspiration with respect to Iranian cuisine. The Complete Persepolis barely mentions food at all. Rezaian is something of a foodie, and some of his articles for the Washington Post were about Iranian food. He and Yeganeh even hosted Anthony Bourdain during his visit to Iran for his “Parts Unknown” show. But since most of Rezaian’s dining takes place in prison, there isn’t much in the way of culinary highlights.
So I took to Google and found a vegetarian recipe on the Archana’s Kitchen website for Khoresht Fesenjan, a pomegranate, walnut, and vegetable stew. The only change I had to make to veganize the recipe was to substitute maple syrup for the honey. I didn’t have pumpkin, so I used butternut squash instead. There are a few problems with the recipe, so if you decide to make it, here’s what I did:
1. The recipe’s instructions mention zucchini, but it wasn’t in the ingredient list, so I didn’t include it.
2. The ingredient list calls for cardamom, but the instructions reference cinnamon. I decided to go with cardamom.
3. The recipe calls for two bay leaves, but the instructions don’t say when to add them. I put them in with the pomegranate juice.
4. It turned out more like soup than stew, so if I were to make it again, I’d probably use less liquid and more veggies than the recipe calls for.
Served over saffron rice, this was a very good meal, with an interesting blend of flavors. In Prisoner, Rezaian says: “With Iranian food there was so much to ponder. It was the ultimate expression of the country’s identity: varied, resource rich, uniquely accented, sometimes pungent, hard to translate, and often unsightly. Persian food can be gorgeous and fragrant. But it simply doesn’t show well the way Thai, Japanese, or Italian food does.” That just about sums up this dish, and I’m using that as my excuse for why the food in this picture doesn’t look any prettier.
Since I read two books for this post, I donated to two organizations. There were no Iranian projects at GlobalGiving, but in searching the Internet, I found the Center for Human Rights in Iran. According to their website, “The Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working to protect and promote human rights in Iran. Headquartered in New York, CHRI is comprised of award-winning journalists, researchers, lawyers, activists, writers, multimedia specialists and advocates based around the world who work to support the basic rights and freedoms of the Iranian people.” More information about CHRI is available at https://iranhumanrights.org/.
In honor of the Rezaians and the ordeal they went through in Iran, I also donated to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which was one of the organizations that advocated on their behalf while they were imprisoned. According to CPJ’s mission statement: “The Committee to Protect Journalists promotes press freedom worldwide and defends the right of journalists to report the news safely and without fear of reprisal. CPJ protects the free flow of news and commentary by taking action wherever journalists are under threat.” More information about CPJ can be found at https://cpj.org/.
NEXT STOP: ITALY
(Originally published on July 21, 2020.)
Pam Giarrizzo is a retired attorney who loves traveling, reading, and giving. She isn’t particularly fond of cooking, but she nevertheless reads, cooks, and gives for her armchair travel blog, The Booktrekker. Pam and her husband Phil live in Northern California, but they travel to Colombia often to visit their California-born son, their Argentine daughter-in-law, and their Colombian grandson. You can explore the world with Pam by following her blog at The Booktrekker or on Facebook at The Booktrekker | Facebook.