Persia is My Heart
My mother used to say that I wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for a book my aunt suggested she read back in 1965. My aunt at the time was in Afghanistan where my uncle was a U.S. diplomat. The book, Persia is my Heart,written by Najmeh Najafi with the help of Helen Hinckley is a beautiful story of discovery and enterprise, about a young Iranian woman who comes to the Pasadena, CA in the 50’s where she learns about mass production and management. She returns to Iran and sets up the first all female factory in an Iranian village. A bold move for an Iranian woman in 1950s Iran and a story that especially appealed to my mother, who had her own difficulties as a female chemist in 1960s America. My mother read the book, applied for a Fulbright to Iran, married an Iranian and soon after I entered the world.
The world-Iran that I entered moved seamlessly between all things Iranian and American. We went to matinees of Kenneth Grahame’s Toad of Toad Hall at the Iran-America Society, went bowling and ice-skating. We also had long Friday lunches in my Iranian grandfather’s garden with plates full of steaming basmati rice and various bowls of savory stews and kabobs spread out on the ground, picnic style. Afterwards many of the older men retreated to their opium pipes or a nap while the rest of us lounged, played and in my case, snuck out to explore the vast pomegranate orchard and neighboring village. But soon, the life we had built where Santa Claus and Hajji Firuz lived so easily side-by-side came to an abrupt end in 1979. My first memory of the beginning of the end is crossing a major avenue, my hand in my mother’s and my brothers’ to go to the American embassy renew our passports. A week later the embassy was stormed and 40 American hostages were taken, which didn’t stop my mom from driving nearby the embassy to rummage through the last of the sales bins in a British bookstore that was fleeing town.
It was in that bin that my mother found a box set of books that would come to save my life, my emotional life anyway. The Chronicles of Narnia was about children in the midst of war that found a way to escape and make sense of the violence of adult life, it was exactly what I needed as we drove around our crumbling life to and from our international school, Iranzammin, that was being shut down, one grade after the other.
A little over a decade after we had immigrated my mother gave me her copy of Persia is my Heart. I read about Najafi and her passionate life and like my mother was moved to travel alone against difficult odds to Iran. In some ways you can say that the book changed my life twice, first through my mother and then by propelling me on my own personal journey that began with a return trip to Iran, and a vocation as an anthropologist writing about Iran. I wonder, had Najafi’s story taken any other form, a newspaper article, a collection of essays, a photo-book, would it have had the power to propel two women to leave the U.S and travel to Iran in search of their destinies? I don’t think so. But then if it had taken a less passionate form I wouldn’t be here to comment.
Roxanne Varzi is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. Her latest book is Last Scene Underground: An Ethnographic Novel of Iran (Stanford University Press, 2015).