The Cypress Tree
By Manju Kak
In this lyrical book—a love letter to Iran, part history, part memoir, author and journalist, Kamin Mohammadi’s lucid, sparkling prose warms every page with passion and purpose to make this an unforgettable time to her country. Mohammadi, born in 1970, grew up in London when a longing for roots made her journey back . She reflects upon —what happened to Iran, how did lose its fragrance and colour to become this chador-obsessed society, cruelly crushing its women and with them every feminine impulse.
Through the lens of her own family history she digs into the backdrop of Persia emerging out of its medieval stupor, the last years of the Qajar dynasty and rise of Reza Shah Pahlavi, an ordinary soldier of extraordinary energy, who founded the short-lived Pahlavi dynasty in the 1920’s before ouster by god-man Khomeini. Reza Shah patterned himself on Turkey’s liberal Kemal Attaturk in an effort to modernize Iran; its railways, education, emancipation of women through ban on purdah, the civil services, etc . His son Reza Shah II continued this under close association with the USA and supported by his dreaded secret poilice, SAVAK, till the Revolution broke out and the state was overtaken by Ayatolha Khomeini’s Islamic Fundamentalists in the late 1970’s. The clock was reversed; purdah reintroduced, education restricted and Islamized midst widescale arrests of the Opposition, be they liberals, communists, or democrats. This led to the breakdown of law and order, religious bigotry and economic stagnation and a bloody ill-thought religious war with Iraq. Matters improved temporarily with the coming of Ayotollah Khatami on Khomeni’s demise but soon reversed under President Ahmadinejad whose regime has gained notoreity.
Mohammadi’s narrative follows the interesting admix of the characters in her family; her Persian mother Sedi and Kurdish father Bagher who rose to head the Anglo-Iran Oil conglomerate in the Shah’s time. The maternal side of her family, the Abbasians, are dominated by the overpowering personality of her grandmother, Fatemeh bibi, or Maman Joon, a green- eyed, steel-willed, petite beauty, only daughter of a family of landlords (Khans) in Shiraz . She married a rich merchant, Abbas Abbasian, a self made man who settled in Abadan. Various incidents take us through Fars (Shiraz), Khuezestan, Kurdistan and Tehran narrated with a strong matriarchal undertone. Mohammadi points out that the best kept secret of Iran is the strength and incredible caliber of Iranian women who effortlessly play out the duality of their daily existence – they ‘party and they pray’. She describes how they have grown from strength to strength despite the suffocating black chador and hejab. It is the jealousy of Iranian men, she says who want to keep their women under cover.
It is in this period that the Kurdish Shokrollah allowed his son Bagher to leave the ancestral village in Kurdistan to seek an education, becoming an engineer with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co, then leaving for the UK, marrying an English girl whom he subsequently divorced and remarried Sedi working with the company he was heading before fleeing to the UK on the fall of the Shah. Once in London, he never returned. The author, however, exiled at nine, came back, her memories and family ties being too strong to resist. Today she holds dual citizenship of UK and Iran and shuttles between the two –but it is clear where her heart lies.
The elaborate and exquisite formality of old Persian cultural mores and behavior is still preserved and this duality in their nature that has enabled Iranians to balance both the rigidity and harshness of Islamic Fundamentalism with the colourful liberal culture of yore. Just as Persian poetry and thought survived the overwhelming Arabic onslaught centuries ago so has their ‘adab’ and ‘thezib’ survived today.