by Marjan Kamali
HarperCollins Publishers New York, NY 2013
This book is a delightful insiders look at both mother/daughter relationships and also the Iranian immigrant culture. Many of the people currently being targeted by HSA came here after the deposing of the Shaw to escape Saddam Hussein, who took advantage of the political situation to wage war on Iran. The U.S. didn’t intervene until Hussein attacked Kuwait. Iran has been a war zone since the early 1980’s.
Darya, the mother, is determined that her children not be raised in a war zone. She is concerned her sons will be conscripted to fight. Mina has grown up under the Shaw in a relatively well to do family. She is familiar with American culture, her mother has insisted her children learn English. She is well-educated and a budding artist. She has been immersed in the rich cultural heritage of the Persians – poets, philosophers, and artists.
At the beginning of the story Mina is working on her Masters in Business in the U.S. where she has lived for the past 14 years. She is coming home because Darya has found another possible match for her. In Iran Darya looked down her nose on the arranging of marriages, although she concedes her own mother did well by her. Here in the States it’s a different story. Darya devotes much of her time and energy researching American-Iranian men and their families looking for someone “appropriate” for her own daughter.
Both Mina and Darya are frustrated with their lives in America. Darya has never truly acclimated. Her children are grown and she feels an emptiness that defies explanation. Some of it is empty nest, and some of it is missing her own cultural roots. Most of the extended family is still in Iran. Mina is tired of trying to live up to the expectations of both cultures. She misses her art (a frivolous pursuit) and finds the parade of potential suitors unbearable.
When Mina announces that she is going to return to Iran over the winter break the family is in an uproar. It is dangerous. How will she manage having to cover her hair, having to wear carefully appropriate clothing? What if the Islamic authorities will not let her return home. Darya ends the debate with a quiet, “Well, of course I will go with you.”
The story goes back and forth in time and place. We see Mina growing up in Iran. We see her and Darya trying to adjust in their first year in the states. We see Mina in 1996 coming into her own in New York. We see Darya and Mina returning to a 1996 Iran and their interactions with the friends and family who never left.
The story could have been titled “Life on the Hyphen” as that’s how Mina describes herself. She is an Iranian-American and yet she is neither Iranian nor American. She is on the hyphen. But that misses the tenderness of the mother/daughter relationship that holds the story together. It also misses the every present importance of tea and all that it represents. There is culture and manners in tea. There is the difference between the fresh smoked leaves in Iran and the Lipton tea bags of America. There is the distinction between tea and coffee.
It is the tea that brings Mina and Darya together. It is the tea that bridges that hyphen and remains ever present. I really enjoyed this book both for the insight into a rich and under-appreciated (in America) culture and also for the insight into my own mother/daughter relationships.
Although this book is not meant to be autobiographical, I have no doubt that it was informed by Marjan Kamali’s experiences. The clear love of the Persian culture and the heart-wrenching understanding of being an immigrant American of color are tangible on the page.