About the Author

author photo

Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of ReligionWriter.com, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

See All Posts by This Author

Humanizing Iran, and Other Ways to Save the World with Summer Reading

If you liked Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, or any other novel strung poignantly between two continents, you’ll find much to like in Yamsin Crowther’s debut novel, The Saffron Kitchen, published several months ago by Penguin, which traces the bittersweet story of a young Iranian too headstrong for her own country.

Maryam Mazar, now a 60-something Iranian woman, was banished from her family as a young woman when her honor came into question. She lives a wistful, somewhat tortured life in England, married to a perfectly lovely man whose main fault, in her eyes, is that he is not Iranian. Because even though Maryam longed, as a young girl, to break free of the gossiping, watchful eyes in her upper class Iranian household, and to escape her father’s plan to marry her off, once thrown out into the world by her angry father, she spends her adult life looking over her shoulder, remembering especially the wide-open plains around her family’s farm in the plains of Khorasan.

When family tragedy forces Maryam to confront the painful past she’s long tried to bury, she finally returns to the simple village she loved so many decades ago — and finds there her earliest love, Ali, who was a servant to her father, a general in the Shah’s army. When Ali and Maryam were suspected, wrongly, of fornication, Ali was beaten savagely and exiled to this village where Maryam now returns. Maryam’s half-English, half-Iranian daughter, Sara, comes to visit Maryam there, and ask her what she intends to do with the waning years of her life: return to her frail but honest marriage in England or live a peasant’s life beside her long-lost love.

ReligionWriter won’t spoil the ending, but will instead call your attention to this fact: no ayatollahs or fissionable material darken the doorway of The Saffron Kitchen. Is this remarkable? At at time when many explanations of Islam focus on prayers and prophets, it might come a surprise to learn that for many people who happen to be Muslim, religion is music playing in the background.

In the climatic scene of the novel, for example, Maryam and her daughter Sara find themselves trapped by a snowstorm in an decrepit shrine, which is adorned with small fertility offerings. First of all: it snows in Iran? With so much mention of sand and palm trees in the war on terror, it’s almost refreshing to hear that Iran and the U.S. share a similar range of climates. And second: fertility offerings? Yes, in many countries, Iran included, Islam has been woven together with superstitions and remnants of other religions. In so many ways, religion is peripheral to the lives of the Crowther’s characters, and without the distractions of having to contemplate Islam-with-a-capital-I, the reader is free to taste and touch and smell rural Iran through the novel. In this way, The Saffron Kitchen fulfills the age-old promise of books: to transport you to another world.

And how could such a journey, literary or literal, save the world? According to Akbar Ahmed, a world-renowned Muslim scholar and author of the new book Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization, out this month from the Brookings Institution Press, there is a desperate need for Westerners and Muslims (and he freely admits these two categories are problematic) to understand each other. Ahmed, a Pakistani native, undertook a journey last year through Muslim lands in the Middle East and Asia, accompanied by several young research assistants. Their mission: to understand what Muslims abroad are thinking and feeling.

And while some of their findings were troubling — 75 percent of a classroom of “sweet, funny kids” in Jakarta named Osama bin Laden as a role model — Ahmed, a self-described optimist, chooses instead to focus on the positives: the warm hospitality of the people they met, the richness of the cultures they encountered, and — most of all — the capacity of even the most extreme ideologue to reverse course after friendly and reasoned discussion. Said Akbar at the Brookings Institution book release this month:

Ultimately, human beings to respond to emotion, to ideas of compassion and to ideas of friendship. I would urge you to look at the world through a slightly different lens.

Other guest speakers invited to the book launch, including Congressman Keith Ellison and the Moroccan ambassador to the U.S., Aziz Mekouar, suggested the need for more educational and cultural exchanges between Muslim countries and the United States. But compared to the expense and hassle of sending people to and fro, simply sitting down with a novel like The Saffron Kitchen while at the beach this summer might go a long way toward realizing Ahmed’s most profound conclusion: We’re all human.

Sphere: Related Content

There Are 3 Responses So Far. »

  1. Andrea, Your comments remind me of another Maryam I recently read about in Anne Tyler’s _Digging to America_, which is a lot about what happens when people change cultures — move or adopt children from another culture. The big machine that makes immigrants Americans is of interest to me. Where the books intersect may be in the kitchen, I expect — food _is_ culture. You have given me a taste for this, pun intended.

  2. [...] “Humanizing Iran, and Other Ways to Save the World With Summer Reading” Posting June 25, 2007 aliens in america» brookings institute» david guarascio» islam in america» omar amanat» the kite runner» Share This [...]

  3. [...] in Iran is how little religion comes up on a day-to-day level. (I wrote about this theme earlier in my review of another Iranian-American novel, The Saffron Kitchen.) Perhaps this is because book-writing elites and exiles tend to be more secular-I [...]

Post a Response

FireStats icon Powered by FireStats