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

A Gripping Tale of the Iranian Revolution (without the cartoons)

Don’t let the headline mislead you: I’m thrilled that Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, the graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, is coming to a movie theater near me, hopefully this weekend. Indeed, I spent the last several months loaning out copies of Persepolis: it is a funny, sad, perfectly rendered child’s-eye view on what became the horrifying events of the Iranian Revolution, in addition to being a painless introduction to the charm of graphic novels. (Satrapi’s follow-up novel, Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return, is an ironic but poignant teenage view of post-revolutionary Iranian-exile life. Let it be said for the record that I couldn’t stand Reading Lolita.)

This past week, however, I finally had a chance to read a novel that’s been sitting on my need-to-read shelf: Crows in the Nightengale’s Tree by Sharene Azimi. Since the novel is self-published, through iUniverse, with a dour cover featuring the black-veiled profile of a woman, I didn’t expect much. What I discovered, however, was one of the best stories I’ve read to date about the Iranian Revolution. Fast-paced and dramatic, tracing the big themes of revolutionary change, the novel also pauses to examine the inner life of one young woman caught up in the tumult of the 1979 revolution: it reads, in a positive sense, like a cross between Not Without My Daughter and Doctor Zhivago.

The story begins in the present-day, with Minoo, a middle-aged Iranian-American attending the funeral of her beloved mother. After the funeral, Minoo’s 19-year-old daughter, Zarah, confesses she has learned the well-hidden secret that she was born in Iran, rather than America as her mother had always told her. Then Zarah makes a bold a statement: She wants to visit Iran. Minoo bristles with fear and anger, threatening that Zarah will find herself harassed and threatened by the religious police.

“Mom, I’ll be careful,” interjected Zarah. “I just want to see the place I was born. It’s my heritage.”

Minoo shot her a glance across the table. “Iran today is not your heritage. It’s some nightmare created twenty years ago, from which the country still hasn’t woken up.”

These seeds of curiosity are planted in the reader within the first few pages of the book: What happened to Minoo that she is now a bitter, chain-smoking American suburbanite rather than a nostalgic refugee or patriotic Iranian?

The story then jumps back in time to Berkeley in 1977, right into a college-apartment bedroom, where Minoo lounges in bed with her blond-haired American lover, Christian. Minoo is escaping the loving but confining bonds of her Iranian family and tasting the freedoms of college life like any other American-raised twenty-year-old-yet Christian himself is drawn to Minoo because of her Iranian-ness. He practices his Farsi with her, although she has no interest in the language of her parents.

All this changes when Christian takes Minoo to a student rally organized by Iranian students to protest the Shah’s regime. Minoo is drawn in by the charismatic young Iranian professor whipping up the crowd:

“The Shah sits in his private German jet, and drinks his French wine, and watches American movies in the screening room of his palace, and all the while the people are crying: we don’t need weapons, we need bread!”

Standing there, listening to someone who really cared about what was going on, Minoo became distinctly aware of how little she knew of Iran’s politics and history.

In this one moment, Minoo’s young life shifts. Drawn into the orbit of this professor, Darius, she leaves Christian behind and enters the political ferment brewed up by fellow Iranian students. She joins the Iranian Student Association, learns the Marxist lingo and is soon falling in love with Darius, who gives her Mao’s Little Red Book as a gift; her American boyfriend, Christian, falls by the wayside.

As Minoo makes a new life with Darius, against the objections of her parents who find him politically dangerous and gratingly doctrinaire, she and Darius make a bold decision to return to Tehran after the Ayatollah Khomeini returns from exile in France. But for Minoo, who left Iran as a young child, “returning” is not so easy. And she and Darius and their radical friends believe, long after it is rational to do so, that the revolution will become a Marxist revolution of the people-rather than the increasingly repressive religious regime it is.

This section of the novel is perhaps the most finely drawn, and it allows the reader to ponder the real tragedy of the Iranian Revolution: the many Iranians who participated in it with great hope and were bitterly let down by their new leaders. Nobel Prize Peace Prize-winner Shirin Ebadi writes in her memoir, Iran Awakening, about her own rude awakening to the grim realities of the the new regime. Ebadi recalled how she and her colleagues, shortly after the revolution’s victory, went to congratulate the religious cleric who would now head the Ministry of Justice, where they worked. She writes:

We filed into the room, and many warm greetings and flowery congratulations were exchanged. Then his eyes fell on me. I expected he might thank me, or express how much it meant to him that a committed female judge such as myself had stood with the revolution.

Instead, he said, “Don’t you think that out of respect for our beloved Imam Khomeini, who has graced Iran with his return, it would be better if you covered your hair?” Here we were, in the Ministry of Justice, after a great popular revolt had replaced an antique monarchy with a modern republic, and the overseer of justice was talking about hair. Hair!

Just so, in Azimi’s story, Minoo gradually watches her own dreams for Iran crushed into the dust — worse, however, she must live with her husband’s delusions that those dreams will one day come true. When Darius crosses the regime one to many times, Minoo finds herself, the pregnant mother of a small child, trapped in Tehran, afraid for her life. It is then that the mysterious Christian, now a Farsi-speaking journalist, turns up in her life again, offering her a path to safety-at the price of leaving her husband behind.

I certainly won’t to spoil the ending, but I promise the story has enough drama to carry you through right to the end, back in the present day, as Minoo reconciles with her own past through her daughter.

What’s always amazing to me about books 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 don’t know. Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life (which employs me from time to time) reflected on the secular leanings of Iranian Americans in May last year, while launching the Forum’s study on American Muslims. He was explaining to reporters that religiosity among American Muslims varies significantly by ethnic group:

Among Pakistanis, for instance, 57 percent attend mosque at least weekly. Iranians are on the other end. I affectionately call them the Cubans of the Muslim American community; in our Hispanic survey, Cubans came out more secular than other Latinos. Among Iranians, only about 7 percent [attend a mosque at least weekly.] That’s a 50 percentage point gap.

So Iranian-Americans are less religious than other American Muslims. The downside of that is mainstream mosque-going Muslims in the U.S. don’t get to hear the perspectives of Iranians — and that’s a shame because if anything, the Iranian experience shows how mixing religion and government can go dangerously awry. (And of course there are some sectarian reasons for this lack of mixing, as most Iranians are Shia and most American Muslims are Sunni. For more on that relationships, see the Qunoot Foundation.) Sectarian differences aside, I would say that any Muslim who aspires to implement some form of Islamic law would do well to sit down with an Iranian exile for a nice long chat. And, of course, read Crows in the Nightengale’s Tree.

There Are 3 Responses So Far. »

  1. Dear Andrea Useem,

    I read Crows in the Nightengale’s Tree by Shareen Azimi a couple of weeks ago, on vacation, and concur completely with your evaluation of it. It is a real surprise, dramatic, tragic yet good humored, well structured, with entirely credible characters; and the clear stream of her writing carries one along without effort. It’s a rare event, no? A book that moves smoothly from Los Angeles and Berkeley halfway around the world and back again and keeps us in its grip all along the way. This book deserves a wide readership. Thanks!
    Michael W.

  2. Salaam!
    Thanks for the suggestion; I love Satrapi’s work (Embroideries is my fav), and I’ve read Ebadi’s memoir. I’ll definitely be looking this one up when I get a little time!

  3. Dear Andrea, on your travails into Islam, did you read anything on shia Islam? Dr. Tijani’s “When I was guided” can really help you and answer a lot of your questions. Do you know Imam Ali and Lady Fatima Zahra (SAW) whose status are after the Prophet’s (SAW). Don’t be biased. there is a more forceful, knowledge based, loving and freer Islam, fiercely intellectual, passionately loving as in Imam Husain (AS) the Prophet’s grandson and the waiting for a better world in justice and peace through the awaiting of the messiah mahdi (AS) who will come with the reappearance of Jesus Christ and bring the messge of unitarianism and surrender to the one Lord to the whole world. Willing to answer any of your questions love, zahra

Post a Response