Dreams of World’s Long Lost

“The question of the real Iran kept coming up in discussions between my parents and friends. Which was more legitimate: the ancient traditions with which the Shah propped up his power, or the strict Islamic principals of Khomeini?” (p. 119)

The Empress Farah Pahlavi of Iran and her children, courtesy of theimageworks.com

Iran was once a country where Western law ruled the land, not blown-up exaggerated Islamic shariah law. Women were at one point banned from wearing the veil, not as they are today, where they are banned from going bare in public. Art, music, friendship, religion and, most importantly of all, freedom flourished.

Likewise, Egypt was once a country were Westerner’s were welcomed, not viewed with suspicious eyes or bombarded with questions.Women were more apt to be seen in fancy Parisian-style wear, and the langage du jour was French or English or Italian, not Arabic. As in Iran, the rich and simply comfortable were able to-and encouraged-to enjoy life, drinking and attending parties.

To be sure, neither of these countries were perfect. 1940s and 1950s Cairo saw intense corruption at the hands of King Farouk. Iran’s attempts to quell religion were just as wrong as it’s attempts now to quell individualism and freedom of choice, and the Shah was not innocent in his rule. But, given the choice, I would have lived in either of these eras in a heartbeat, as they are vastly more alluring than the current climates in either one of these magnificent countries.

Things I’ve Been Silent About, acclaimed writer Azar Nafisi’s autobiography about her life in Tehran and being the daughter of two political figures, is a shocking portrait of pre- and post- Revolution Iran. Her recounting of a lovely, if a bit-spoiled childhood growing up in Tehran is almost unbelievable when one contrasts it with modern life in the city today. Although Nafisi has been accused of painting Tehran in black and white and being a promoter of colonialism, the fact remains that this is what life was like in Tehran; her life was one shared by many others.

Things I’ve Been Silent About’s literary counterpart is none other than The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, an autobiographical look at author Lucette Lagnado’s family’s history in Cairo and their subsequent exodus from Egypt. The two books are immensely similar. Two young women grow up in cosmopolitan, worldly cities, only to one day more or less be forced to leave the countrys that they loved and cherished: Nafisi permanently moved to the USA with her family after watching Iran crumble before her, and being subjected to house arrest of a sort; Lagnado’s family was more or less compelled to leave Egypt when she was only seven. The reason? They were Jewish.

It was rather interesting to read an account of Jewish life in Cairo. Jewish life in Cairo–does that even exist anymore? There might still be a few Jewish families left, but they most likely practice their faith in secrecy behind closed doors. Lagnado’s book gave us a look at what the Middle East would look like if the governments were more accepting of all their citizens. During the 1940s and 1950s, Cairo seemed to rival any European destination for glamour, prestige, and diversity. Lagnado describes her father schmoozing with British soldiers, her mother conversing in Italian, Americans and Eastern Europeans wandering around in addition to the traditional Egyptians. Her family was Jewish, but they weren’t frowned upon nor ostracized, nor was anyone else (though she does admit that Arabs often weren’t allowed into places like Groppi’s, the upscale bakery that sounds like it would have put Paris’ Laduree to shame).

“Suzette [Lagnado’s sister] remembered an exuberant culture where religion mattered, but so did going out at night and reveling in all the LEvant offered. Our father, who now all but lived at shul, was the prime example of this dual existence, where faith and ritual had in no way hindered his ability to lead a rich and pleasure-filled life. In Egypt, it was easy to be religious and worldly at the same time, but that seemed an impossibility here in America.” (p. 227)

Women on the beach in Alexandria, Egypt; courtesy of foreignpolicy.com

Religious and worldly at the same time–this is the key that Middle Eastern countries are missing. Because the wave of radical Islam has swept over so much of the land, I feel that most people have forgotten that it is possible to follow their faith, and still enjoy themselves on Earth. It was actually depressing to realize that Cairo was the city of my dreams–French-speaking, lively, raucous, fancy, open-minded–once upon a time. To compare Lagnado’s Cairo with the Cairo I have experienced was almost impossible.

In fact, Lagnado describes a situation that takes place in Brooklyn that sounds more akin to what I have experienced in Cairo than anything else she describes that actually takes place in Egypt. Her sister Suzette attends a wedding in a sleeveless dress, only to have the older women run over to her with a jacket to cover herself, as they find the outfit inappropriate. The strangeness of this act is not lost on Suzette, who recalls these very women wearing all sorts of baring fashions back in Egypt.

“That was when she’d sworn to herself that she would leave, and have nothing to do anymorewith this community of expatriats who called themselves Egyptians but bore no resemblence whatsoever to the people she had known back in Egypt.” (p. 228)

It is a strange phenomenon, how people can suddenly forget the traditions and habits that they grew up with. Often times we change because of a great life-altering in our lives; in this case, the Jewish-Egyptians in Brooklyn were most likely changed because they had been uprooted from their homes and might have looked to more traditional interpretations of their faith, since faith was the only thing they had left. In any case, the situation reminds me of my experience dressing every day in Cairo, and how dumbfounded I was when I was told that my husband’s mother wore mini skirts in 1960s Cairo, but now wore a hijab. What was the life-altering event, I wondered, that caused her to shed her old ways? Why is it, in the case of the Middle East, that people have become so traditional and so strongly seem to reject most facets of the “modern world,” whereas people elsewhere in the world don’t put up such a fight?

Granted, I realized that the worlds that Nafisi and Lagnado had lived in were highly privledged worlds; the average Iranian or Egyptian didn’t have an endless parade of servants calling cars for them, or trips to custom tailors, or dinners with the leading politicians of the country. Nafisi and Lagnado, one could say, lived highly westernized lives; Nafisi’s book doesn’t so much as make one mention of her own Islamic faith, in that as I read the book I truly felt as though I was reading the autobiography of a Western girl with a family problems, albeit family problems that included her prominent father being jailed. As Nafisi claims,

“Political dissent in Iran is treated as a form of criminality; most offenders are tried on bogus charges and there is little room for defense.” (p. 140)

Isn’t this the case in most Islamic countries nowadays? Disagree with the regime, and you’re branded for life; the police will never leave you alone. Nafisi’s father was indeed jailed on bogus charges,and indeed had little room to defend himself. Although Lagnado’s family doesn’t have run-ins with the law, there is one incident that occurs which sparks their final decision to leave Egypt, in which her older sister is arrested for hanging out with foreign sailors. She didn’t do anything wrong, except fraternize with foreigners: at that point in time, Egypt was slowly becoming xenophobic and wary of those who bore any resemblance to the colonizers who had once lived in the land. Lagnado, reporting on her recent visit to Egypt (she was granted entry, despite signing papers never to return), describes a realization she makes about Egyptians:

“Malaka Nazli hadn’t simply been a place I realized but a state of mind. It was where you could find an extraordinary, breathtaking level of humanity. What it lacked in privacy, what it failed to provide by way of modern comforts–hot runningwater, showers, electric stoves, refrigerators, telephones–it more than made up for in mercy and compassion and tenderness and grace, those  ethereal qualities that make and keep us human.” (p. 332)

Her realization is important for several reasons, namely, that it shows that the people of Cairo hadn’t changed since her family had fled many years ago. This statement shows that in their hearts, the people of Cairo–and any other Islamic country–are still kind, empathizing human beings, and that it is the governments that try to dictate what the people want, that try to change society, that try to set the morals and values even when they are in strict contradiction to those that already existed. This is true in Iran–did Nafisi and her friends allow their hearts to be changed by the repressive revolutionary regime? No–it is true in Egypt, as Lagnado shows (after all, the new occupants of her old neighborhood building Malaka Nazli are all Muslim and yet they show her respect and true kindness) and it is most likely true in every other Islamic country where regimes have taken over regardless of what the people were or wanted.

Beyond what these two autobiographies teach the reader politically and culturally, at their heart they are open revelations of a family’s intimacy and secrets. Both Nafisi and Lagnado were deeply affected and moved by their overbearing and strong-willed parents, and their lives were shaped not only by society and increasingly oppresive governments but also by their families. In the end, it was their families that gave them a sense of who they were; it was their families that kept the traditions and cultures that they had held so dear alive. The ending quote of Things That I’ve Been Silent About sums it up best:

“After the Islamic Revolution I came to realize the fragility of our mundane existence, the ease with which all that you call home, all that gives you an identiy, a sense of self and belonging, can be taken away from you. I learned that what my father had given me through his stories was a way to make a home for myself that was not dependent on geography or nationality or anything that other people can take away from me. These stories could not gaurd me againstthe pain i felt at my parents loss; they did not offer consolation or closure. it was only after their deaths that i came to realize that they each in their own way had given me a portable home that safegaurds memory and is a constant resistance against the tyranny of man and of time.” (p. 314)



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