by Negar Djavadi
“Like Saturn, the Revolution devours its children.” This famous quote of Jacques Mallet du Pan, about the French Revolution, puts me in mind of Ali-Asghar Sadr Haj Seyyed Javadi—Iranian author, journalist, and political activist who passed away last year at the age of 94 in Paris—in exile.
Seyyed Javadi was one of the most famous intellectuals who joined the 1979 Iranian Revolution, supporting the idea of total violence and the execution of the former regime’s generals and army commanders by the revolutionaries. Nevertheless, a year after the revolution, Seyyed Djavadi was forced to flee his homeland with his family, including his 10-year-old daughter—Negar Djavadi, author of Disoriental.
Djavadi’s original French-language novel, a family saga told in the first person by Kimia Sadr—an Iranian-born girl who, like Djavadi, became French at the age of 10—has been translated beautifully into English by Tina Kover. The story is divided into two parts, Side A and Side B, and the novel is written in the tone and style of a memoir.
The opening section describes an old memory of young Kimia’s first visit to the metro station with her father in Paris. Darius Sadr never took the escalator, because he believed it was built just for the French people. “In Paris, my father, Darius Sadr, never took the escalator. The first time I went down into a metro station with him, on April 21, 1981, I asked him why. His answer was, ‘Escalators are for them.’ By ‘them,’ he meant you, obviously. You, the ones who were going to work on that Tuesday morning in April. You, the citizens of this country, with your income taxes and compulsory deductions and council taxes—but also your education, your intransigence, your critical minds and your spirit of solidarity and pride and culture and patriotism, your devotion to the republic and democracy, you who toiled for centuries to achieve these mechanical staircases installed meters underground.”
These lines, from the first paragraph of the novel, ironically describe the most important differences between the French and Iranian society. France has always been a perfect destination for Persians. Someone once said that Persians learned a great deal about Europe through France. To understand this relation and also the impact of French culture and its Revolution on Iranian society—and to understand Djavadi’s book—we must first look closely at Iran in the early 1900s.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the first group of Persian students who were financially sponsored by Iran’s government were sent to France to continue their education and to learn modern science, culture, and also patriotism from the French. These students included Mehdi Bazargan, Iran’s first prime minister after the 1979 Revolution. Iranian-French relations peaked in the years to come. France and its culture became very influential in Iran through the students and scholars who lived and studied in France for years, and then returned home. The influence of the French Revolution on the 1979 Iranian Revolution is undeniable. In the later ’70s, Bazargan and his intellectual fellows, such as Seyyed Djavadi, joined the 1979 Revolution to overthrow the Shah of Iran.
“Escalators are for them.” This is crucial to Darius Sadr—father to the protagonist of Disoriental, and a symbol of Iranian progressives who reflect the regret and disappointment of Iranian intellectuals living in exile. Later in the book, the author makes it clear that this sentence was her original source of inspiration in writing the book.
Disoriental is delivered in a nonlinear style. Kimia Sadr toggles back and forth between her life now, and earlier family stories. The narrative doesn’t make progress smoothly from one account to the next in a logical way. There are sudden changes, and sometimes the story lurches in directions that can appear random.
“Talking about the present means I have to go deep into the past,” Kimia writes, “to cross borders and scale mountains and go back to that lake so enormous they call it a sea. I have to let myself be guided by the flow of images and free associations, the natural fits and starts, the hollows and bumps carved into my memories by time.”
As a native of Iran who read the book in English, I found the nonlinear style sometimes exaggerated, and kind of confusing—not for me, who knows a lot about Iran’s political and social history, but rather for Western readers. That said, Djavadi is an admirable and artful storyteller. She inspires patience in the reader, and then encourages her audience to join in historical adventures with the narrator. Like the Persian Scheherazade, the storyteller, Djavadi does everything she can to maintain interest in the story she is telling.
“Since we can, let’s jump on a literary magic carpet and zip through time and space,” Djavadi writes.
“The Mazandaran Winds,” the first chapter of the book, is extremely feminine. The section is deeply obsessed with themes of pregnancy, birth, marriage, reproduction, sexuality, motherhood, and family. While sitting in a waiting room in a fertility clinic at Cochin Hospital in Paris, Kimia tells us the story of the birth of her grandmother Nour.
If immigration and exile are the main themes of Disoriental, then motherhood and sexuality follow close behind. Kimia describes how Sara—her mother—pressured her and also her older sisters to think seriously about marriage and having children.
“Sara, on the other hand, if she had still been… (still been what?), would have been as fearsome with me—yes, even me—as she has been with my sisters. Before they had even decided to get married, when they’d barely begun dating potential sons-in-law, Sara had started in on them. ‘Exactly what are you waiting for to have children? You’re not going to spend your life eating out and staring at yourself in the mirror, are you? In fifteen or twenty years you’ll regret having wasted all these years!....For Sara, being part of a couple, being married, sexuality—none of that was worth anything in itself. Those were only consensual steps, necessary springboards to reach the higher plane of existence that was motherhood.”
Although Kimia uses many feminine terms to explore femininity and gender equality, her reality is the absolute power of the masculine gender in the cycle of reproduction. Kimia is bisexual, but she must rely on artificial insemination to become pregnant by her ex-partner, Pierre.
“At our first meeting with her, Dr. Gautier explained to us that the pressure on childless women was terrible. ‘We still have trouble accepting the fact that a woman might not have children. We don’t really give her that right.’ She had three children herself, ‘but I would have liked to feel I was free to have them later in life.’ The unspoken purpose of these musings was to prepare me for the fact that medically-assisted reproduction could be a long and painful process. It was absolutely crucial for me to shrug off that outside pressure in order to increase my chances—knowing that the chance of becoming pregnant via artificial insemination was only around 50 percent. With a 10 percent increase in the case of in vitro fertilization (which would only be attempted if the six attempts at insemination permitted by law were to fail.).” The absence of Anna as Kimia’s current partner is all too present and apparent in the process of artificial insemination in a fertility clinic. The truth is that Kimia and Anna can be in love, but Kimia needs sperm to get pregnant and become a mother.
Side B of the novel focuses on Kimia and her family’s escape from Iran in the 1980s, through Kurdistan into Turkey, and finally to their lives as immigrants in France. But the France they once cherished in their imaginations is very different from the France they encounter as exiles. France is not the dreamland Kimia had once pictured in her mind. Truth be told, when your social status changes from a Tehran-based to an exile without a country, even heaven would seem like a prison. Just perhaps one a little larger than the one you had grown accustomed to in Tehran.
Escalators are for you. This is the bitterness of the reality which I’d like to confess. By “you,” I mean you, the Americans who are reading this review of Disoriental at your home in your own motherland without any fear of leaving it behind one day to live as an exile anywhere in this world. The escalators are for you, too.