Through the story of one girl, Saba, and her twin sister, Mahtab (who may have emigrated to the US), Nayeri unfolds the complexities of post-revolutionary village life in Iran. The book is so gorgeous and thought-provoking that I was still looking for excuses to bring it up in conversation even weeks after turning the final page. This book reminded me of work by Micheline Aharonian Marcom and Diana Abu-Jaber in its layered insights into a foreign culture and I can’t stop thinking about it.
I thought I was reading this book because like my novella, Polska, 1994, it’s about a girl looking for the truth of what happened to her mother. But it was so much more…
Part of the magic of the book is in the relationship between Saba’s reality and the imagined world of her twin as she navigates a new life in America. Because the communication between the two countries is so poor, it remains plausible that Mahtab is living it up in America like Saba’s twin sense intimates. But it’s equally plausible that Mahtab is a vehicle to describe the stifled desires of Saba.
Because we are seeing two worlds at once, we learn more about both of them. Saba buys tapes of American TV shows smuggled into the country and Mahtab lives the life of an American TV show. Clothed in a headscarf, Saba dreams of escaping to a foreign university where she can study anything she wants–a path that may involve marrying and then getting the consent of her husband. Meanwhile Mahtab the free attends Harvard where she Americanizes her name and experiments with dating. Saba’s dreams in many ways seem very small, but in comparison to Mahtab’s life, each tiny detail rings with importance. And Nayeri imbues each small desire with such sweet innocence that it’s easy to crawl inside of Saba’s life and begin to understand the complexity of the world she lives in.
Literature of Exile
“The moral police don’t hate indecency as much as their own urges.” – Dina Nayeri
Of course in many ways the writing of this book must have functioned in reverse. Nayeri, an Iranian exile who emigrated to the US at age ten. So while she is writing of a sister in Iran dreaming of life in America, in reality Nayeri is living an American life and projecting back to what life might have been like if she stayed in Iran. It’s a complicated relationship, particularly because Nayeri easily could have used this book as a chance to either throw potshots at the revolutionary government of Iran or to wax nostalgic about a homeland lost.
What I love and respect about this book is that she does neither. Instead, A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea is a nuanced and loving look at the people of Iran that deals with the strict Islamic government as thoughtfully as it considers the relationships between village women. Each time I wondered whether the peek into Iran I was getting was politically biased, Nayeri would once again display her love of the underlying culture and I don’t think I could have picked a better book to begin to understand Iran.
But of course when you’re dealing with two countries in political opposition, there is always a slant and I did wonder what an Iranian woman would think of this book. My hunch is that whatever she would think of the politics, the daily life and human experience would ring true.
“Women always do these kinds of jobs–cleansing each other of filth and sin. It is a way of showing the world that it is not by the standards of men that they are judged and found lacking.” – Dina Nayer
Because there is such a tortured political history between the US and Iran (and because my understanding of the situation is so limited), I did come into this book with some baggage. I expected total subjugation of women. I expected tight control and arbitrary regulations. I expected to come out hating the revolutionary government. But Nayeri deals more in human truths than political ones, which is a far better tack, and when given the opportunity to fulfill some cliche or other, she turns the cliche on its head and teaches the reader about thinking beyond the normal expectations.
For example, when Saba consents to a marriage with a man she does not love but who might offer her freedom in the future, I honestly expected (as she expected) for her to be raped on her wedding night. Instead what happens that night and throughout the course of her marriage is infinitely more nuanced, thoughtful, and (at times) heartbreaking. And when Saba’s beautiful but poor (and therefore powerless) friend Ponneh is attacked in the marketplace for revealing too much (or because her beauty is heartbreaking), Nayeri reveals some of the human frailty that goes into terrorizing others. It’s not always a comfortable look, but it’s an important one.
Our Global Village
“Now that she is older… with her own home and family, she considers all the mothers she has been offered, each good for a handful of things: Khanom Basir for household tricks, Khanom Mansoori for mischief, Dr. Zohreh for educated advice, Khanom Omidi for wisdom. Together they have failed to replace her mother, who was good at none of these things.” – Dina Nayeri
One of the highlights of this book is the relationships whether the triangle of love and friendship between Saba, Reza, and Ponneh or the chorus of village women who both enforce and thwart norms in ways that are infinitely interesting. Their relationships are complex and as much as they have their own lives and desires, there is also an underlying level of support and love.
As I was reading this book, I was feeling very lonely. I nearly cried when I read about the women in Saba’s village and how they gathered in her home after her marriage and “showed her how to store her spices, and bone her fish, and every other mundane thing they could think of”. At the same time, my American friend who is an expat in Singapore wrote a blog post about the village of people she’s finally found to support her. And another friend, a Romanian emigrant to America, replied about the instability of an adopted community. I realized that one of the things I was most attracted to in this book was that feeling of connection and community. I grew up in a small town that I yearned to leave, but now as I get older and am thinking about starting a family, I wonder where my support system is. I have a global network of beloved friends who can speak to my soul, but here in Seattle I have only a few people I would burden with requests to help build a deck or babysit our theoretical children.
I could relate to Saba’s pulling away from her home and I also saw in this book the way the women around her were trying to teach her what they had done to survive and to show her that she is part of something greater. By opening up in a comment to my friend’s post, I let myself see what I was missing. I also let others see what I have been missing and I’m realizing that my village here in Seattle is stronger than I thought.
Now that I’ve tasted a bit of Iran, I’m excited to learn more about her people and culture. Maybe I’ll sneak down to Portland for a sumptuously relaxed dinner at Persian House (I have a wicked craving for doogh) or just cuddle up on the couch while streaming The Patience Stone.
If you want to experience this gorgeous look at Iran for yourself, pick up a copy of A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea from Powell’s Books. Your purchase keeps indie booksellers in business and I receive a commission.