Monday, September 26, 2011

The Cypress Tree: Flexing between England, Oil and Iran..

I picked up The Cypress Tree on Amazon, shortly after it was published by the London publisher Bloomsbury. I didn't know the British-Iranian woman that had written the book and nor did the Iranian community--as far as googling and poking a couple of friends suggested. Lately, I am interested in how the second generation Iranians (well educated and articulate) revisit our country.

When I received the book, holding the perfectly designed turquoise hardcover with fabric texture, and golden pressed cypress trees against a white floral miniature lining on the lower third of the book cover, I suspected such aesthetics demanded that the book be written beautifully.

It was.

In her first book, Kamin Mohammadi, the 42 year old contributor to the Lonely Planet's Iran guide, bends the words skillfully and yet simply, to deliver her story of growing up in the heart of the Iranian Oil industry, and the (inevitable) politics of the Revolution and the War that ensued and forced her family into exile in London, England.

Culturally shocked in London, embarrassed by the exoticism and the formalness of her inassimilable parents(although luxe and devout British-lovers, since the father was among the first flock of students to be educated in oil-industry in the UK) she denounced her Iranianness, and immersed herself in the British culture of the Thatcher era, until she grew old enough to dare the journey back home to reconcile who she had become with who she used to be.

She had become a boarding schooled articulate English reporter barely capable of speaking her mother tongue, Persian. In Iran, she used to be a mischievous bookworm child, petting a sheep, and growing up in the foyer of a presumably upper middle class Iranian family. Her extended family was traditional but their fortunes came with the ascension of Reza Khan to the throne, and the opportunities that the second Pahlavi's dream of speedy modernization of Iran provided. Hence, their demise also came with the Revolution and the following war that sliced through the heart of their homeland: Khuzistan, the oil capital of Iran and Kurdistan, the capital of legendary honorable fighters.

In this comprehensive but concise account, like a good travel-guide, Kamin Mohammadi covers much political, social, cultural and historical ground as can fit a small book. Inevitably superficial, and occasionally bordering on cliché, and suffering a couple of minor errors that would have been caught if an Iranian editor had read the book, but capturing enough to read nonstop. She tells her stories well--although I am curious to know how much of it a non-Iranian, who has not grown up in those surreally intense circumstances we Iranians have lived, will grasp.

The Cypress Tree (درخت سرو, the staple of Iranian gardens, art and poetry) is not a particularly witty book that will make you laugh; and sometimes (more often towards the end) it suffers that typical translated-sentimentality that comes from the writer's reliance on the secondhand memory of the Iranian family members providing 'information' to a writer whose command of the native language is inferior to the language of the book.

Nonetheless, The Cypress Tree is a sympathetic book, a fair one; and although the writer stresses her bias, her hatred for the regime that forced her out of her comfortable childhood and thrust her into the cold of English private education system, she does not sound hateful, biased or propagandist. She delivers her story like a good journalist.

This is not a tedious book to read--although I skipped a couple of paragraphs when she had become a little too pedantic lecturing on some political causations irrelevant to her biography. I read it in less than 20 hours over 4 flights; and had it not been for being totally busy with family affairs and work, I would not have wanted to stop reading. Not only is it written clearly, but it also touches poignantly. More than a few times did I get goose bumps, like:

In Chapter 19, she goes back to the house in Abadan, which they abandoned in a hurry when the revolutionaries had called for her father's head--a high-office technocrat in the oil industry. She is bonding with her cousin Noosheen, 10 years her junior, a true child of the Revolution, and an independent college graduate who lives and works alone--something impossible a generation ago.)
"Noosheen and her ilk are my great hope for Iran's future, the women jumping forward through loopholes in the system. Only one thing can still set them back inexorably--another war.

Noosheen lives her independent life in Natanz, now notorious in the West as the site of one of Iran's nuclear reactors and likely candidate for Israeli and American bombing with nuclear tipped weapons. Should those bombs one day fall, they will wipe out not just the fabled domes of Esfahan and poison the land for thousands of years to come, they will also obliterate my sweet modest cousin and her quietly modern life."

I enjoyed this book (and am willing to overlook its clichés and minor errors), not just because it is well written, not just because it offers a primer, chronicling 100 years of Iranian history's ups and downs in only 270 pages, but because it is written by a part Kurdish, part Khuzestani, part Esfehani and part English Iranian woman, who gives us a glimpse into the lives and prospects of the numerous aunts and cousins whose lives, originally dependent on trade and agriculture, were reshaped around the Iranian oil industry. Her southern, and historical perspective is a refreshing departure from most other Tehran-based about-Iran books that are perhaps too trapped in hating the evils of the mullahcracy to be truly original. Kamin also writes about the crisis of freedom in Iran, but that is only a small slice of her cake. This book is not cooked by a chef, but it is a tasty buffet.

You can order the book form or slightly more expensive at the publisher's.
Here's another review of the book.