THE FACE

ROSE­MARY NEILL talks to ANITA AMIR­REZ­VANI NOV­EL­IST

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile -

WHEN Anita Amir­rez­vani gives speeches about her ac­claimed de­but novel, The Blood of Flow­ers, she tells her au­di­ences: ‘‘ I was born in the axis of evil and raised by the Great Satan.’’ Amir­rez­vani, 46, was born in Iran be­fore the Is­lamic revo­lu­tion and grew up in the US af­ter her par­ents di­vorced. She feels her axis of evilGreat Satan joke ‘‘ char­ac­terises the kind of rhetoric the two coun­tries have been throw­ing at each other for 30 years’’. In­deed, she says, it’s ridicu­lous that al­most three decades have gone by with­out Iran and the US main­tain­ing of­fi­cial ties.

‘‘ It’s re­ally quite ter­ri­ble for there to be such an­tag­o­nism,’’ she adds, in her cul­ti­vated Amer­i­can ac­cent. ‘‘ For some­one like me whose fa­ther is Ira­nian and whose mother is Amer­i­can ( of Lithua­nian de­scent), it’s al­most like see­ing your par­ents fight. It’s kind of in­sup­port­able.’’

Amir­rez­vani, who this month will visit Alice Springs’ Lead­ing Edge Fes­ti­val and Ade­laide Writ­ers Week, was just 17 and spend­ing a gap year in Iran when the Is­lamic revo­lu­tion shook the coun­try in the late 1970s. She and her fa­ther’s fam­ily fled the chaos, vi­o­lence and un­cer­tainty.

Since then, her fa­ther has re­turned to Iran, but she feels Western­ers’ views of her birth­place have hard­ened and nar­rowed, partly be­cause of the lack of con­tact be­tween the West and Tehran. ‘‘ I’m al­ways sur­prised that peo­ple don’t seem to re­alise that Iran is a mod­ern coun­try, a 21stcen­tury coun­try,’’ re­flects the jour­nal­ist turned au­thor, who vis­ited there sev­eral times to re­search her novel.

As she slogged away for nine years, writ­ing The Blood of Flow­ers while work­ing a full- time job, Amir­rez­vani was de­ter­mined — ‘‘ in a hum­ble way’’— to broaden out­siders’ perspectives of Ira­nian cul­ture. ‘‘ Pol­i­tics and head­lines are so much of what we get,’’ she says, sigh­ing down the line from the San Fran­cisco Bay area where she lives. As a jour­nal­ist, she knows those things are im­por­tant. As a half- Ira­nian, she knows her fa­ther’s coun­try has an en­dur­ing and lus­trous cul­ture that has be­come vir­tu­ally in­vis­i­ble in the West. ‘‘ I be­gan to feel that th­ese things weren’t be­ing talked about any more,’’ she says.

Ira­nian cul­ture, she ex­plains, en­com­passes high lit­er­ary tra­di­tions: oral sto­ry­telling, spo­ken po­etry and in­tri­cate crafts such as car­pet mak­ing. All, es­pe­cially the last of th­ese, fea­ture promi­nently in her novel.

The Blood of Flow­ers dur­ing

is set in 1620s Iran, the reign of the leg­endary ruler Shah Ab­bas. Framed by in­vented and bor­rowed Ira­nian folk­tales, the story fo­cuses on a strong- willed vil­lage girl with a flair for car­pet- mak­ing. When the girl is 14, her fa­ther dies un­ex­pect­edly, cat­a­pult­ing her and her mother into wretched poverty. They are taken in by a wealthy un­cle in Is­fa­han, a thriv­ing cul­tural mecca. Al­though de­sign­ing car­pets is a man’s pro­fes­sion, the girl’s un­cle, who works in the shah’s car­pet work­shop, agrees to teach the girl the craft, but only af­ter she has com­pleted her oner­ous do­mes­tic du­ties.

The girl, who re­mains un­named as a trib­ute to gen­er­a­tions of anony­mous Ira­nian ar­ti­sans, is forced into a se­cret mar­riage, her vir­gin­ity ef­fec­tively sold to a stranger. Her tem­po­rary mar­riage, known as a sigheh , means she can be cast out with noth­ing if she dis­pleases the man to whom she is con­tracted. At first the girl com­plies and learns how to se­duce her boor­ish spouse, but she even­tu­ally rebels against the sigheh , even though the con­se­quences are grave.

The Blood of Flow­ers high­lights women’s pow­er­less­ness in me­dieval Iran and their re­source­ful­ness and sen­su­al­ity within their own do­mains: the home, bed­room, bath­house and within the few ca­reers they are per­mit­ted, such as knot­ting car­pets at home.

Be­fore its re­lease in the US last year, the novel sparked a bid­ding war among pub­lish­ers. It has since sold to 25 ter­ri­to­ries in­clud­ing France, Italy, Ger­many, Turkey and Brazil. While many crit­ics have hailed it as a sen­su­ous, well- writ­ten and vivid tale, some have found its lan­guage flowery, and seen it as a fem­i­nist trea­tise and ex­otic soap opera. None­the­less, the novel’s suc­cess has been ‘‘ an enor­mous sur­prise for me’’, its ap­peal­ingly mod­est au­thor says. ‘‘ When you’re toil­ing away at any novel, you think that maybe, maybe, it will see the light of day one day and that is as far as your hopes and dreams can take you.’’

Iran is, con­spic­u­ously, not on the list of coun­tries in which The Blood of Flow­ers is to be pub­lished, but this doesn’t sur­prise Amir­rez­vani. The ban­ning of busi­ness re­la­tion­ships be­tween the US and Iran means it can’t be dis­trib­uted there by an Amer­i­can pub­lisher. State cen­sor­ship in Iran would mean that if the book were pub­lished there, ‘‘ the scenes of in­ti­macy would be changed or deleted’’.

Clearly aware of Iran’s pi­rate and black mar­kets, Amir­rez­vani chuck­les that ‘‘ I un­der­stand things some­times ap­pear in trans­la­tion, re­gard­less of the au­thor’s in­volve­ment’’.

In­trigu­ingly, sighehs still ex­ist in Iran. Point­ing out that lit­tle re­search has been done about con­tem­po­rary short- term mar­riages, Amir­rez­vani is un­com­fort­able spec­u­lat­ing about them. ‘‘ My sense is that they are be­ing used in a more mod­ern fash­ion . . . ( but) this is a cus­tom ( that) has been con­tro­ver­sial.’’

The writer is also cau­tious about dis­cussing par­al­lels be­tween the crip­pling re­stric­tions im­posed on her 17th- cen­tury fe­male char­ac­ters and the re­straints — such as sex- seg­re­gated work­places and rigid dress codes — im­posed on Ira­nian women to­day. ‘‘ It’s hard to draw a mean­ing­ful com­par­i­son,’’ she in­sists. ‘‘ To­day there is a lot of stereo­typ­ing of women in the Mid­dle East, about what they can and can’t do.’’ On her web­site, she points out that women ac­count for 60 per cent of univer­sity stu­dents in Iran. She does re­veal that dur­ing her re­search trips to Tehran, she no­ticed cy­cles of lib­er­al­i­sa­tion and re­pres­sion ‘‘ as young peo­ple al­ways push rules as hard as they can’’. Thus, a pe­riod when young women wear tighter coats, looser head­scarfs and a bold scrape of nail pol­ish will give way to pe­ri­ods fea­tur­ing long, baggy coats, fuller head­scarfs, un­var­nished nails.

The nov­el­ist con­cedes that when she lived in Iran for six months just be­fore Ay­atal­loh Ruhol­lah Khome­ini took power, ‘‘ that was a pe­riod that was the op­po­site of this ( con­tem­po­rary) pe­riod’’. Back then, she went on hol­i­day to the Caspian Sea and swam in a bathing suit, her fam­ily went to restau­rants where al­co­hol was served and there were tens of thou­sands of Western­ers, in­clud­ing Amer­i­cans, liv­ing in the coun­try. Asked if she is sur­prised by the rad­i­cal changes that have swept Iran since the Is­lamic revo­lu­tion, she is again guarded: ‘‘ As with many rev­o­lu­tions, you never know what you’re go­ing to get in the end.’’

For years Amir­rez­vani worked as a re­spected dance critic at the San Jose Mer­cury News. How­ever, when the pa­per was sold in 2005, its arts cov­er­age was down­sized and her job dis­ap­peared. It’s not the only US news­pa­per to fil­let its arts cov­er­age in re­cent times and Amir­rez­vani de­scribes the cut­backs as heart­break­ing. On the other hand, she has the lux­ury of time to work on her sec­ond novel, an­other his­tor­i­cal work set within the Ira­nian royal court.

Given that Per­sian car­pets play such a cen­tral role in her first novel, I ask Amir­rez­vani whether she has any. She con­firms she has three small rugs and jokes: ‘‘ Ev­ery time I go there ( to Tehran), the size of car­pet I can af­ford shrinks.’’ It also amuses her that de­spite their trade em­bargo, Amer­i­cans are the big­gest for­eign buy­ers of Per­sian car­pets; car­pets made in the heart of the axis of evil.

Pic­ture: Peter DaSilva

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