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If Reading Lolita in Tehran (Random House, 2004), Azar Nafisi’s moving story of young women trying to get an education in the Islamic Republic, made you weep for the plight of women in a society that practices gender apartheid and then made your heart fly to witness the courage of these women, then it’ll happen to you all over again when you read Cracked Pomegranate, a memoir disguised as a novel.

 

Cracked Pomegranate actually tells two stories, both about girls who live in an Iranian village whose people are controlled by a corrupt religious leader and his rapacious sons. By Western standards, 20th century Iran is still medieval. Women have no rights. Their lives are ruled by their fathers, they are sold into arranged marriages with strangers at age 13, they are frequently abused by their husbands and mothers-in-law. When a woman is raped, it’s her fault that she was touched by someone not her husband; she is stoned for her “sin.” From age 9, girls wear chadors that cover their bodies and hair. (What kind of god is threatened by the sight of a girl’s hair?) Girls are not educated.

 

The first girl we meet, Mina, is Bidgoli’s 13-year-old literary alter-ego. Her story takes place in the 1970s. She’s bright and curious about the world and, having just finished sixth grade, yearns to continue her education. Her father wants to marry her to an older man. Mina writes letters to God, asking to somehow be saved from the marriage and allowed to go to high school. Her prayers are answered when her uncle, a provincial governor, arrives for a visit and takes her home with him and his wife to a modern city. Here we see a reformed and modernized Iran under its last shah. A bit of historical background: Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who came to the throne in 1941, was secular and pro-Western. Because of his autocratic manner, his good relations with Israel and the U.S., and his support of women’s rights, he was deposed in 1979 by followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini. These are the men who established the present Islamic Republic. Anyone who pays any attention to the news is familiar with the status of women there today.

 

Because Mina is homesick and uneasy about her new life, she is introduced to Fati, the novel’s other protagonist. A generation earlier, Fati—age 13 at the time—was raped by the religious leader’s son. Her husband was attacked and her family persecuted, but she was able to escape being stoned. Her helpers? Mina’s mother, Yassaman (also age 13), father, and grandparents. Both Fati and Yassaman were pregnant. Fati, now an artist, takes Mina under her wing and encourages her dreams of education and freedom:

The good life, or happiness [she says to Mina], is not about accumulating degrees, prestige, or wealth. It’s about being true to ourselves and fulfilling our dreams. The woman who is denied her true calling will feel empty until she gains the courage to stand up and voice her dreams and her need to be more than a cheerleader to her husband and her sons” (p. 187).

 

As Mina and Fati tell their stories, there are revelations, coincidences, heartbreak, and hope. The novel ends with Mina arriving in the United States to study at an American university. Fae Bidgoli left Iran in 1978. She and Azar Nafisi both live in the U.S., but a million women remain in the Islamic Republic, their dreams hidden under their chadors.

 

~review by Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D.

Author: Fae Bidgoli

Regent Press, 2005

 
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