Shokoofeh Azar ‘The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree’

Booker International Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree”: In order of reading book number 4.

As I was exiting the house mum repeated one of her favourite sayings, “I don’t care if people’s lives are divided into before Nowruz and after Nowruz, or before the revolution and after the revolution, in my family it’s divided into before the Arab invasion and after the Arab invasion.” After that event mum always said Arab invasion, not fire or burning, she still wants to make the point that they came and burnt, plundered and killed just like 1400 years ago.

This powerful book about the decades following the Iranian revolution, the “Arab invasion” of the opening quote is told to us in this very personal view of events, by Shokoofeh Azar, from her new home in Australia and not from Iran, of course. Azar chooses to tell the story of one age-old family, of Hushang and his wife, and of their children, Sohrab, Beeta and the young narrator Bahar, and how their family tree ended.

This was a cultured Persian family who watched as Khomeni swept away the Shah and civil society to replace it by his  oppresive regime, they leave Teheran for a village, Razan, lost and forgotten far from the cities after a group of revolutionaries filled with hate arrive at their home:

I died the day inflamed revolutionaries boiling with revolutionary hatred and fervour poured into our house in Teheranpars and making strange noises cried out God is great, God is great, they stormed dad’s basement workshop and after, pouring kerosene on all his handmade tars and books and mulberry wood, set them alight. I was just 13 years old and was down there practising tar when they savagely attacked, I crawled under the table paralysed by fear. I saw with my own eyes how they splashed petrol everywhere and threw the lighter.

As the ghost of Beeta tells us, through stories interspersed with dreams and Zoroastrian folklore, there was no escape even in their backwater. She tells us through the arrest, torture and death of Sohrab of the price the population was made to pay for this revolution:

There was no news from Sohrab because he was waiting, he was waiting for the executions to end. They did end, some say it was september 22nd 1988, and some say it was later, either way they eventually came to an end. 5000 men and women, young and old, whose only crime had been their political or religious beliefs, were killed in the prisons of Teheran, Kharaj Mashhad and other cities. Once they had all finally died and their corpses had fed the crows and stray dogs in the dessert they didn’t sit idle, they set off, the ghosts of 5000 political and religious prisoners rose up from the cities deserts and from around Teheran and Havaran and looked at their smelly maggot infested body parts strewn around and carried in all directions in the mouths of crows and dogs, they set off with a common loathing, they wanted to see their murderer’s face up close. They could have appeared instantly in Khomeni’s bedroom the man who had signed their execution orders.

She tells of the revolutionary guards come to Razan to forcibly conscript all of the men to fight in the war against Iraq, of the sorrow of the mothers as none of them came back and of the contempt of the regime that gave them no news until the martyr foundation one day, with no warning, drove into the village with bronze plaques for them, the Black Snow in the quote refers to an actual event as in 1991 the Kuwaiti oil fields burned, black snow fell on mountainous regions:

The mothers thought that if we die they call our lone defenceless children orphans, but when our children die nobody calls us lone defenceless mothers. It was thus that they began calling themselves orphan mothers, mothers who had been orphaned by their children. Just as the happless arrival of the martyr foundation employees was beginning to fade from its memory, Rasan’s seemingly calm and beautiful heart suddenly stood still when it found itself the sudden home to a large graveyard, a graveyard the breadth of memories hopes and dreams, a graveyard the length of the past present and future. in the days and months after the storm of the black snow and the end of the war there was no news from veteran soldiers and nobody came from the provincial capital or Teheran to help the inhabitants of Rasan or even remembered their existence.

Late in the book, as Hushang, a bystander, is arrested on the margins of a demonstration and is then forced to write his story as a confession, there is a moment which reminded me of “The Life of Pi”, when the choice between the real story and a romanced version is presented.

This was a very personal story which also gives insight into how criminal regimes self perpetuate. Give those actually doing the dirty work more to lose by the fall of the regime than its perpetuation. This is of course a fiction, told in poetic language which contrasts with its backgroung setting.

First Published in Farsi.
Translated into english by Adrien Kijek and published as “The Enlightenmet of the Greengage Tree” by Wild Dingo Press in 2017

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