A Persian Requiem, by Simin Daneshvar.
A Persian Requiem: A Novel by Simin Daneshvar. New York : G. Braziller, 1992. First published, 1969. Alternative title, Savushun.
GLOBAL WOMEN OF COLOR
A moving and important Iranian novel set during World War II and centered on a wife and mother struggling with competing loyalties.
Simin Daneshvar’s novel, first published in Iran in 1969, is important in Iranian history and provides outsiders with valuable insight into the diversity and conflicts that have long existed in that country. For those who delight in fine literature, the book sweeps us up in a tale of Zari, a woman seeking to love and care for her family as the violence of her world is shattering their lives.
Daneshvar was born in Shiraz, Iran, in 1921, and lived through the events that form the background of her book. Married to a leader of the opposition to foreign intervention in her country, she was well-educated and sensitive to the extreme gap between the rich and poor and to the specific problems that women faced. When her A Persian Requiem was published in 1969, it was immensely popular within Iran, inspiring young people to support revolution. The book’s alternative title, Savushun, refers to an Iranian ritual of mourning and celebrating a martyr’s death.
With little knowledge of this confusing period in Iranian history, I found I needed a bit of context to follow the individuals and events that Daneshvar describes. During World War II, Great Britain was in Iran to protect its source of oil and to allow supplies to reach its ally, the Soviet Union. This alliance did not stop the Russians from supporting those within Iran who opposed the British. Daneshvar reveals the variety of Iranian responses. While some Iranians, including Zari’s brother-in-law, were profiting from the British presence, others, including her husband, felt that the foreigners’ demands for food and other supplies were starving poor Iranians. Nomadic tribes such as the Qashqais, among whom Zari’s husband had friends, were violently attacking the British. In this confusing conflict, Zari only hoped that war would pass her family by. “My town, my country is this household…but they are going to drag this war to my doorstep, too.” The war does draw her family into its destructive web, changing Zari as she is pulled between personal and public demands.
On one level, Zari is faced with a universal moral dilemma about bravery and danger, but at another level it is moral choice that male writers often ignore. As a woman, Zari is torn between caring for her husband and children and taking risks that could harm them. In Zari’s words and choices, Daneshvar articulates the specific issues for a wife and mother caught up in a war. How does she balance the needs of her family and her country?
Zari views herself as like the servant boy who sat at the treadmill by the well pumping up buckets of water. She had been brave as a girl, standing up to her teachers, but now all she cares for is working for the safety and happiness of her family. Her loving husband urges her to be braver, but what does bravery mean for a woman like her? In loving her husband she had become submissive to him and the needs of her children. “Both her upbringing and her life-style made it impossible to participate in anything that would jeopardize life as she knew it.” Then she speculates about alternatives.
If only the world were run by women, Zari mused, women who had given birth and cherish what they have created. Women who value patience, forbearance, the daily grind; who know what it is like to do nothing for one’s self…Perhaps men risked everything in order to feel as if they have created something, because in reality they are unable to create life. If the world was run by women, would there be any wars? And if one loses the blessings one has, what then?
If these ideas were presented as goals to be achieved, I’d probably protest that they reflect an essentialism that I reject. Instead, Daneshvar presents them as musing that often occur to women in various times and places as they struggle with problems men bring into their lives. For me, this book is better at expressing the dilemmas women face than offering a solution.
While most of the book is conventionally and skillfully written, Daneshvar includes a brilliant section in which Zari is deeply shaken by a devastating blow to her and her family. Zari slips in and out of consciousness, memories, and nightmares, unsure of her own sanity. This is fine stream-of-consciousness writing on the part of Daneshvar.
Reading books by women of color, such as this one, has brought me significant insights into how privileged I am to live in a time and place where war is not on my doorstep and how the experience of war, as of so much of our lives, differs according to our gender.
I strongly recommend Persian Requiem to all readers, especially interested in finely written accounts of the gendered impacts of war or in understanding Iran’s past and present.
Other books I have read and reviewed that deal with similar questions that I also recommend. Each presents a different way of resolving the issues.