February 28, 2007
Iran has dominated American media in recent days.
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Reports of President George Bush's plan to send aircraft carrier battle groups into the Persian Gulf off the coast of Iran have left some wondering if the stage is being set for yet another bloody battle. Although he's beating the drum for diplomacy, some Democrats have questioned whether the president's recent decision is prompted by a plan to force Iran into ceasing its nuclear weapons program, once and for all.
For years, Iran was a country in turmoil, its streets littered with dead bodies and its people shrouded in fear. Travel in and out of the war-torn land was virtually impossible, leaving Iranians living in the United States fearful for the safety of their families.
Perhaps no one has shed light on the inner turmoil of a fractured society with more heart-aching clarity than East End author Nahid Rachlin. Rachlin, born in Iran, divides her time between Quogue and New York. Although she came to the United States to attend college and never returned home to Iran permanently, it is clear from her vivid recollections that memories of her childhood have colored the fabric of her life forever.
Rachlin has published four novels, as well as a collection of short stories – and most recently, her memoir, Persian Girls, put out by the Penguin Group, hit the shelves last fall.
In her work, the author illuminates the lives of women growing up in an oppressive Persian society, a culture where women are born into lives of quiet desperation. Forced to marry as young as nine years old, women have no voice. No freedom of choice. No rights to their children. No chance to marry for true love.
For Rachlin, who knew she wanted to be a writer since childhood, and her sister, Pari, who yearned to be an actress, the future was bleak. Persian Girls is a poignant and painful account of how women, trapped in an oppressive, male-dominated world, struggle to survive and flower in a society where dreams die silently in the face of stark tyranny.
Nowhere was the power of the written word more evident than in Iran, where reading a censored book could mean imprisonment or death. Rachlin quietly defied convention, sneaking out to a neighborhood bookstore to buy forbidden texts. Those books, and her writing, gave Rachlin the wings to fly.
Despite fear of punishment, Rachlin was compelled to write. "I was driven by the feeling I had for it. I wanted to express myself in words, and no matter how much censorship went on, I felt it was very important."
Writing empowered her. "When I wrote, when I put things into words and tried to give them shape, that helped me. Shaping something into words," gave Rachlin control.
Rachlin reports that censorship, albeit of a different nature, still thrives on Iranian soil. "Under the two regimes, the sensitivity was different. Today the sensitivities are toward words or scenes considered immoral. Under the shah, it was based more on political fears."
Once living in the United States, Rachlin's husband of 30 years, Howie, an American Jew, noted all of her works were based in the past, steeped in the colors and textures of Persian life.
"Those experiences I had growing up in that culture had such a strong impact on me. The emotions of everyday life were so strong. Everything was forbidden. Every time I tried to write about my recent experiences, they seemed very flat. I didn't have the urgency to write them."
Rachlin, who has taught at the Southampton Writers' Conference and a plethora of other similar courses around the country, advises aspiring writers to dig deep for the truth and write about subjects they're passionate about. "If something has that much meaning for you, the chances are you will try harder to convey it to others, because the dynamics are so strong in your own self." Writers "should be writing about something they feel compelled to write. Not to try to calculate and say, 'Well, if I write about this subject, it will sell.'"
Writing Persian Girls was an emotional journey for Rachlin, as she confronted the pain of herpast. What helped her to write the book was the fact that "I'm not living in that culture anymore. I have this distance – I'm kind of in a safe spot, to some extent, so that gives me more freedom. And I'm writing in the English language, which is not filled with taboos and painful memories. I find it much more liberating to write in a language that is not the one that I grew up with."
Persian Girls is Rachlin's lasting testament of love for her sister, who died tragically in a loveless marriage after losing her child to a tyrannical ex-husband. "I wrote it as a memoir because I felt compelled to tell my sister's story."
The process was healing: "I feel I have brought her to life." But the loss of a sister who was Rachlin's staunchest supporter looms large. "I have these daydreams that she's still alive, that she's going to read the book."
As an Iranian-born woman in the world today, Rachlin has strong feelings about the current political situation. "Obviously, I feel very upset about these Bush threats. We need to find peaceful solutions instead of constantly trying to impose threats that might lead to war."
The solution, she believes, lies in "a real cultural exchange or dialogue."
As for women in Iran today, although the new regime has enforced new restrictions such as forcing women to cover their hair, Rachlin believes change is brewing, with women in the work force and enrolled in universities. The Internet has had tremendous influence.
"There are thousands of blogs, and women go into chat rooms; they're very aware of what's going on in other countries. Even though it's a restricted culture, because of this exposure, it's hard to hold them down."
Still, there are obstacles to overcome: Although the legal age to marry is now 16, "in small villages, some women still marry as young as nine, because the law doesn't apply all the time."
Rachlin plans to continue her quest to raise awareness for Iranian women. In her new novel about identical twin sisters in Iran the author plans to continue chronicling cross-cultural issues. "I can't live without writing. Nothing has meaning unless I'm writing it."
And for a woman who has spent so many years adrift between Iran and the United States, Rachlin feels that in writing, she has found her true home.