A review of Iran, My Grandfather by Ali Alizadeh

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Iran, My Grandfather
By Ali Alizadeh
Transit Lounge
2010, ISBN 9780980571745

Iran, My Grandfather begins with the voice of the narrative “I”, who both is and isn’t the author himself. A disenfranchised voice speaking from the void of time, Alizadeh the narrator grows through a narrative arc from a lost child to a fully fledged warrior of the word, uncloaking the complex and often tragically bumbling interference from other countries that not only led to the Alizadeh family having to leave the country, but to the current polarities between the west and the middle east.

Alizadeh’s narrator moves in and out of the story, swapping between cool professorial lecturer to coming-of-age, to the plaintive and disembodied voice of the permanently dispossessed—a diaspora of grief:

My dilemma of non-being, the perpetual anguish of separation and exile, is neither factual nor sacred. Alienation and disenchantment, cruelties of the past and the barbarities of the future, cannot be reduced to the mythic formulae of the salvation – and-damnation narratives of scriptures. (5)

Salman Fuladvand is the grandfather and subject of the book, and though his story is built from fragments and facts which Alizadeh tells us are not enough, he becomes a “murky mirror” for self-discovery. The historical story begins in 1925, when the Qajar king was deposed and Reza Kahn became the Shah of Iran. We get to know Salman Fuladvand through his young life, his marriage, and job as a policeman, keeping law during the naturalist-secularist era, which he fervently supports, even to the point of removing a woman’s veil in the marketplace:

She wails and clenches her teeth. She sobs so intensely that Salman wonders if she’s being melodramatic. He soon realizes that there is nothing hyperbolic about her indignation; that there’s nothing at all artificial about the torn-out locks of hair clasped between the tense fingers of her quivering fist. (63)

Salman’s perceptions change along with the mood of the country as Khan’s extreme modernisation program becomes increasingly brutal, and Iran attempts to ally with Germany in the late 1930s. It’s around this point that the British get involved and begin a chain of attempts from various superpowers to control the affairs of Iran, the oil rich “Persian Corridor” between Europe and Asia. In 1941, Khan’s son Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi is sworn in as ruler, and Lieutenant Fuladvand tries to provide the naïve new ruler with words of advice. He is subsequently falsely arrested for the murder of Prince Nosrat al-Doleh and while in prison he becomes a Sufi and renounces his earlier politics. Meanwhile the young Shah courts the US during the Cold War, and further drives the country towards industrial reform, to the benefit of the well-to-do and Western companies like the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, who begin amassing huge profits at the country’s expense. When the Prime Minister, Dr Mosaddeq, begins a campaign against the increasingly exploitative capitalistic west, the CIA, in cahoots with the Shah, decide to topple him through illegal methods, and instead appoint General Zahedi as the Prime Minister. Salman, meanwhile, becomes increasingly despondent after losing his wife and daughter in a car accident.

It’s 1963, and the Ayatollah Khomeini is arrested by the Shah’s armed secret police after preaching against the infiltration of the country by the US. The Islamic Revolution began to grow, until, in 1979, Khomeini’s Iraninan People’s Revolution assumes government. The rest of the book is written from the point of view of young Alizadeh, who is old enough to understand the zealousness which is taking hold of the country. Once again the US’s intervention through its support of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein further polarizes the country and sets in train a war in the middle east that devastates the country.

Throughout the book, Alizadeh’s writing is clear and taut as it moves between historical account and perception. At times, the description takes on the rich pathos of nostalgia, particularly when we view events through the narrative lens:

The streets are empty and a grey, translucent glow filters my final view of the pallid exterior of our house, the sluggish river at the end of our street, the imposing bluestone house that I and the neighbours’ kids believe is haunted, and the narrow alleyways that I’ve lurked in on my bicycle. We leave them behind. (238)

The reader is given both a macro view as we begin to see the shameful impact that meddling from the Soviet Union, Britain, and above all the US, has had on the state of affairs in Iran, and indeed the entire the middle east, and the micro view of the way in which these events impact on one family.

The collage approach might, at times, be a little disorienting for the reader. I felt, perhaps along with the narrator, that I wanted more of Salman’s interior, more of young Ali’s world, and more of his extraordinary grandmother and mother. The women in this story have a powerful impact on the men around them, but they’re not given very much of a direct voice, though we do get a bit of Grandma’s voice in her storytelling. However, the overall approach of the work is one that successfully builds a narrative that becomes far more than the sum of facts. It’s the story of many things at once: a country torn apart by power factions and manipulation, a story of a man and what happened to his patriotism over time, a story about genetic and cultural inheritance, a story about migration, and above all, what it means to lose a home—something as relevant today as it was during the time of Alizadeh’s migration. It isn’t always a feel-good read. At times, I felt utter disgust for the country of my own birth, a place I too have left behind me—the story of how the middle east crisis came about is both fascinating and horrible and something everyone should be aware of. Iran, My Grandfather is an usual hybrid of memoir, biography, history and political science, blending elements in a literary collage that is as moving and fascinating as it is important reading.