I was 16 or 17 years old, preparing for a history test. I was reading, turning one page after another but unable to remember a single word. Panic grew….drama… My father entered the room, sent by my mother. While leafing through my text-book, he started to tell me about the 2nd world war in his own words. Exit panic.
I have always found it difficult to read in order to pass a test. History and geography never were my best subjects at school. So I don’t know much about – for example – Iran. But of course I remember Farah Diba from my childhood. She was the beautiful celebrity from somewhere far away, married to the Shah of Persia. Together they represented some sort of a sparkling fairytale. The fairytale ended though – and my interest in Iran never really exceeded Farah Diba.
This summer I picked up a book by Iranian Dina Nayeri: “A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea”. The story takes place in the 1980’s and tells the story of Saba who at 11 was left by her twin sister and mother. In Saba’s imagination they fled to America, Saba’s Shangri-La. Saba grows as I’m turning the pages. Her family is Christian converts and Saba is a free spirit who buys American films and books from a pusher. She smokes hashish together with her best friends Ponneh and Reza. At one hand she leads a care free existence. Saba’s distant father is wealthy, but struggles to cope as a single father. On the other hand, Saba constantly grieves the loss of her twin sister and mother and nobody really knows their whereabouts.
But this is also about the post-revolution, the morale police (the pasdars), the chadors and hijabs, the mullahs… beating and harassment. It’s history. The book also tells me a lot of another culture. About the strong, energetic women around Saba, her “surrogate mothers” who is hiding various unspoken bottles in their voluminous chadors. The sofrehs, the khastegaris, the parties behind closed curtains, the opium… the fun. In the midst of it Mullah Ali, a family friend who sleeps and snores through the hashish smoke and whatever else taking place that a mullah would never approve of – unless he was a true family friend.
It’s a story about arranged marriages, where Saba marries a very old man and becomes widow-in-waiting because everybody tells her that a married woman, even a widow can indulge in a freedom an unmarried student in Tehran can not even dream of. Besides, she will eventually get very rich.
I’m always thinking… if I had been a history teacher I would use literature as a teaching method. How can history ever get boring through the writing of – for example Dina Nayeri.