Escaping self-exile

The search for redemption in the Teheran shtetl yields further subjugation in Gina Nahai's new novel.

By DONALD WEBER
October 10, 2007 12:22
Escaping self-exile

caspian rain 224.88. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Caspian Rain By Gina B. Nahai MacAdam Cage 290 pages; $25.00 'Sometimes exile is the best thing that can happen to a people," reflects Roxanna, the strong-willed runaway heroine of Gina B. Nahai's highly regarded Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith (1999). In her novels Nahai takes the enabling power of exile as her core subject, conjuring richly imagined tales of Iranian Jewish life in transition: from the Old World ghettos of Teheran, where Jewish families lived for centuries as a self-conscious minority according to strict social hierarchies and constraining codes of behavior, to the liberating air of Los Angeles, a sun-drenched "goldene medina" where, since the fall of the shah in 1979, 30,000 Iranian Jews live, thriving in "a land of choices and chances" (a quote from Moonlight) basking in, perhaps, the best of all possible diasporas. Nahai's power as storyteller, in the tradition of magical realism, flows from her desire to weave the brutal facts of modern Iranian history with fantastic narratives of familial rupture and political displacement. "The surreal is woven into the culture" of Iran, Nahai has remarked. Her fiction thus blends fable with social criticism; from her clear-eyed yet deeply empathic perch in the New World, Nahai sounds the emotional costs of exile as she explores the trauma of loss for her fellow émigrés. In Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith a banished daughter - the dangerous Roxanna, "possessed with a thousand demons" - sprouts wings to escape her mother's shame-ridden, murderous rage, and flies off to enact a dream of personal freedom beyond the closed world of Iranian Jewry. The novel concludes with a powerful image of homecoming: Roxanna's long-alienated, New World daughter, Lili, is reconciled with her self-exiled mother, and together they hover in the skies over post-shah Teheran (a startling journey of reverse migration, from Los Angeles to Iran), as Roxanna unearths the repressed fragments of family history - a therapeutic act of filial bonding through memory and love. In her ultimately less exhilarating, somber new novel, Caspian Rain, Nahai tells the story of another restless woman, Bahar, a poor Jewess from the Teheran ghetto thwarted in her romantic desires, haunted by unspeakable shame, trapped in - and by - the gossipy web of Iranian Jewish life. Caspian Rain is narrated by Yaas, the all-knowing and (as we sadly discover) self-sacrificing daughter of Bahar, a young woman who dreams of an alternative destiny, beyond the limits of the Jewish ghetto. Yaas's father is the repressed Omid Arbab, the son of wealthy parents obsessed with social boundaries, embarrassed by ill-mannered, declassé Jews. Caspian Rain chronicles her parents' disastrous marriage, above all Bahar's rage at her plight as ignored and eventually betrayed wife. Nahai also explores Bahar's complex response to Yaas's slowly enveloping deafness. A family history of imagined judgment haunts Bahar in the figure of her deaf "ghost brother," who died as a young boy after being hit by a car. His specter returns at key moments to unsettle or, perhaps, beckon Yaas; he looms as a symbol of the repressed shame that haunts the family. Only 12 years old but deeply wise about her dysfunctional family, Yaas recognizes the malign effects upon her mother of what she calls "the end of hope, the setting in of shame." Caspian Rain is thus Yaas's narrative of how she salves her mother's emotional pain so that Bahar can ultimately see her daughter. In this respect the novel deepens the core theme of Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith: the impact of a mother's self-chosen exile. As Roxanna recalls, "I saw how alone she [Lili] was, how invisible she felt, how afraid she was to look in my eyes and realize I had not seen her." In Caspian Rain, Yaas feels invisible, exiled in her deafness. "When I went deaf," she reflects, "I became an exile in my own land." Yaas seeks, in effect, to overcome the mournful underside of exile - experienced as loss and filial severing - by restoring her place in Bahar's (occluded by shame) line of vision. Nahai sets this deeply felt, if abstract, narrative of imagined mother-daughter restoration against a more accessible, if predictable, novel of Iranian Jewish manners. Readers will be absorbed by Nahai's colorful evocation of the shtetl characters of Cyrus Street in the heart of Teheran's Jewish ghetto. Bahar is a restless daughter of this bounded neighborhood, possessing "an air of aloofness, a strange confidence that is unnerving," a "certain defiance of convention." She dreams of being a teacher, and is filled with "unremitting joy," "unrestrained" laughter and an "indestructible faith." By contrast, Bahar's husband, Omid, is a model of restraint and repression befitting his snobbish family's upper-crust demeanor. Obsessed with "decorum and tact," the Arbabs "are modern Jews who believe themselves Iranians first and Jews second." In the tradition of immigrant Jewish American fiction, the more assimilated Arbabs recall Anzia Yezierska's parvenu Jews, on the move from Delancey Street (the equivalent of Cyrus Street in Teheran's ghetto, where Bahar grew up) to the tonier precincts of Riverside Drive, disparagingly termed "alrightnik's row." Bahar, unfortunately, only sees the promise of freedom reflected in Omid's eyes, but clear-sighted Yaas recognizes that her mother is "blinded by joy, giddy with the prospect of escaping her destiny once and for all." Bahar is also innocent of Omid's disdain for her natural exuberance, unaware that he severely judges her lack of "poise." "She'll just have to learn the ways of civilized folk," Omid thinks to himself, revealing his bad faith and latent misogyny, "and become a person he can take with him to parties." "I want to become someone," Bahar implores her new husband; "You've done that," he acidly replies, "by marrying me." Caspian Rain chronicles the suffocating atmosphere of Bahar and Omid's doomed marriage, following the tragic arc of what their daughter calls "our desolate, haunted lives." Defying his family's concern with status and appearance, Omid eventually runs off to Los Angeles with a mysteriously beautiful woman, Niyaz, with whom he is infatuated, and starts a new family. She possesses "an air of aloofness, a strange confidence" - qualities that, in their compelling power (Niyaz embodies the mobility and freedom he craves), ultimately dislodge Omid from the narrow orbit of Arbab civility. As for Bahar, she has a short-lived moment of happiness by the Caspian shore, where the family journeys to salvage its future. For Yaas, the Caspian looms in her memory as the cherished site of reawakening. "I feel my heart expand with joy," she recalls; by the sea, on the threshold of total deafness, she was able, somehow, to hear the rain fall. Yaas associates this ecstatic moment with the sound of her mother's voice; indeed, she returns to her broken family with the desire never to forget that sound. The ability to remember her mother's voice, she feels, will enable her to preserve the deeper self-exiled by deafness: to be "able to hear - through memory - even after I have gone deaf." Despite this moving evocation of a daughter's desire to build a bridge with her mother through words, via the connective tissue of memory, the startling revelation at the end of Caspian Rain feels imposed, a narrative surprise. As does Yaas's refusal, born of profound daughterly love, "to save her [mother] from the good fortune that will augur such devastation in her life." Why is Bahar doomed to repeat a life of "despair" - the meaning, it turns out, of Yaas's name in Farsi? Why does Yaas decide not to alter her mother's disastrous destiny? By tethering the story of Caspian Rain to its native Iranian roots, Nahai refuses her women the redemptive potential of exile; she withholds from Bahar and Yaas the mythic promise of American self-invention. Perhaps Nahai will adjust her gifted storyteller's eye - born of exile and filled with empathy - to consider the sprawling spectacle of Iranian-Jewish life in Los Angeles, which is in places comic, if still haunted by loss. She is, after all, that subculture's finest chronicler. Perhaps in her next novel Nahai will hover over the luxurious gardens of Brentwood, or fly through the benighted hills of Beverly Glen, conjuring ghosts.


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