Returning to Iran
Over 20 years, Kamin Mohammadi broke her ties with her native country. Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the subsequent implementation of an Islamic Republic under the leadership of the Ayatollah Khomeini, the then 9-year-old Kamin, her older sister, mother, and father, a top executive of the National Iranian Oil Company, obtained political asylum in the United Kingdom.
Why did she neglect Iran for so long? “I did not want to be associated with young bearded radicals and fundamentalist ideals of the Islamic Republic,’’ answers the 41-year-old journalist and writer in a central London café. To her parents’ dismay, Kamin, now living between London and a natural reserve near a small town in Tuscany, stopped speaking Farsi to the point of forgetting the language. She also avoided friendship with Iranians. “I wanted to be British; I wanted to fit in,’’ she tells me.
In The Cypress Tree: A Love Letter to Iran (Bloomsbury, 270 p., 16,99 pounds), Kamin searches – and finds – her Iranian identity through the saga of her extensive family. Launched at the beginning of July, the work is an indispensable tour of force for those who wish to go beyond the clichés associated with countries.
A fashion editor for the British periodical GQ, the journalist, who has written for, among other publications, the Financial Times, the Guardian, and Marie Claire, covers with the same fluency political, religious, and cultural aspects, as well as gastronomy and fashion. For instance, Kamin describes with acuity the bloody 1979 Revolution, mixing reminiscences of a 9-year-old girl with the data she gathered in her one-year research at the British Library. Next to her mother driving through the center of Teheran, the girl saw “what looked like a cavalcade’’ of heavily armed militants riding motorcycles. They were unshaven, dressed in black, and flying black Shiite flags. “They made me shudder and sink back against the seat,” writes Kamin.
Uncles and cousins of Kamin, some with Socialist inclinations and others Kurdish activists (her father is a Kurd), were engaged in the Revolution without knowing that Khomeini’s objective was to establish an Islamic Republic.
Via captivating descriptions of the elites and their fashion trends, the journalist/writer reveals curious aspects of an Iran unknown to most of us. For instance, in the 60s Iranian women copied the eyebrows, which have long been a fashion statement in Iran, of Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida. The author writes that today the headscarves are more colorful and worn further back. The mandatory outsized sunglasses are preferably Chanel; ‘‘the manteaux are inspired by Dior’s New Look of the forties.’’
Kamin makes clear that these upper scale women and men belong to a closed circle of a minority that resides mainly in a leafy neighborhood in the north of Teheran. The majority of Iranians obey the rules and laws of the Islamic society. And they are the ones who suffer the most.
Iran, as it becomes clear in The Cypress Tree, is not limited to the images of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and austere fundamentalist clerics. “The rule of the mullahs will one day be wiped from the pages of history,’’ writes the author with optimism. And the country will survive, adds the author, without taking sides, eventual attacks from Israelis and Americans. But Kamin, of course, does not have a crystal ball to predict when and if the Islamic Republic will survive.
The writer says that the inhabitants of that beautiful country, where the turquoise color predominates in the sea, trees, and domes (the cover of the book is turquoise), are resilient. To stress this view, Kamin could not have chosen a better title for her book. Besides having its origins in Mesopotamia, in Iranian poetry the cypress tree represents, among other things, grace and a woman’s beauty. The cypress tree is, in fact, graceful – but it is also resilient. The following metaphor has been running for generations in the Mohammadi family: “We Iranians are like the cypress tree. We may bend and bend on the wind but we will never break.”
As the subtitle indicates, the work is a love letter to Iran. Sipping water in the London café, Kamin offers: “Iran was always inside me.” But how could a young woman having the status of a political refugee visit Iran without even having a passport? Not surprisingly, she says that her political refugee status made her feel anxious. On a trip with her British school to France, she was barred from entering the country. The reason: After a series of attacks in France attributed to a group of Iranians, the authorities decided not to give a visa to a teenager from Iran.
When she finally obtained a British passport, Kamin also had the right to apply for an Iranian passport. In 1996, after almost two decades living outside Iran, the 27-year-old journalist returned to her birthplace. In the beginning, she felt like an outsider speaking Farsi with a British accent. But in 2006, when she spent the year doing research for her book in Iran, she lost the accent.
“This book was therapy, darling,” says Kamin. “I had to plunge into a deep cocktail of feelings from my past that had not been solved.” She adds, “The idea of a book about your family goes against the tradition of family privacy in Iran; it is actually a huge dishonor.” For this reason, in the beginning, the author decided to write a fictional book. Kamin produced five fiction chapters in 2003. Following the signing of a book contract with Bloomsbury in 2005, she spent three years investigating. It was only in 2008 that Kamin started writing a non-fiction book. At one point, she admits, “I was afraid of getting clinically depressed.”
The main sources for Kamin’s book are women: Fatemeh Bibi, the maternal grandmother, Sedigheh, Kamin’s mother, and Mina, one of Sedigheh’s sisters and her favorite aunt. Along with other relatives, they helped to fill in the gaps of stories not told by her father. An elegant and reserved man, Bagher, now aged 85, is in fact the connecting thread of the writer’s journey. Sedigheh had told her some stories about him. For instance, Bagher conquered her heart by giving her Mohammadi flowers, as the Iranian damask roses are called. But Kamin wanted to know more about her father. Bagher, she writes, “may have left Iran, but I found him still there in so many ways that my longing for Iran became also a longing to know him.’’
Bagher, the oil executive, emerged under Shah Reza (1877-1944). The first monarch of the Pahlevi dynasty, Shah Reza established education reforms, which included studies at an institute to train Iranians to join the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Bagher was sent to the United Kingdom, where he worked several years, and soon he skipped levels in moving up in the hierarchy of the Company, which was nationalized by the Premier Mohammad Mossadegh in 1951. Foreigners went away and the “New Iranians,” as executives like Bagher were called, reached the top levels of the Company’s hierarchy.
Before writing the book, Kamin asked herself the question that, to me, seems essential: “Are we culpable for the revolution of 1979?’’ She knew that her father, working for the National Oil Company, represented Western values and modernity. New Iranians, therefore, were hated by the revolutionaries. In fact, Bagher’s name would appear on the black list of those persecuted by the Khomeini regime when the Mohammadis were already in London.
The journalist remembers the Kurdish family, in fact guerrillas, protecting the house in Teheran from the Komitehs, the committees that organized demonstrations, turned into Khomeini’s Islamic militias. But it was in her investigations in Iran, to which her father never returned, that Kamin discovered her father had always been generous with colleagues and the family and was never corrupted. He was a bureaucrat who accomplished his work and didn’t hold a political position in the Company. For that reason, his relatives, whether Socialists or Kurdish activists, helped him to flee the country. Kamin tells me that, throughout the long project, she “walked through fire, but I came out healed.”
She had a difficult relationship with her father. However, in the process of discovering the country where she was born, she came to terms with the unsolved problems she had with her father: “I forgave him.’’ She notes that, after the revolution, Bagher certainly felt embittered. He had, after all, served his country and was forced to escape and become a political refugee. “But he did not pass any bitterness to me. I find that so graceful. What a great man.’’ Theirs is now a “great relationship.’’
I observe the writer as she talks. With her honey-colored eyes, smiling and expansive, she exudes charisma and glamour. I ask what she answers when people want to know where she comes from. “I offer a very long answer,” she responds, a smile in her lips. “I usually say that I am British-Iranian.’’ Sometimes, she presents herself as Iranian, but that usually invites discussions in which she is lectured about the danger that Ahmadinejad poses to the world. So in certain circumstances, Kamin finds it more appropriate to be Persian, a more old-fashioned way to present herself – “but more friendly.’’ “Besides,” she continues, “it is so nice to be Persian.’’ In any case, writing the book helped her to feel the same wherever she is. “I am at peace with myself.’’
After our interview, Kamin went back to Colognole, the natural reserve near a small town called Rufina, to the northeast of Florence. There she lives with her companion Bernardo Conti, one of the photographers’ three children, plus 30 dogs. It was in Tuscany, surrounded by cypress trees originally from Mesopotamia, that Kamin found inspiration to finish her book.