22222222Interview with the State.com  
22222222An Evening with Anahita Firouz at Chatham College

Love, politics collide in Persian garden of paradise
Special to The State

"I saw her for the first time after twenty years, at an afternoon concert of classical Persian music in the gardens of Bagh Ferdaus," recalls Reza Nirvani. "It was an outdoor concert in early autumn. Summer still lingered. The sky was overcast, threatening rain, the afternoon unusually muggy. She wore yellow, the color of a narcissus from Shiraz. I knew it was her in a split second even after all those years."

Reza's feelings are rekindled when he spies his childhood love, Mahastee, in the grand gardens of Bagh Ferdaus, "the garden of paradise" in Persian. However, their relationship is far from paradise.

Set in the years just before the 1979 revolution in Iran, November's Readers' Circle selection, "In the Walled Gardens" by Anahita Firouz, is told from Reza and Mahastee's points of view as they struggle with their passion for each other amid the chaos of a worsening political situation.

Mahastee grew up in the Mosharraf household, an Iranian family of privileged aristocracy. Reza is the son of Hajji Alimardan, overseer of the Mosharraf family estates. Close friends as children, Reza and Mahastee have fallen in love by the time they part ways at age 16 - Mahastee bound for school in England and Reza seduced by the dangerous world of politics.

When they meet again 20 years later, Mahastee is unhappily married to an ambitious businessman and Reza has become a Marxist revolutionary. Reza's politics place him in danger of being arrested.

During the years preceding the 1979 revolution, political activists were forced underground for fear of imprisonment. The revolution in Iran brought about the downfall of the shah and the ruling elite. Iran was resurrected as the Islamic republic it is known as today.


Author Anahita Firouz is not surprised that the political history of her native country plays an intricate part in her first novel.

Firouz has a long family history in Iranian politics. Her paternal grandfather was the grandson of the king Mozzafereddin shah. Her father was minister for the environment, and her maternal grandfather was the ambassador to the United States during the Soviet Union's invasion of Iran in 1946.

"My family's political history is very central to my writing and my sense of how I see the world," Firouz says.

"Growing up with my grandfathers very much involved in politics, I had the privilege of being privy to their conversations and stories about history and their political lives. The important thing I gained was a personal sense of history and how politics can be shattering by changing a life irreversibly."

Firouz, who left Iran for Europe after the revolution began, has lived in Pittsburgh with her husband and two children since 1982. Her family history and writing are heavily influenced by politics, but Firouz is not politically active.

"I am not nor have never been involved in a political organization. I am just fascinated by how ideology affects our lives - how it propels and distorts a society like it did in Iran," she says.

In the novel, the politics of Iran at the time of the revolution affects Reza and Mahastee; they must decide whether they will risk everything for their love.

"Plot and politics came out of the interaction of these two characters," Firouz says. "As I wrote the novel, it occurred to me that love and politics are eventually fused - something that readers pick up and often find interesting."

Firouz has received enthusiastic response from readers around the world. Iranian readers recall a time before their country was irrevocably changed by revolution.

"It is part of their roots and part of what they remember," she says. "They see the novel not as nostalgic but as a careful re-examination that holds up a mirror to that society by revisiting the past."

According to Firouz, many U.S. readers are surprised by the depiction of Iran before it became an Islamic republic: "They didn't know that the Iran in this novel existed. Because of how Iran is shown in the media, they think it is all angry fists raised in the air. But I am getting direct feedback from readers who say they like walking into this other world before the revolution."



• What is the significance of the title "In the Walled Garden"?

• Author Anahita Firouz says, "love and politics are eventually fused." How are politics fused with Reza and Mahastee's relationship?

• What is the significance of the opening scene in Bagh Ferdaus, the "garden of paradise"? How does the hailstorm in the garden set the scene for the rest of the novel?

• How does politics change each character in the novel? Are the characters who choose not to be involved politically still affected by the events of the novel?

• Why is Reza not a typical revolutionary? What problems does he see with the revolutionary movement?

 - Michelle Whitney Evans
   Used with Authors Permission 
© 2003 The State and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

Good evening and welcome to the fourth evening in the Fourth River Reading Series. 
I’m Jeffrey Thomson, director of the Master of Fine Arts in Writing here at Chatham College. 
This evening we are privileged to have with us a remarkable novelist and local luminary – Anahita Firouz. 

Anahita Firouz, a child of the aristocracy, was born and raised in Tehran, Iran, in the pre-revolutionary days of late Persian Empire. Although she attended school in the United States, earning a BA and an MA from Boston University, she returned to Iran to work for the National Iranian Television as a producer and interviewer. In 1978, she was witness to the Iranian Revolution that completely altered her world and the culture of her home country. She would leave Iran in 1979 and eventually fid her way to Pittsburgh where she now lives with her husband and two children.

In 2002, Anahita published her first novel, In the Walled Garden, to remarkable critical acclaim. I say remarkable, not because the praise is undeserving, but because such attention is rarely lavished on a first novel of any kind. Then again, most first novel aren’t as rich, layered, and lustrous as this one.

A novel of the end of empire and the beginning of revolution, In the Walled Garden, is a book of omens and premonitions, a landscape haunted by the ghosts of political prisoners and specter of rebellion. She gives us the story of Mahastee, an aristocratic woman coming to suspect and fear the privilege she carries with her, and her childhood love, Reza, now a revolutionary and intellectual (you know the type…). Mahastee is married to a man she loathes and their marriage echoes the Iranian monarchy as it crumbles. At the same time, Reza’s Marxist revolution, doomed as we know from the vantage of history, offers only a failed, dogmatic reply. Into this damaged and dissolving world, the two move to recapture a past love. Their love story balances on the fissure of this divided world. As Reza tells us,

We have two countries; the one they’ve designed for us, and the one we’ve got. They have movers and shakers and social engineers with policies and blueprints and facades, but without that flash of revelation at what we are from the inside out. They don’t see it, that great force of a man’s private history. The springboard of ideology is the intimate clockwork of blood and upbringing and personal rituals and daily existence ticking away. They leak out and subvert all great forces of history. Nothing from the outside, finally, unless it is willed from the inside out.

What Firouz’s novel demonstrates is the absolute power of that will, that human will to love and create a space for the self, to alter and define the trajectory of human lives even in the face of social opprobrium and political coercion. And so, the love story of Reza and Mahastee, entwined as it is with the apparent abduction of two young men by the Shah’s terrifying secret police, SAVAK, plays out in a series of hypnotic moments of desire and regret, history and danger, memory and passion. And moves, as all such love stories do, towards an impossible choice.

I give you Anahita Firouz.



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