Memoirs of the Middle East: We Heard the Heavens Then by Aria Minu-Sepehr

In keeping with my recent trend of reading borrowed books I’d previously ignored I took another stab at Aria Minu-Sepehr’s 2012 We Heard the Heavens Then: A Memoir of Iran. I’ve been wanting to read it because I love Iranian memoirs and because its author lives in my former hometown of Portland, Oregon. After slow start I finished it a few days ago. While it won’t go down as one of my favorite Iranian memoirs it’s still a pretty good read.

With his father a respected air force general Minu-Sepehr grew up in a household catered by servants and witnessed an endless parade of lower echelon soldiers ready to serve his father’s every whim. Revered as the general’s son he was treated with a degree of deference usually reserved towards minor royalty. Fortunately, for those around him this privileged status, even combined with his father’s doting on him didn’t turn the young Minu-Sepehr into a spoiled brat.

Ensconced on an air force base hundreds of miles from the capital Tehran and safe within his family’s protective cocoon turmoil, trouble is brewing  fueled by years of governmental misrule, political oppression and religious strife. Once unleashed, these forces would eventually lead to the chaotic overthrow of the Iranian monarchy, and its eventual replacement by a ruthless theocracy. Minu-Sepehr’s account of the Iranian Revolution unfolds gradually, as its seen through the eyes of a child and filtered through the protective lenses of his parents and members of his household. Writing as an adult decades later, his recollection of events resembles a slowly at first, then all at once Hemingwayesque approach told with a nuanced voice that comes with age.

We Heard the Heavens Then reminded me how much I enjoy memoirs by Iranians, as well as other writers from the Middle East. I’m hoping in 2023 I’ll be reading  more of these and when I do, you’ll see them featured on this blog.

Library Loot

Same old story. Out running errands yesterday, popped into the library for just a few moments and walked out more books. Even though I’m already up to my eyeballs with library books I couldn’t resist grabbing another small stack. Three of these are books I borrowed in the past yet never read. Who knows, maybe this time I finally will.

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading to encourage bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write-up your post, steal the Library Loot icon and link your post using the Mr. Linky on Sharlene’s Blog

Library Loot

Same old story. Out running errands yesterday, dropped by the library to return a book. And walked out the door with four more. Even though I’m already up to my eyeballs with library books I couldn’t resist grabbing more reading material. Will I ever learn? No, of course not. 

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading to encourage bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write-up your post, steal the Library Loot icon and link your post using the Mr. Linky on Claire’s blog.  

Book Beginnings: We Heard the Heavens Then by Aria Minu-Sepehr

Not only does Gilion host the European Reading and TBR 22 in 22 on her Rose City Reader blog but also Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, finally in 2022 I decided to participate in Book Beginnings on Friday. This week I’m back with another post.

For Book Beginnings on Friday Gilion asks us to simply “share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.”

MY BOOK BEGINNING

For as long as I could remember, my father had been a general. Growing up in the air force, around armed forces, I had become adept at recognizing ranks. One look at someone’s uniform, at their silver stripes, bronze asters, or gold stars, and I could tell exactly where they stood, who obeyed whom.

Last week I featured Matthew Gabriele and David Perry’s 2021 The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe. Before that it was Johny Pitts’s 2019 Afropean: Notes from Black Europe.This week it’s Aria Minu-Sepehr’s 2012 We Heard the Heavens Then: A Memoir of Iran.   

Some of you might remember We Heard the Heavens Then is one of the books, along with The Bright Ages I grabbed recently from the public library. Some of you might even remember I borrowed this book once before only to return it unread. This time I’d really like to read it. (If for no other reason the author lives in my former hometown.) Here’s what Amazon has to say about the book.

We Heard the Heavens Then is a deeply moving story told from two vantage points: a boy growing up faster than any child should, observing and recoiling in the moment, and the adult who is dedicated to a measured assessment of the events that shaped him. In this tightly focused memoir, Aria Minu- Sepehr takes us back through his explosive youth, into the heart of the revolution when a boy’s hero, held up as the nation’s pride, became a hunted man.

Nonfiction November Week 4: Worldview Changers

After taking last week off, I’m back with another post for Nonfiction November. This week our host is Rebekah of the blog She Seeks Nonfiction. Even though she’s been blogging since 2016 I discovered her blog only about a year ago. Since then I’ve been a huge fan, in no small part because I see her as a kindred spirit. Rebekah was raised in the “conservative Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod” even though she “never really believed in God”, and I’m an ex-evangelical Christian. If the books featured on Rebekah’s outstanding blog are any indication she’s a progressive individual who strongly embraces science, reason and intellectual honesty. With that in mind she’s the perfect book blogger to host our latest installment of Nonfiction November.

One of the greatest things about reading nonfiction is learning all kinds of things about our world which you never would have known without it. There’s the intriguing, the beautiful, the appalling, and the profound. What nonfiction book (or books) has impacted the way you see the world in a powerful way? Do you think there is one book that everyone needs to read for a better understanding of the world we live in?

When first introduced to this week’s topic I was excited to participate even though wasn’t sure where to begin. I thought about limiting the scope solely to books critical of Christianity, the Bible or religion in general. I also considered discussing just various political books that have impacted me over the years. Or significant history books that did the same. But in the end I decided to throw caution to the wind and feature as many books as possible that significantly shaped my view of the world. They did this by overthrowing my previous beliefs or assumptions, or in some way or another making me look at things with a different perspective. If this project wasn’t ambitious (or foolhardy) enough, I’d also like to approach things somewhat chronologically, starting with books that impacted me as a young man. (But I’ll still mix things up here and there.)

The Early Years

Christianity and the Bible: A New and Critical Look 

History: A Deeper Understanding 

Anti-Colonialism: At Home and Abroad 

Developing a Post-Religious Worldview

The Middle East: A Deeper Understanding

East vs West and Nations Rich and Poor: Competing Explanations 

Corruptions of Power

Animals: Smarter Than You Think

That’s all for now. Enjoy Nonfiction November!

Sunday Salon

For over a month I’ve been taking part in The Sunday Salon hosted by Deb Nance at Readerbuzz. So far it’s been a huge success and I’m striving to make it a regular feature. So here’s another post. 

Last week I started and finished the 2021 novel The Wrong End of the Telescope by Lebanese-American writer Rabih Alameddine. Currently I’m still reading Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons of Cyprus: Life on a Mediterranean Island and Dzevad Karahasan’s Sarajevo, Exodus of a CityLike I mentioned last week all three of these books are for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge

Articles. With my nose buried in several books last week I managed to read just two articles. This week I’ll try harder and hopefully read more. 

Listening. Like I’ve said before, with so many things going on in the world there’s no shortage of material for my favorite podcasts. 

Watching. Right now I’m watching just one TV show and it’s Mr. Robot. Like I’ve said before it just gets crazier and crazier thanks to insane plot twists, great writing and superb acting. It’s been one hell of a wild ride. Unfortunately for me, I have only two episodes left to watch. 

Everything else. Friday, instead of indulging in my weekly ritual of fine wine and conversation at my favorite local winery I drove up to Portland. After a quick trip to Powell’s Books I proceeded to my friends’ place for an evening of beers, fun and frivolity. Our wonderful hosts fired up the grill and put on the soccer game. After watching the home team come from behind to beat our hated rivals the Seattle Sounders a few of us stayed up past our bedtimes conversing on the porch. Saturday on my way home I hit a massive church yard sale and walked away with small stack of books, almost all of which were free. Among the treasures are Pulitzer-Prize winners American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin and Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. 

20 Books of Summer: Iranian Rappers and Persian Porn by Jamie Maslin

I’ve mentioned before of all the countries in the Middle East the two that intrigue me the most are probably the region’s biggest outliers: Iran and Israel. Modern heirs to ancient kingdoms, unlike the rest of the countries in the region neither is majority Arab or Sunni Muslim. Also unlike their neighbors neither is ruled by an absolute monarch or military strongman. At one time close allies today Israel and Iran are bitter enemies, each eying the other with grave concern, despite being a thousand miles apart and sharing no common border.

Maybe that’s why I’m more apt to grab a book on Iran or Israel as opposed to another Middle Eastern country like Saudi Arabia or Egypt. Not long ago at the public library I did just that, helping myself to a copy of Jamie Maslin’s Iranian Rappers and Persian Porn: A Hitchhiker’s Adventures in the New Iran. In his travel memoir published in 2009 Maslin recounts his adventures traveling throughout Iran, visiting its attractions and perhaps above all interacting with its citizens.

Originally, Maslin’s plan was to cross Southern Eurasia overland ending with a visit to his brother in Shanghai.  Unfortunately, financial difficulties nixed the possibility of such an extensive trip. Instead, he opted to follow just a portion of the old hippie trail, making Iran his intended destination entering the country from neighboring Turkey. Seen by most Westerners as a horrible place run by an oppressive theocratic dictatorship Maslin’s fellow Brits thought he was crazy to visit Iran and even he too was fearful some wild-eyed mullah might sentence him to having a hand chopped off or eye gouged out for some perceived petty crime. But to his pleasant surprise he found the overwhelming majority of those he met friendly and hospitable.

Even as a visitor from the United Kingdom, a country Iranians revile, along with the United States for helping engineer the coup that toppled Iran’s reformist Prime Minister and installed despotic Shah Maslin was showered with hospitality almost from the moment he arrived. Whisked away countless times for lunches and dinners as an honored guest, later he’d find himself hosted in their homes like a beloved relative. Complete strangers acted as helpful translators and go-betweens, assisting him with travel plans and even paying for his bus tickets and such. He frequently received gifts, and before long mastered the Iranian custom of politely refusing three times before graciously accepting.

While Iran might be ruled by a bunch of religious zealots hell-bent on ruling with an iron hand its citizenry aren’t automatons cursed with sheep-like mentality. Throughout his travels Maslin encountered taxi drivers who rolled down the window to shout obscenities at clerics on the street and shopkeepers who saluted prominently displayed Ayatollah Khomeini wall portraits with throat slitting gestures. Alcohol, while illegal could still be acquired with little effort, reminiscent of America during Prohibition. (Maslin recalls imbibing several times in the company of friendly Iranians.) Even though there’s strict sexual segregation in almost all facets of public life (the only place where men and women mix in public is on Tehran’s crowded subway) young Iranian singles of both sexes, especially in urban areas mingle in secretive parties from time to time. Puritanical as Iranian society is, it’s common for some couples to practice sigheh, an officially sanctioned form of temporary marriage.

I found myself drawn to Iranian Rappers and Persian Porn because I wanted an intimate look at Iran that was light yet informative. With those expectations met I have no complaints.

About Time I Read It: The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan

I love books that make me fundamentally rethink how I understand the world, specifically how we got here and even where we’re going. The first of these kind of books I read was probably Europe: A History by Norman Davies. (20 years after I read it I still remember him wisely pointing out Europe, for all its glory, geographically speaking is nevertheless a peninsula of Asia. He also boldly claimed events and developments in the 19th century had a greater impact on today’s modern world than those of the 20th.) As I read more over the years I discovered other powerful and expansive books like Guns, Germs and Steel, Carnage and Culture, Why Nations Fail and 1493. More recently, last year I had the pleasure of reading The Jakarta Method, Maoism: A Global History and The Islamic Enlightenment all of which fell into this category.

When my book club announced we were reading Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, another of these kind of books I quickly borrowed an ebook copy through my public library’s Overdrive portal. Sweeping and detailed, I nevertheless made quick work of the readable Silk Roads in roughly a week. This fine book should easily make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction.

Based on Frankopan’s extensive research, for thousands of years Central Asia and its adjacent lands (roughly the Persian Empire at greatest extent, give or take a bit) has played a decisive role shaping world history. Over the centuries armies, plagues, riches and religions have traveled time honored trade routes commonly referred as the Silk Road across South Central Eurasia. This new interpretation shifts our attention east making Central Asia history’s prime mover as opposed to Europe, and upending our traditional Eurocentric view of world history.

While it’s undeniable Greece and Rome left an indelible imprints on Western thought one must remember all the world’s major religions originated somewhere in Asia, with the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all developing in relatively close proximity to each other. (Helping make cross-pollination between them in varying degrees possible.) While Greek ideas and imagery traveled east with Alexander’s armies leaving a lasting influence from Asia Minor to India Buddhist and Zoroastrian concepts flowed in the opposite direction doing much the same. (Buddhist missionaries in the Levant might have been responsible for introducing the dualistic concepts which would form the core of Gnosticism, an early Christian heresy. Hundreds of years later, it’s possible the first Islamic madrasahs were modeled on Buddhist teaching communities.)

During the Middle Ages, armies of an assertive Christian Europe flush with new-found sense of purpose invaded the western shores of Central Asia in a series of conflicts known as the Crusades. Exposed to the region’s higher standard of living Crusaders and their descendants developed tastes for the finer things in life, leading to an explosion in first regional, and then intercontinental commerce. Even though the Latin Kingdoms they founded on the shores of the Mediterranean were eventually vanquished it spawned lasting trade between Europe and Asia, with the Italian maritime city states profiting handsomely.

Later in the Middle Ages, these same trade routes would also bring plague to Europe, decimating the continent’s population. This die off would make labor scarce, drive up wages and lead to wealth redistribution. Overall, incomes rose  and demand increased for goods from Asia. Feeling cut out of the lucrative international trade business, Iberian powers Portugal and Spain saw sailing east as the solution. By doing so they not only found another route to India around Africa, but more importantly discovered the New World.

Then later, the discovery, and subsequent conquest of the Americas changed everything once again. Instead of European inhabitants dying by the millions this time it was Americans. Their kingdoms destroyed and their royal coffers looted, silver and gold by the ship full flowed from the New World to Iberia. As these riches and the ones that followed percolated across Europe and began enriching England and the Low Countries it created demand for even more high value goods from Asia. As living standards rose it lead to an intellectual awakening known as the Enlightenment. Sadly, the Age of Reason could not have happened without the theft of America’s gold and silver and the slaughter and subjugation of its natives.

The centrality of Central Eurasia extends well into the modern age. For the later half of the 19th century Russia and Great Britain were bitter rivals in the Great Game for control of the gateway to India. Happy to see Tsarist Russia turn its attention elsewhere Britain did everything it could to encourage Russian animosity towards Germany, setting the stage for World War I. 20 years later Hitler justified Germany’s invasion of the USSR as a means to secure Ukraine’s wheat. At the turn of the 20th century it was the British who first saw the potential for oil to replace coal to fuel navies and later, trains and automobiles. Throughout much of the 20th century and into the 21st, pipelines and tanker routes would criss-cross the globe bringing oil from the lands of the former Persian Empire to the industrialized West.

By the end of the book we have come full circle. Once again China is the world’s premier exporter. Instead supplying the world with silk and porcelain today it’s everything from consumer electronics to household goods to steel. Flexing its newfound economic and political might the country launched its Belt and Road Initiative: the creation of land and rail routes from China to Western Eurasia, Africa and beyond closely following the trade routes of old crisscrossing Central Asia. Think of this massive international infrastructure development strategy as 21st century’s answer to the Silk Road – on steroids. All while the region’s former Soviet Republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus, blessed with almost limitless petroleum reserves, have become major players on the world stage.

Frankopan makes a compelling, if not convincing case the lands of Central Eurasia, and not Europe was key in the rise of Western civilization. Please consider his book The Silk Roads highly recommended.

Middle Eastern Memoirs: A Mirror Garden by Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian

I’m a sucker for memoirs by Iranians. Firoozeh Dumas’s, Funny in Farsi and Laughing without an Accent made me chuckle while first hand accounts of imprisonment like Marina Nemat’s Prisoner of Tehran and Maziar Bahari’s Then They Came for Me left me thankful I didn’t live in a police state. Seems like I’ve been digging on Iranian memoirs since the day I began posting on WordPress. Back in 2017 I featured several of them in my Nonfiction November post. Who knows, maybe someday I’ll finally get around to reading Reading Lolita in Tehran and Lipstick Jihad, two Iranian memoirs that everyone has read except me. 

Two weeks ago at the public library I came across copy of Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’s 2007 memoir A Mirror Garden. Born in Iran in the 1920s, she lived a long and rich life, bouncing back between Iran and New York City before passing away two years ago at the ripe old age of 96. In her memoir (with help from Zara Houshmand) she recalls growing up in rural Iran before moving to Tehran with her family after her father was elected to the nation’s parliament. A budding young artist in her youth, she longed to study in Paris but with the world engulfed in the Second World War and with it France under German occupation her dream was unrealistic. Settling instead on America, with hopes of making it to Paris once the War ended, a sympathetic American official arranged passage for her and her entourage (an arranged husband to be and two male chaperones) aboard an American warship. Eventually Farmanfarmaian and her companions made their way to New York City so she could pursue her education and make inroads into the city’s vibrant art circles where she would rub elbows with the likes of Jackson Pollock and Joan Mitchell. With considerable reluctance she married her first husband, but didn’t let that stop her from taking advantage of all the amazing things New York had to offer an aspiring young artist. After a series of freelance gigs doing fashion illustration she landed a position with the department store Bonwit Teller, where she worked with a shy young illustrator by the name of Andy Warhol. 

After extricating herself from what had become a dead-end marriage a few years later she remarried, this time to a fellow Iranian who’d been attending graduate school in New York. Her new husband’s career would take her back to Iran where the two of them lived for 20 years, along with their children. While visiting family in New York the Ayatollah and his goons seized power and fearing they’d face imprisonment or worse by returning they opted to remain in the United States. Years later, after the death of her second husband she made several trips back to Iran where she eventually settled for good before passing away in 2019.

Farmanfarmaian was a remarkable individual. An accomplished painter and illustrator she blended traditional Persian styles with contemporary Western and was recognized world wide for her work with mosaics and mirrors. Like some real life Forest Gump she met a number of famous personalities over the course of her lifetime. As a young woman in Iran she played Twister with the Shah and his retinue. Later in life, Salvador Dalí attended one her openings in New York and during the same visit to the United States Senator Ted Kennedy and his then wife Joan hosted a reception for her in Washington DC. Even though they never met face to face Paul Newman was her next door neighbor and when it came time to sell her luxury condominium Warren Beatty, a buddy of Newman’s, dropped by to look at it. At an art installation in London she met Prince Charles, who asked her to teach at a college devoted to traditional Islamic arts and crafts he founded. She politely declined. “I’m honored, but I don’t think my English it up to it.” 

What A Mirror Garden might lack in locus it more than makes up for in charm and diversion. Think of it as a pleasant road trip filled with so many entertaining side excursions by the time you reach your intended destination you’re almost disappointed.

Black Wave by Kim Ghattas

I’m going to make a bold prediction and say Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East by Kim Ghattas will be my favorite nonfiction book of 2020. I know it’s not yet May and I’ll have read plenty more books before the end of the year but Black Wave impressed the hell out of me. If I’ve learned just one thing from ten years of book blogging it’s I know an outstanding book when I’ve read one. And Black Wave is outstanding.

I don’t know remember how and when I first heard about Black Wave, but I recently borrowed a Kindle version through Overdrive. After a mere few pages I knew I’d found a winner.

Black Wave begins with snapshot of the not so distant past. The Islamic World of the 60s and 70s from Cairo to Kabul was full of promise. Arab intellectuals, be they Marxist, Pan-Arabist or Palestinian nationalist held court in Beirut’s bars discussing politics over drinks. Egypt was the Hollywood of the Middle East, producing an endless parade of movies featuring beautiful, uninhibited actresses not afraid to break conservative moral taboos. The Shah of Iran vowed to modernize his country,  making it socially and technologically on par with the West. With so many city-dwelling secular educated Muslim women embracing Western dress and high fashion, the streets of Karachi and Tehran began to resemble Paris, London and New York. Pakistan, created as a homeland for India’s Muslims was nevertheless seen by many who lived there as a modern, secular state that recognized the rights of all religious minorities. This commitment to religious freedom was enshrined in the nation’s constitution and was proudly proclaimed by Pakistan’s founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah upon achieving independence in 1947.

So what happened? How did such a promising social and political trajectory end with ISIS, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia at each other’s throats? According to Ghattas in 1979 three monumental events occurred whose impact would be felt thought the region for decades. First came the Iranian Revolution, in which the Shah was overthrown only to be replaced by an even worse regime headed by Ayatollah Khomeini and his army of theocrats. Next was an unsuccessful attempt by Saudi Islamic militants to capture the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Finally, just before year’s end the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, leading to decades of war involving guerrilla fighters from across the Muslim World including a wealthy young Saudi by the name of Osama bin Laden.

All three were events unfolded independently yet occurred in such close proximity both geographically and chronologically they’d end up reshaping the Muslim World. After the Iranian Revolution, Iran would proclaim itself protector of the region’s downtradden Shia Muslims by creating ex nihilo militant groups like Hezbollah, as well as positioning itself as the sole rightful guardians of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The ruling Saudis couldn’t drive the militants from the Grand Mosque without the blessing of the Kingdom’s conservative religious authorities, and that would require giving them carte blanche going forward. Luckily for the ruling Saudis, Afghanistan could serve as a convenient safety valve where militant young Saudis could fight holy wars abroad instead of at home. Awash in oil revenue the Saudi royals would repay the religious conservatives who blessed their retaking of the Grand Mosque by funding hardline Sunni causes through the Middle East and South Asia.

If you’re trying to understand the Greater Middle East this book is for you. Ghattas does a superb job delivering the big picture with the perfect amount of detail. Published in January of this year, it covers a number of recent developments including the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Iranian drone attack on the Aramco oil processing facilities. Black Wave is ideal follow-up reading to Christian Caryl’s Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, Gregory Feifer’s The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan, Ronen Bergman’s The Secret War with Iran: The 30-Year Clandestine Struggle Against the World’s Most Dangerous Terrorist Power and Yaroslav Trofimov’s The Siege of Mecca: The 1979 Uprising at Islam’s Holiest Shrine. Consider Black Wave highly recommended.