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Disoriental by Négar Djavadi review – Iranian life in exile

Author: Robin Yassin-Kassab
Newspaper: The Guardian
Date: Jul 25 2018

In a fertility clinic waiting room in Paris, Kimiâ, a single woman seated between couples, recounts her family history. She promises at the beginning to follow “the natural fits and starts” of memory, and her narrative jumps across a time scale from her grandmother’s birth in a late 19th-century harem at the foot of the Alborz mountains in northern Iran, through Kimiâ’s Tehran childhood, to her present incarnation as a 25-year-old French-Iranian punk fan.

Sexuality is the least of Kimiâ’s problems, as first the Shah’s police and then the mullahs target her parents Disoriental, Négar Djavadi’s sophisticated debut novel, is brilliantly translated by Tina Kover and teems with fully realised characters. Kimiâ’s immediate relatives – her parents Darius and Sara (both political activists), her big sisters, and uncles numbered one to six – are the most closely observed.

Djavadi’s beguiling tale-telling, cynical and lyrical by turns, extends to an account of Iranian history. Imperialist assaults, coups, revolts and waves of repression take place against the unchanging backdrop of a “phallocratic society”. Before Khomeini and compulsory veiling, there was Shah Reza Pahlavi, the “pauper-turned-king” who “used a special militia to tear the veils from women’s heads”.

Kimiâ (“alchemy”) grows up a tomboy in a country that doesn’t recognise the concept. Nor – though it tolerates transgender people – does official Iran accept the existence of homosexuality. President Ahmadinejad is quoted: “We don’t have this phenomenon.”

But for now sexuality is the least of Kimiâ’s problems, as first the Shah’s police and then the mullahs target her parents. The family escapes to Paris, but there is no happy ending. Kimiâ’s father is broken in exile, avoiding the metro escalator because it’s “for them” (the French). Djavadi treats the immigrant condition with intelligence and compassion, exploring how, in order to integrate into a culture, “you have to disintegrate first”.

It’s also possible to migrate without ever leaving home. The Islamic Revolution proves the point by changing street names, “confusing and blurring landmarks and memories”. As the prose zooms in and out from domestic detail to the global and universal, Kimiâ in the waiting room realises finally that all of us are travellers, exiled from our first home through the uterine canal – “that dark hyphen between the past and the future which, once crossed, closes again and condemns you to wander”.

Spiced with foreshadowings, packed with big issues from Aids to the rise of the far right, and tempered by strategic reticence, this novel compels the reader’s attention as consistently as it entertains.