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'In the Walled Gardens' by Anahita Firouz

Set in Iran, novel explores gaps of rich vs. poor, religious vs. secular

Sunday, October 06, 2002

By Ellen Wilson

Iran under Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was, for more than 40 years, one of the most Westernized countries in the Muslim world. During the revolution of 1979, however, the Western influence was blamed for corruption among the ruling class, decadent lifestyles of the wealthy and a huge rift between rich and poor, pious and worldly.

"In the Walled Gardens"

By Anahita Firouz

Little, Brown. $24.95

Related article:
Distance has sharpened Firouz's vision of Iranian homeland


Anahita Firouz has set her first novel in that tempestuous period leading up to the Shah's flight into exile, when underground groups of rebels were starting to cause problems for the government and the intelligentsia was discomfited by the foreign press' criticism of their country.

The story opens with a quick and evocative prologue in the garden of the Mosharraf family estate outside Tehran, where 16-year-old daughter Mahastee Mosharraf and Reza Nirvani, the son of the former caretaker, share an illicit kiss.

Twenty years later, we see the two of them leading very different lives and yet working their way hesitantly toward some sort of reconnection.

Mahastee produces publications for the High Economic Council, and is married to a businessman who works within the corrupt system to support their expensive lifestyle.

Reza's ostensible job is with the Ministry of Education, but his real occupation is working with a revolutionary cell, producing newsletters and pamphlets and lecturing to young people on how to organize a resistance movement.

During the past 20 years, which are referred to only obliquely, the Shah's White Revolution has deprived the Mosharraf family of much of its land holdings, and Mahastee's father, once a respected administrator, has lost most of his influence and is living comfortably on the fringes of power.

Mahastee, a sensitive and thoughtful woman, sees the effects of the current repressive political system for herself when a colleague's son is arrested. Kamal Bashirian turns to Mahastee for help, but there is little she can do except ask certain influential friends, including her father, to look into the matter.

The best she can arrange is a brief visit to the prison and the promise of quick release, but the son mysteriously dies just before he supposedly is to be freed.

Reza, whose father was not only the caretaker but also a lifelong and important friend to the Mosharrafs, and Mahastee are reunited when he agrees to tutor her two sons. The situation has explosive potential.

Mahastee is disenchanted with her playboy husband and his corrupt lifestyle, but ultimately the two never begin the affair they both intend to have. Mahastee waits for Reza in the old walled garden where they had their only kiss, but Reza's first loyalty is to politics, and he misses their appointment.

When Time magazine named Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini "Man of the Year" in 1979, it wrote that the revolution began as "a leaderless explosion of resentment and hate."

Firouz has captured some of the heady feeling of imminent combustion, the growing awareness that the regime must topple, and the exhilaration and fear that dominate a lawless society.

Both Mahastee and Reza have too much on their minds to begin an affair that is prohibited by their own moral sensibilities, and so their love story does not work very well to drive the plot.

In their own settings, Reza's carefully managed underground activities and Mahastee's pointless and innumerable social occasions necessitated by her husband's career aspirations personify a range of responses to the political situation.

Their love of country is all the more compelling given the reader's foreknowledge of the repressive religious order that was about to take control.

Firouz might have benefited from a ruthless editor. She gets bogged down in details, and there is more than a little redundancy.

However, her novel, with its history of the Iranian revolution, provides insight into the United States' problems abroad today.

Ellen S. Wilson is a free-lance writer in Pittsburgh.

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