My Name is Iran, is a new book by Davar Ardalan. A producer at NPR and a woman who has both worked and lived in Iran, Davar tells the story of her life in this wonderful memoir. A well-researched and historic account of her family’s struggle, the book traces back Davar’s roots over three generation of powerful, intelligent and inspiring characters.
I had a chance to talk to Davar recently about the book.
PersianMirror: I really enjoyed reading your book. What made you decide to write it?
Iran Davar Ardalan: At a very basic level, the fact that for 30 years, I have been walking around and saying I am “Davar Ardalan” was one reason. My full name is Iran Davar Ardalan. During high school (in the US), I was 16 and the hostages were being kept in Iran. It was embarrassing to introduce myself as that. I even hid it from my American colleagues at NPR. Then in 2003 when the Nobel Peace Prize for Shirin Ebadi was announced, a life-changing event occurred for me. An Iranian professor of Political Science had said that the quest for a lawful society in Iran did not start with Shirin Ebadi; it goes back to Davar, who is my great-grandfather. He said that someone needed to do story on this and I went to my editor and we decided to personalize this and give an interesting twist to it. I went to Oslo and my colleague Rasoul Nafisi, went to Iran and did many interviews. During the editing process I came out and told my editor Deborah George that my name was Iran. She said, “that has to be the name of the series”. Combining all of that with my own history was how the book came about.
PM: How long did it take you to complete your book?
IDA: I have done a tremendous amount of work on the one-hour documentary and my mother, who is our family historian, had saved 30 years of family letters. She had already published two books about Helen and Abolghasem (grandparents). Her research was instrumental. I picked out letters that spoke to me and I was really interested in the last years of my grandfather’s loneliness in his last few years. It took probably around three years. My editors were Henry Holt and they helped a tremendous deal in letting me do it my way.
PM: I loved the story about your grandparents meeting in Central park and in particular the tenacity that your grandfather Abolghasem showed throughout his life. Tell us about that.
IDA: The lesson from my grandfather Abolghasem is his drive and persistence. He was uneducated and his father, Haji Hassan, led caravans to Mecca. He was raised by his stepmother; his mother had died when he was born. Along the way he overcame small pox and typhus and at the age of 10 he finished the third grade and worked for the next 15 years doing odd jobs. He was determined to get an education; he was later hired to be the caretaker for Bakhtiar Khan’s children. He sat in the back of the classroom with these kids and got his high school education. Later he went to the American Missionary school with one of the boys and met Dr. Jordan and asked him to learn English. Dr. Jordan made him give up opium and alcohol, and at the age of 40, he proceeded further. Eventually, he got a scholarship to come to America and came through Ellis Island in 1918. He put himself through school by working in a carnival and wrestling people for a dollar as the “Persian lion”. He finished medical school and started to work at Harlem hospital. He met my American grandmother Helen there.
PM: You describe your parents as intellectual hippies. It seems to be that when you were in Iran, getting prepared to marry for the first time, that religion was foremost on your mind. Given your upbringing, why were you so curious about being Moslem?
IDA: It was the influence of my mother and even though she was raised Catholic under Helen and was named Mary Nell, she converted to Islam. Before the revolution she was a student of Seyed Hossein Nasr and learned about Sufism. After the revolution, she had a longing to learn more about her Islamic heritage. I was in a fragile state when I went back to Iran after my stay in the US and I was looking for an identity. I had no unity and no home. I felt lost. What I saw were these happy families and it made me think I could have that. I could start from fresh and when I wore the chador, I felt like a virgin and I had a second chance in life. The veil could protect me and I could hide behind it.
PM: How has your faith changed through this journey?
IDA: I learned a lot of the basics in Iran, which was important. I feel I have a good sense of my own religion. I wasn’t able to come to terms with all the hypocrisy around me even though I was living in an Islamic dream. A lot of things were imposed on us, constantly adhering to holidays. Drug additions and prostitution was rampant and affected people around me while the clerics were financially profiting from it. Now, I feel like I have a direct relationship with God. I am very spiritual and I feel as though I understand more in the mystical sense the importance of spirituality.
PM: Your first husband’s family seemed like a very religious family and not as educated as your family was. Would you say that most Iranians are like them?
IDA: He is definitely a classic Iranian. The village he comes from is one of the most beautiful innately Persian villages that I have ever been to. So every ritual they have has not been tainted and it is pure. But they also love satellite television, and pop culture and elaborate weddings and are materialistic. I remember when I first got married, the jeans in the US were very tight. In Iran, that fashion had not arrived yet so they would make fun of me and call me “démodé” and out of style. I had also decided to do my own makeup for my wedding. I didn’t want to turn my face (traditional) white and put on a mask with Sormeh (Persian eyeliner). My sister-in-law said I didn’t look like a real bride.
PM: How do you think Iranians reconcile their faith and lack of economic structure in Iran right now?
IDA: Within every family there are degrees of opinions. I would say that their faith and Friday prayers and so on would be the same where it was the Islamic government or the Shah’s government. The concept of civil society has reached the masses. If you don’t know that you have rights, if you believe in “ghesmat” (fate), you go along with it. Even though Iranians are very curious people, I think many are disillusioned but they would do what it takes to save the integrity of their religion. Its not contradictory that I had to leave because I felt my religion was not being portrayed properly. I am proud to say I am Moslem. I am not questioning the religion; I am questioning the way it is being sold to the people.
PM: Another amazing story in your book is about your great-grandfather Davar who worked for Reza Shah. Tell us about him.
IDA: Ali Akbar Davar was the son of the Personal Treasurer to the Qajar King. He grew up in the courts and wanted to modernize Iran, neighboring Turkey. He studied law in Geneva and came back and was one of the people who helped Reza Shah come to power; he was not in favor of Mossadegh. He agreed that you need an iron fist to stand up to the old ways. As a Minister of Justice he completely revamped the organization to the point where he had local, state and federal judicial systems. He trained 600 judges and literally told some of the clerics to take garbs off and put suits on. More importantly he did away with stoning and lashing in the 1930’s. He was a master at putting together nationwide systems and until 1979 his system of justice was in place in Iran. Towards the end of his reign Reza Shah became suspicious of people around him and murdered his close people. This affected Davar and eventually in a tragic way, he took his own life.
PM: What do you think you would be doing today if the war/revolution had never happened in Iran?
IDA: Judging by my parents and the life we left. It would have to involve Iran and it’s history at some level. Even though I haven’t been back but when my colleagues go I help them, so I feel very connected. Some form of cultural ambassador.
PM: What is your advice on marriage?
IDA: My advice would be to know yourself first. Don’t compromise and make sure you also put yourself first and of course if you find your mate and he is respectful and you feel as though you can express yourself and feel free, then you get married.
PM: Dessert Island. Three things. What will you take?
IDA: English translation of the Shahnameh, (she wants to take her kids. I tell her that would be too many things.) a radio and Sadaf tea.
For more information, please visit Iran Davar Ardalan's website www.mynameisiran.com.