Over the holidays, I enjoyed reading The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali, an Iranian-American living in Boston. It is a political/historical fiction that takes place along two timelines- Tehran in 1953 and Boston in 2013. The political thread is the coup by the Shah against democratically elected Prime Minister Mossadegh. The Shah’s coup was underwritten by the United States and Great Britain because the fear was Mossadegh nationalizing Iran’s oil. The US and GB had pretty much been calling the shots about the economy of Iran and it’s oil and were less than keen about Mossadegh’s plan. This coup, we now know changed the world in the long term. The unpopular Shah gets overthrown in the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and fast forward to the turmoil in the Middle East today. But I digress…
The Stationery Shop is a love story too. You didn’t see that coming, did you? Yes, Roya and Bahman, both educated teenagers fall in love in Mr. Fakhri’s book store. It was love at first sight in the poetry aisle. Mr. Fakhri calls Bahman, “the boy who would change the world” because of his political activism, brilliant mind and passion. Bahman was also of a higher class than Roya who is educated beyond her standing because her father wants his two daughters to become scientists as a means of upward socioeconomic mobility. Unfortunately this love affair does not sit well with Badri, Bahman’s mother and the villain of the story. Kamali is kind enough to her readers to eventually tell us why Badri is so cruel and bitter, and it is heartbreaking.
Our star-crossed lovers are double-crossed on August 19, 1953, the day of their planned elopement and the day of the violent coup to overthrow Mossadegh. Bahman does not show up at the designated meeting spot, but Mr. Fakhri does. Before the bookseller can explain the mixup to Roya, he is indiscriminately shot by the Shah’s military police. So for sixty years, Roya wonders why didn’t he meet her. Who double-crossed them and why? In 2013, both having married others, Bahman asks Roya, “Who tricked us, Roya? Someone did. I said Baharestan Square. Who was it who changed our letters?…What about your sister? Was it Jahangir?…Who did this to us? Was it Mr. Fakhri? Not my mother, surely.”
Kamali expertly weaves so many themes together- the politics, the beautiful Persian culture with delicious descriptions of food, the beauty of Persian poetry. The reader is left with an understanding of the pre-Islamic social mores of the mid 20th century Iranian culture which most of us know so little about. In addition, fate and resilience are almost characters in and of themselves because of the huge roles they play in the lives of the book’s personalities.
It is a delightfully poignant read. Yes, it’s sad, but there is grace at the end. It takes the rough edge off the sorrow.
Ponderings: My April 18, 2018 post was on Michael Axworthy’s book, Iran: The Empire of the Mind. The people of Iran are Persian, not Arab, and their culture is very ancient and beautiful. Let me say, in my humble opinion that is not so humble, the people of Iran deserve more than they are getting.