Memories Are the Cornerstone of Stories

May 13, 2009
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Dora Levy Mossanen

 I am an amalgam of cultural identities and influences — Israel, Iran, America — that consciously and subconsciously nourish my imagination and animate my novels. How can they not? Memories — the shrill scream of sirens that sent us for shelter to dark Tel Aviv basements, the much-anticipated sound of music from microphones in streets announcing Israel’s independence, the hours spent by my mother’s side on Ben Yehudah Street waiting for the family’s weekly ration of two eggs — are the cornerstone of stories. Also embedded in my memory are my first impressions of Iran, which coincided with the 1953 coup d’état that ousted then Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. One day the Tehran streets brimmed with demonstrators supporting Mossadegh, dragging down statues of the Shah, who had left for Italy with his first wife, Soraya; the very next day, jeeps crossed the same street, the portrait of the Shah prominently displayed, blaring microphones announcing his return. Such was my introduction to Iran, this country of contradictions.

My grandfather, Habib Levy, was a renowned historian of Iranian Jews; he left me with a legacy of fascinating familial, cultural, and historical events that continue to supply fodder for my stories. He spoke of the plight of Jews in Mahaleh, the Jewish ghetto, his wedding to my grandmother, who was a mere child of nine, his experiences as the dentist of Reza Shah, the intricate politics of court, and the conspiracies and betrayals that took place in Reza Shah’s harem. He recounted how he was forced to extract the Shah’s rotting teeth without the help of painkillers because the Shah was an opium addict and painkillers of the time would have proven lethal. My colorful and eccentric grandmothers, who possessed an encyclopedic treasure trove of Persian-Jewish proverbs, curses, blessings, and old world beliefs of their ancestors, continue to pepper my novels.

Iran’s air is dense with scents of oven-warm bread, rosewater, and cherry blossoms in spring, blessed with poets such as Sa’adi and Hafez, and the ancient Zoroastrian belief that good triumphs over evil. But also, due to her rich natural reserves and sensitive geographical position in the Middle East, Iran has known her share of foreign invasions and internal political upheavals — the Constitutional Revolution of 1905–1911, the Nationalist Revolt of 1951–1953, the eight-year-long 1980 war with Iraq, and the most enduring uprising, the Islamic Revolution of 1979 that forced the Shah and the Empress Farah to flee and my family and me to follow suit.

One’s imagination depends, in part, on the “space” one occupies in a culture. In a Moslem country, an Iranian Jew is allowed a very small space indeed. Stepping into other times and lives is a way of stretching and expanding the limited space imposed upon a writer. Imagination becomes one’s most cherished private wealth, a safe place to navigate without fear of persecution.

America allows a more generous space to openly observe one’s faith, the freedom to write honestly without fear of censorship or imprisonment. Taking advantage of events and characters forever ingrained in my consciousness, I dig into my Persian roots and draw on the tradition of magical realism, mythology, folklore, and superstition to create a poetic style that is uniquely Persian. An ancient literary heritage enhances my stories and infuses the experiences of my characters, misunderstood outsiders, mystics, and underdogs made to feel small and inconsequential behind ghetto walls, determined souls who navigate the reality of their harsh worlds to overcome insurmountable hurdles.

If history would have unfolded differently, and I would have found myself a writer in some other place, the candor essential to my “retelling” would have been unimaginable. The Persian curse, “May you wander from place to place,” has turned into a unique blessing in my writing life.

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Dora Levy Mossanen, born in Israel, moved to Iran at the age of nine. At the onset of the Islamic Revolution, she and her family fled to the U.S. She is the author of the novels, Harem and Courtesan, translated into numerous languages, and the forthcoming novel, Scent of Butterflies.

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