Helen Watson White
The Girl from Revolution Road by Ghazaleh Golbakhsh (Allen & Unwin, 2020), 240pp., $36.99
What seems at first to be a book about difference—cultural, religious, social—is actually, in the end, about what holds people together. At every point where these real-life stories of Iranian-born filmmaker Ghazaleh Golbakhsh find resonance with a reader, a bond is formed that comes from the sense of a shared humanity. While I’m aware that that generalisation can be used to override the particular, or the individual, in The Girl from Revolution Road there is no danger of our not recognising difference as a positive value. This is a varied and accessible set of human stories, told from a unique point of view, and the effectiveness of the writing is all in the detail.
Listening to the author, a lecturer at Auckland’s Media Design School, being interviewed by Kim Hill on RNZ Saturday Morning (29 August 2020), you heard a lively, frank and interesting manner of speech, close to her voice on Twitter and The Spinoff: simultaneously light and serious, wanting to connect, always to the point. That same voice, in this collection of personal essays, is able to convey both the horrors of oppression under theocracy in Iran and the deep hurts of everyday racism in supposedly open societies like our own.
Whatever country we are in, difference of all kinds is front and centre in the narrative. However much the adolescent Ghazaleh wants to merge into the cultural stream, her distinctiveness, and that of her family, is ineradicable. It is the proverbial dye in the wool—and one which, for many of her compatriots, is the colour of blood.
The essay that gives the book its title is the story of a young Iranian woman in white sneakers and black tracksuit who, one day in the winter of 2019, pointedly takes off her hijab in the middle of Tehran in Enghelab Street/Revolution Road, once called Shah Reza Avenue after the former monarch. After loosening her hair, the girl ‘wraps the white hijab around her stick and holds it up as a soldier does with their rifle’ (p. 121). The image goes viral, as intended.
The veiling issue is often thought to symbolise Western/Islamic difference, but the author’s analysis in this chapter shows how complex it is: more a site of struggle than a clear divide. After Reza Shah outlawed the chador (the long cover-all garment) in 1936, Iranian women, including the non-religious, ‘took to veiling as a form of protest against his son, Reza Shah Pahlavi, in the 1960s and 1970s; when Ayatollah Khomeini came to power, he initiated the idea of mandatory veiling … By 1986 the punishment for not veiling included public lashings and imprisonment’—coercive methods still used today. ‘What is important to note is that, contrary to belief, neither forced unveiling or veiling improved the status of women in society. Instead, it merely highlighted the vast differences among them,’ writes Golbakhsh (p. 127).
After the March mosque attacks in Christchurch in 2019, Jacinda Ardern’s decision to wear a headscarf drew ‘conflicting opinions’, as Golbakhsh notes. This time it was her veiled image that ‘went viral’—to the extent that the ruler of the Emirate of Dubai ‘plastered the image across the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, as a thank you for her “sincere sympathy and support” for the world’s Muslim population. A week later, women around the country took to wearing a headscarf as a form of solidarity with women who normally wear the veil and who have often faced discrimination because of it’ (p. 139). Golbakhsh herself felt ‘conflicted’, and chose not to wear a headscarf: ‘I wanted to show my respect for Muslim New Zealanders and their love of the faith, but I also wanted to show my support for the women activists in Iran who were risking their lives to protest its oppression’ (p. 140).
The ‘veil as a paradox’ was tellingly represented, says Golbakhsh, in one photographer’s image of herself in a full black chador carrying a rifle ‘perfectly centred on her body and face’. Entitled Rebellious Silence, the ‘confrontational’ photograph is the work of filmmaker Shirin Neshat, described as ‘one of the most prominent Iranian artists living and working in the diaspora’. Neshat’s works, like Golbakhsh’s writing and films, ‘draw on the dual influence of her native Iran and her life in that in-between place of exile’ (p. 141). The essay that shares the book’s title is rather like the book in little, showing the author (and her narration) constantly moving between the two.
In saying that, I can see that the binary-opposite form of thinking has a limited usefulness for this author, whose family is Iranian yet largely does not practise Islam. Returning to the country of her birth in 2010, Golbakhsh meets her cousin Ellie, whose family moved to Canada when she was a teenager. While both girls were born in Iran, that doesn’t mean they are the same. Golbakhsh relates dual-culture stories in which she felt as much an outsider as an insider, even in Ellie’s company: ‘When our youngest uncle got married in San Francisco, both our families attended, and then took a vacation to Disneyland. For the longest time I didn’t understand why Ellie and her family would only eat vegetarian burgers, and suddenly take to prayer in the middle of the Magic Kingdom’ (p. 130). Again, while Golbakhsh’s beloved paternal grandmother, Mamanoo, is remembered as a traditionally pious woman, stout and ‘extremely huggable’, her religious practice was completely opaque to the author as a four-year-old. On visiting the grave of her maternal grandmother, Golbakhsh finds her epitaph—for all its ‘beautiful calligraphy’—undecipherable. For those who have had to move between worlds, time, distance and difference can all inflict pain.
We meet many unforgettable individuals in the course of this wide-ranging collection of memories. The first story concerns a fellow exile met at the bus stop. The man Golbakhsh calls The Shah of Grey Lynn tells her how his promising older brother escaped the ‘unspeakable horrors’ of the Iran–Iraq war, only to be arrested because he hung back to help others trying to cross into the US from Mexico. Now, like Golbakhsh’s cousin Babak who is trapped in Greece, he is stuck cooking burgers in Los Angeles as an ‘illegal’, with no rights to health services, education or work.
One of the most poignant stories, ‘The Legend of Seven Men and Seven Women’, explains the family’s desperate need to leave Iran. The event that precipitated their flight began when six-year-old Ghazaleh was gathered with other children—and adult party-lovers sporting ‘polyester and perms’—for a night that ‘would change my family’s lives forever’. Packed cars carried the revellers on a four-hour journey to an isolated venue. Hijabs were flung off and disco music and lighting started up; homemade vodka flowed and the dancing continued—until soldiers with AK47s arrived. The entire family was locked up: ‘the women will be lashed here, the men will be lashed in the town centre’ (p. 37).
‘The Land of English’ describes immigration to pōhutukawa-land, where there are no sandbags at school and no rockets interrupt an ordinary day. Through the years of Ghazaleh and her younger sister growing up in Aotearoa, the narrative abounds in comparisons, the style a mixture of reality-recording, childish fear-fighting and deep, ironic lament. Music and film titles people the scenarios of ‘Brown Girl in the Ring’, the author recording her ‘mild revulsion at just how much ideologies of Western beauty and whiteness were entrenched within us, even as children’ (p. 109).
Teenage notions of an ideal America are burned out of an exile’s consciousness by the War of Terror (called by Western leaders the War on Terror), begun on 9/11, when Golbakhsh was actually in New York. At this point, she remarks, ‘I am not a practising Muslim, but culturally it is part of who I am’. In subsequent decades the two parts of her identity became ‘intertwined, particularly in New Zealand’. Racial abuse aimed at Muslim New Zealanders after 9/11 ‘does not distinguish between those who practise and those who do not’ (p. 152).
The author’s excoriation of racist stereotyping and right-wing terrorism would be hard to take if couched in a form of counter-blows or blasts; Golbakhsh’s style is much more personal, somehow engaging us on another level and keeping us attentive through honesty, directness and considered observation. ‘The Fawn in a Bubble’, her parable of growing up in a hostile world, cleverly characterises even those liberals who claim to seek understanding: ‘Tell us about your oppressive males! Tell us about your submissive females!’ They only want to hear, she says, ‘the echoes of their own thoughts’ (p. 175).
From London protests at the impending invasion of Iraq to online dating (‘Love in the Time of Corona’) and her mother’s addiction to nail-paint and hair-dye, this memoir ranges across issues and experiences of identity and otherness to give us insights we could not have gained from any other source. It is particular, but also relevant in a more general sense to Western girls and women, and to people trying to reinvent themselves from knowledge of their origins, in the place they live that is and isn’t home.
Dunedin writer HELEN WATSON WHITE is a former university teacher and editor who has (since 1974) published articles, short stories, poems and photographs as well as theatre, art, opera and book reviews.