New Political Thriller Captures the Tension of the Iran Hostage Crisis
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Reviewed: Cemetery of Dreams (Emerald Book Co. 2010, $14.95), by S. Mostofi.
Like a marriage, Americans have had a long and often difficult relationship with Iran. It began in 1856 when Nassereddin Shah Qajar sent Persia's first ambassador to Washington, and reached its nadir on November 4, 1979, when Islamic students under the magnetic sway of the Ayatollah Khomeini took over the American Embassy in Tehran, where they held 52 hostages for 444 days (Iran's current leader, Ahmadinejad, was said to have been among the captors).
In between these two historic poles, a CIA and MI5-assisted coup ousted Iran's democratically elected Mohammad Mosaddegh from power in 1953, and propped up U.S.-friendly Shah Reza Pahlavi for the next 25 years. The West's meddling stoked the fires of discontent among many Iranians, particularly those students who came to study in Europe and the United States every year, and who would return to participate in what was at first a student-led revolt against Pahlavi's puppet regime.
Americans tend to have short memories when it comes to history, but the key disasters of our humiliation are not among them -- we grimly recall the ignominy of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the collapse of Saigon during the Vietnam War in 1975, and the U.S.-Iran hostage crisis of 1979-'80. Our relationship with Iran has been a cold one throughout the succeeding years since the hostages were released, following the election victory of Ronald Reagan -- until the summer of 2009, when Americans overwhelmingly came out in support of the June Green Revolution, when millions of Iranians filled the streets to protest the election results that kept Ahmadinejad in power. (For analysis on who's really running the country, see Reza Aslan's columns at the Daily Beast.)
Sasha Mostofi's debut novel, Cemetery of Dreams, provides context and an almost semiotic translation of what was going on in Iran during the time of the Revolution and the hostage crisis. Though it is a fast-paced political thriller, the book is also an intimate recounting of a complex class war between the former haves and the have-nots now in power -- between the Shah's old SAVAK (secret police), military officers and wealthy class, and pasdars, or Revolutionary Guards who come primarily from the lower class and use false piety to beat confessions from their captives.
The novel is also a critique of clashing ideologies -- the new Islamic fundamentalists, the old monarchists, and the Mujahedin who practice a syncretic form of Islamic Marxism.
At the heart of the story is an unusual hero, a former Iranian Navy officer, Arman Pakran, who is half-American on his mother's side. After the Revolution, Arman returns from San Diego to tend to his ailing father, a retired general, but along the way is convinced by a former SAVAK nemesis to help plan a rescue operation. Not only does Arman want to save the American hostages, but he and his furtive recruits hope to wrest back the motherland from the Hezbollahies who are abusing Islam to murder thousands. There is also some insight into the botched U.S. rescue operation and the role the Soviet Union may have played, with presidents Carter and Brezhnev going at it during a transnational emergency call.
Cemetery of Dreams is a finely nuanced novel of political intrigue, culture wars and contemporary history that puts our relationship with Iran into sharper relief. It provides a reading experience that will satisfy anyone who loves an old-fashioned page-turner, where the writing and the characters are fresh, and the plot twists include a love story at its core, an Iranian woman of surpassing strength and character, revenge against an abusive husband, and villains with dual identities.
The level of accomplishment here is exceptional as this is Sasha Mostofi's first novel, which she began writing as a 14-year-old in Iran. After the overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty, the new regime stripped her family of their wealth and prevented her father, a bank executive, from traveling for 15 years. Persecution followed as many of Mostofi's relatives fled the country, or were executed for trivial reasons. The first in her family to reach the United States, Mostofi arrived in the '90s as a 16-year-old without means. She put herself through school, became a marketing executive with a major multinational, and returned to work on this novel in 2004.
The long gestation process has rendered a work of fiction that should linger in the minds of both American and Iranian readers long after closing the book -- not least because we are compelled to reconsider our relationships with each other. As an American character says to her Iranian counterpart in the novel, "We know that an Iranian and an American can be friends, the best of friends."