To Keep The Sun Alive: A mullah, 'fokoli' and an idealist walk into an orchard
A couple of chapters into reading To Keep The Sun Alive by Rabeah Ghaffari, I put down the book and texted a close friend. I told her to immediately add the book to her reading list, she wouldn't want to miss this one.
At that point, so early in the story, my conviction to recommend was based simply on Ghaffari's elegant and seamless writing style, and the lush descriptions of Persian food that had me craving in the middle of the night.
|Ghaffari's novel is a slow intake of breath that is followed by a sharp release|
Iran comes alive on the page in Ghaffari's novel. It's a beautiful and troubling picture at the same time.
This novel is at once a family saga, the unravelling of a nation at the cusp of a revolution, the story of brothers and a summer love story. Ghaffari's novel is a slow intake of breath that is followed by a sharp release.
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Trouble comes in the gradually thickening form of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, a moment in history that shocked people worldwide because tradition had won over the Western ideal.
But revolutions come at a cost, and Ghaffari's novel slowly unravels the cost of 1979 in Iran, as experienced by one family.
To Keep The Sun Alive is largely set during 1978-79, a period during which we follow the vibrant cast of characters in their individual journeys that intersect and sometimes cause small ripples that mirror the growing instability of the nation.
Most of the story takes place at Mirdamad orchard, located in the city of Naishapur. This is where Bibi Khanoom, the matriarch in the novel, and the retired judge Akbar-Agha bring the members of the family together for weekly lunches.
It is during these lunches that strains and tremors start to appear that ultimately reveal a nation that is troubled by warring ideologies.
Most of the characters, though members of the same family, are often at odds with one another. Sometimes it's because of personal dreams and hopes, and other times it's because they simply believe in the opposite of what the other person stands for.
Bibi Khanoom's ability to bring together these characters at odds reveals the orchard as a sanctuary, a safe space to dine and, sometimes, wine.
The various members of the family have personal convictions and beliefs of their own and this makes them a microcosm that represents the fracturing Iranian society.
|The various members of the family have personal convictions and beliefs of their own and this makes them a microcosm that represents the fracturing Iranian society|
There's Habib, Agha-Akbar's brother, the mullah who believes the country is in need of religious cleansing. The passion and fervor of his speeches reveal a man who is cunning, articulate and willing to use his voice to sway the society towards a revolution in complete favour of religion and tradition – no matter the cost.
The judge's nephew, Shazdehpoor, is a meticulous man who is an unforgiving critic of Iran and Iranian culture and would rather live like Europeans.
"Barbarism!" he exclaims at a couple of points in the story when he's absolutely disgusted by people's uncultured behaviour. Interestingly, this happens once in Naishapur and the other time in Paris.
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Shazdehpoor's sons, Jamsheed and Madjid, share very different relationships with their father; Jamsheed is the family outcast on account of his opium addiction (although Bibi Khanoom takes care to send him food during their Friday lunches), whereas Madjid is a young idealist in love, with a keen eye for the intricate philosophies of life.
Nasreen, his cousin, is a young woman in love who longs to become an actress and live in the city. In her desperation, Nasreen tells her lover something that made me pause because I related to her restlessness on a personal level, "But if we leave it should be for something better. Not just to get away from something unbearable."
Unbeknownst to the characters, they are living in a time that will displace so many of them because of political upheaval. The unfortunate turn of events will eventually change the very landscape of their home, and it will be unrecognisable enough to make them seek refuge elsewhere.
In the midst of all the drama and family banter is Nasreen's mother, Ghamar, the story's comic relief in the form of an overbearing wife and mother (her husband describes her as a 'prison guard').
Her snappy and judgemental remarks reveal the things people are generally unwilling to say out loud for the sake of propriety. According to Ghamar, Shazdehpoor is a 'fokoli', a term derived from the French phrase 'faux-col' (detachable collar).
It is, apparently, a slur that was used in Iranian society for men who are clean shaven and inclined towards the West. Even the existence of such a small word, which carries heavyweight meanings, reveals the ideological tensions that are brewing in Iranian society.
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Like a tragic play, the novel is divided into five acts; each begins in contemporary Paris where we follow a much older Shazdehpoor out and about on the streets of Paris, reminiscing about Iran and his family.
The Paris episodes also reveal the events of one day in Shazdehpoor's life as he sets up a roadside stand and writes people's names in Persian calligraphy for a small amount of money. This distilling of his culture to sustain himself in Europe, a place that has slowly lost the lustre and appeal now that he has finally arrived, reveals the sad reality that Shazdehpoor is facing.
But what events bring Shazdehpoor to Paris? And what of the rest of the people who met at the orchard? Knowing the revolution could happen at any moment in the story, it is a bit of a relief to know at least one of the novel's memorable characters is still alive in modern day Paris.
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Before the tragedy eclipses in the novel, Ghaffari gives her readers enough time to bask in the warmth of love; there's young love and also love that has stood the test of time and society.
As the story advances, it reveals how the characters are more connected than they realise. Ghaffari also depicts the complex nature of relationships, especially between fathers and sons and mothers and daughters. The role that power places in the choices we make is also a central theme in the novel.
To Keep The Sun Alive is a novel brimming with stories, like the stories we tell ourselves and each other.
The mullah's stories are carefully crafted nuggets of wisdom and inspiration, meant to direct a revolution – his words are a 'call to arms' or a 'balm', depending on who is listening.
Madjid and his lover tell each other their dreams and hopes; stories that are brief respite from their dull daily lives. The orchard, with the collective sounds of birds, leaves whistling in the wind, the chatter of people who frequent it and the routine of life that Bibi Khanoom has established with her close-knit group of helpers, tells its own tale with the passing of each season.
Perhaps the tragedy is best captured in a conversation between Bibi Khanoom and her husband Akbar-Agha. As casualties of the growing unrest against Iran's Westernisation begin to rise, Bibi Khanoom reveals her worries about the world beyond their orchard when she tells her husband, "I don't want our way of life to end."
Their way of life is encased within the orchard's four walls where rows upon rows of trees bear fruit, where a young boy takes care of the chickens in the coop, where people come together to enjoy elaborate meals and afternoon siestas together, despite their differences.
Akbar Agha replies to Bibi Khanoom, "Everything must come to an end, my love."
Sumaiyya Naseem is a Bookstagrammer and freelance writer and editor who specialises in Middle Eastern and Muslim stories. In 2019 she joined the Reading Women Podcast as a guest contributor to talk about South Asian and Middle Eastern narratives.
Follow her on Instagram: @sumaiyya.books
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