Twenty-four characters make up The Heartbeat of Iran – Tara Kangarlou’s book about the people of this complex country. Each of them tells us something about Iran – its history, politics and daily life – and also something about human nature. It’s a combination that makes for a particularly readable book, one that serves both as a brief history of the country but also an entirely new portrait of Iranian life today.
Kangarlou presents the facts of the various regimes that have controlled Iran during her subjects’ lives plainly, without judgment or agenda. This isn’t a call to arms to change Iran but a wholly human story. As she make clear in the book, it doesn’t diminish hardships to also celebrate art and beauty. This is really her goal: to introduce Westerners in particular to some of Iran’s people – good, hardworking, inspiring people, as far as it gets from the MPs we might have seen chanting ‘Death to America’ in the Iranian parliament.
Some of her interviewees stand out for their remarkable achievements. There’s Laleh Seddigh, one of the first female Muslim race car drivers in the world. Her story of moving from an alarmingly rebellious teenager to an utterly determined young woman is all the more remarkable against a backdrop in which women’s roles are tightly prescribed and where ‘morality police’ control what women wear and do in public. Undeterred, Laleh secures a letter from an ayatollah known as a fatwa ‘“excusing” her for being “a woman” and justifying that it was not forbidden for her to race’. There’s also Ali Nassirian, one of Iran’s most famous actors and Zahra Nemati, an Olympian and Paralympian archer. Defiance, perseverance and female empowerment are among the key themes in her story.
Other interviewees are less well-known, but no less remarkable and these same themes are often present. Among these, it is Hooriyeh Zeinali who really stands out. Now in her nineties, she has lived through war and unimaginable hardship, losing two husbands (one of whom was the brother of her first husband). And yet there is somehow a peace to her enduring love for her children. At the very end of the book, Nima also stands out, offering a portrayal of the difficulties involved in growing up gay in Iran, a place where members of the LGBTQ community have no legal rights whatsoever.
There are some surprises within these stories. While Kangarlou makes it clear that certain groups in Iran face terrible repression (most notably the Bahá’í religious minority – this religion was started in the 19th century and its followers have faced ongoing persecution since its inception), some members of minority groups get on surprisingly well considering the strict Islamic rulers. Aren Barkhordarian, the Armenian–Christian owner of a burger restaurant says he believes his people are well-respected in the country. It’s a similar story for Ashkan Khosropoor, a journalist raised by a Zoroastrian family – his problems stem from the fact that Iran remains a police state when it comes to press freedom, but not from his religious identity. Even Harev Yehuda Gerami, a young but markedly successful Jewish rabbi says he can largely go about his business undisturbed. (Many people are unaware that Iran is host to the largest number of Jewish people outside of Israel in the Middle East.) For some in the book, this points to the wider moderation and tolerance of Iranian people, so badly represented by their hardline, conservative government.
In fact, one of the most alarming stories comes from within the Islamic elite. Faezeh was born and raised into a ‘colony’ of die-hard revolutionaries where she grew up despising the West. By attending college she gradually found some freedom and crafted a new path – albeit at the cost of alienating her family – but it is a stark reminder that there are many others like her, denied a proper education and raised on hate.
The Heartbeat of Iran shares all these stories and more, presented by Kangarlou’s steady and non-judgmental hand.
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