"Money was maliciously introduced in ancient times as a tool of enslavement" -
Michael Tellinger

"The present belongs to the future and future generations, and all old laws, religious and other, should be abrogated immediately. Free us!" - Vinay Gupta on Twitter

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." - R. Buckminster Fuller

"You find the strangest ways to be positive!" - Diane Duane, Wizards Abroad

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Connecting, across the divide: Searching for Hassan by Terence Ward (book review)

On this year's Nowruz, the Persian New Year spelled so many different ways and celebrated for so many millenia (at least three), I remember a superb book about Iran by American writer Terence Ward. In case you don't make it to the bottom of this post, I'll cut straight to the chase (Moral of the story): As we start a new year - whatever it's called (Navroze, Ostara, or Easter), how about this: all we people, just people, find a way around religious zealots and corrupt politicians in all our countries, and forge a new way to make our politics reflect the human wisdom this story shows us?

(orthographic projection courtesy of Wikipedia)

For another shortcut, here's a brief video interview with Terence Ward from the Charlie Rose show.

As the author says in this wonderful interview from 2005, his is "a positive story, a story of reaching across the divide, of going far beyond politics and negativity on both sides and listening instead to the heart. It is simply saying that it is possible for people to connect."

When Searching for Hassan came out, and I reviewed it for SLJ, it blew me away. It's an amazing story, brilliantly told, and I think anyone would find it moving and wise. But the strength of my own emotional response might also have come, in part, from the fact that the author's family so reminded me of my own (mine was less brilliant and functional but still, I recognized kindred spirits in the Wards). The thing is, at the time of the childhood events that begin Ward's book, my parents, sister and I were driving our car across Iran (and every other country between South India and England) after our first year in India, and we probably narrowly missed encountering the Wards when we were in Tehran; they remind me of some other American and British families we met and connected with during our travels. And Ward so beautifully describes the landscape and conveys such an authentic sense of place that long-submerged memories of my own brief time there came back, more than thirty years later...

Anyway, here's my review, adapted somewhat from the SLJ original recommending it to adults and teens. I'm sure I recommended it for our Year's Best list, too. But the story is timeless, really.

Searching for Hassan: An American Family's Journey Home to Iran (2002)
(in later edition, re-subtitled A Journey to the Heart of Iran)

In a prologue set in Tehran in the 1960s, Ward relates how he and his brothers were initiated by the wise Hassan into the mysteries of the Zoroastrian fire festival of Navroz. But these boys, who so wholeheartedly absorbed their mentor's teachings, were not Iranians but Americans. Returning to the United States for the boys' college educations, their parents lost touch with Hassan. Iran went through an Islamic revolution, a devastating war with Iraq, and finally another reform movement. The boys grew up and their parents grew older. Yet they never stopped missing Hassan and his family.

Finally, in 1998, when Iran once more began to admit Westerners, the whole family - now four grown men and their rather elderly parents - went back to search for their old friends. The author's mother, Rose, was the genius behind the quest and that's a remarkable story in itself. Miraculously, armed with only a vague memory of a village name, a black and white photograph, and Rose's intuition and drive, they did find their old family friend (in a country full of Hassans, millions of them) - but this is just one aspect of the story.

Another aspect is the family narrative: the reader sees how each individual's strengths contribute to the success of their collective mission. And another: the journey itself is described to striking visual effect, conveying a passion for every experience. This book should give any reader a vivid sense of the place now called Iran.

And as the author reflects on the history, politics, and religion of the country, complex cultural issues become understandable in the light of real human lives. The spiritual lessons learned from Hassan, and new ones gained from new acquaintances met during their journey, carry the Wards forward as they learn to "look beyond the predicament of politics" to find the "timeless, immutable soul of Iran."

This is an illuminating and fascinating adventure, and as timeless in its way as the country it explores. I'd say if you only read one book about Iran, or if you really want to get a sense of the country, then forget the politics, set aside the newspaper, turn off the TV pundits, and read Searching for Hassan.

As long as we're on the subject, here are some other Iran-related posts: http://mypersonalblogccm.blogspot.com/2009/11/jumping-over-fire-book-review.html
(this outstanding novel of Iranian-American lives, Jumping over Fire, also roots its Iranian narrative in a childhood memory of Navroz!)

(concerns the plight and heroism of musicians under fundamentalist Islam, including the Iranian singers DJ Maryam and Googoosh, with links to some of their videos.)

And Baran is a wonderful feature film, by the Iranian director Majid Majidi, set in Tehran and the beautiful surrounding countryside. Netflix has it.