Ghazal Omid: "Living In Hell"

For a fascinating and often horrifying account of a woman's life in revolutionary Iran, read "Living In Hell" by Ghazal Omid. "Living in Hell" is a long, lyrical, and very rich memoir; the chapters are short vignettes of the author's life.
I remember the resentment I felt toward my father. I despised him early on for making my mother suffer. At age seven, I often questioned my mother, asking her why she brought me into this world when she knew she could not give me a father and why she continued to live and suffer with a person who doesn't love her.

The book's power comes from the vivid descriptions of family and society in Iran, both before and after the Khomeini revolution. Ghazal Omid's testimony is extraordinary and valuable in its ability to humanize the narrator and make her experience real for us. The book describes the workings of a deeply dysfunctional family in a way that many of us can relate to; it also shines a light on some of the dysfunctional aspects of Iranian society that pre-dated the Khomeini regime. This is especially important because it helps activists who look forward to a post-IRI era to understand the other challenges that Iranian society faces.
I strongly believe in religion but religion can change people. Religion is the path to salvation but Islam, like other religions, has been used for personal agendas. It is not the religion that is wrong; it is the preachers who sabotage the word of God. Mum, like most religious women, was naive and the regime's mullahs took advantage of her good heart and flooded her brain and the brains of her like minded sisters with irrational lies and preaching, orchestrated to blindfold the female force.

"Living in Hell" includes harrowing accounts of rape, incest, and sexual molestation. It also recounts the author's first lesbian experience:
... I had a fleeting teenage brush with lesbianism. I had a classmate who was incredibly stunning. She was very beautiful and mature for her age: medium height, very slender, olive skin, long black hair down her back with an incredible flexible body. Like a gymnast, she would bend over backwards and touch the ground with her hands.

Aside from her beauty, I envied the distinctive, burgundy, ballet type leather shoes she wore. ... The other thing that I think made us kindred souls was remarks she made that caused me to suspect that her brother was also molesting her.

... Slowly but surely, I found myself becoming sexually attracted to her. Even now, it is puzzling how a naive kid like me suddenly found herself, in the middle of mathematics class, fondling her friend's breasts. ... I had never had any attraction toward women. I grew up around women it large public, Roman style bathrooms where all the women were naked and never had a lustful twinge.

The afternoon after fondling my friend's breast, I came home from school, excited and a little nervous about the next step. As usual, I was daydreaming and sort of studying and thinking about tomorrow's adventure. Mum was praying in the same room that was my study/living room. She suddenly stopped and read to me the translation of the chapter from the Koran that said that women were sisters and that they should not touch each other sexually. If they did they will pay the consequences of their actions since it is considered a great sin in the eyes of God.

... I was silent for a few minutes. There is no word to describe how I felt. ...

"Ghazal Omid" is a pen name meaning "lost soul"; the author now lives in Canada. I had the honor of speaking with her on the phone the other night; she is as lively and articulate in conversation as she is in print.
By age 18, I had seen so many deaths and my heart had become so hard that I couldn't cry. After the war was over, I couldn't have cried if I tried. ... Then one night, I had a dream.

I saw myself in my school uniform, waiting to meet Abo-al Fasel, a holy man, who had been dead over a thousand years. He died for the sake of helping others and is the symbol for dkindness and virtue in Shiah Islam. In my dream, I, together with many others, was waiting in a cemetery for his holiness to appear. for a long time, Abo-al Fasel didn't come. I was impatient to leave. I left the graveyard, still searching for him at the exit door. Suddenly he came riding on a great white horse, just as we had been told he would do. As he came near me, I greeted him and he looked at me with compassion and said, "Be kind to others; love other people."

-All quotations from "Living In Hell" by Ghazal Omid.

Now I have to say a few words about the awful review the book received in "Publishers' Weekly". Please ignore this hatchet job. I contacted Powell's Books to complain about their inclusion of the PW "review" in the Powell's online listing for "Living in Hell". It turns out Powell's is under a contract that requires them to post all PW reviews, favorable or not, on their website; but the good folks at Powell's did add some more favorable reviews of "Living in Hell", which I commend to your attention. Thank you, Powell's Books, for doing the right thing.

Folks, I don't think I have to explain this for my regular readers but I think it needs to be said: People everywhere are just the same; and people everywhere are unique individuals. Those who live under dictatorships do not become less human because of it; their personal conflicts, their family problems, their inner struggles are not magically blotted out by the force majeure of an oppressive regime. And to believe otherwise is nothing but a variation of the slaveholder mentality that sees enslaved persons as "happy little slaves" with no volition or agency of their own.

The problems and complexities of a personal life are not a "privilege" reserved for the citizens of free societies alone, and living under fascism does not grant immunity from the mundane cruelties that individuals inflict on one another. Let me quote the Iranian scholar Azar Nafisi, in the portion of her literary memoir devoted to Jane Austen:
A girl is raped, carried in the trunk of a car and murdered. A young student is killed and has his ears cut off. There are discussions of prison camps, of death and destruction in Bellow, in Nabokov we have monsters like Humbert, who rape telve-year-old girls, even in Flaubert there is so much hurt and betrayal -- What about Austen? Manna had asked one day.

Indeed, what about Austen? ... Austen's heroines are unforgiving, after their own fashion. There is much betrayal in her novels, much greed and falsehood, so many disloyal friends, selfish mothers, tyrannical fathers, so much vanity, cruelty and hurt. Austen is generous towards her villains, but this does not mean she lets anyone, even her heroines, off easily. ...

Modern fiction brings out the evil in domestic lives, ordinary relations, people like you and me -- Reader! Bruder! as Humbert once said. Evil in Austen, as in most great fiction, lies in the inability to "see" others, hence to empathize with them. What is frightening is that this blindness can exist in the best of us (Eliza Bennett) as well as the worst (Humbert). We are all capable of becoming the blind censor, of imposing our visions and desires on others.

- Azar Nafisi, "Reading Lolita in Tehran"

This is why the Publishers Weekly critic's conclusion that "Iran would seem to be the least of her worries" is so galling. It demands that Ghazal Omid make a choice: "Either you can complain about being oppressed by the Iranian regime, missy, or you can complain about your personal problems - but you can't do both." Still more offensive is the reviewer's statement that the author only "claims to have been raped" (my emphasis). It would seem that Nafisi's blind Iranian film censor is alive and well and working for Publishers' Weekly.

Please visit Ghazal Omid's website: Living In Hell - Ghazal Omid on Iran which is now also linked on my sidebar.