At the Wall of the Almighty
Moshiri, Farnoosh. New York: Interlink Books, 1999. 352 p., $16.00, paperback. ISBN: 1566563151.
What is the purpose of all this, Shams?...Leave out mother's wombs, grow up, work, make a family, follow the same old path, the same worn out road everybody else has followed before? To follow, to suffer, to grow old and die?...What else is there? Something beyond this. My sister and I felt early in our childhood. This vanity. We wanted to do something. Somehting brave, different, something that would change the old order of things. Why was Faithland so dark and smelly, we asked. Who decided that Zahra should wash the people's filth from sunrise to sundown all year around? Who put our father behind bars for trying to change the old order of things?...
These are the words of the nameless narrator-protagonist of the Iranian writer Farnoosh Moshiri's fascinating novel At the Wall of the Almighty. These are the words of a prisoner telling and retelling his story to a fellow prisoner after going through all kinds of torture, the worst of which makes him forget his name. He is, therefore, in a journey of discovery, of memories, personal and political. What he has at his disposal is the knowledge that:
I'm in the hallways of El-Deen, the central prison of the Holy Republic, and… that this guard is taking me from my solitary confinement -- the Black Box -- to cell number four, cell of the Unbreakables. But this is all I know..
And this is where the novel begins. The Holy Republic, led by the Holy Leader, is a part of what Edward Said would call the "worldliness" of the text, i.e. its social and historical context. We know that it is a metaphor for Iran under the current regime of the Ayatollahs. But we also know that the father of the narrator was put in jail under the monarch's regime. The father looses his mind; his story is reconstructed through the son's story. Iran's history of failed and hijacked revolutions is also reconstructed through the reconstruction of the narrator's lost memory -- a painful process of narration and reading.
Despite his loss of memory, the hero is determined to survive, but never break. His relationship with the prison guard, Loony Kamal, is a confused one: it is characterized by inhuman brutality and human tenderness. Kamal, like us, wants to know about the "red, blasphemous" hero, who, on the other hand, wants to survive and escape. And the attempt survive/escape is achieved through a world of stories/memories of shared life with a girl-twin, a withdrawn mother, and aging grandfather, of New Spring Street and Faithland and the Almighty Wall which Ali the Bricklayer stacks taller every night.
Iran under the Shah and SAVAK, Iran under the Holy Leader and the Revolutionary Guards, and Iran the revolution, are all told and retold as the grim and dark reality of life in the prison impinges upon the narrator's consciousness. It becomes a fragmented consciousness of different worlds and dreams, of torture and hallucinations, of physical and intellectual domination, but also of resistance. If you accept the only grand narrative that drives the Holy Republic, you are, then, saved. It is a world led by one Truth, one leader, and one party; a fictional world that leaves you extremely disturbed for the mere fact that it is not fictional. At the Wall of the Almighty is the other Iran telling her story.
The novel is published as part of Emerging Voices, a series that is designed to bring western readers the "once-unheard voice" of writers who have achieved wide acclaim at home, but have not been recognized beyond the borders of their native lands. But one wonders whether this applies to Farnoosh Moshiri and her novel, which is written in English, not Farsi. She fled Iran in 1983 after the massive arrests of intellectuals and writers with secular leanings. So what we have here is a very interesting formula for a western reader: Moshiri is an Iranian novelist, a woman, and she writes in English, and what she writes is socially and politically conscious. However for Muslim, and maybe "Third-World," readers, she is "one of us" who defies western stereotypes: she writes about "us" in "their" language and in terms "they" understand. However, like the Indian Arandhati Roy in The God of Small Things and the Egyptian Ahdaf Souif in The Map of Love, Moshiri writes of things both western and "Third World" readers have in common: the quest for freedom.