In `Land of No,' woman is trapped in a gathering storm of repression

September 12, 2004|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN BOOK EDITOR

Journey from the Land of No, by Roya Hakakian. Crown. 245 pages. $23.

The transcendent poignancy of Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl lies in the coming-of-age story of a teen-ager against the backdrop of a gathering, obliterating evil force. In Anne, we recognize all the yearnings, petulance and wonder of a talented adolescent, knowing all the time that this precious bulb is doomed never to realize her full blossoming.

Roya Hakakian, fortunately, avoids Anne's fate by safely emigrating to America with her family, but her story too is about the stunting of a vibrant young woman who, like Anne, stands in awe as she catches a glimpse of all the vast potential within herself precisely at the exact moment when an oppressive, annihilating regime makes her self-actualization impossible.

Hakakian, a former producer on 60 Minutes, was born into an Iranian Jewish family, part of the second-largest Jewish population in the Middle East, behind only Israel. Her father Albert was a modestly paid schoolmaster, but also a renowned poet. Roya (her name means "dream"), also like Anne Frank, regarded herself as a writer.

Under the Shah, Jews enjoyed the same freedoms as everyone else - exactly the same, which is why Roya and other Jews are at first excited when the first signs of rebellion begin in the late 1970s. They have lived in fear of the Shah's secret police, so much so that her parents send Roya's three older brothers to live in the United States.

But the revolutionary Islamic regime proves more zealous and more energetic in repression than even the Shah, particularly for Jews. Iranian Jews like the Hakakians who never considered themselves Zionist - for why was Israel necessary when Iran was their home? - found themselves a barely tolerated minority, marginalized in the new theocracy, suspect and despised. Their children were now taught misogyny in the schools. Islamic dress was required of all; censorship was state policy. Thoughts themselves were held as a danger. "With hundreds of thousands killed in the war [against Iraq], grief and vengeance were the only feelings the public could express."

Hakakian, irrepressible, brave and strong-willed, watches in dismay as the country she loves disappears, to be replaced by one that views what Roya most values - an insatiable intellect - with profound contempt. Like Anne Frank, she is a perceptive, idealistic, terribly sympathetic chronicler of the gathering repression (though, disappointingly for an American audience, she skips over an inside perspective on the hostage crisis of 1979). Countless readers have finished Anne Frank's diary silently hoping, "Never again." Hakakian's memoir proves how hollow is that wish.

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