Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi’s compelling memoir Iran Awakening: One Woman’s Journey to Reclaim Her Life and Country is a powerful documentation of Iran’s modern history written from the perspective of a Muslim female intellectual human rights activist. I think most western readers would learn a lot from Ebadi’s thoughtful descriptions of events we know about from our perspective but not often an insider’s view such as the Shah’s rule, Mossadegh’s overthrow, the Revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, and other crisis points.
Although the book contains a lot of historical insight, it is primarily Ebadi’s memoir, and so we read her story of becoming a pre-Revolutionary judge and then being stripped of her ability to work after the Revolution, her eventual reinstatement as a lawyer and the calling she feels to take the cases of the oppressed, the wrongfully-accused, and the defenseless in Iran. Her work earned her a Nobel Prize, but also time in prison and several brushes with death. Still, as she puts it, “The written word is the most powerful tool we have to protect ourselves, both from the tyrants of the day and from our own traditions.”
After reading Iran Awakening, I also picked up Ebadi’s more recent book The Golden Cage: Three Brothers, Three Choices, One Destiny. As in Iran Awakening, this book is narrated in Ebadi’s voice, but is primarily about the three brothers of one of her family friends. The three brothers apparently (I am still unclear how much of this book is straight truth and how much is semi-fiction or condensing multiple characters into one) each adopted one of the major ideologies of modern Iran (supporting the Shah, being a secular or Marxist revolutionary, and being a fundamentalist Muslim revolutionary) and essentially, as their sister says, locked themselves in cages of ideology that blinded them and ultimately became each man’s undoing.
Although the book mainly tells the story of modern Iranian history through the story of the brothers, Ebadi used herself as a narrator, injecting scenes from her own life and sometimes confusingly jumping around in narrative type. For example, she includes sections written as though she saw them first hand, when we know she did not, and sections written as if by an omniscient narrator who could be inside other people’s heads, which of course Ebadi cannot. By using herself as a narrator but breaking conventions of narrative type, Ebadi not only casts doubt on the veracity of some of the events, but also removes a lot of the impact of these stories. Although I’m sad to say so since I really respect Shirin Ebadi’s work, I wouldn’t recommend The Golden Cage unless you have a really strong interest in Iran. Definitely read Iran Awakening instead.
In her books, Ebadi quotes Ali Shariati: “If you can’t eliminate injustice, at least tell everyone about it.” She does a good job of that, particularly in Iran Awakening. If you enjoy memoir and like to gain insight and understand different perspectives on history, I highly recommend Iran Awakening.
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