A Review of Abbass Milani's "Tales of Two Cities"

From: Middle East Journal 

Autobiography is not a well-established genre in Iran. The value of privacy in Iranian life is strong enough to make the personal memoir a sensitive and embarrassing phenomenon. Still the appeal of some of Iran's greatest writers (Sadeq Hedayat, Foruq Farrokhzad) has often derived from their emotional intimacy. In the period of introspection which followed the 1979 Islamic revolution, autobiographical experiments became popular, perhaps based on the belief that an understanding of individual lives would help explain the historical surprises that characterized Iran's recent past. The power of Abbas Milani's personal memoir comes from the fact that it is a dialogue between his personal experience and major historical events.

Milani was raised in Iran, educated in California, and imprisoned by the Pahlavi regime in 1977. Milani's earliest memories are personal and introspective. They are an account of his household in a then-quiet neighborhood of Tehran, a block away from the American Embassy. With his emphasis on the events that mould a child's values, his book seems at first of the genre of Sara Suleri's memories of a Lahore childhood in "Meatless Days," or, Edwar Kharrat's Alexandria novels, where style is an important element of the memories, the transformation of the author's past into language. Perhaps because they are targeted at an American audience, Milani's memories of childhood, though often artful, are the least convincing part of the book. In the early episodes he does not quite find his voice, but remains suspended between an Olympian scholarly tone -- which handles the culture with sterilized tweezers ("Philosophers have said writing is a pharmakon, a cure and a curse....The same came be said of religion in Iran" [p. 59]; "shiism, in principle, denigrates joy" [p. 63]) -- and moments of personal rage against the sometimes hypocritical restrictions, emotional and physical, imposed in the name of religion on a child's daily life.

Milani's insightful observations become apparent in later chapters, after he has established a tension between two cultures (both in flux) which gives him a narrative edge. The scenes he describes of his experiences as a student, in Oakland and Berkeley, California, in the 1960s, discovering American culture and watching it go through profound changes, are powerful and captivating. There are not many convincing accounts of the various activist groups in those days, the influence of which nurtured Milani's early political commitment. He describes his own anti-Shah Maoist cell with a skeptical sometimes bemused tone, clearly sympathetic to the clarity of goals and the energy of those idealistic social experiments. His book is a major contribution to the history of American radicalism -- and of the mosaic of political movements which agitated against Shah Reza Pahlavi. Milani's return to Iran, in 1975, is occasion for an even more gripping sequence, wherein his Western values face conflicting social and political pressures. He becomes a respected teacher at the National University and enough of an insider to join a royalist think-tank. At the same time, he joins an underground anti-Pahlavi cell. In 1977, apparently for that reason (although one gathers that the charges are never made either forthrightly or explicitly), he ends up in Evin Prison.

His observations of the details of prison life provide the most effective moments of the book. They are measured, impersonal, free of self-pity, and precisely focused. Milani was, if hardship can lend such privilege, a privileged observer of historic events. (His portraits of some notorious inquisitors are more observant and convincing that are those of Reza Baraheni, who sketches some of the same individuals in his 1976 prison poems published in English as Shadow of God). Even more important, however, are Milani's sketches of fellow prisoners who later become major players in the Islamic government. Milani treats them with the respect of a secular observer, an indigenous anthropologist honestly puzzled by their power and respectful of there enforced separation from their secular inmates in prison. The portraits of the ayatollahs Sayyid Mahmud Taleqani, Husayn 'Ali Montazeri and Sayyid Kazam Shariatmadari are deeply etched and memorable. Milani's meditation on 'Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (which begins with the unanticipated but relevant detail that men whose beard is sparse, with the physiognomy of what is called a kuseh, are ordinarily treated with suspicion in Persian culture) juxtaposes personal observations with those of a political scientist. Milani's meditation catches the mysterious, mesmerizing and inexplicable quality of political charisma. His elaborate description of a public prayer in the courtyard of Evin prison, which he watches from the barred window of his cell, straining to pick out who assumes the ranking position, based on body language cues and positioning in the line, is one of those rare moments when ritual and the forces of history magically overlap.

Throughout the memoir, Milani marks meticulously the dates of his personal history, so readers can see the historical record unfolding side by side with the individual one. ("The gate opened, and with a strange sense of hesitation and exhilaration, I walked to freedom. The Islamic Revolution was a little more than a year away" [pp. 187-88]). It is that interplay between the personal and the political that makes this such a successful book. Milani has the authority of someone who has witnessed historical events and been chastened by the sight.

The opening chapter, particularly effective in rereading, describes Milani at Mehrabad Airport in l986) about to leave Iran permanently. He mentions in passing that he carries with him paintings; by Parviz Kalantari, an Iranian artist, who drove him to the airport. Those who read library copies of Tales of Two Cities will miss one of Kalantari's paintings beautifully reproduced on the dust jacket. It shows the rickety skyscrapers of a Western city in the background, and a traditional mud-brick village in the foreground, inscribed mysteriously on the chador of a reclining woman. Overhead is a man in a Western suit, briefcase in hand, hanging from a rainbow-colored airplane -- a portrait of the exile. It is a miniature of the world that the book presents in narrative form.

There are memoirs of uneventful lives that are important for aesthetic reasons, and there are important memoirs for which the justification is primarily historical. Milani's memoirs is a combination of both. It establishes a compelling equilibrium of a privileged witness to the mysterious, capricious and impersonal antics if history. Return to top of page