A Voice of Exile

A Review of  "A Stranger Within Me" by Shokouh Mirzadegi

by: Jaleh Pirnazar

MOST CHARACTERS IN PERSIAN NOVELS, written in exile since 1980, manifest feelings of alienation, loneliness, and disconnectedness.  They have experienced personal loss, displacement, and disbelief.  Yet, at times, they have slowly, and in varying degrees, coped with the circumstances of their uprootedness, adjusted to strange and hostile environments, and forged new identities for themselves.  The conditions of life in exile have been best presented through rendition of fragmentation in the characters' lives, in their personae, and also in the settings and time frames of the works of the narrative, as well as in the style of narration and the bilingual dialogue.

Almost all characters in these novels are Iranians living in exile in the West.  Their exilic condition is portrayed at times as inertia and even symbolically discussed as physiological paralysis, as in the comatose life of an Iranian patient in Paris in Sorayya in Coma by Esmail Fasih.

The novel A Stranger Within Me has managed to show yet another dimension in the life of exile.  While this novel is a voice of exile, it nevertheless transcends the immediate pain and paralysis that have beset Iranians in exile since the revolution, to reveal broader challenges.  Besides dealing with the revolution, A Stranger Within Me encompasses universal issues affecting humankind in this century.

A Stranger Within Me reminds us once again of the pain of the individual living in a land where "the correct ideology" rules.  We experience the agony of losing one's loved ones to the "the ideology," the helplessness and fear surrounding life under the dictatorship of "the ideology," and we understand the challenges and dangerous choices (or lack of them) facing those living under the rule of "the one and only ideology."

Luba, our narrator, the woman in exile, faces this condition twice in her life - first, in "the West," Czechoslovakia, in the 1960, and then in post-revolutionary Iran in 1979-80.  She had met Amin, her husband, in her first location of exile, England, fourteen years earlier when she was a refugee fleeing her native land.  Luba tells her story in Persian.  She is rather "at home" in Tehran.  She feels welcomed and loved by her in-laws and their small circle of Western-educated Iranian friends, and is comfortable at her job with a museum.  Amin is a successful physician, a dedicated father and a kind and loving husband.  Luba is determined to leave her painful past behind her as she adopts a new life and identity in Iran.

But Luba carries within her unsettling old fears of the condition of exile from Czechoslovakia to Iran.  Deep inside, she feels the presence o of a gnawing "mysterious fear" at all times.  With the unfolding of her story, and the growth and development of her character, the fear that has been with her throughout her life is gradually recognized, demystified, and understood.  Inner strength finally evolves through the character's self-acceptance.  In fact, through the chaos and frightful events of post-revolutionary Iran, Luba's character sees a second chance to confront the "fear and submissiveness" which she had encountered as a youth and had integrated within her.  She has to confront this "stranger within" to take further steps in her personal growth.  While Luba's story is journey into spaces of exile, it is also a woman's journey out of emotionally binding traits and into adapting a more powerful selfhood.

The novel begins with a fateful day in Luba's life in Tehran, August 9, 1979, only a few months after the Iranian revolution, when she and her friends finally realize that her husband Amin has disappeared, with no trace left behind.  No clues.  A week has gone by.  Nothing.  A search that day in the morgue, filled with deformed, tortured, bloodied, and partially covered bodies proves futile.  Yet a faint hope is raised.  Perhaps Amin is still alive.  Kidnapped? If so, is the kidnapping politically motivated? What faction, inside or outside the government, is responsible?  Arrested, Perhaps?  On what Charges?  Was he framed?  What could be the motive?  Could his disappearance have anything to do with the abortion he was later found to have performed illegally on a patient in his office?

Luba's fears are intensified.  Outside, unrest and chaos prevail.  The revolution is too young yet for centralized political power to have merged.  Most revolutionaries are armed and have taken the law into their own hands.  Luba's most difficult task is to find an explanation to give her fourteen-year-old son, Bardiya, who patiently awaits some news and silently withdraws as the days go by.  Luba secretly surrenders to her fears, insecurities and the uncertainty of her life in Iran without Amin.

At moments of distress, loss, anguish, and fear, Luba's troubled mind freely journeys backward in time to reveal frightful and tragic memories.  Such brief moments throughout the novel provide the reader with just enough glimpses into her past to be able to reconstruct Luba's life in a distant place and time living under totalitarianism in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s.

As a young teenager in her hometown of Lechna, Luba witnesses the demise of her mother's blooming career as Czechoslovakia's most famous, talented, and loved vocalist.  The "Stalinist regime" curtails her artistic life and forces her into submission and alter into a docile patient withering away in mental hospitals until her tragic suicide.

Luba's father had been an underground political activist who rejected the "Soviet-installed" government in Czechoslovakia.  One day, Luba, 19, discovers the body of her slain father in the backyard of their house.  She had been very close to her father, especially after her mother's suicide.  Deeply shaken, alone, and in imminent danger, she flees her country.

In England, Luba studies the ancient past, archaeology, as she carries her own past within her and awaits the birth of her child (her Czech husband, also an activist has left her).  She befriends a young and trustworthy Iranian student, Saee, with leftist politics and an accepting heart.  A bonding friendship develops.  Months later, when Saeed takes Luba to the hospital for childbirth, he introduces her to Amin, his cousin and a doctor.  Amin is attracted to Luba, and he eventually marries her and adopts her newborn as his own son.  He gives him a Persian  name, Bardiya.  Years later the family moves to Iran.

Amin's body is finally discovered.  Evidence of torture on his body - too sophisticated to have been the job of any culprit other than the government - reminds Luba of slain friends in Lechna.  Mourning for Amin is on its way when suddenly, with a certain shift out of political expedience, the revolutionary government decides to announce Amin as the latest victim of the depose Shah's secret police (the SAVAK), and therefore a martyr to the cause of Islam and the Revolution.  Amin is given a very dignified marryr's burial with all major government officials present at his funeral.  Bardiya finds solace in the state's recognition of his father as a fallen hero.  He mythologizes his slain father and vows to follow in his footsteps.

Having lost her "pillar of support and love," Luba is devastated.  She takes refuge in sleeping pills and alcohol.  She also eulogizes Amin as her condition deteriorates daily and become alarming.  Months go by before all clues point definitely in the direction of the government as his murderer.  Amin had been supporting an anti-government group of nationalists outside Iran.  Luba gradually discovers more and more about Amin's secret affairs - political, financial, and extra-marital.  She begins to see the man in a different light.

In a powerful scene, the author draws on stream-of-consciousness writing techniques, associations, and symbols to lay grounds for Luba's future rise from the ashes.  In the scene, Luba is alone in her apartment.  Earlier that afternoon she has returned from meeting with the "mystery woman," her dead husband's love, who has confirmed Luba's worst fears about Amin.

Driven by an unusual burst of energy, despite her ailing condition, she impulsively yet calmly rearranges all the furniture in the room.  The furniture had been arranged to Amin's liking, and Luba had gone along with it.  Fro seven years that was how it had been.  Even after his death, Luba had wanted no change.  She had remained too loyal to his memory.  Amin had for many years occupied a larger-than-live, hovering presence in her life.  He had been her benevolent rescuer, protecting her and providing security for her and her son.  With a strong sense of gratitude, Luba had accepted his domineering presence in life and after his death, both outside and within herself.  Only today she has discovered sides of Amin at once new and repulsive to her.  own the kitchen table stood where she had always wanted it, as if this could wipe away his memory.  As if celebrating, she covers the table with food and begins drinking her vodka.  Luba feels some strange, unexplainable joy within her.  Outside her apartment there is a procession of mourners wailing loudly as they perform the religious rituals of Ashura.  Yet despite the gravity and solemnity of the events outside, Luba is elated, with a growing feeling of resourcefulness and lightness inside her:

The mourners cried bitterly.  But I was drinking, enjoying the changes I had brought about incur apartment.  Now every item stood where Amin didn't like them.  But Amin was still there....behind the window.  He stood on the balcony watching over the city.  His head was so large that it blocked the whole city.   And my father, who was leaning against the window said, "Right at this very moment the wicks leading to the tunnels of explosives dug underneath the statue are to be ignited - 1650 wicks.  That's no joke!"  Strusa standing next to him continued, "We are now about to witness the explosion of 800 kilos of explosives.  800 kilos!"  Lying down next to me was my mother who spoke with a voice coming from deep inside the ground, "Now I am certain that I will be allowed to sing."  And right at that moment the explosion began.  But it wasn't just one explosion.  There was a series of explosions, one after another.  The entire city was lit up by the first one and then dark blue columns of smoke rose to the sky from the Lechna heights... with every new outburst of explosives I thought of the next statue to fall, that of a worker, a botanist, a heroine, a Red Army soldier.  The last and largest statue of them all was of Stalin.  His stretched-tall stature and that proud head of his shook and suddenly every particle of dirt stirred from the ground reaching to the sky in whiling motion......

At first my mother just stared with an open mouth at the window panes.  They had been covered with black tape a few days earlier by my father to keep the glass from shattering to pieces.  She then rose in confusion and stepped out of bed. Her thin body stumbled toward the mirror and before y father could notice her, she sat down in from of the mirror and began combing her long golden hair - the last remains of her once-extraordinary beauty.  She combed with trembling hands and said "I have to look good.  I can't show up in public looking like this...."My father went to her, held her in his arms and brought her back to her bed assuring her, "If you want to be able to sing again, you first and most certainly have to look after your health.  You have to help yourself recover."  And my mother, looking very pale, whispered through her seemingly smiling lips as she settled in her bed, "Who could ever believe him dead?"  I couldn't believe it either.  How could that tall rock stature of his, which grew on top of the hill overlooking the river and the city, watching over whatever went on, that ever-present, towering existence, how could he have collapsed?

No, he was not dead.  I could see him.  He was wearing his stipend blue shirt [Amin had been wearing a stroped blue shirt on the day of his disappearance].  He was still at that height.  He was right there sitting on the edge of the balcony smiling at me - that certain smile that I so disliked - I went to him.  My father and strusa stared at the square.  They stared in astonishment at his head, which stood proudly and very much alive on a thin ridge....my mother got up, went to the window as she yelled, "His head! I have to throw off his head!:  And before any of us could take notice, she opened the window  Feeling the cool, light mid-autumn air setting on her skin, she drew a deep breath.  She was about to regain her calm when she saws him once again sitting there on the edge of the balcony with his back to the Alburz (visible north of Tehran) and his shoulders blocking the entire city.  She went to him knowing that she had to finish the job.  She had to push him off from that height, she had to see him smash into pieced, and she jumped off..... (141-143)

Luba's sister-in-law and Saeed and Luba's next door neighbor, worried about her condition that day, finally find their way into her locked apartment just in time to pull her away before she leaps from the balcony. 

In another chapter, Luba wakes up at 7:20 a.m. to an unusually loud sound of traffic in the corridors.  Horrified, she discovers that the apartment next door has just been raided by the Revolutionary Guards.  Ahmad, the artist next door and a close friend, has been arrested and is being dragged out of his apartment amid beatings and swearing of insult.  Armed and angry guards are removing his confiscated art, his large paintings that Luba loved.

Luba sees all this through a small opening in the door.  Trembling and scared she is spotted by the guards, who aim their guns at her and angrily order her to stay inside her apartment and mind her own business. Inside, she squats behind the closed door, terrified at the arrest, worried for Ahmad (and Narges, Luba's sister-in-law and Ahmad's fiancée), helpless and weak, and frightened at what could happen to her:

I closed the door.  I sat down next to him, staring at his face.  In the dimming light his face seemed more and more pale.  There were two small openings right above his left eyebrow and temple.  There was no movement in me.  Nothing stirred.  I was frightened.  I feared that the neighbors might see my shadow.  I wished they'd all think I had left.  I knew that despite their own fears at getting close to my family, the neighbors would never give any information the to the officers.  Yet I couldn't be sure that, of all those heads who peeped out at me only an hour ago, none belonged to government informers.  I feared those officers would break in any moment, take me along or finish me with a silent bullet right there next to my father....Then I thought of Julia.  She was the only one I could go to .  But then I figured if they'd known about my father, then they'd certainly know about her, about me, about Milan [Luba's Czech husband -translator's note] and abut the other thirty or forty of us who were connected.  I wished for the night to arrive earlier than usual that evening so that I could escape.  But night was still far away and I just sat there motionless and terrifies...(179).

Luba tell us that in Tehran, early in November, 1979, a group of militants calling themselves "Students following Imam Khomeini's line" stormed into the American Embassy and held the Americans inside as hostages.  All Tehran talked about this event, the consequences, and the international reaction.  "But I felt as if all these events had taken place on some very distant planet.  I could see that there was no one inside me curious enough to follow all these adventures...."(106).

That November in Tehran, Luba is seriously depressed.  She drinks whatever alcohol she can find and depends heavily on sleeping pills.  Her health has rapidly deteriorated.  The agonizing obsession within her is so strong and self-consuming that she ignores not only the social and political turmoil surrounding her but also her children, Bardiya, 14, and Bahram, 10, as she stumbles through the days.  hardly aware that they have gone to live with their grandparents.

the militancy in the air, the euphoria of a revolution that has seemingly succeeded in its goals, the miraculous failure of a major superpower in its efforts to free its citizens from captivity all appeal potently to Luba's young teenager, Bardiya.

Baridiya, despite his grandparents' moderation in political beliefs and religious practices, is more and more drawn to the fundamental tenets of Islam and the militancy of the revolution.  Much to his mother's disbelief and fury he stops attending school regularly and soon urn into a full-time political activist.  He joins a group of young Islamic revolutionaries who guard the sieged American Embassy around the clock.  He is now armed, grown taller, attends the mosque regularly, and is angry at his mother because she drinks alcohol, which is forbidden in Islam.  He demands that she cover her hair even at home when his friends visit.  Bardiya grows increasingly defiant and distant from Luba, who, aware of her neglect in the past, now quits her job and brings Bardiya and Bahram home. She now finds the strength in herself to throw away her tranquilizers, pills, and alcohol.  She is determined, as she isolates herself from friends and family, to win her son back through love and attention.  Her in-laws and other adults in the family join in this effort, supporting Luba.  She faces her biggest challenge yet.

Nevertheless, Bardiya responds to a different tune.  He is further committed to hi s ideological beliefs and assumes even more sensitive responsibilities assigned to him.

Following the arrest of Ahmad, the next-door artist friend of Luba who painted "undesirable" paintings, Luba suspects that her apartment may also have been electronically "bugged" by the police.  One morning she has a friend search her apartment for such devices.  They find nothing.  They come to Bardiya's room and break into his locked drawers to discover a box full of over twenty microphone.  The friend explains<

"These microphones were once the property of the SAVAK.  Now the present government uses them for surveillance....and this here is the device which receives sound coming through these microphones....they usually cover areas up to seven kilometers...... I asked....."But why are these here?".....I could not believe what I saw.  It was not easy for me to connect these item to Bardiya....I sat down on the edge of Bardiya's bed and said my next words with much difficulty.  "Is this to say that Bardiya is doing this?" .....An old and familiar notion came to me.  Strusa signaled to my father and he took him to the garden.  They stood by the flower bed.  My father had one foot on the edge of the flower bed and was leaning with his hand against the magnolia tree, right at that very same location where, years later, I found his body with his hand lying by that tree....Strusa spoke, "You have to be careful.....Jerome has gone to their side.....I was told that he is now their informer.  Has he been here lately?"

I asked Saeed, "Do you suppose Bardiya is an informer?"  With a lot of pain I refrained from crying...."But he is only fourteen years old....fourteen years.  Where on this earth are fourteen-year-olds turned into informers?"....."Here they'd do anything.  They stop at nothing.  Just like Hitler's government stopped at nothing."

I thought to myself, now I also, when I was at Bardiya's age, went to government-sponsored instructional camps didn't I?  Wouldn't I also listen for hours every day to the speeches given by men and women in praise of Stalin and the party leaders?  Didn't I also stand in city squares cheering their political slogans?  Didn't I also wave and stir those long red flags for hours in those gymnasiums?  Didn't I also come home aching with sore and swollen muscles, dropping my body in some corner?  My mother would always talk to herself asking "When on earth are they going to leave these kids alone?" (198-201).

Luba remembers having taken Bardiya with her to see Ahmad's art work next door.  Had he installed anything in that apartment that day?  A few days later when Bardiya returns from his camp, Luba gently asks him if he'd heard that " 'poor Ahmad has been arrested.'  Without looking at me he said, 'He did seem to be anti-revolution.  Furthermore, he was a BAhai....these people who have stayed in Iran are only here to sabotage (the revolution).  You wouldn't know these things.  They all have ties with the US.....'  I looked at the new picture he'd just put up on the wall.  Khomeini stood there holding his hand over Bardiya's head which was lightly bent forward....Quietly, I left the room" (201).  Luba, sober and shaken, integrates the realities around her.

For her, a nightmare has come true: Narges, Ahmad's fiance3e (Luba's sister-in-law), is finally released from jail only through the influential connections of Haju Agha (Narges's father).  She is badly beaten and injured.  Ahmad is still imprisoned.  How can Luba save her son?  How may others have been arrested and tortured and perhaps dead because of BArdiya?  How many other lives was her to destroy?  Did he know the extent of what he was doing?  Could Luba share any of her experiences with Bardiya?  How can she protect and save her ten-year-old, so totally absorbed by his older brother Bardiya, who comes home armed (when he chooses to come home) and now even enjoys a position of authority?

Luba finally decides to leave Iran together with Bahram, her younger son, and to do so without her older son's knowledge.  Bardiya would surely clock Luba's exit from Iran if she were to take BAhram, for whom BArdiya now assumes the position of guardian.

All paperwork, planning, passports and other documentation, preparations, and meting with authorities have to be carried out without the knowledge or suspicion of the live-in informer.  Bardiya has instigated the very same fears and paralysis in Luba here in Islamic Iran which she had experience earlier in her life in Stalinist Czechoslovakia.

Luba takes charge. She now makes decisions on her own, even without the help of Saeed, whose love for her has rekindled and who is eager to assist her in every way.  Luba sees her choices and she listens to "the stranger within" who guides her away fro her fears, inactions and submissions.  She knows that she cannot save BArdiya from the destructive path he has chosen.  but she can and must save Bahram before it is too late.

Luba, this Western woman, is compelled to leave Iran without her son, not because Islamic Iran is no place for a Western woman, but because she is once again convinced that totalitarianism is no place for free human growth and development.  Luba pays a very high price for her choice which, as she sees it, is every parents' worst nightmare.  But she has to choose one of her children to save while leaving the other behind.  She is torn between her maternal love for Bardiya and her human need for freedom in which to raise Bahram. 


Ten years pass before Luba, now in England, has an encounter with Bardiya, who walks with a limp resulting from a leg injury received during the Iran-Iraqi war.  Bardiya, a representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran, is on a diplomatic visit as he walks out of the Iranian Embassy escorted by other delegates, embassy guards, and British police.  Luba stands at a distance, near an angry and noisy crowd of demonstrators.  She stares at her son with love and affection and longs to embrace him.

But mother and son, standing a few feet apart, have never been farther away from each other - the distance having widened over the years.

A Stranger With Me ends here, successfully transcending "an Iranian experience " to pre3sent a human experience against global threatening, inhuman odds.  The novel goes beyond a voice of exile to raise a familiar outcry of unsettledness that is the human condition of our time.