The Cypress Tree
Rs 499 PP270
The small brown flat in Notting Hill Gate had been bought by Kamin Mohammadi's parents in view of the higher education their two daughters would eventually be sent to London for. They did not know then that the flat would become a home for them a decade in advance, when Kamin was only nine years old, the 1979 Revolution forcing them to flee Iran and settle down in Britain, not as wealthy 'New Iranians' imbibing a privileged education but as political refugees. After struggling with the British way of life and finally adopting it wholeheartedly at the cost of her own Iranian identity, Mohammadi returned to Iran at the age of 27 to come to grips with her family's history, the traumatic events that led to their exile and the politics that continue to dictate the lives of the relatives she grew up with.
Today, an established journalist and travel writer based in Britain and Italy, Mohammadi possesses a unique perspective on the rich culture and turbulent history of Iran. In her memoir, The Cypress Tree, she relates the story of 20th century Iran as a backdrop to the story of her own family, in a style reminiscent of The Kite Runner and Reading Lolita in Tehran. Peopled with a cast of colourful characters, from the formidable matriarch Fatemeh Bibi to the adventurous sisters Mehry and Guity to the fashionable Sedigheh and the anglicised Bagher, The Cypress Tree is an immensely readable, if not particularly cerebral, immigrant tale with a difference. That the author is in love with her newly discovered culture is obvious and rather infectious. Her lyrical prose glides through the ancient history of Iran — Cyrus the Great of the Achaemenid Empire, Darius the Great of Persepolis, the mighty Persian empire and its sacking by Alexander the Great, the Arabs, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. She recounts its 20th century history in as lucid and engaging a manner, giving the uninitiated reader a rapid, if rather simplistic, course on the reign of the Shahs, Mohammad Mossadegh, Ayatollah Khomeini and, finally, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Writing for a western audience, Mohammadi puts her country's history in perspective, showing her readers that Iran is not only about violence, repression and the hejab. She paints a romantic picture of her motherland — its delicious sweets, joyous religious festivals, classical arts, close-knit families and inherently fashionable ways. The abundance and sophistication of her country is thrown into stark relief in the humorous descriptions of her early years in Britain, when she is baffled by why the Brits buy only one or two pieces of fruit at a time, disgusted by their fondness of stewing in their own filth during a bath.
Nostalgia and rediscovery is familiar territory in immigrant memoirs, a category that has exploded in recent years. However, what makes The Cypress Tree distinct is the underlying pain and grief that is peculiar to a tale of violence and exile. Mohammadi's journey into the past is clearly cathartic, yet she manages to imbue it with an honesty, charm and humour that is utterly disarming and deeply moving.
Himani Dalmia is a Delhi-based author.