Anahita Firouz

"In the Walled Gardens"

(Reviewed by Bill Robinson AUG 11, 2002)

In the Walled Gardens by Anahita Firouz

This is a remarkable first novel. It is set in pre-Revolutionary Iran of the late 1970s. However, its location could be any number of "developing" countries in the throes of late 20th century "Westernization." Democracy is the official party line, but the real agenda is set by multi-national commercial interests seeking to capitalize (no pun intended) on what is almost cancerous-like, unmanaged growth.

Read excerptThe Iran of that time boasted a Western-style constitution and a Senate; however, the reality was a one-party dictatorship in the person of the U.S.-supported Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlevi. The Shah controlled all government operations and all political organizations with the assistance of a Gestapo-like secret police, the SAVAK (State Organization for Intelligence and Security). The SAVAK used torture as an everyday tool, and the "disappearance" of political dissidents, even of the mildest persuasion, was commonplace.

A small, elite, upper class, often educated in Europe or America, prospered, perched precipitously atop what would soon be a crumbling pyramid, brought down by the grass roots rise of Islamic fundamentalism. In the meantime, Western government dollars in the form of military and economic aid poured in, and Western corporations made billions in development and trade projects, these characterized by rigged bids, enormous cost overruns, and the ever-present system of state-sanctioned bribery.

The majority of the population, either in urban or rural areas, lived in poverty. A small group of students, professionals, and intellectuals led a loosely organized underground resistance. Their activities often resulted in arrest, torture, and execution at the hands of the SAVAK. Few legal remedies were available or tolerated.

This is the setting for In the Walled Gardens, a powerful political novel in the tradition of V.S. Naipaul and Graham Greene. What is remarkable about Firouz's achievement is that she has written a first novel equal in scope and in art to the best works by Greene, Naipaul, and other masters of this important genre.

Anahita Firouz, the book's author, was born and grew up in Iran. She has lived in exile in the U.S. for a number of years. She knows her country well, and she presents it and the tremulous times in a manner than combines reportorial journalism with literary art. However, as with all memorable literature, she creates complex characters and universal dilemmas that transcend a single setting-in this case, the corruption and amorality of the Shah's regime.

This book may be promoted as a love story, which it indeed it is. However, at its heart, it is the story of two intelligent, insightful, and decent individuals struggling to cope with circumstances where rightful actions can seem meaningless, and where attributes such as moral character and the ability to see truth are life threatening.

Fizouz has created two very real and complex main characters whose interlocking narratives drive the book. Mahastee Mosharraf comes from Iran's upper class landed gentry. She grew up in a privileged environment, though an environment of culture, erudition, and taste. Her family, primarily in the person of her father, represents what was fine and high-minded in a country with a 2,500 year-old tradition of classic poetry, literature, and art.

That this tradition is fading fast is evidenced by the rise of individuals such as Houshang, Mahastee's husband. He heads a large construction company and spends his days ingratiating himself with corrupt government officials and hatching dubious business schemes. His nights are an endless debauch of lavish diplomatic cocktail parties, where expensive hors d'oeuvres abound, and witty, shallow conversation centers on the business and amorous exploits of a small, privileged, incestuous clique. Cynicism is the attitude of the hour. Talk of "real" politics is strictly taboo.

Mahastee's life revolves around her work in a government ministry and raising her two young sons. She is slowly and painfully coming to regret and despise the existence that she has either chosen or fallen into. She loathes the nature her husband's friends, her friends---all style and no substance, and callow to the injustice that is becoming increasingly obvious to her.

Firouz's other main character is Reza Nirvani, a college-educated, former high school teacher, now government bureaucrat. By day, he writes reports filled with educational statistics, reports destined to go unread. By night, he is a Marxist revolutionary, increasingly involved with a faction that believes radical change can come without armed conflict.

When Reza was a child, his father managed the Mosharraf country estate. The two families were close, with a mutually respectful relationship that surpassed the usual master and servant norm. Reza and Mahastee were childhood playmates, then teenage sweethearts who played in the walled gardens of the estate. They were parted suddenly when they were sixteen.

Twenty years later, the two are thrown together in Tehran, a simmering social and political caldron, soon to boil over into chaotic disarray. The book is less about their "romance," more about how reasonable, intelligent, and sensitive people deal with abnormal times, events, and circumstances well beyond their control.

In the Walled Gardens successfully accomplishes what great literature is meant to do: capture time, place, and character; make these real as well as transcendent; and, finally elicit empathy, insight, and understanding. This is a major achievement for a debut novel, for any novel.

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Anahita FirouzAnahita Firouz was born and grew up in Tehran, Iran. She now lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and two children. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014