We Heard the Heavens Then: A Memoir of IranBook: We Heard the Heavens Then (A Memoir of Iran) NEW April 10, 2012, by Aria Minu-Sepehr
If nothing else, the amount of literature that pours from visiting foreigners and from ex-pat Iranians bears persuasive evidence that the people of this country are worth our attention–even as we fear and disdain their present government. See Saved by Beauty and Dining with Al Qaeda by Americans traveling in Iran. We have also discussed a novel of the revolution, and Reading Lolita in Iran.
We Heard the Heavens Then: A Memoir of Iran brings us a memoir of the revolution from the point of view of a young boy in a privileged family. As we discovered with In the Country of Men about Libya, and in In the Shadow of the Banyan, there is something particularly moving about seeing horrific events through innocent eyes. We Heard the Heavens Then tells a very different story with a different tone than the other memoirs of Middle Eastern countries that I’ve seen.
Aria Minu-Sephehr tells a family story centered around his father who held a high military position under the Shah. “Baba” managed to avoid the displeasure of the religious leaders who took over the country during the revolution, even though he had favored the Shah. A bold and seemingly fearless man, the General did not retreat until they had put him in charge of the war with Iraq and he saw carnage for which he felt personally responsible. Although he sent his family to England several years ahead of his own departure, his daring spirit never faltered.
Many 8- and 9-year-olds would deeply envy the adventures that Aria had. The boy’s telling of his family’s story focuses on the great fun he had because his father constantly encouraged adventuresome–even dangerous activities–which the author characterizes as an “unencumbered childhood”. His father, a flying ace, would give the boy the controls of a plane and he built a small car for him to race around in before he was even in his teens. Questions were encouraged and every activity led to small lessons in science.
The family moved from a high class social life in the city to a military base where they were attended by servants and enlistees while they entertained V.I.P.s. But when Aria was ten, the religious revolution changed his world.
I was ten years old: My greatest fear up until that point was the end of fifth grade. There were horror stories about the terminal exam, and if I survived it, there was the terrifying prospect of middle school and giant eighth graders. All of that seemed to fade away with a thousand new questions Why were our family friends being slaughtered? ….Weren’t we in charge of the armed forces?…What of you, Father? When will they come for you?
As he tells his family’s story, Minu-Sepehr also explains Iran’s recent history. In the 1970s, under the rule of the Shah and as a client state of the Americans, Iran adapted to modernity that shouldered aside a conservative religious past. People became accustomed to imported products, movies, books and ideas. The author demonstrates the confusion of religious beliefs in the country by explaining where each family member–mother, father, grandmother, aunts and uncles and nanny–stood in their personal beliefs. As a boy, no particular belief was imposed on him and he was encouraged to ask questions.
Despite the quote above from the preface, the book’s tone is light-hearted. And although we are frequently reminded of the family’s concern about the General, I never believed he would come to a bad end. The set-up just was not there. (I hope you don’t read that as a spoiler).
The boy didn’t just worship his father, it went deeper.
Maybe I personified the nation: He poured his love and energy into me with such intensity that, as I looked back on my young life, I saw a seamless merging with the man I called my father. We attended the first day of kindergarten together. We inspected military hardware together. Together, we did homework.
Although the father is an overwhelming influence, all the other family members are fully developed as characters–and some are QUITE the characters! Special attention goes to Bubbi, the nanny/cook, whose name in English certainly sounds like Bubba, an entirely fitting coincidence. The author skillfully relays Bubbi’s language in a fractured English that reflects an uneducated, but “street-smart” type whose down to earth comments provide good balance for the high society/high command of his parents. When the details of this book are fading from my mind, Bubbi will remain.
The family ‘escapes’ to Tehran, where, ironically the worst atrocities of the Revolution are taking place. Again news from the streets interrupts the child’s main preoccupation–getting along with schoolmates. The last chapters and the epilogue bring us up to date on the entire family.
We Heard the Heavens Then is entertaining, and an informative reminder of what was happening in Iran during the 1970’s, and definitely worth reading.
However, Minu-Sepehr’s family had it easy compared to many who were involved in the former government of Iran, which makes the story seem almost frivolous. They never lost their expectation of privilege and sense of entitlement. They were extremely fortunate to be able to leave while so many are trapped in an oppressive state. There is also the nagging question of why the brave general was willing to work with the new regime even though they had killed many of his close friends. On the other hand, it is not often that you can smile throughout a memoir of revolution.
Here is a You-Tube video where you can hear the author’s point of view about his book.
The publishers sent me a complimentary copy of this book for review. Photographs come from Flickr with a Creative Commons license. I urge you to click on them to learn more about the photographer. Particularly on the collage, by clicking on the photo you can learn the subject of each square. Links to Amazon are affiliate links, meaning I make a few pennies to support A Traveler’s Library, although it costs you no more when you shop through those links.
I do not read or watch auxilliary materials until after I have read the book and written about it. Do you think this video or looking at his website would have changed what I wrote in any way?