“Resistance isn’t only about pouring into the street. Their greatest success is when they can destroy people from the inside and forget who they are. That’s what you need to resist.”
—A Door Between Us, Ehsaneh Sadr
It is Thursday, June 25, 2009. It’s been thirteen days since the Iranian presidential election.
The streets of the capital, Tehran, are teeming with police and protestors who claim that the election has been stolen by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
As the supreme leader Khamenei refuses to investigate the allegations of election fraud and congratulates Ahmadinejad on his victory, the government crack downs on the demonstrations “of a size and intensity unprecedented since the Iranian Revolution of 1979.”
The supporters of the opposition, reformist candidate Mir Hussein Musavi, claim that Ahmadinejad has stolen not only the presidential election but also their hope for a positive change in Iran.
Iranian American writer Ehsaneh Sadr’s novel opens on the same eventful Thursday during a wedding ceremony that is about to change the lives of the families involved. An inspiring work of political fiction, A Door Between Us brings together the powerful Hojjati family and the Rahimi family whose ideological differences are highlighted amid the chaos that followed the 2009 elections.
As the plot unfolds and the two families’ stories intertwine serendipitously, Sadr gracefully moves beyond the sensational headlines that drew global attention to the political crisis in Iran. The narrative focus on familial bonds, tradition, religion, resistance and fear allows for a fascinating exploration of the struggle to love, parent, and build/sustain a meaningful life in a society that is deeply polarized.
Within the context of the story, the polarization that further drives families, lovers and citizens apart is between Ahmadinejad’s supporters and those who accused him of election fraud, namely the members of the Green Movement. However, A Door Between Us is not just another work of political fiction that subjectively, directly criticizes. Instead of lecturing about the moral and political superiority of one group over another, the novel encourages us to ask questions and challenge the established order–in Sadeegh’s, one of the main characters, words:
“What if a bad man were to get into system? And what if he did things not because the velayat wanted them but because he is evil? How can we recognize and stop such a person from abusing the system and abusing the people’s trust?”
Through its complex characters, the novel further complicates what it means to be good and bad in a political climate where religion is manipulated to secure the privilege and power that an established order creates for a particular group.
“How am I supposed to know who is a good or bad person?” as Sadeegh asks elsewhere, “How do I know what is wrong or right? What is the standard by which to judge even my own behavior?”
Although the novel doesn’t offer a precise answer to these intricate philosophical questions, it seems to guide us towards the concept of resistance.
One can resist in various ways, the novel suggests. Its characters’ experiences demonstrate that one can resist: by asking questions that unsettle the status quo, by protesting on the streets, by challenging social and cultural norms, by choosing love over hate and by staying true to one’s identity. As the thirty-five year-old divorce lawyer and activist Azar’s father tells her when she sinks into despair:
“Azar, my daughter, resistance isn’t only about pouring into the street. Their greatest success is when they can destroy people from the inside and forget who they are. That’s what you need to resist.”
Resistance, the novel suggests, is also about staying hopeful in dark times.
At the end of the novel, which takes us to another wedding ceremony, one of the characters asks Azar:
“What’s the point of challenging the system when there’s so little hope of winning? The government forces are so much stronger.”
Azar, who has been arrested and tormented by the Basij forces several times, responds:
“It’s not just about winning, Fatimeh-joon. It’s about the life I want to lead and what I want to contribute to and who I want to spend time with. I don’t know if we’re going to win but I know what side I want to be on, because all the people I most admire are on that side too. And I do have hope that my small efforts will move the wheel go the world in the right direction. If not me or my children or my children’s children, perhaps some future generation will enjoy a better life because of my choices. But even that modest hope will die if we stop trying.”
Elsewhere, Azar remembers her husband’s, a political prisoner, favorite line by Rumi:
“Why struggle to open a door between us when the whole wall is an illusion?”
The narrator allows us to listen in on her meditation:
“Azar had always thought the point was to comfort believers that their God was nearby. Now for the first time, she thought of the implications for two people separated as she and her husband were. Perhaps on some level they were actually together and if Azar could only see past the illusion of this dirty room, she could find a connection to her husband. Perhaps, on some level, Azar thought with a sudden aha of insight, everyone in the world was connected despite the illusion of separation one felt due to distance or even different religions, cultures, and political views.”
Whether we’re in the U.S., Turkey, the U.K., or Egypt, most of us around the globe will find the prejudices and ideologies that separate the two families at the beginning of the novel all too familiar. My hope is, like the Hojjati and Rahimi families, we all will realize that the wall between us is merely an illusion.
A Door Between Us is a poignant yet heartwarming reflection on the importance of breaking down barriers in an increasingly polarized, politicized world. It’s a contemporary novel that will remain relevant and inspiring for many decades to come.
Many thanks to Blackstone Publishing for the free copy.
Pre-order A Door Between Us, Coming September 1, 2020. I’ve written about why pre-ordering matters here.
Have you read any novels that take place in Iran? Any recommendations? Is A Door Between Us on your list? Let me know!
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