Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A lifeline to Iranian teen from a world away

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Imagine two young women, both born in Iran -- one from an affluent and supportive family, the other neck-deep in poverty with nowhere to turn; one dealt an abundance of opportunities, the other sentenced to death for stabbing a man who tried to rape her.

The Tale of Two Nazanins is the powerful and deeply moving account of what happens when a privileged Iranian-Canadian receives a plea for help from a 17-year-old in her family's native country.

First-time author Nazanin Afshin-Jam is best known for her recent marriage to Defence Minister Peter MacKay.

She has enlisted the help of journalist and author Susan McClelland (The Bite of the Mango) to tell the story of her relationship with Nazanin Fatehi, who was still a teenager when she emailed for help halfway around the world.

Afshin-Jam, by the way, comments only briefly on her relationship with MacKay near the end of this book, explaining how they met through her human-rights work.

Afshin-Jam relates the story of her life in a sort of first-person memoir. She alternates these chapters with those about Fatehi based on interviews with her and information from those who knew her.

Neither Afshin-Jam nor McClelland met Fatehi, and at this point her whereabouts are unknown.

Afshin-Jam was born in Iran to well-off parents who fled the country in 1979 after the Islamic revolution. She grew up in Vancouver.

In 2003 she was crowned Miss Canada and then runner-up for Miss World. She completed a bachelor's degree in political science and a master's in diplomacy. With the help of her brother-in-law, a music producer, she signed a record deal in 2006.

At times Afshin-Jam dwells excessively on her own accomplishments and many heroes. However, it is the inspiration she drew from these people, she says, that led her down the admirable path she soon follows to help someone she has never met.

Fatehi is Kurdish and was born and raised in Iran. She grows up in abysmal poverty with a mother who feels that she was cursed to give birth to a girl. Her father is unable to hold a job and spends his time smoking cheap opium.

A younger brother, who is allowed to eat meat while his sisters are not, spits on her, kicks her and demeans her. In fact, beatings are commonplace for Fatehi at the hands of both parents. And she cannot go to school as she has to care for her siblings.

Her only refuge from her life of misery is an older woman named Hana who comforts and feeds the young girl when she can. One day, Hana tells her, "You know, our culture, we have been so oppressed by so many nations over our history.... Men take out their frustrations on women. And women take it out on their children. This is most common with the poor, like you."

One day, while still a child, Fatehi is raped by a friend of her father's. Some years later she is again accosted by a group of men, and one attempts to rape her.

This time she stabs him, and when he dies she is sentenced to be executed, imprisoned, drugged and beaten for two years.

Fatehi's story will resonate with women all over the world, even here in North America. Like Manitoba writer Beatrice Mosionier in Come Walk with Me, Fatehi must deal with the tragic loss of family and self-worth and powerlessness.

When Afshin-Jam receives the email asking her to help the teenager on death row, she steps up and launches a campaign to try to free the young woman. It is in these sections that her story shines.

Cheryl Girard is a Winnipeg writer.

The Tale of Two Nazanins

A Teenager on Death Row in Iran

and the Canadian Who Vowed to Save Her

By Nazanin Afshin-Jam and Susan McClelland

HarperCollins, 289 pages, $32

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 16, 2012 J8

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