March 26, 2019

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Iranian women's struggles explored

Nilofar Shidmehr’s short-story collection Divided Loyalties offers an in-depth view into the complex traditions, taboos and social mores of Iranian society from the 1970s to the present day.

It’s a compelling perspective that features the stories of women living in Iran and those who emigrated to Canada. Even though these women have physically left their homeland, they are still governed by strict, and often harsh, social conventions that restrict their personal lives.

Shidmehr came to Canada from Iran in 1997. Now an instructor at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University, she is a poet, essayist and scholar who has written six books in English and Farsi. Her novella in verse, Shirin and Salt Man, was a B.C. Book Prize finalist.

In the story The Gordian Knot, one of eight in the collection, Shidmehr’s protagonist Pari is forced to choose between entering a new relationship that’s likely to result in marriage and travelling to meet her ex-husband, who’s being released from prison in Iraq. After Anoosh was captured, Pari discovered she was pregnant and allowed her parents to talk her into having an abortion. She was afraid to tell Anoosh about her termination, and instead let him think that she was being unfaithful and no longer loved him. This deception led to their divorce.

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Nilofar Shidmehr’s short-story collection Divided Loyalties offers an in-depth view into the complex traditions, taboos and social mores of Iranian society from the 1970s to the present day.

It’s a compelling perspective that features the stories of women living in Iran and those who emigrated to Canada. Even though these women have physically left their homeland, they are still governed by strict, and often harsh, social conventions that restrict their personal lives.

Shidmehr came to Canada from Iran in 1997. Now an instructor at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University, she is a poet, essayist and scholar who has written six books in English and Farsi. Her novella in verse, Shirin and Salt Man, was a B.C. Book Prize finalist.

In the story The Gordian Knot, one of eight in the collection, Shidmehr’s protagonist Pari is forced to choose between entering a new relationship that’s likely to result in marriage and travelling to meet her ex-husband, who’s being released from prison in Iraq. After Anoosh was captured, Pari discovered she was pregnant and allowed her parents to talk her into having an abortion. She was afraid to tell Anoosh about her termination, and instead let him think that she was being unfaithful and no longer loved him. This deception led to their divorce.

Pari’s mother, excited about the prospect of her 36-year-old daughter remarrying, is expecting Pari to come to her apartment that evening to meet her new suitor. Two older women who work with Pari tell her to consider herself lucky at her age to find a nice-looking man with a good job. She realizes this is true, but feels the overwhelming need to see her former husband in person and confess what she had done.

"She needed to look Anoosh straight in the eye and tell him the truth about a terrible act she did back in 1985 when he was missing, back before she found out he had been captured by the enemy."

Saving the Dead tells of a nurse from Canada who returns to her childhood city of Bam in Iran following the massive earthquake that destroyed the city in 2003. As well as helping to treat survivors, Mary is supposed to serve as a translator for the other Canadian medical and rescue workers. She encounters an old man who begs the rescue team to carefully dig through the rubble of his house as his daughter is buried there.

The old man’s despair over finding his daughter’s body turns to anger and shame when she is uncovered naked and the body of a young man is also unearthed. He pushes his daughter’s body back into the rubble and attacks her dead lover’s body before being pulled off by Mary. "‘You should let me tear her up,’ he cried. ‘She sinned, and, as her father, I have every right to punish her. You know that, don’t you?’"

The old man looks like her father, and Mary is compelled to visit her childhood home where her father remained after his wife and daughters moved to Canada and the United States. Although the house itself is now a pile of mud bricks, she finds that the palm tree that her father planted when she was born is still standing, although it is partially uprooted.

Throughout Shidmehr’s stories, it becomes evident how strong a grip Iranian traditions hold for her female immigrants who are outwardly adapting to their new home in Canada, but inwardly dealing with guilt over many of their personal decisions. Divided Loyalties is an apt title.

Andrea Geary is a reporter with Canstar Community News.

Andrea Geary

Andrea Geary
Community journalist — The Headliner

Andrea Geary is the community journalist for The Headliner. Email her at andrea.geary@canstarnews.com Call her at 204-697-7124

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