A Life Between Iran and America

By Gelareh Asayesh

Beacon. 222 pp. $24

Reviewed by Wendy Law-Yone

"The history of immigration," wrote Oscar Handlin two decades ago in The Uprooted, "is the history of alienation and its consequences." Reading Saffron Sky, I wondered if, in America at least, immigration exacts alienation in the same way anymore.

Where previous generations of immigrants were forced to suppress or deny their pasts in order to forge new and acceptable American identities, the pursuit of multiculturalism has created a different climate for newcomers nowadays. Diversity, political correctness, opportunism, mandated recognition of other cultures -- all combine further to promote tolerance -- or the illusion of tolerance -- for once barely tolerated immigrant groups. Alienation, as a result, is not quite what it used to be.

For one thing, today's aliens are better versed in the vocabulary of alienation than their predecessors ever were. Gelareh Asayesh is a young Iranian woman who first came to the United States in 1970, for a two-year stay. Seven years later, at age 15, she returned as an immigrant to the United States with her parents and sister. For the next 14 years, throughout high school, college and a career as a reporter (with the Boston Globe, the Miami Herald and the Baltimore Sun), Asayesh lived continuously in the States, never once returning to Iran. Only in 1990, after her marriage to an American, did she begin regular visits back to her homeland: to visit family and friends, to retrieve lost connections with the past and to document the journeys back and forth between two cultures. The result of these travels is Saffron Sky, a memoir of "a life between Iran and America."

Anyone who has lived the exile's split life will identify with the author's feeling of being "trapped in a cycle of futile nostalgia"; will understand "the futility of trying to bridge the distance." Anyone who has known uprooting will recognize the amnesia necessary to successful transplanting, and the costs of that amnesia. Every immigrant with divided loyalties will have wondered about the usefulness of preserving culture in vacuum while experiencing "that inner shriveling. . . the immigrant's small death."

Asayesh writes persuasively and with refreshing candor not only about the conflicts of exile but about the declared motives of immigrants. "The mythology says that people like myself come to this country seeking freedom." But "the desire to live in a democracy is not, I suspect, our primary motive." "We stayed in America because it offered us a better life

. . . because we had changed, like an animal that, adapting to a new habitat, is no longer suited to the old." Turning to contemporary Iran, the author is equally candid about the strictures of religion on women, the inferiority complex of Iranians who are gharb-zadeh (West-struck), what she regards as the irreconcilable contradictions of Islam.

Saffron Sky's most beguiling contribution, however, is its portrait of a sympathetic, close-knit, middle-class family and the ties that bind despite physical separation and the exigencies of distance. The rich texture of family life is recreated in the author's childhood memories and re-lived in her more recent visits home. Lazy afternoons of tea and gossip on the porch with loving aunts. Meals spread out under trees, on wooden platform beds covered with Persian carpets. Languorous siestas and hours of backgammon until nightfall. Nights spent on the porch in the summer, with the city lights in the distance. Visits from tradesmen like the salt-seller, the door-to-door sweepers (the paroo-zan) and the nafti oil man. The cold sweet drinks of the Middle East. The rich foods preceding Ramadan, "intended to fortify the body for fasting and weeping."

This nostalgia for domestic idylls, crossed with an upbeat, life-affirming spirit of inquiry, makes Saffron Sky a new kind of immigrant memoir. Self-assured, self-centered in an inspirational way, this is a memoir with an American message: Alienation itself can be turned to good effect, from liability to opportunity. Speaking of "the immigrant's doom," Asayesh declares in the same breath the need "to fashion for myself a destiny different from that of my peers."

An American manifesto, if ever there was one.

Wendy Law-Yone's most recent novel is "Irrawaddy Tango."