Women of Iran Rise and Revolt: On Dora Levy Mossanen’s “Love and War in the Jewish Quarter”
By Tabby RefaelJanuary 29, 2023
Love and War in the Jewish Quarter by Dora Levy Mossanen
Like many Iranians at the time, the governor general believes that Jews are “najes,” or ritually impure, and thus capable of contaminating anything or anyone, whether a vessel of water or human flesh. Excruciating pain finally forces the governor general to demand that Yaran wash his hands in a bowl of permanganate. Yaran knows he may be killed for opting to sanitize with alcohol. In fact, he knows he could easily lose his head if he fails to stop the man’s pain, a situation made even more dangerous because novocaine can be deadly if administered to an opium addict. But for the antisemitic governor general, known to hateful locals as “the Land Eater,” the life of a Jew matters less than one flower bud among tens of thousands in the poppy fields and opium factories flanking his ominous mansion.
Mossanen’s latest novel, a luscious work of historical fiction in a dossier that includes Harem (2002), Courtesan (2005), The Last Romanov (2012), and Scent of Butterflies (2014), sheds a critical light on two aspects of Iranian history that remain relatively unknown to many. First, it highlights the discriminatory and inhumane najasat (ritual impurity) practices imposed on Iranian Jews, with the worst period extending from Safavid rule in the 16th century to the 1900s. As part of these practices, Jews were not allowed to walk outside during rain or snow, so as not to contaminate the general population, and were mandated to build their entryways especially low, forcing them to bow to Muslim neighbors when leaving their homes.
The novel’s second major contribution is that it highlights Iran’s role in the emerging theater of the Middle East during the Second World War, when Adolf Hitler, whom German propaganda broadcasts on Iranian radio called “the Shiite Messiah,” was inching closer to the country’s borders. Aerial bombardments from the Anglo-Soviet occupation ravaged the skies and British, American, and Russian troops aroused the anger of millions of Iranians. And during that time, Iran, the same country whose supreme leader today uses Twitter to deny the Holocaust, gave refuge to nearly 1,000 Jewish children from Poland, many of them orphans.
Mossanen’s story begins in 1941, the year the West deposed Reza Shah, the Iranian leader who, in 1925, overthrew the Qajar dynasty. Western powers favored his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who served as the shah of Iran from 1941 to 1979. Much like his contemporary, Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Reza Shah created a historic campaign of modernization and secularization that, almost 100 years later, anti-regime demonstrators, who demand a secular Iran today, memorialize as they chant his name in the streets. But over 80 years ago, the West feared Reza Shah’s growing susceptibility to the lure of Nazi power. Britain also feared losing its Iranian oil fields, and the Allies understood the potential disaster of the all-important Trans-Iranian Railway falling into German hands.
Against this chaotic backdrop, Mossanen presents another world, the smaller ecosystem of Tehran’s Jewish Quarter (most large Iranian cities had Jewish quarters that limited the spread of “contaminated” Jews among the general population). It is amid this cramped squalor that Mossanen introduces us to Dr. Yaran, his larger-than-life wife Ruby, and their extraordinary daughter Neda, a toddler who possesses the expressive language skills of an adolescent. Other important characters include Jacob, who is desperate to secure the necessary papers to enable Polish Jewish child refugees to move permanently to then-Mandatory Palestine, and Aunt Shamsi, whom Mossanen deploys as a warning against the cruelty of Old-World superstition when it is weaponized to assign blame for death and tragedy.
Even the Quarter Fool takes his rightful place among the cast of memorable characters who enliven Tehran’s old Jewish Quarter, allowing readers who may know very little about Jewish life in Iran a glimpse into this once-vibrant community. Before the 1979 Iranian Revolution that overthrew Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and turned Iran into a fanatic theocracy, over 100,000 Jews lived in the country, an ancient community dating back 2,700 years. Today, roughly 8,000–10,000 Jews remain in Iran, constituting the largest Jewish population in the Middle East after Israel. Their fate was fragile in the 1940s and remains even more fragile today.
By comparison with her other works, Yaran is Mossanen’s first male protagonist, and the plot weaves a complex story of forbidden love, as the Jewish dentist yearns for the Muslim wife of the governor general, a clever, rebellious young woman named Velvet. In this as in previous novels, Mossanen is a master at developing female characters who stun readers at nearly every turn. But she also demonstrates a remarkable intuitiveness about the psychology of gender in 1940s Iran, a time when a woman was treated as virtually the property of her husband. (Demonstrators in Iran are currently fighting against such misogynistic practices that the theocratic regime has upheld for 45 years, since the onset of the Iranian Revolution.)
The novel’s warnings about the similarities between the struggles of Iranian women in the 1940s and today seem quite prescient, given the current revolution underway in Iran to oust the regime and establish a secular democracy. Though Mossanen began writing Love and War in the Jewish Quarter in 2016, allusions to the pent-up rage of oppressed Iranian women that is driving the revolution in Iran today leap off the book’s pages like red-flag warnings. Most notable among these are the lyrical words of Ghamar-Al-Molouk Vaziri, a real-life classical singer known as “the Queen of Persian music,” who, in one chapter, sings: “The country is a mess. The nation is asleep. Women of Iran rise and revolt.” Into this simmering kettle of Persian tea enters the tragic character of Tulip, a young eunuch who serves as an indispensable member of the governor general’s household staff and who is part of the tale’s extraordinary denouement. It is almost as if the fate of Iranian Jewry itself rests on this final chapter.
Mossanen, who was born to an Iranian family in Israel and moved to Iran at the age of nine, relies on a combination of fictional and real-life characters, such as Queen Fawzia, the first wife of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whom Yaran must also treat for her tooth pain. But it is Yaran himself who straddles the finest line between fact and fiction; the character’s career trajectory is based on Mossanen’s late grandfather, Habib Levy, who was born in Tehran’s Jewish ghetto in 1896 and wrote the first scholarly book devoted to Iranian Jewry, the seminal Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran: The Outset of the Diaspora (1999). Levy, who was educated in Paris, was also the first Jewish officer in the Iranian army. But it was his role as the personal dentist of Reza Shah that most informed Mossanen’s Dr. Yaran.
At times, the extent of Mossanen’s research, as revealed in even the smallest details, is staggering, and invites the question of whether readers really need to know the exact names of the run-down streets in Tehran’s Jewish quarter or the precise items in a soldier’s food-ration bag. But such details ultimately prove a gift rather than a diversion. As a result of Mossanen’s nearly obsessive research, the author earns — and retains — the trust of readers, enabling us to fulfill the one precious goal of good historical fiction: to temporarily escape our present-day reality and allow ourselves to be transported to worlds previously unknown.
In doing so, Mossanen — who, like tens of thousands of Jews, left Iran in 1979 and settled in Los Angeles, where she resides today — performs an act of love and service for the community of Iranian Jewry worldwide. Reading the novel is like taking a Google Earth tour of Iran’s former Jewish Quarter, and though this area is long gone (in some cases, it has been deliberately razed), Mossanen’s work ensures that the dreams and nightmares of those who once occupied these haunted spaces never die. Ultimately, her work, though fiction, builds on the contribution of her legendary grandfather in documenting and bringing to life the experience of Iranian Jewry over centuries.
While her research is meticulous, Mossanen’s prose appeals deeply to the senses: a feast of language in which one can almost smell the divine scent of roses that follows Velvet and drives Yaran to near madness. Described as the Isabel Allende of Persia for her work’s magical realism, Mossanen has the power to leave readers recoiling in terror at the powers of a toddler’s eerie mushroom patch or a neighbor’s door that, witnesses swear, cries tears of despair. Her vivid descriptions transport us to, among other places, the looming mansion of the governor general: “It is early afternoon and a sour odor of sin wafts off the sweating poppy fields. The surrounding mountains are all hard stone, painting everything with a veneer of sorrow.”
Those born after 1979 may view Iran through a narrow lens of fanatical ayatollahs, gender oppression, and state-sponsored terror. Iranians themselves tend to romanticize the years preceding the 1979 revolution, but, as Mossanen demonstrates, Iran during World War II was also a miserable time for millions. Those who read Mossanen’s novel with the explicit aim of comparing and contrasting pre- and postrevolutionary Iran are missing the point; the novel’s most important achievement is not that it glamorizes prerevolutionary Iran (it does not) but that it offers a vastly different picture of the country than the one we have seen for the past four decades.
Given its themes of forbidden love, rich with blush-worthy embraces and defiance of husbands, and its characterization of government officials as corrupt opium addicts, Love and War in the Jewish Quarter would never see the light of day in Iran under the current theocratic regime. But with the historic revolution underway in Iran today, perhaps next year or the year following, Mossanen may find herself reading excerpts from the novel in a free and democratic Iran, in the presence of Jews, Muslims, and an overwhelming number of newly liberated women.
Tabby Refael is an award-winning, Los Angeles–based writer and weekly columnist for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.
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