Local author provides up close and personal look at Iran
Mahru Ghashghaei, co-author of "Nine Rubies," a memoir of her life, believes many Americans have a misperception of Iran.
"They mix Iran with Arab countries, first of all," Ghashghaei said, after she and Susan Snyder, of Norwalk, her friend and co-author, read from and discussed the book to about a dozen people at Norwalk Public Library last week. "Iran is a Persian country, not Arab. They should learn about (its) culture and geography.
"It's the biggest country in the Middle East. It goes back 7,000 years."
During the talk, Ghashghaei said, "I'm trying to explain, when we say `America,' we don't say `Christian.' When we say Iran, we say `Muslim.' This is not right. I'd like to show Americans who Iranians really are -- friendly, open-hearted, open-minded. All we see on the news is very political. We don't see ordinary life."
While "Nine Rubies" is the story of Ghashghaei's life, its broader message is based on building friendships around the common beliefs and aspirations people share and the benefit of ignoring superficial differences.
"Our message is accepting the other cultures, and trying to make friendships," Ghashghaei said. "We have more similarities than differences."
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Ghashghaei, who used to live in New Canaan, and Snyder recognized their own similarities while their sons were attending New Canaan Country Day School. The two women would visit with each other during their sons' play dates.
"We started to get to know each other," Snyder said. "We learned that music and dance were one of the things that we both really loved. Every day that she came in, she would start talking."
Snyder said she found that Ghashghaei was "weaving this amazing story" that went much deeper than her own life.
"I started just trying to practice listening ... listening with a very open mind," Snyder said. "When we started visiting, Mahru was a very, very sad person. The experiences in the book are not easy; they're not easy to read.
"What Mahru would like to share with you is what the Iranian people are about, what they are feeling ... and how similar that is. Even though Mahru and I grew up in very different cultures, there are so many commonalities among people. It was a tumultuous time in Iran, so Mahru's experiences in relation to that were also tumultuous."
Snyder said her role in creating "Nine Rubies" was to record the stories Ghashghaei told when they got together.
"This is her memoir. I just typed while she spoke," Snyder said.
Snyder said she was unhappy, introverted and felt like an outsider as a child, so she found "an emotional place I could hear Mahru's stories from."
Ghashghaei said that Americans should distinguish Iran's citizens from its government, which is led by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has become a controversial figure because of his hostile comments about the United States and Israel and pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The Iranian people were sympathetic to Americans after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Ghashghaei said.
"In 9/11, Iranian people came with candles at night, crying (about) people killed on 9/11," she said. "In Iran, the night after Sept. 11, people wear black and came with candles outside, to give condolences to people's families."
Michelle Beyman, a former Norwalk resident, said it was unfortunate that Americans regard the entire Middle East negatively in light of 9/11, but said to Ghashghaei about Ahmadinejad, "The spokesperson you have for your country is putting a poor face on the country."
Ghashghaei didn't want to be too critical of the Iranian government during the talk because she still has two sisters in Iran, and Snyder steered the conversation away from Iranian politics when attendees asked several questions about it.
"We intentionally have not written a political book and do need to be a little careful," Snyder said. "Mahru's husband was recently in prison for 40 days. She has two sisters who are still in Iran. We left out things that could be really overtly political."
Ghashghaei said she was last in Iran about three years ago during the "Green Movement," which challenged the 2009 election of Ahmadinejad as fraudulent and demanded his removal as president, and believes her passport will be pulled in Iran if she returns. Snyder said Ghashghaei and her sisters talk by Skype every day, though.
But "Nine Rubies" does speak about Iranian politics in the context of Ghashghaei's life in Iran -- she and her husband, Khosro, met and talked with Ayatollah Khomeini. The book also includes stories about the coup d'etat in the 1950s that overthrew the democratically elected government in Iran and the Iranian Revolution in the late 1970s that overthrew the Shah and installed Khomeini.
At the library event, Snyder read passages from the book that described events surrounding the revolution.
One of the referenced passages described how 400 people were burned to death inside the Rex Cinema in Abadan in southern Iran in August 1978 after doors of the cinema were locked from the outside and it was set on fire.
"Four hundred innocent citizens were scorched," she read. "The opposition claimed that it was the regime's conspiracy to stop the movement. Evidence showed that the fire had been set by a radical, underground group that wanted to support the Revolution. They would use any means to shut down the Shah's government, including this terrorist action. A few months after the Revolution, a court action revealed the perpetrators, and they were immediately executed, so no more information was ever released about their identities or affiliations."
"This is a long time ago, but it's going to resonate, I think, with a lot of what we hear is going on today," Snyder said.
"The political decisions made in the world and military decisions made in the world impact our lives whether we like it or not," Snyder added later in the program. "The fact Mahru is so resilient and so positive in light of all that ... is really quite extraordinary. I think that's a testament to her and a model for others."
The women haven't translated "Nine Rubies" into Farsi, which is Ghashghaei's native language, and there wasn't a way for them distribute it in Iran. "I think it would probably be censored," Snyder said.
Ghashghaei said the title of the book came from her grandfather, who gave her mother nine rubies when her mother's only son died at the age of five. Her grandfather told her mother, who had three daughters, to take care of her three girls and said, "God is going to give you nine boys," Ghashghaei said.
"She was very upset and crying a lot. That's why her father gave her rubies and told her that," Ghashghaei said. "Now my mother has nine grandsons."
Ghashghaei said her three sons, who live in America, have a deep respect for Persian culture.
"But they love America, like I do, because this opportunity America gave us."
For information about the book, visit ninerubiesthebook.com.