Meanwhile, in California: Connecting Our Cultures with Nahid Sewell

1. Sewell holding up a real ruby tear catcher, in use since before the common era. She said that Persian men would give them to their wives when leaving for war so that they could see whose wife had grieved the most. 2. Reading from her first novel, The Ruby Tear Catcher: An Iranian Woman’s Story of Intolerance, Sewell asserts her belief and faith in oneness with Leila, a composite heroine created from the very real, very painful experiences of many Iranian women during the Iranian Revolution.

As I neared Village Books in Pacific Palisades, tucked into the lush, high-income hills above Santa Monica, it was hard to believe that I was driving on Sunset Boulevard — emerald, swimming pool suburbs and clean, white cement replacing the graffiti, the homeless, the frenetic, and the Fame-poisoned wanderers that I’ve come to know & love. The room was intimate, only five or six of us, and from the rave reviews of the novel that I read on Amazon, I knew my self-obsessed, restless mood was about to shift.

Nahid Sewell’s novel, The Ruby Tear Catcher, centers around Leila’s six month imprisonment during the Iranian Revolution, when Leila is told she is “accountable for the crimes committed by (her) family.” Returning to the beautiful Tehran of her childhood after graduating college in the US, she finds her country in fundamentalist upheaval, all those of her gender suddenly “disregarded.” Her father, who has fled to Paris with her mother in fear for their lives, has spoken out against the Ayatollah, and the prison guards beat, torture, and rape Leila to try to get her to give up his location. From her cell, her life comes to her in flashbacks, reaffirming her convictions for family and love: the lessons of equality taught to her by her father, of “blue tiled mosques and bustling bazaars,” and of the, “blond haired, blue eyed, Christian boy,” that she fell for in college, a stark contrast to the one-sided, abusive, arraigned marriage she is forced into upon her homecoming.

Much of Sewell’s message stems from her distrust in any fundamentalism, which she calls, “a destructive view which goes against a religion’s very principles.”

Aside from drastic economic change, “twenty dollars for a scrawny chicken that cost fifty cents last week,” Sewell details other ways in which life worsened after the takeover. Even as Nikāḥ al-Mut‘ah marriages (“temporary” legal marriages with a fixed, short time frame) became much more pervasive, allowing men to have casual sex, unmarried men and women were forbidden from walking the streets together, risking imprisonment or being stoned to death if caught. Sewell reports a common instance: government soldiers accosted a couple at gunpoint and forced them into a van. Though the two asserted that they were brother and sister, and it turned out they were, the soldiers still forced them to marry. She struggles for a way to defend a regime that gives women half of a vote, that dropped the marriage age from eighteen to thirteen, and that mails invoices to homes for the bullets used in killing a family member.

“Every woman feels what I feel,” Sewell explains, discussing her reasons for writing the book. A departure from her long career in information technology, this is the novel Sewell has dreamed of writing, one that she hopes can expand at least one person’s understanding of universality, especially in this loaded time of fear and generalization. Years ago, she had a conversation with an American friend who, taking her cues from Iran’s violent portrayal in the media, remarked that Sewell was, “So normal.” This simple idea, of establishing everydayness from what is to us a ‘foreign’ perspective, contains the tolerance she wants us to learn, because her life, and the love she has uncovered (she’s still married to the blue eyed yankee that she met in college), represents the interconnectedness that our two cultures at times attempt to deny. When looking to bridge these cultural gaps, she suggests finding reporters with roots in the areas of the world they’re reporting on, and not people who try to assert their credibility with a haircut.

–David Ohlsen, an LA native, received his BA in Creative Writing at UC Riverside and is a new contributor to Electric Dish.

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