Fictional Realities

Historian Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet's debut novel chronicles lives upended by the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War.
October 1, 2010
Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet, Associate Professor of History and Director of Penn's Middle East Center, began writing her debut novel, Martyrdom Street, as an act of intellectual rebellion when she was a graduate student at Yale. Although she has extensively studied Iran and the Middle East over the course of her academic career, she feels that fiction writing has freed her to examine the human and emotional aspects of these subjects.

"Fiction writing has always felt liberating because you're not bound by the rules that are necessary in academic research," she says. "I could take my ideas and just run with them."

Set during the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the ensuing Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, Martyrdom Street chronicles the lives of three Iranian women, Fatemeh, Nasrin and Yasaman. Their intertwining stories, which take place in both Iran and the United States, are close to Kashani-Sabet's heart. She lived in Iran through the start of the war and then came to the U.S. as a high school student. As a result, she was separated from family members for periods of time, unable to go back even when her father was ill with cancer during the tail-end of the war. Writing the novel played a key role in Kashani-Sabet's personal process of healing.

Martyrdom Street explores both the familiar struggles of family relationships as well as the disorienting effects of violent political upheavals. Through the characters of Nasrin and Yasaman, for example, Kashani-Sabet describes the experiences of a generation of young Iranian women escaping the turmoil of their homeland by coming to the U.S.

"Immigrants of the first generation are caught between worlds. I always say to people, Iran is the country where my father was buried, and America is the country where my children were born." – Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet

"At that time there wasn't much discourse about Islam in this country," she explains. "Many of us were reeling from experiencing an Iran that changed from being culturally very secular to very religious, and we were all trying to figure out where we fit in here."

Kashani-Sabet's characters must come to terms with the burdens of separation imposed by exile and the reality that exile eventually becomes home. For example, Nasrin and her mother Fatemeh, who still lives in Iran, struggle to maintain common ties even as they occupy increasingly distant realities.

"Immigrants of the first generation are caught between worlds," Kashani-Sabet says. "I always say to people, Iran is the country where my father was buried, and America is the country where my children were born."

Martyrdom Street also examines women's attempts to grapple with patriarchy, religiosity and both subtle and overt forms of discrimination. While gender and women's issues figure prominently in Kashani-Sabet's research—her academic book Conceiving Citizens: Women and the Politics of Motherhood is forthcoming from Oxford University Press—fiction writing allowed her to approach them from a new perspective. Some of the issues surrounding veiling, for example, play out in a scene that depicts an altercation between a man and a woman as they vie for service in a Teheran post office.

"I wanted to explore the day-to-day aspects of discrimination that don't get documented in the context of major political upheavals like the Green Movement," she explains, "and that, in academic work, are also hard to chronicle. You can explore these realities through fiction."

Kashani-Sabet hopes that in addition to enjoying Martyrdom Street as a good read, audiences gain a sense of the complexity of Iranian society and of the Iranian-American mindset.

"Iranians have a very complicated relationship with their government given all the cultural shifts they've experienced over the last 30 to 40 years," she says. "And the human consequences and costs of the Iran-Iraq War have not fully been explored in the media or academia. I hope my book is a reminder that these stories still need to be told."