RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The new memoir, “My name is Iran,” tells of three generations of Iranian-American women whose lives intersect with the history of a country that by turn fascinates and frustrates America. Author Iran Davar Ardalan has impressive men in her family: her father's grandfather was a justice minister in the 1920s, her mother's father left his tribal village to journey to medical school in America. It is the women, though, who moved back and forth between the countries and cultures and bind this family history together.
Davar Ardalan first began telling her story in a series on Iran that aired on MORNING EDITION three years ago. She was born in San Francisco of Iranian-American parents. Her grandmother, Helen Jeffreys, came from Idaho, a child of pioneers.
Ms. IRAN DAVAR ARDALAN (Author, “My name is Iran”): She was an absolutely fascinating woman, larger than life. She took a great leap of faith in 1927 when she met my grandfather in Harlem Hospital in New York City. She was a nurse and he was a doctor, and fell in love with this man who she used to call her Rudolph Valentino. And he convinced her in 1931 to go to Iran because he said to her, your crusade can be one of public health where they can go back together and build hospitals in Iran.
MONTAGNE: But pretty unusual, she came from the West, a small town. They had never met. I'm sure she didn't even know what a Muslim was or…
Ms. ARDALAN: Absolutely. My grandfather read Persian poetry to my grandmother and had her fall in love with the Persian culture. And I think that even though she came from a very strict Christian upbringing, that she had a soul for adventure.
MONTAGNE: She was interviewed by an American radio station back in 1958 about her work in Iran trying to set up medical facilities and help these villages. And she described an Iran that was so exotic. Here's an excerpt from that radio interview.
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Ms. HELEN JEFFREYS (Davar Ardalan's Grandmother): The calendar date in Iran today is 1337. So that the minute you leave the cities, you are in the 14th century. Things have changed very little from biblical times.
MONTAGNE: By the time you were born, your grandmother had returned to America. Your own mother had been raised American and married an Iranian who was also mostly raised in America. How did it happen that they went back to Iran?
Ms. ARDALAN: Well, my parents also had a love for adventure. And because they were raised in America, and in fact my mother was raised Catholic, she also yearned to know more about her Persian heritage. And my father took us to this absolutely remote town in southern Iran named Masjid-Suleiman, which is where the first oil wells were actually discovered. And he helped build the company town there.
MONTAGNE: And obviously they had this - a seed of this thought, because when you were born in America to them, they named you Iran.
Ms. ARDALAN: Yes. They were students, hippy intellectuals in San Francisco, and they had a longing for their other homeland. And so they named me Iran.
MONTAGNE: Davar dropped that name after the 1979 Iranian Revolution brought her back to America to Boston, where her father taught architecture. She writes as seeing graffiti saying, bomb Iran. And she writes as simply wanting to fit in at Brookline High School.
In the memoir there's a photo of a teenage Davar posed and looking very much like Brooke Shields in the famous Calvin Klein ad. But that photo hides an adolescent depression and sense of loss. And it quickly gives way to another photograph, an 18-year-old girl in a black veil who's gone back to embrace the revolution and an arranged marriage.
Ms. ARDALAN: I had several suitors and I remember one of them was short and bald and I decided I wasn't going to go with him. One of them was the son of one of our neighbors, and then the third one basically was the nephew of this cleric. I had no clue who he was. What his background…
MONTAGNE: Had met him just a month before you ended up marrying him.
Ms. ARDALAN: A couple of months before I married him. And I remember feeling very romantic that I was marrying in this way.
MONTAGNE: But the veil, the chador, head to toe covering, that was romantic for you.
Ms. ARDALAN: Absolutely. And it gave me this invisible sense of power because I felt that no one could hurt me. No one could touch me. That - it made me feel bold and strong, and so I was dressing the part.
MONTAGNE: The next photo in this memoir is of a young woman sitting behind a news desk and a TV camera. You're a news anchor in a veil.
Ms. ARDALAN: In the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Ms. ARDALAN: And it was - at this time, I was 19 years old and I was pregnant with my first child. And I began each newscast by saying, in the name of God, the most compassionate, the most merciful. And it was very much anti-Western.
MONTAGNE: How did it happen that you changed in the way you saw your life in Iran to the point where you left that life?
Ms. ARDALAN: The news director came up to me one day and he asked me if I was wearing mascara. And I pulled on my eyelashes and I said, no, these are my own natural eyelashes. They're long and black. And he said, well, your features are too attractive for television. And at that very moment I felt as though this whole Islamic dream was superficial.
I gave in to the Islamic Revolution but around me there was hypocrisy. There was a rise in drug addiction. There was a rise in prostitution. Divorce rates were going up. And personally, my marriage was in shambles. My husband resented my feistiness. He resented my independence. He resented the fact that I would stand up for myself.
And so where was this Islamic dream? Why was it that everything around me was disintegrating as opposed to being positive and going back to the ideals of my religion?
MONTAGNE: Looking back, do you feel Iranian and American in equal proportions?
Ms. ARDALAN: Right now, I feel more American. That is because I feel that Iran is still in turmoil. And it's been in the West where I have been able to step back and find myself, but I am finally proud to say my name is Iran.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: Iran Davar Ardalan is a supervisory producer for NPR News. Her memoir, out today, is called “My Name is Iran.” You can hear the 2004 NPR series of the same name and see photos the photos we talked about at npr.org.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renée Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
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