Doing something

Ahdaf Soueif

  • Persian Nights by Diane Johnson
    Chatto, 352 pp, £10.95, July 1987, ISBN 0 7011 3234 5
  • Smile, and Other Stories by Deborah Moggach
    Viking, 175 pp, £10.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 670 81658 2
  • Fast Lanes by Jayne Anne Phillips
    Faber, 148 pp, £8.95, August 1987, ISBN 0 571 14924 3

Three or four years ago, a friend of mine was asked to illustrate a Teaching English book for the Ministry of Education in Cairo. He was (is) an Egyptian, but an Egyptian from outside officialdom – a cartoonist. He painted a series of charming and instantly recognisable street scenes: stacked green-grocers’, lemonade vendors, decked-out taxicabs, dust-carts pulled by donkeys. The Under-Secretary flew into a rage: Who is this man? An Israeli? Why has he drawn everybody with kinky hair? Doesn’t he know selling lemonade on the street is unhygienic? And where did he get all these donkeys? There are no donkeys in Cairo. We want representations of the real Egypt. Eventually the commission went to an artist who had apparently suffered a time-seizure somewhere in Hampshire in the mid-Fifties and the Ministry got its real Egyptians: blazered schoolboys with satchels and freckles and cute, short-dressed little girls with blond pony-tails.

I was reminded of this incident when, early on in Persian Nights, Chloe, the protagonist, innocently asks a colleague at Shiraz University about the veil.

‘The veil? The veil?’ cried Mrs Reza. ‘There is no veil. The Shah has outlawed it. It is over, the vestige of a bygone day.’

Chloe anxiously tries to reconcile Mrs Reza’s statement with the vast numbers of chadored women she is constantly observing. Being foreign means, among other things, having no access to the underpinnings of ‘reality’; no tools with which to interpret what you see. So when Chloe finds a man lying face down in the shade of a bush she has no way of making out whether he is dead or merely sleeping. This question of perception is, of course, where a great deal of the humour in writing about foreign places comes from – and Diane Johnson uses it to good effect. When Chloe finds herself in a bathroom with her Iranian friend Noosheen, she is amazed to find that

she had no pubic hair. Chloe tried not to stare but it did make a person look strange, statue-like. She could not tell if Noosheen was naturally this way or if she shaved herself. Chloe was not so conscious on herself of that little fat pad of flesh over the pubic bone.

Noosheen, I might say, would have been appalled at the thought that shaving was her chosen method of depilation. This is in the best ‘East meets West’ tradition and brings to mind the bemusement of the 18th-century Turkish ladies on discovering Lady Mary Wortley-Montague’s corsets and their conviction that these corsets were a kind of overall chastity belt into which her husband had padlocked her before he allowed her to leave England.

Ms Johnson has plenty of good ‘foreign’ stuff: the humbly-born Minister of Education who comes with his collection of slides to address the American Wives: ‘My father had seven donkeys and a camel and many goats. Therefore we were rich, yet I could not read, nor could my parents.’ The finale of his show is a slide which shows ‘tribespeople dancing, made happy by literacy’. Then there is the hotel – in this case it is the Cyrus – with a ‘Western-style bar where people hung out like expatriates in a movie’. There, you can meet the foreigners and the ‘Westernised’ locals and listen to the expat know-all pontificate to the over-courteous native:

  ‘They think of women as property, all these Arabs do. No offence, as the kids say.’

  ‘I’m not offended. I agree completely. Although, you know, we in Iran are not Arabs.’

The expats, the telephones, the typhoid/cholera, the literacy campaigns, the stray dogs, the vibrant rugs, Westernisation v. Islam, the gold-braceleted women; the problems, the images and the jokes are the same the Third World over.

Persian Nights is not merely a funny book: it is a serious tale, a tale of altered perceptions and of moral responsibility. Emblematic of the problem at the heart of the book is a scene where the principal dramatis personae sit around in the sunshine discussing the imminence of revolution and wondering whether it would, in fact, better the peasants’ lot; ‘a company in tennis whites, at leisure amid the tangled thicket at the edge of the courts, bare legs in view, easy and laughing, while the peasants in question trudged by in their somber draperies’. Diane Johnson, unlike many writers on the Middle East, maintains a curious and amused but even-handed and respectful stance. She knows the distance cannot really be bridged; her heroine, although she can just about get to within an amulet’s throw of the veiled peasant women, cannot, in the end, think their thoughts.

Chloe Fowler is an American who by accident – or is it treacherous design? – finds herself alone (that is, without husband or children) in Iran for a few weeks. She is a pretty, good-natured, scatty, conventional doctor’s wife, ‘more given to idle reflections than to purposive thought’, susceptible to attacks of guilt about her children: ‘sometimes she caught herself thinking of nothing at all and would hurriedly think of her children, to atone.’ She is mildly irritated by her husband and tolerantly critical of herself: ‘Chloe did not know why she was not spiritual. She believed in a general way that people should be spiritual, it was just that she was not. She hoped she might have natural piety.’ Her view of the world, and of herself in it, is essentially a comfortable one: she believes that love affairs are harmless but divorce is bad, that people are basically friendly, that good generally prevails. This is at the beginning of the novel. Is Chloe going to learn? To adjust to being a woman alone? To being in foreign territory? Is she, in sum, going to grow up? Half-way through the novel there is Chloe, sweet as ever, and still believing that the US general who says they should have gone in and nuked ’Nam is only kidding and that he would have done something ‘more sympathetic’ with his life if only someone had told him that war was wrong. And at the very end, Chloe, arm in arm with her lover, Hugh Monroe, ecstatically greets the spectacle of little boys skipping amid the hordes to the rhythm of ‘Death to the Shah!’: these are the people bringing a tyrant down simply by marching, the people having ‘power over their lives and the course of things’. Persian Nights is a story about the limits of change – and, finally, its impossibility.

The non-Iranians in Diane Johnson’s novel are mainly good guys. Not, for example, your common-or-garden entrepreneur looking to make a quick profit through ruining some small, thriving industry. No. They are doctors escaping from a bit of tedium or a tangle in their American lives and seeing in Iran a chance to ‘do something’. But to do what? What is it they can do in Iran? For Iran? Iran on the eve of revolution is like the lapis beads Chloe wears round her neck: ‘if you were bad it made you worse, if good better. It intensified your qualities.’ Richard Dare, a normally ambitious archaeologist, is transformed by greed and opportunity into an arms smuggler and a thief. As for the good guys, they appear, as usual, to be better on perception than action. Dick Rothblatt, a dermatologist, sees that ‘here was a chance really to do things, something to be done, a need surpassing the mere acne and drug reactions you got at home in America. Here huge horrible things swelled up on people ... Here you could die of impetigo or typhoid.’ Chloe, too, reflects that in the life she’s lived ‘you seldom get to do anything you believe in. She thought of people in lifeboats, deciding which one to eat.’ The comparison between life in the US (standing in for the West) and life in Iran is maintained over the course of the novel. Discussing Matthew Arnold with Noosheen, Chloe says that Empedocles represents the ennui and spiritual desolation of the 19th century: ‘he is a symbol of Western man.’

Noosheen Ardeshir is a kind of Irani equivalent of Chloe: married – reasonably unhappily – to a doctor, with two young children, she has spent two years in Cleveland and now struggles with her identity and her domestic problems:

The washing woman looks at me with scorn because I am so Westernised, I know, but the pity is I am not so Western I do not mind the stares of certain old women. I suppose they remind me of my grandmother ... If I had a washing-machine I think I could control my life much better. Another woman to deal with, it’s just too much. An ordinary Maytag, like any American woman, it’s not much to ask.

She is engaged in decoding Arnold (as Chloe intends to try to read Hafiz and Sa’di) and ‘Dover Beach’ moves her to cry out: ‘It is so beautiful. The man and the woman against all hollow change and worldliness.’ Chloe is amused and sympathetic. She diagnoses Noosheen’s yearnings as romantic and imagines her in love with the handsome and tragically widowed Abbas Mowlavi: ‘She thought of the affectionate glances between Abbas and Noosheen and could imagine Noosheen’s beautiful body, blue like the body of a goddess in a miniature painting, entwined with Abbas in the act of love, his the heavy penis of a sultan, the two as one, emblem of sultry sexuality, in an arched pavilion cooled by the waving fans of servants who have been blinded so as not to behold this inspired copulation.’ The compulsion to do something about something, however, is not exclusive to foreigners in the Third World: indeed it is a desire often most keenly felt by the children of this world themselves – or at least by the good guys among them. Noosheen eventually finds her vocation in adapting Arnold’s verses to the cause of the Ayatollah.

Ms Johnson’s Irani characters are sympathetically detailed and (despite Chloe’s attempts) not romanticised. Abbas Mowlavi, prey to the same thirst for meaningful action, but hampered by having an avowedly revolutionary brother living in Paris, goes for long walks, unobtrusively trying to discover the contaminated well that might be causing the officially non-existent typhoid. He consoles himself with the Koranic verse that extols the ‘doing of righteous deeds in shadow’. The moment of truth comes – for himself and his foreign guests – when, on a visit to the ruins of Persepolis, they come upon another emblematic scene. Massive carved heads are being winched into a waiting aeroplane which has just disgorged the barter – crates of guns now lying on the desert sand. As Abbas realises what is happening all his dilemmas are resolved: ‘His dismay intensified along with a feeling of moral correctness that verified it; he was right to feel this patriotic, this admirable dismay. Foremothers shrouded in veils murmured from the sky ... joyous in his release from some self-preoccupation, some tense and Western inwardness. Here was something he could do something about.’ The last anyone sees of Abbas, he is running towards the aeroplane, arms waving, just as some troops arrive and a battle breaks out.

As the battle rages, Chloe watches a boy soldier, apparently dying in the full glare of the sun, the flies already clustering at the corners of his eyes. ‘It is her duty to prevent them. She has the notion, brief and incomplete, that this is as much as she ever could do, and that she will not have another chance, ever, to be heroic.’ Under gun-fire, she drags the boy into the ladies’ toilet and bolts the door. Minutes later, a voice outside whispers: ‘Chloe, help.’ Is it Abbas? Is it a trick? Is it a new danger to the life she has just saved? She does not open the door. Has she misjudged her moment? Later, on the plane out of Iran with Rustum, the mongrel puppy she has tamed, Chloe mourns the fact that ‘we’re just going back to America, where I’ll never have another chance to be good.’

In America, there is the small matter of Chloe’s marriage to be sorted out. Away from her husband in Iran, Chloe had, infrequently, but with the standard exasperated wifely fondness, thought of him, and each time she’s done so we’ve learned something disagreeable: Jeffrey is ill-mannered, he is bad tempered, she had looked inside him ‘once or twice and found only crossness and clutter’; his grievances are petty, his physique is puny. And yet she is resigned to being married to him, even though she realises that in Iran she is enjoying ‘something of the fun and power of being a man, being far away, on her own, working at something, sleeping with someone she won’t mention to the person at home’. I won’t give this dénouement away – except to say that the story of Chloe’s marriage could happily – inappropriate term – fit into Deborah Moggach’s new collection. Smile is mostly about people out of communication with each other and therefore, to a large extent, about, unhappy marriages. In fact, the only ‘good’ marriage – in ‘Snake Girl’ – is one where the allowances and sacrifices that need to be made are of such magnitude that they almost become the point of the marriage and the husband attains the rank of some sort of idiot saint. ‘In marriage you learn to be silent,’ says the bride in ‘Horse Sense’ and that dictum is followed by Anna in ‘The Wrong Side’, who navigates her husband through a tour of France while trying to remember when they were last happy, when she had last not been nervous. But it is not just women who are the victims in Smile: Frank, in ‘Making hay’, has just learned that he has leukaemia and can’t bring himself to tell anyone, least of all his childless, highly-strung Hungarian wife, Dorizia, who would ‘smother him in her arms and soak him with her tears’. In a field, he is set upon by a young CND marcher and they make what he calls ‘love’ and she calls ‘despair’. He thinks he might tell her, but so intent is she upon the plight of the world that she marches off without learning anything about the plight of the man she has just held in her arms. The best thing about Deborah Moggach is the irony, the wit, of which she and her characters – in their dreadful situations – are capable. And this is where she most differs from Jayne Anne Phillips, whose world is simply, lyrically sad.

Fast Lanes inspired in me the same sort of feeling that I imagine Iran must have aroused in Diane Johnson. This is a foreign land, a land where people have names like Danner, Thurman and Kato, where, in the normal course of things, they take mescaline and coke, share houses with TM instructors and have lovers who have dropped out of Harvard Law School to become carpenters. And yet, is it so strange after all? It’s still a land where men get lost at sea, where women talk to their unborn babies, where brothers and sisters love each other as only brothers and sisters can and where people are, on the whole, out of communication. The first story in the collection is an unremitting monologue: Mickey, the young, aspiring rockstar-cum-gigolo talks non-stop while his older lover contents herself with very occasional asides to the audience describing his appearance and his actions. From the rockspeak of ‘How Mickey made it’ to the elegiac Finde-Siècle ‘Bess’ to the surrealistic ‘Bluegill’, Jayne Anne Phillips moves with assurance and charm. She creates haunting landscapes out of snow, summer woods, a girls’ changing-room and, occasionally, the odd, arresting image: ‘something dead was out there, yellowed like the dust and lacy with vanishing.’ Deborah Moggach’s world is made sad by betrayal. What is it that makes Jayne Anne Phillips’s world so sad? Maybe it’s because there, the enemy is not marriage or men or the Shah or any particular person or thing, but the same old Empedoclean ennui – as Shinner Black in ‘Blue Moon’ says, ‘people can’t live in this world.’