"Exile is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted.” — Edward Said
Whether pushed by political turmoil, war, conflict or repression, or driven by economic compulsions, an exilic position invariably poses a multitude of challenges. The migrant — or the exile — negotiates a strange territory, substitutes the settled routine with new rhythms and rituals, confronts different realities, values and perspectives. And all the while the ‘homeland’ holds a deep affinity, almost a primordial attraction. Although with the passage of time the exile comes to terms with the new space, the new life, perhaps a pining and a ‘crippling sorrow of estrangement’, as articulated by Said, remains buried deep within the heart.
In her debut novel The Last Days of Café Leila, Persian-American author Donia Bijan tells an engaging story encompassing three generations of a family, woven around their life’s trials and tribulations in shifting spaces, times and cultures. The curtain opens in Tehran 2014, on Behzod — or Zod — an aging father who is waiting for the letter from his daughter Noor, now a woman of 40, residing in the United States since her teens, that will bring him the longed-for news of her homecoming.
A compassionate novel about what it means to be far from home
Zod’s is a middle-class family with secular values, a love for music and literature. Café Leila has become a meeting point for the city’s liberals and intellectuals, till it is raided by revolutionary guards. Noor and her brother Mehrdad are reluctant to leave home, but are sent to the US by their father to spare them further ramifications of the revolution after a cruel incident devastates the family. Noor’s longing for home and her memories of a happy childhood in Tehran remain with her for a long time and grow stronger after two decades with a gnawing sense of loneliness when her marriage falls apart. She decides to visit Tehran but now Lily, her headstrong teenage daughter, resists: she feels rooted in the US and sees no reason why should she go to a place she has only heard about from her mother.
The family saga unfolds through shuffling times and spaces, beginning from the 1930s when a Russian émigré couple — Noor’s grandparents, escaping from Bolshevik oppression — is driven to Iran, and builds, brick by brick, a life and a home. Yanek, trained in a kitchen in St Petersburg, changes his surname from Yedemsky to Yadegar and opens a confectionary with a garden café in Tehran. Nina, his wife, learns the art of local cooking. Soon they build a clientele who marvel at the fusion of Persian cuisine with Russian home recipes, especially the delicious, many flavoured piroshkies. The food becomes their only tangible connection with the homeland they have left behind, a leitmotif in the story told in a simple language.
The details of the social, cultural and political milieu of the specific times are brought out sparsely yet vividly, intertwined with life’s many vicissitudes traversed by the family members. Bijan builds the exterior with skill and tells only that much required to hold the personal narrative together, infusing the family saga with credibility and a certain authenticity. The reader gets glimpses of Paris in the early 1960s when Zod is there to study architecture and finds the Parisians warm, welcoming and hospitable to strangers. The apparent calm of the early 1960s Tehran and the rumblings of revolution in later years are captured within the backdrop of Café Leila and so is the euphoria of the initial years: “In the early days of the revolution, secular men and women, communists, socialists, intellectuals and political dissidents had marched side by side with the religious zealots. They poured into Café Leila, hoarse from shouting slogans to slurp soup and speak openly for the first time in their lives before linking arms to go back out into the streets.”
I found a bundle of my old letters from America tied together with kitchen string in chronological order. It is embarrassing reading what I wrote so long ago —adrift, entangled with my faraway life and never quite maturing … Initially it felt intrusive, that I was in their intimate space, but apart from a few sleepless nights, I’ve comforted myself with the thought that three generations have lived in this creaky old house and that it will remain standing with its door open. ... that the pipes will rattle no matter who washes, and that someone will still buy groceries, light the stove, cook our meals and we will never be short of company.— Excerpt from the book
Young Noor, transplanted in California, struggles with the language, the culture, the longing for home left behind, fearful of her independence which seems “as vast as the ocean.” It takes her years to finally settle, marry a man and raise a family. But her life unhinges at her husband’s infidelity, her longing for “home” surges with full force and she returns to Tehran in 2014, along with a reluctant, free-spirited Lily. It is now Lily who finds herself in a strange land and refuses to come out of her shell. Yet it turns out to be a land where she goes through a sort of passage of rites: she matures and comes out of her narrow, self-centric world of adolescence and forges a unique bond with a young girl who is a victim of a cruel manifestation of misogyny in contemporary Iran. Yet, for Lily, this is not where she belongs. Born in a different land and a different culture, her mother’s place of birth with its repressive mores and customs holds no attachment: it is fellow humans she can bond with.
The novel explores the many-layered phenomenon of exile and loss of the sense of belonging. How does a person negotiate a world so diverse in totality from the one left behind? Why, despite adversity and bitter experiences, does the land of birth remain etched on a person’s heart? Will Noor, the exile, find her hearth and home and rediscover her sense of belonging by relocating in Tehran? Has not the space changed with time? Or is ‘home’ just an idea, a state of mind?
What makes the novel compelling is the compassion with which the story is told. Recounted in the third-person, the narrative ends with an epilogue in the first-person, infusing it with the charm of an autobiography even though it is not. Bijan, a chef trained in Paris and author of the much acclaimed memoirs Maman’s Homesick Pie: A Persian Heart in an American Kitchen, said in a recent interview: “Fiction is all about wishful thinking — living the lives we didn’t choose, doing the things we’ve never done, imagining all that can’t be had.”
The reviewer is a researcher in the development sector
The Last Days of Café Leila
By Donia Bijan
AlGonquin Books, US
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 26th, 2017