Book Review: Marjan Kamali’s ‘The Stationary Shop of Tehran’

First Published at hikayaat.com on 19 June 2020.

We experience the life of the protagonist; a 17-year-old Roya in Tehran in 1953 to her mid 70s in 2013 in New England, Massachusetts. Roya’s life begins in a traditional home of Tehran, where she reads Rumi and “translated” novels from around the world in The Stationary Shop that is not only a place of fountain pens and note books, but a means of political communication, and love. Political pamphlets and love letters are delivered in books via Mr Fakhri, who for his past sins is using his stationary shop as a doorway to forgiveness; giving the youth a chance at true love and freedom. 

The bell of Mr Fakhri’s stationary shop is a symbol of Roya’s time to switch off from the political tensions of Tehran. Roya spends hours at the stationary shop where Mr Fakhri nurtures Roya’s palate in poetry and knowledge. It’s her escapism. Her sanctuary. Her. But it all changes; a handsome Bahman drops in; their glances pierce inside of each other, as if they had known each other from before. Second guessing their connection; they don’t flirt with the unknown, but Roya prays he shows up on her visits. He does. She falls in love with a Bahman ready for change and to give his life to her and Iran. 

As Roya and Bahman become one in their burning love for each other, their country is fuelled with political fires of its own that their love cannot escape. Love, politics, and loyalty are shown to be entwined at their roots within The Stationary Shop; 

Roya leaned against the shelves lined with books as Bahman talked, her back digging into the spines of poetry and politics. If he went too long about representation and taxes and trade, she simply focused on his eyes, lost, but in the best ways…but there was always the hazard of other customers walking in, and frequently they did – older men in spectacles with lists of new stationary items they needed to buy, or young communist students asking for more Marx pamphlets or pro-Mossadegh protesters requesting more books on philosophy and democracy. Some of the Mossadegh supporters recognized Bahman and gave him a nod of solidarity, a look that indicated they appreciated all that he was doing for the cause.” 

Kamali relays the political events of Iran in 1953 in a simple and frank manner (perfect for the non-political type readers), but enough to peak your interest and understanding of the political state that Roya and Bahman fall in love. In 1953, the Iranian Prime Minister was the much loved and respected Mossadegh, as he stood up to the foreign countries (America and Britain) that wanted power over the Iranian oil. Despite the pro-Mossadegh supporters, he was overthrown in the 1953 coup d’état, as orchestrated by the CIA and MI5. 

The 1953 coup d’deat is not the only one in orchestration, Bahman’s mother looks for ways to overthrow the love between the young and sweet Bahman and Roya. Tehran and Bahman’s mother struggle for power that leads to violence, death, manipulation, paranoia, distrust, and emotional blackmail. 

Roya and Bahman’s fate is left in the hands of unhealed trauma and injustice and Bahman’s dreams are left in the realm of his imagination, as he tries to make sense of not only the plotting of America that strengthened the Shah’s (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) power, but the life he comes to live too. 

“The truth is, my young lady, that fate has written the script for your destiny on your forehead from the very beginning. We can’t see it. But it’s there. And the young, who love so passionately, have no idea how ugly this world is….This world is without compassion.”

Without giving too much away, Kamali explores issues surrounding interracial marriages, the role of women in society, passion, trauma, loss, devotion, trust, friendship, dating, mental health, miscarriages, and abortion in Iran and America. We experience the blend of the East and West, from Rohan having difficulty in asking Americans to take off their shoes as they enter her Iranian home to the cultural differences in how one flirts and dates in the West and East, which resonates with anyone living in the West as a diaspora community from South Asian, Middle Eastern, and/or African countries. 

“Sometimes there didn’t seem to be any rules. It had been far easier in Iran where tradition and tarof who your grandfather was often dictated how to behave.”

The reader also gains an insight into the difficulties of women succeeding in the industry of science, as well as the pressures and expectations on women to have a family in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. The changing attitudes of women and the way one marries reflects the political relationship between Iran and America and how intricately it affects its citizens; Roya and Bahman.   

“This was the societal web of niceties and formalities and expected good female behaviour that often suffocated her.”

The novel plays subtly with the reader’s understanding of time. Kamali takes you on a timeline that is not linear but circular. We begin in America, then Tehran, then America, then Tehran, and so on over the period of 60 years. The reader is pleasantly surprised and a little frustrated at times, but nevertheless kept on their toes when the next chapter is no longer set in the 1980s or ‘90s, but in the 1930s, ‘40s, or ‘50s. And as Roya gains an understanding of time, the reader does too; 

“She would not have understood, then, that time is not linear but circular. There is no past, present, future. Roya was the woman she was today and the seventeen-year-old girl in the Stationery Shop, always. She and Bahman were one…The past was always there, lurking in the corners, winking at you when you thought you’d moved on, hanging on to your organs from the inside.”

Perhaps it is in the circular nature of the states and experiences that the characters’ lives span over in which the reader can lose their notion of time. This loss of time frame allows the reader to intimately and freely chime in with the characters’ disarray; the grief; joy; pain; loss; hope; birth; and death. It seems, such states have their own time and realm, which span over the life of not one character, but all characters; and this is where we learn that the characters are not only intimately connected in their blood and history, but in the states they endured and enjoyed together and apart. 

This novel is not just a love story between lovers, but between children and parents, leaders and followers, the state and individuals, and Iran and America. And Marjan Kamali writes it all beautifully.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

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