Honeymoon in Purdah
by Alison Wearing
Published by Knopf Canada
240 pages, 2000
Reviewed by Andrea MacPherson
Fear is one of the most basic human instincts. We fear the unknown with ease and, as such, Alison Wearing set out to overcome her own irrational and floundering fear of a country shrouded in mystery: Iran. "I refused to believe that such a place of unalloyed evil truly existed, that that was the end of the story. I went because I believed there had to be more. And because I like to look for saints where there are said to be demons." With her first book, Honeymoon in Purdah, Wearing takes us with her on a dreamlike journey throughout Iran.
The Iran that Wearing and Ian visit is a harsh, post-revolutionary one. The Shah has been killed and with him all Western influence has been stilted. Instead, Iran is steeped in fundamentalist ideology, brought back by the late Ayatollah Khomeini. Before his death, Khomeini reinstated the complete covering of women, lowered the age of "womanhood" to nine, introduced a religious faction of the police and subsequently revitalized the Muslim religion. Many Iranians, both male and female, feel that Khomeini saved them from the spiritually dead lifestyle of the West. No one acknowledges that he has also reinstated oppression and fear.
This Iran is a place where women are more nighttime ghosts than flesh; where nine-year-old girls may be married, or executed; where women must swim fully clothed and risk drowning, as unrelated men may not touch them; and where wailing parades of flagellation are as common as the incessant 40-degree heat. Wearing chooses this formidable country to spend five months of her life, documenting it via memory and personal journal. Wearing and her companion, Ian, pass themselves off as a married couple spending their honeymoon in Iran. She fully immerses herself, and as such the reader, into the culture and community of Iran, going so far as to adopt the typical Iranian woman's dress: manteau, hejab and chador. In this garb, she fights desert heat in head to toe black polyester and experiences common heat-induced delusions.
Wearing is all too eager to adopt Iranian custom, from traditional dress to Farsi language, to segregated mosque etiquette. She wants to experience every inch of Iranian life and succeeds. She meets an array of eccentric, memorable people on her travels throughout holy lands, modern cities, desert oasis and rural communities. She puts her trust, and sometimes her life, in the hands of these kind strangers and is welcomed into their homes and hearts.
Wearing utilizes simple, clean prose, as sparse as the Iranian desert itself. In brief moments of lucidity, romanticism or horror, she sprinkles the text with poetic observations of the country. In this manner, Wearing's narrative exudes immediacy and intimacy for the reader. She creates an authentic Iran, complete with fundamentalists and moderates, Muslims and Christians. Her broad strokes of language create a vivid depiction of a country she obviously holds dear.
Despite all of this, Honeymoon in Purdah is not without fault. While the stylistic choices are poetic, the content is troublesome at times. Wearing becomes an unreliable narrator as she seems incapable or unwilling to view anything negative or oppressive about Iran; she overlooks the chauvinistic fundamentalist laws and the blatant sexism and only views the kindness and hospitality of the country's inhabitants. She finds herself "oddly relaxed" by incantation and prayer and becomes attached to the inhibiting chador.
"How are ya, I'm Tip," he says to me with an outstretched hand. I accept, but shake his hand with great discomfort. It is the first time a man (aside from Ian) has touched me in weeks. It feels so odd, so forward, strangely disrespectful. I pull my hand away quickly, wipe it on my cloak -- yes, honestly - and look away.
She is irritated and intolerant of Ian when he attempts to observe some facets of Iran previously ignored by Wearing; at times it seems that she would rather see only the Iran she has romanticized. She does not include any of the discrimination they must have faced; this seems nearly impossible as they both witness riots and graffiti that reads: Death To The USA. It seems implausible that Iranians would be able to visually distinguish Canadians from Americans. Even when posed with the differing opinions of both women who are happy in Iran and those who are not, Wearing will not comment on the political/sexual situation of Iran. The only commentary is given by women such as Maryam, a teenage girl who finds the hypocrisy in her homeland:
"So I quoted the Koran again, because you see it doesn't say exactly what must be covered, only that a woman must be dressed modestly, which I was. But they were getting angry and I knew that it didn't really matter what the Koran said, it only mattered what these men decided, and in the end they brought me home and talked to my father, telling him he needed to be more careful of me, but when they were gone he just laughed and told me he was proud. But I can't ride my bicycle! It just sits there, getting old, like me."
Wearing seems blinded by the mystique of a foreign country and its rituals. It is not until the end of her travels, once she has reached Turkey and is tired and hot and irritable that she chooses to witness the other side of her Mecca, and the oppression forced upon its women.
I wait for the next big gust to launch the fabric into the sky. It swoops up like a kite and hovers. A ghostly figure. It swims along currents of air, then drifts, drifts, drifts. I am leaping up and down on the sidewalk, trying to keep it in sight. My arms flying high above my head. Waving. Watching the air make light of weight. Watching the shape of a darkness that dances.
Honeymoon in Purdah is a lovely, lyrical memoir that is as much of a contradiction as the country itself. | August 2000
Andrea MacPherson is a Vancouver-based writer who recently completed her first novel. Her work has appeared in The Antigonish Review, The Glow Within, Chameleon and Descant. She is the poetry editor for Prism International.