Zahra comes from the city of Herat, which is quite close to the Iranian border. It’s the third largest city in Afghanistan. From around 220 BCE, and for the next sixteen hundred years, Herat was an important destination for traders travelling the Silk Route. This was the road that linked SE Asia to India and Europe. In the 13th and 14th centuries, Herat was the capital of Persia under the Timurid Dynasty.
One of the main language of this region is Dari which is very close to the language of Iran, Farsi. In The Afghan Wife Zahra, the main female character, teaches Farsi (Persian) language and literature as well as English at a girls’ school but her first language is Dari.
Images of Afghanistan in 1979 are often of Russian tanks, bombed villages, the Mujahideen and opium poppies.
We might also think of robed and veiled women. However life in Afghanistan in the 1960s and 1970s did not fit the stereotype. Successive governments had tried to modernise the country. European-style dress was encouraged and women, especially in the larger cities, wore stylish clothes, though never mini-skirts. Other women chose to wear Islamic dress which covered the whole body, with a headscarf over the hair.
Being part of successive Persian empires, Herat was an important centre of learning and scholarship. In the novel, Zahra, from a middle-class family, is well-educated. Her mother was an Iranian woman married to an Afghan. Like many Afghan men, her father had studied at an Iranian university. Firzun, Zahra’s cousin, is a graduate of the University of Tehran.
Only a few ancient monuments have survived in Herat. The Citadel, was built during the Timurid dynasty. Future invaders aimed to capture the fortress, with its battlements which rise ten storeys above the streets. In the 1970s, the Afghan government converted the imposing structure into a museum. It was used as a prison by the Taliban during their brutal regime in the 1990’s. Later it was restored with a grant from the US government.
The spectacular Friday mosque in Herat features in the novel. Zahra can hear the azan, the call to prayer, from her apartment. I use the prayer calls at various points in the novel to indicate the time. In chapter two for example, Firzun tells the family they must leave when they hear the azan-e-magrib, the evening prayer call.
In 1935 Reza Shah, the father of Mohammad Reza Shah who was deposed during the 1979 revolution, declared that the official name of his country would be Iran, the ancient name which had always been used by Iranians themselves. It is derived from the Middle Persian word Eyran.
The name Persia is the name it was called by foreigners and comes from the old Persian word Parsa.
Persian literature is rich in poetry and prose. The Shahnameh, The Persian Book of Kings, was written in the 11th century by the poet Ferdowsi. It is a part-myth, part-history in verse, of the ancient kings of Persia.
The poem is mentioned several times in the novel. The Konari family have an early copy of the book in their library. Later in the novel, Karim holds it to his heart and says: ‘This is who I am, I’m Persian!’
Zahra’s mother’s birthplace was Shiraz, the city of the Persian poet Hafez, (1315-1390). Zahra reads his poems to Karim’s dying grandmother.
From Ancient to Modern History
From 550 to 330 BCE the Persians ruled an empire which stretched from the Balkans to India. Darius I was the founder of the city of Persepolis over 2,500 years ago. Invaded and destroyed by the armies of Alexander the Great in 330 BCE, Persepolis never recovered. Yet even in its ruined state, the visitor can appreciate the monumental importance of this vast city.
For the next nine hundred years, Iran was invaded and conquered by tribes from the east and the west. Dynasties rose and fell, but the invasion which changed Iran forever came from the south. In 661 CE powerful Arab tribes invaded the country. The Arabs brought Islam and Islamic culture to Iran replacing Zoroastrianism, which had been the main religion for a thousand years. There are still Zoroastrian temples in most cities, and it is now a tolerated minor religion in Iran.
Under the Abbasid Caliphate, Iran was ruled from Bagdad for six hundred years. Its lands extended from North Africa to Afghanistan. Over the ensuing centuries invasions were followed by hundreds of years of stability and building.
More dynasties rose and fell until in 1925, the reigning Shah Ahmad was overthrown and exiled. Army officer Reza Khan became Prime Minister, then Shah of Iran, taking the surname Pahlavi. He ruled until 1943. He then stepped aside for his son, who became Mohammad Reza Shah.
Like his father before him, Mohammad Reza Shah sought to reform the country. He used some of its vast oil wealth to improve social conditions for Iranians. However, he kept control with the help of a secret police force, the SAVAK. He was often accused of wasteful extravagance, particularly in 1971. In that year he invited royal families and heads of state to a huge party, catered by Maxim’s of Paris. It was held at the ancient site of Persepolis to celebrate 2,500 years of royal rule in Iran.
Many Iranians believed that the shah was a puppet of western powers. Both the United Kingdom and the United States bought Iranian oil. A people’s revolution, led by supporters of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini swept the shah from office in January, 1979. He died in Egypt in 1980 and his tomb is in the Al-Rifa’i mosque in Cairo. His son and heir, Crown Prince Reza, lives in the United States, as does his widow, Shahbanu Farah Pahlavi and two of his daughters.
In February 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini became Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He introduced what many saw as draconian ‘reforms’ including the insistence that women wear strict Islamic dress. Many of the rights Iranians had taken for granted were curtailed. During the diaspora which followed, over two million Iranians left their country and took their skills overseas.
There are nine arms of government in Iran and people do have the right to elect candidates. Ayatollah Khomeini died in 1989. His successor, seventy-eight-year-old Ali Khamenei, is the current Supreme Leader.
The Afghan Wife
My novel, The Afghan Wife is set in 1979, the year that Iran was declared an Islamic Republic and the shah and his family left and went into exile.
The characters in the novel are of course, fictional, but I’ve tried to imagine what it was like to experience the devastation many reformers felt when the Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in Paris and instituted an Islamic government. Young people like Nasim and Rashid in the novel, were horrified when the US embassy was stormed and sixty six Americans taken hostage. They had believed there would be a new democracy.
You’ll learn what happened to them and their ideals and to Zahra, in love with a man she thought she could never have, when you read the The Afghan Wife.
Cindy Davies 2017 ©