Martyrdom Street
by Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet

Syracuse Univ. Press, 2010. ISBN ISBN 978-0-815-60975-9.
Reviewed by Barbara Heming
Posted on 11/17/2010

Fiction: Multi-Cultural; Fiction: Literary

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the subsequent Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988 provide the context for the story of three Iranian women: Fatemeh, her daughter Nasrin, and Nasrin's best friend Yasaman.

The novel takes place twelve years after the revolution. Fatemeh travels to New York City, where Nasrin and Yasaman live, to attend her daughter's engagement party to Hamid. The intertwining narratives of the three women weave a picture of lives impacted by politics and war both within Iran and in the Iranian diaspora in the United States.

As their stories unfold we learn that in the first days of the revolution ten year-old Yasaman's father was assassinated in front of her, a trauma she continues to struggle with. Fearful of further attacks, her mother makes immediate arrangements for them to go into exile. When Nasrin's liberal school is replaced by one which indoctrinates students in revolutionary politics and religion, her university professor father and Fatemeh decide to send her out of the country.

Distance has altered the relationship between mother and daughter. Fatemeh does not tell Nasrin that in the war, an explosion injured Fatemeh nor that Nasrin's father has taken a second wife and has a son. Likewise, Nasrin and Yasaman's lives in New York no longer conform to the social mores in Iran. The picture of an exile community looking for vindication by the reinstatement of the Shah and the necessity of living within the American culture is vividly portrayed through Nasrin's and Yasaman's experiences.

The structure of the novel itself renders a picture of lives shattered by cataclysmic political events beyond the control of the individual. Each woman narrates her own story in mosaic fashion. Brief scenes, reflections or the women's lyrical thoughts alternate throughout the novel. I felt as if I were being given stones of different colors which at first appeared unrelated, but which gradually formed an image of women struggling with relationships amid the thrust of history. The three narrative points of view lack distinctive voices. While this was disconcerting at first, I found as I progressed through the novel that the stories of three women were, in some sense, one universal story of women who somehow adapt and survive. This slim volume challenges the reader to participate in the construction of the story, but rewards her with an understanding of a world previously known only through the headlines.

Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet is associate professor of history and director of the Middle East Center at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Frontier Fictions: Shaping the Iranian Nation, 1804-1946 and Conceiving Citizens: Women, Sexuality, and Religion in Iran (forthcoming).

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