Genghis, democracy and women An Iranian woman from Ghent to Cairo (book review)

Hermine Van Loosveldt | kifkif.be 2012

“You know, my daughter, that the story of our lives is the story of the little black fish that never wanted to live in the narrow, slowly flowing river? (…) She is not a liberated little fish, she is liberty itself. (…). She also realizes very well that liberty is not going to be served to her on a silver platter. For her, it is not important where she will end before she reaches the ocean. For her, it is important that after her difficult and perilous quest, she will find the eternal truth, shining and magnificent.” (Letter of Baharak Bashar’s mother to her daughter, citing from “The little black fish”, Persian children’s tale, 1968, Samad Behrangi)

When Baharak was thirteen years old, she fled together with her mother from Iran to Belgium. Eighteen years later, she retraces her steps. Not with her mother, but with Parsival, her partner, and Genghis, their camper.
The book is constructed around nine chapters where every chapter presents a separate story, starting at the border checks on entering a country or region, until departure.

Every story is much more than an account of a “road trip”. Along the way, Baharak describes the political history of the relevant region, tries to find out the position of women, and strikes up conversations with locals. As a result, the books is brimming with testimonies, some anonymous, others fairly detailed.

It provides an extensive narrative interspersed with historical facts and reports from historical sites you otherwise rarely hear about. How many people have e.g. visited the historical site of Ani in Turkish Kurdistan? Or who ever went to Gjirokastra, a city in Albania that has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

Democracy and women are the central themes throughout the entire book. In every region, democracy is critically evaluated or compared to the regimes present. At one point, they camp with Genghis in front of the hill in Greece where Clisthenes first coined the term ‘democracy’. Coincidence? The position of women is discussed from multiple angles: wearing of a head scarf, wearing of lingerie, the right to vote, honor codes and revenge, violence committed by a partner, and obedience of women to men. In Syria, for example, it is a taboo for a single woman to sit at the table of a married man. In Albania, there are women who live as sworn virgins, and that way enjoy equal rights to men.

Iran is another guiding thread throughout the book. Because this journey is a ‘return’, the country is mentioned in every chapter. One time, veiled women on a beach remind Baharak of the moral position of women in Iran. Another time, it is a billboard, a photograph of a president or a book that makes her reminisce about her country of origin, and the difficult journey to Belgium. Her departure from Iran was a real flight, without farewells to family and friends.

From this flight sprang a woman who stares danger and fear right in the face. Who smokes on the streets in Syria, if only to protest the fact that a magazine wrote that it is better for women not to smoke. Who goes to Albania, regardless of the fact she is unable to get the camper insured for that leg of the journey, because this region is considered too dangerous. Who dedicates a separate chapter to Turkish Kurdistan. And so on.

Baharak Bashar indeed continues asking questions where Jan Leyers [who made a travel ‘documentary’ about the Middle East and Islam for Flemish television] stopped. When she hears that a certain region is difficult to visit, she heads straight for it. When she experiences too many prejudices, it encourages her to refute them and find things out for herself. She makes her journey with courage and without fear. Because, as she cites herself: “Fear is the brother of death.”

*****

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