Jul 28, 2012

The Tale of Two Nazanins

The Tale of Two Nazanins (CAN, US)

Written by: Nazanin Afshin-Jam and Susan McClelland

Published by: HarperCollins Publishers

Published on: May 22, 2012

Have you ever encountered someone with the same name as you? It happened to me all the time before I was married. This was even before Googling yourself was an option. There was a professor at another university in my major (that was helpful) and even someone in my prefecture in Japan with the same name. There's always a bit of a connection there- like it opens up the possibilities for what you could be, like an alternate you.

But what if the person you encounter with the same name as you is in a horrible situation? What if she is on death row for killing a would-be rapist? What if she is illiterate, impoverished, and virtually unreachable? What would you do?

Nazanin Afshin-Jam, the 2003 Canadian Miss World, is introduced to the case of Nazanin (Mahabad) Fatehi. She is a Kurdish girl in Iran who was somewhere in a prison in Tehran, sentenced to death, for protecting her body in a country where women are oppressed and victims of sexual assault are further victimized by the courts and their society. The deck was stacked against Fatehi in the beginning. She is a minority in country that is not accepting of minorities, who didn't speak or write the majority language, whose abusive father was hated by both the community he informed on and the government which had previously paid his wages. She is powerless.

Afishin-Jam has the power of global fame and beauty. She is under no obligation to use those to help a child in danger across the globe, but she does. She starts a petition, she fundraises,  and she serves as a spokesperson to rally people to Fatehi's cause. She and a number of other people really tick off people in Iran's upper echelons. This is not without risk, they put Fatehi and her family, lawyers, and fellow prisoners into a lot of danger to try to save Fatehi's life.

They do it though. Or at least, they get Fatehi out of prison. They get her released since she was a minor when this occurred and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Iran is a signatory, proscribes against capital punishment for offenses committed by minors. The fight doesn't end there, though. Afshin-Jam founded Stop Child Executions to work toward eliminating capital punishment for minors in Iran and around the world.

The world building was excellent, and I can see the style that made Susan McLelland's earlier nonfiction work, The Bite of the Mango, such a success. I think it's a rare Canadian reader who knows much about the lives of Kurdish women in rural Iran, but this does not prove an issue in McLelland's capable hands. The atrocities are handled with empathy but never pity, and the characters of the women in Fatehi's communities, from her family to her cellmates, are fleshed out to such a degree that I am very interested in their fates.

I think that this would make an amazing book club book in the same way The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is. There's something about nonfiction books about horrible situations that makes me want the comfort of others who know about it. Plus there are so many questions to be asked and so many issues to discuss, about women and power and immorality in the law and how to deal with situations like this that need to be dealt with. 

This book brings up a lot of feelings of "there but for the grace of a Canadian passport go I". I am sure that Afshin-Jam is feeling very grateful for the sacrifices of her parents that got her one of those passports and a different life. I too am grateful for my forebears and their decisions and sacrifices which gave me a life with so much freedom. Just a simple thing, an accident of nature determining where and to whom people are born and our circumstances are completely different. It's important to me that I fight for what is important to me; literacy, working women in Japan, and for the re-opening of Canadian borders to family members and workers. I feel useless when it comes to saving the lives of children in Iran but I will do what I can where I can. If this book inspires others to do so then in the words of another great activist, "Courage, my friends; 'tis not too late to build a better world."

This is the fourth book I have reviewed for the Sixth Canadian Book Challenge


  1. Just don't refer to her as "The Defence Minister's Wife."

    I enjoyed Bite of the Mango, and the story behind this book sounds equally as fascinating. I'll have to keep an eye out for it.

    1. It stuns me actually that in 2012 we have to remind journalists that women have their own names.

      Although The Defence Minister's Wife sounds like the name of a great short story, maybe in The Walrus?

  2. I admit I only heard about Nazanin and her book and activism when the wedding announcement made the news. I was impressed, however, because I don't remember her having that dedication when we were in high school together (although I highly doubt she'd recognize my name, we had a pretty big graduating class).

    I read a pretty damning review of the book and was going to skip it as a result, but if you enjoyed it I might just get myself a copy.


If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to share it.

I love comments! They make my day.