It’s telling that this book subtitles itself a story of “leaving Iran,” since most of the book, like most of the author’s life, takes place in the United States. We can only hope that the author, an expatriate Iranian lawyer, will someday be able to go home again to a country that has not been ruined by war and religious fanaticism.
The story of Afschineh and her older sister, Afshaneh, left in Virginia Beach in the care of uncaring relatives, is at times hilarious and at times semi-tragic. The two girls, in their early teens, had only each other. Their mother, widow of a good man executed by the regime of Ayatollah Houmeini at the height of the anti-Western Shiite revolution, made the difficult decision to send them to boarding school outside of Iran. She had placed money for them in a savings account and given them a stash of gold coins for emergencies. The sisters, lonely and alienated, got their hands on the bank account and squandered nearly all the savings on trips to the mall, buying junk food and candy to share with their schoolmates in an attempt to make friends. Those who treated them with the slightest kindness were rewarded with the gold coins. The children had no idea of the value of the coins, nor that the money was meant to fund them through school.
Broke, the girls are put in the care of their uncle who has no interest in them apart from the funds their mother sends each month for their upkeep, money he never shares with them. They are told they can only shower every other day and are warned not to use the heat. In short, they are treated more like prisoners than family. But somehow, because the two girls share the bond of the love and respect they both have for their mother and the memory of their courageous father, they survive. They work hard, earn their own way, stay in school. Afshaneh cleverly manages to obtain custody of her younger sibling once she is of age, and they move away from the despised uncle.
Each year they wait hopefully for their mother to join them in the U.S., having no idea how difficult it is for her in her native country, still taking care of her two young sons. When the family is at last united, the sisters are overjoyed, even if all must live in a two-bedroom apartment, and their mother, once a schoolteacher and the wife of an army colonel, must work all day as a babysitter and all night as a newspaper stacker.
The tale of the Latifi family is a wonderful example of the way our American freedoms work for the oppressed of the world. Willing to live in respectable poverty, to hold more than one job while seeking the best possible education, constantly looking out for one another, never back-biting those who treat them badly, the Iranians attain unimaginable success. Not millionaires but modest honest people with excellent careers and high morals, they are citizens we can be proud of. The spirit of their soldier father infuses the children with the will to keep trying, and trying again.
With little more than faith they become doctors and lawyers and give their mother a home with a garden: “Before we’d even signed the mortgage papers, I ordered roses from a Persian greenhouse in Los Angeles.” The garden helps their mother reconnect with some of the happiest days of her younger life, while planting roots in her new home.