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Customer Review

69 of 71 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Tour de Force, April 17, 2012
This review is from: A Bitter Veil (Paperback)
Libby Hellmann has written an extraordinary fiction book about the difficulty of a western woman living in Iran during the time period surrounding the Revolution of the late 1970's. I married an Iranian student and moved to Iran three years later. My own experience was very different. No one prevented me from leaving Iran, albeit I needed my husband's permission and had to pay an exit tax. But being married to an American woman shifted from being a prestigious asset to a frowned-upon liability almost overnight. I left my husband and his wealthy family with the knowledge that I was not considered a part of that family and never had been, and although I had earned income as a chemical engineer for most of the marriage, I would have nothing but a suitcase of clothing and $1,000 when I departed.

Although I filed for divorce in the U.S. upon my return in 1979, that still leaves one legally married in Iran. My husband later filed for divorce in Iran upon receipt of the U.S. decree. Couples register their foreign marriage, which made the marriage official in Iran for purposes of getting the Iranian identity card and passport. Most foreign wives kept dual citizenship. It's interesting to note that Iranian citizenship was automatic for a foreign wife, but not for a foreign husband of an Iranian woman. Even under the Shah, women were chattel by western standards. Upper class women had access to more freedom and the benefit of a foreign education. But their elevated status seemed chiefly due to their influential and protective family connections. Likewise, my freedom was never restricted, except for safety reasons when the streets became dangerous. But Hellmann precisely captures the Zeitgeist and tells the more harrowing story experienced by women less fortunate than I.

I experienced first-hand the Iranian shift in attitudes towards women and Americans. Street rioters often directed anger at foreigners before the Shah was ousted. One of my British friends, stunned yet alive after his foreign employee bus was bombed, wandered the streets for eight hours trying to shake the men who followed him, punched him and taunted him. He didn't want to lead them home to where his wife waited alone during the day. After the Shah was ousted, "Death to America" combined with praise for Ruhollah Khomeini became the daily chant of armed street mobs. Heads of families connected to the Shah faced arrest, execution and confiscation of property. Religious intolerance towards Jews, Baha'is, and Christians was underreported in the foreign press but was openly discussed in private among Iranians. Armenian businesses in Tehran were destroyed in Iran's own version of Kristallnacht. The most prominent and wealthiest Jewish businessman in Iran, Habib Elghanian, was executed in 1979 as a Zionist spy on trumped up charges. He was a pleasant man known to my ex-husband's family, and I had met him myself at the Imperial Country Club Bashga-ye-Shahanshahi; his execution deeply shocked all who knew him. My German educated Baha'i physician fled Iran in fear for his life.

Any Iranians who today want to complain about Hellmann's characterization of social or religious intolerance should note the effort Iran has made to try to sanitize these events. I found Hellmann's depiction to be fair and if anything, I thought it was restrained.

A BITTER VEIL is a fictionalized account of one American woman's difficult experience after her marriage to an Iranian, but it serves as a composite of the experiences of many foreign women in Iran at that time and even of many Iranian women. Hellman has crafted a rip-roaring read that both educates and entertains.

Tavakoli is the author of UNVEILED THREAT (non-fiction).
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