Often anti-feminist and sometimes tacky, but very informative on mental illness
Katayoun Zarrinkoub’s novel,´ The Pot of Jasmine ´ is about an Iranian woman refugee living in Montreal and suffering from depression. She first visits a psychiatrist and then a psychologist to whom she tells her love stories, university studies and job searches in order to find the root causes of her mental illness.
The book ends with a most delightful sentence: «Jasmine smells of Iran ».
While the book is well-written, portraying in an honest and clear way the social, mental and emotional struggles of an ambitious Iranian woman thirsty for love and determined to succeed in her career as an engineer, it is so full of clichés and generalizations about «the Persian culture » that it becomes an unpleasant read at times. Whether autobiographical or inspired by the author’s life, the story of Anahita Parnian, narrated in the first person, introduces us to her own world of patriarchal and male-centered outlook, feelings and values, which are often not questioned by Ms. Zarrinkoub. At times, when the protagonist’s engraved values become an obstacle to her happiness, she regrets having been born in Iran and not in a country like Canada, as if people are the passive victims of their cultures, as if people belonging to each ethnicity are exactly the same, as if all Iranians are Persian and all Persians live in the same box of habits and values. The power of the question by individuals of every ethnicity in their own land or in abroad does not enter the author’s mind. The book is an intermixture of Anahita’s unquestioned male-centered values and her severe mental illness.
Fifteen years after her arrival in Canada at 17 as a refugee, the 32 year-old Anahita meets a younger man by the name of Pedram in Washington, DC and falls in love with him. She says, « For the next two weeks [after I met Pedram] I was walking on cloud nine. I was dancing in seventh heaven, and I was deliriously ecstatic like a dervish. After all, I had just met the one. »(P.29). Until then, she had deliberately not met Iranians in order to improve her English and concentrate on her studies. From the start, her view of this man is that of a saviour for her. The insightful reader immediately recognizes both a mental illness and a traditional view of men as women’s saviours in the novel’s protagonist. Anahita says, «He was like a potted plant grounded in his genuine Iranian soil, and I was a broken branch dancing in the air, searching for my own pot of earth. I was without identity, without roots »(P.11). Then she adds, «I now think this was why Pedram couldn’t love me: because I had abandoned his beloved Iran and had forgotten about caring for his dear fellow Iranians. Howeve, since then I had become a news junky for Iranian current affairs, so much that I spent all my waking hours on news websites and blogs instead of studying for my exam. » (Ibid). The traditional attitude of Anahita adopting the values of a man she is interested in as her own in such a manic way continues throughout her life even when her bipolar illness is under control and she becomes functional.
By Chapter Five, during Anahita’s dinner party in 2002, Pedram expresses the opinion that «Love is an illness. Look at Romeo, mentally ill; Farhad, mentally ill; Majnoon, well his name even says it, mentally ill. What rational human being would ever subject themselves to a condition that can be best described as mental illness? » Anahita, who suffers both from the bipolar disorder and the male-worshiping acculturation, does not see this as a warning sign, does not take his words seriously, laughs it off and thinks of it as his cute commentary. She does so because she needs him. She probably needs a father she never had.
By Chapter Fifteen (PP.119-129), the reader begins to realize how delusional and out of touch the 39 year-old Anahita has become. Eventually, she enters an occupational therapy program at the Montreal General Hospital and three months later, she is diagnosed as having bipolar disorder. Half way through Chapter Sixteen (PP. 130-139) by the New Year’ Day 2011, the 41 year-old Anahita is well enough to look for a job. These two chapters are the best parts of the book, as they inform the readers about the realities of this illness. What transpires from the whole book is that individuals who are first diagnosed with bipolar disorder late in life may well have had undiagnosed bipolar disorder for decades, with symptoms that simply become more noticeable and problematic with age. The exaggerated way Anahita has loved an obnoxious man, Pedram, for seven years is a clear indication of her mania and obsessiveness. An example of her manic behaviour, long before she realized that she had an illness, is when after two years of depression and of her efforts to get a Ph.D., she responds to Pedram’s email who wants to meet her. In retrospective, Anahita only blames herself «I had lost my mind when I agreed to go and meet him. How could I have been so careless? » (P.7), yet she doesn’t realize that she is ill. The meeting makes her much more depressed and truly sick when her delusional expectation that the man who has broken up with her come and hug her and kiss her. When she mentions to him that it is « the anniversary of the day we had met six years ago » (P.8), Pedram’s response is, «Yes, six years from the worst day of my life. » Although she is deeply hurt by this man’s nasty remark, she does not immediately leaves the countryside cottage where they have met. She also keeps silent when he warns her of the patriarchal mantra that « [you] should get married and have children before it’s too late » (Ibid). Instead she pretends to have fallen asleep and leaves the cottage the following day, carrying with her the bag of figs he has given her as a present. While having delusional expectations was part of Anahita’s illness, her passivity towards him, not asserting herself in some way, plus accepting the present he had brought for her, are parts of an emotionally submissive and traditional personality that is not aware of her male-centered values.
The main character’s old-fashioned views of male-female relationships, especially the compulsory virginity of women before their marriage, are presented as an inherent part of the Persian culture. This cannot be further from the truth. Although the majority of Iranians, and not only Persians, continue to adopt the traditional values of their ancestors, a large minority of Iranian women born around the time of the 1979 Revolution, or like the author and her main character going through their childhood at this time, have rebelled against all the traditional values of their parents. Some journalists and authors even speak of a sexual revolution among the youth under the rule of Ayatollahs. Furthermore, Anahita’s values are not shared by many leftist women who participated in the anti-monarchy revolution while they were still in their 20s or 30s, unmarried yet not virgins.
And Anahita’s 1998 triumph over the idea of compulsory virginity that is perpetuated mostly by the religious people in Iran and across the world is a testament to the fact that one can be Persian or any other ethnicity AND sexually liberated from patriarchal traditions and thoughts at the same time. As Anahita says in Chapter Thirteen, where she describes her encounter with an Italian physician, Alessandro, «I was a 28 year-old virgin, and, up until then, my brain had been wired to think that in my life there was one man, and sex was reserved for my wedding night with that one and only man. ... That I would liberate myself enough to go ahead and have a roll in the hay with someone who may or may not end up becoming my husband was unthinkable to me. Alessandro, however, was a very passionate and physical man. For three months he tried to take our relationship further and was met with my resistance. »(P.109). Finally, one summer night in Montreal, « I called Alessandro and told him I was coming to see him at 10 o’clock at night. .. I got to his apartment, and he was ready to welcome me into his arms. That night my world changed. I could finally relate to other people. I was finally normal. »(P.110).
There are plenty examples of patriarchal and traditional values expressed via the voice or some actions of Anahita:
1. While walking to her psychiatrist’s office, Anahita sees the previous patient, a handsome man, who is saying goodbye in a «manly voice » P.1. The author who means that the previous patient had a «deep voice » does not realize that not all men have a deep voice. Using the term «manly » reveals the author’s cliché outlook that only men would have a deep voice, that a woman with deep voice is being unnatural.
2. In 2002, while living in Burlington and working at IBM, Anahita meets Mitra in a restaurant, who invites her to her home, thinking that she needed to meet some men. Anahita says, at the party, «The men were all in their late 20s, so I said, ‘Too bad, I’m older than them. « (P.25) With a grin on her face, Mitra said, « So what? Don’t be so old-fashioned and closed-minded. » (Ibid) And she continues to develop her idea. The author makes Anahita give an inappropriate response, something far from who she really was throughout the novel: «She had a point. I was a feminist, so of course I believed her argument. »(P.26). Then the author continues in a way that is closer to who Anahita, or maybe also she herself, is: « It was just that in our Persian culture this had not sunk in yet. »(Ibid). Obviously, Anahita did not have any idea what feminism was all about, otherwise she would not have uttered the justification for her conformist opinion, as if she had to wait for all Iranians to adopt Mitra’s feminist point of view before she too adopt it. Anyway, eventually three more men in their 20s arrive and shake hand with Anahita. One of them is Pedram, a « tall, dark, handsome » man with « an air of sophistication »(P.26) and walking « with confidence »(Ibid). Anahita falls in love with him and they have a long conversation in a separate room about philosophy, politics and Rumi’s poetry.
3. In 2002, at her own dinner party, Anahita says, «While Pedram was standing tall next to me, I felt safe, as if I was under the protection of a tower. ... I was melting standing next to him under his shadow of so much confidence and greatness. »(P.30)
4) In the above dinner party, after the food was brought to the table and « everybody ate twice as much as they possibly could, ... the praises started coming my way from each and everyone of them about what an amazing cook I was. »(P.30). A woman’s highest achievement is to be an excellent cook, as it is a traditional belief that men expect their future wife to feed him well and be a good housewife, even if she works outside the home.
5) The evening Pedram is at Anahita’s, they are sitting on her red sofa, listening to the music. Anahita who does not want to have sex with Pedram or any other man before being married to him, says, «I could feel so much fire between us that if I didn’t try to manage it and harness it for a more intellectual activity, the night would have ended up going too far. I got up and went to my bookcase »(P.33). Finally, Anahita allows Pedram to kiss her. She says, «That night we spent many hours on that sofa, but when he asked me if he could stay the night, I said no. Of course that was the Persian girl inside me who said no. If I had been more like Roxana [ born and raised in US of Iranian parents] , I probably would have allowed nature to take its course and lead me to the beautiful place we were supposed to find ourselves. However, he was more Persian than me, so he understood. He knew I could not appear to be an easy prize to be won at first attempt. I had to play hard to get, it was the Persian way. »
(PP.34-35). Both Anahita and the author (if different people) are wrong. The view of women as sexual objects and prizes to win is not the Persian way, but the patriarchal and misogynous way, which prevailed in North-America before the 1960s. Furthermore, Pedram was not « more Persian »(read more traditional) than Anahita, as he asked if he could stay the night.
6) Speaking of Pedram, Anahita’s beloved who has abandoned her and doesn’t call her, she implies that she doesn’t want to call him because «I had too much pride to contact him. » (P.3). The author does not reflect on this old-fashioned personality trait and does not question it.
7) In May 2007, five years after having loved Pedram, a 37 year-old Anahita leaves Boston and her satisfying teaching job for Montreal and her mother’s home to pursue a Ph.D. program in engineering in order to make herself «worthy of his love »(P.4), the love of a man who was five years younger than her, had «a Ph.D. and academic achievements beyond his years » (Ibid) and most importantly had broken up with her. She did so because this very man had also made her « feel inadequate »(Ibid) because she has only a master’s degree and not a Ph.D. like him. This move that was accompanied by depression, is obviously a symptom of a manic disorder. However, we are also witnessing the character of a traditional woman who is dependant on a man and his opinions of her for her own self-worth, a man who, by disappearing, has caused her to drive herself «to the point of nothingness »(P.7). At no time, the protagonist questions her male-centered outlook, nor challenges Pedram’s belittling of her as a woman and a human being. She even continues in the same vein by going back to her childhood God through the poems of Hafiz and by praying Muslim prayer. She also attends other patriarchal houses of worship, churches and synagogues.
Here we have a clear example of women’s Otherness in relation to men and their oppressive world they impose on women as Simone de Beauvoir explains in her book The Second Sex (1949). In the Chapter “Justifications,” de Beauvoir studies some of the ways that women reinforce their own dependency. Women in love and mystics embrace their immanence by drowning selfhood in an external object—whether it be a lover, or God. She says, «For the Jews, Mohammedans, and Christians, among others, men is master by divine right; the fear of God will therefore repress any impulse towards revolt in the downtrodden female. » According to de Beauvoir, religion is used by men to oppress women and to compensate for them for the second-class status. It is men who control religion beliefs, and they use God to justify their control of Society and women.
Besides many anti-feminist statements in the book, there are also plenty of tacky evocations used by the author, which reduces the book to the level of Cheesy romance novels. A few examples follow:
Regarding her depression, Anahita says, « I didn’t understand why I was stuck in a moment, as U2 says. »( P.2).
2) The author makes Anahita say that during the same time, « There were a few songs on my iPod with which I truly connected. I listened to them a lot. One of them was « You found me » by The Fray », which was followed by a long lyric.
3) When Anahita invites Pedram to eggplant stew, she says, «For ambience I played the best of Chris de Burgh CD »(P.33). Then after supper, « we sat on my red sofa. The CD player was playing « A Woman’s Heart.» It got to the lyrics, «if you don’t believe that these things happen, could be the biggest mistake that a man can make. » I looked at him and smiled mischievously. (Ibid)
4) During the above night, after Anahita and Pedram finish reading Hafiz, « The Chris de Burgh CD had reached «Lady in Red »: ‘And I have never had such a feeling, such a feeling
of complete and utter love, as I do tonight.’ That’s when he moved closer held me in his arms, ...He then whispered the same words as the song in my ears. »(P.34)
To finish this review of the book, it doesn’t seem to me that the protagonist knows herself. In page 2, she says, « I couldn’t recognize who I had become. I was once a very strong and emotionally independent woman. » The fact is that no emotionally independent woman could become dependant on a man to the extent of suffering of depression for two years after the end of the relationship. Only a woman who has been brought up as an emotionally dependant person or suffering of an undiagnosed bipolar illness would get manically or
hyper- sentimentally involved with the wrong man and fall into depression for several years after the breakup. Generally, a person can be mentally and physically independent , travelling alone across the world, attending universities and working for instance as an engineer, yet remaining emotionally dependant as in her childhood without being aware of it. Often mentally independent people pass to themselves and others as also « emotionally independent, » creating an image problem for themselves and the people surrounding them.