Barrelhouse Reviews: Refuge by Dina Nayeri

Review by Lauren Hakimi


When I was filling out the Common Application to apply to college, I had to select a nation from a dropdown menu to indicate where my parents were born. But their native country was not listed, so for lack of a better option I selected “Iran, Islamic Republic Of.” My parents’ true home has been rendered fictional by historical events since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in which anti-Western Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the pro-Western Shah. It’s this fiction that Dina Nayeri explores in Refuge, a semi-autobiographical work of historical fiction that follows borderline neurotic protagonist Niloo Hamidi through questions of exile, home and family.

Niloo, who left Iran with her mother as a child, describes the country as “stuck in 1976 in the imagination of every exile.” “Iranians often say,” Niloo observes, “that when they visit Tehran or Shiraz or Isfahan, they find even the smallest changes confusing and painful—a beloved corner shop gone to dust, the smell of bread that once filed a street, a rose garden neglected. In their memories, they always change it back.” Niloo’s life decisions are largely based on this romanticization of her native country.

It is out of fear of these confusing and painful changes that Niloo never returns to Iran, even to see her father, Bahman, who is still in Isfahan. As an adult, Niloo, who lives in Amsterdam, insists her father meet her in neutral cities like London or Istanbul—on the rare occasion that they meet at all. She’s afraid to see that he has aged. Afraid that her image of him as the thirty-three year old he was when she left will be replaced with something else; in this case, an image of an opium addict with rotten teeth who looks even older than he already is.

Whatever elitism or solipsism the cosmopolitan, Yale educated, type-A narrator exudes, Nayeri’s narrative comes back to counterbalance it, often against her will. At the recommendation of her husband, whose name her mother delightfully mispronounces “Gay” throughout the novel, Niloo attends an event where she ends up getting drawn irrevocably into the lives of undocumented immigrants who have fled Iran. Meanwhile, Bahman, who is as if not more hilarious than Niloo’s mother, sends her suspicious emails. As it turns out, Bahman is under house arrest because of his involvement with the Green Movement—a movement in which Iranians in Iran as well as in the diaspora protested the re-election of conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. Every which way, Iran catches up to Niloo—but she’s still not ready for it, and most crucially, she is not ready for her father. “Baba doesn’t belong here, his bare feet, cradled for decades by warm grasses, soft Ardestooni riverbanks, and silky rugs, landing suddenly on this chilly, inhospitable soil,” worries Niloo. But the truth on the other end is just as wrought: Bahman is afraid to leave a place where he’s invested so much of himself and established himself within his local community, but eventually, he does escape. 

What does it really mean to be at home? Like my own parents, Niloo and Bahman both leave their native country, never to return. They feel scared. They feel lonely. They struggle to find their footing. If that weren’t enough, Europe is becoming increasingly hostile to Iranian immigrants, and Bahman’s legal status is only temporary. Are they doomed to homelessness?

Wondering about this question of home, I’ve asked my own parents—“do you ever miss Iran?”  Their answer is no, they always felt at home in the U.S.—or at least in our suburban town that is composed largely of Persian Jews like them. Many if not most living descendents of the Jews who moved from Qazvin to Mashhad in the seventeenth century live in this town today, where they eat, gossip, and marry as though they’re still in Iran. Perhaps it’s because we are Jewish that my mother says to me in Farsi: “I don’t miss Iran because my whole family is here with me.”

As for Bahman, once he is with Niloo and her mother in Amsterdam, he gets a taste of home that has less to do with Iran and more to do with the people he loves. He comes to a realization that “most everything we claim to want is the empty shell of something more essential… marriage, houses, what were these but waiting containers for love? He wanted to say, everything ends. Everything. All love and truth. Family is all. It regenerates, like reptile skin. It endures.” 

Could a country be like one of those empty shells Bahman speaks of—a waiting container for love? Like marriage or houses, countries themselves can be nothing but means to an end, especially for people with no other means. The people living in them could—theoretically, hopefully, with enough patience and enough love—live somewhere else if they wanted to, preferably a place where they could live with the same families they’d loved in their countries of origin.

Lauren Hakimi is a sophomore at Macaulay Honors at Hunter College in New York City, where she majors in English and History, runs cross country and track, and eats a lot of pizza. Follow her on Twitter @laurenhak28.