Persian Letters is an engaging memoir in the form of letters. Writing to his sons, Mehrdad Rafiee relates the history of his family, going back several generations until their emigration to Australia in 1985.
Along the way, Rafiee takes us on an intimate exploration of Iranian history and culture, unpacking a cultural heritage thousands of years old. The traditions and circumstances of this ancient culture rest on a different basis from modern Western consumerism, with family and community expectations and duties that are unknown today. Habits of respect and thrift lived alongside notions of duty, hospitality, and care for others. From hosting everyone in the village at a family event, through the careful allocation of water throughout the village, down to the saving of food scraps to feed neighbours’ livestock, this is a picture of a people who worked out how to live well in a harsh environment.
This book, however, is not simply nostalgia for some lost values and connections with the past. More than that, Rafiee sees his country and its citizens with a clear eye, noting the cracks in society and the weaknesses in the systemic biases of successive regimes, and the demarcations between the well-off and the poor that provide a fertile background for the supremacy of the clergy.
Despite all this fascinating information, this is not a heavy read – don’t expect dry history! The letters are intimate and interesting, with many asides telling fascinating tidbits about the family, and many words of wisdom that are worth noting. Most of all, the reader can sense the kind and tolerant mind behind the pen, the mind of a man dedicated to the future but mindful of where he has come from.
A particular strength of the book is the structure, where the information is broken into short ‘letters’, many with photos of the family, the cultural item, the event, or the area being discussed. There are footnotes too, but these are done in a sensible way that doesn’t intrude on the narrative. If anyone wanted to skim over them and just follow the action, that would work, but I can’t imagine any reader who would do so. It’s all too interesting.
Persian Letters is not a quick read, and you don’t want it to be. It’s a book for slow absorption, the kind of thing that would suit 1001 nights of reading pleasure. It’s a book of the wonders of the ancient world, and of the conundrums of the modern world. It’s a book of wisdom and a book of inquiry. But most of all it’s a book of love.
My thanks to Mehrdad Rafiee for the review copy. It is a book I will return too often. As a student of Ancient History, I was fascinated by the tales of Alexander the Great, who was fascinated by tales of Persia. I was delighted to have the opportunity to read this book.