How Rabeah Ghaffari's Family History Inspired Her Novel, Set Amid The Iranian Revolution

“There’s a joke that came out in Iran after the revolution that goes something like this: Before the revolution we prayed in our homes and drank in the streets. After the revolution we drink in our homes and pray in the streets,” Rabeah Ghaffari, author of the debut novel, To Keep The Sun Alive, tells Bustle. Her novel tells the story of one family — led by a retired judge and his wife, who own an ancient orchard in the Iranian city of Naishapur — living during their country's revolution in 1979.

The family consists of matriarch Bibi Khanoom; her husband, a thoughtful legal scholar named Akbar-Agha; his brother, a reactionary Islamic cleric; their nieces and nephews; and their adopted son Jafar. All live in a country about to be undone by itself — one in which tradition and innovation, law and faith, religion and academia are all primed to collide. But the orchard, filled with apple trees and plum trees, peaches and sour cherries, provides rare sanctuary in the midst of chaos.

“The orchard was a safe space because it was Bibi-Khanoom’s domain,” Ghaffari says. “She, along with her husband, created the conditions for all to feel welcome without judgement. This is in direct contrast to the public spaces in the novel, namely the [city] square. Because in public we are judged or worse.”

Bibi-Khanoom’s character — a woman of measured strength and patience, who cares not only for each member of her family but also for the neighborhood community outside the orchard — was based on an incident from the author’s own life. “My father had brought an English theater director to my grandmother’s orchard and the director had reached out his hand to shake hers. My grandmother was a religious woman and did not touch men outside her own family,” the author says. “But this man was also a guest in her home, so instead of refusing to shake his hand, she gently let her chador drape over her hand as she reached out to take his.”

“She, along with her husband, created the conditions for all to feel welcome without judgement."

And yes, that real-life orchard was also the inspiration for the setting of Ghaffari’s novel.

“My father’s side of the family is from Naishapur,” says Ghaffari, who was born in Iran in 1971 and lived there until three months before the 1979 revolution. “The orchard in the novel is based on my grandmother’s orchard where I spent all of my summers and holidays. During the school year, I lived in Tehran. Both of my parents worked, so I spent a lot of time with grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. It was a very idyllic childhood.”

Rabeah Ghaffari, courtesy of Angela Levin

Then, in late 1978, Ghaffari’s father was invited to America for a seasonal artist’s residency, when a colleague advised him to take Ghaffari and her mother with him. “At that point everyone knew what was coming,” she says of the impending revolution. “But I don’t think it had quite sunk in yet. We left many things behind when we came to America.”

Ghaffari witnessed the revolution on a television screen, in her family’s apartment, in the United States. “What I remember is the look of disbelief on my parents’ faces. So the decision was made to make a life here in America,” she says. She didn’t return to Iran until 2002, 23 years later.

"We left many things behind when we came to America.”

“I recognized nothing. Not a person or a place,” Ghaffari says. “I then went to Naishapur.”

There, she discovered what was left of her grandmother’s orchard, which had been sold, piecemeal, after her grandmother’s death and not long after the revolution. She describes the adobe wall that once surrounded the ten-acre plot of land, of which remained only a small, crumbling portion. “The novel, as it is now, is not autobiographical,” says Ghaffari. “But its reason for being is the ruins of that orchard wall turning into dust in my hand, which taught me something that I would only be able to articulate after having finished writing the book: that all that remains of us are the stories we tell.”

But for all the sanctuary Bibi Khanoom’s orchard provides, there are a number of dangerous power dynamics at play in in To Keep The Sun Alive: conflicts between law, government, academia, and faith; conflicts between men and women, between women and women; the different power dynamics that exist between people in public versus private spaces.

"...all that remains of us are the stories we tell.”

“These are the power struggles that confront all of humanity,” Ghaffari says. “I am very much interested in the nature of power and an individual’s relationship to it. Whatever power you have, whether it’s over a nation, a congregation, a child, a lover, a friend, an animal, the natural world, a person who works for you or is in service to you in some capacity, how you wield that power is a good indication of who you are. And any power gained without first understanding your own relationship to it can become destructive and oppressive.”

She notes a distinction between personal power and political power. “A society that is not organized in such a way that it protects the vulnerable and powerless from our worst inclinations, is a society that has not realized true equality,” she says. “And I think this holds true for any country. Most of us want to live our lives with dignity, free from harm and degradation. And often times, the only recourse left to us, when our institutions fail us, is to revolt. But revolutions are unpredictable and leave a lot of casualties in their wake. There really are no easy answers. Just a lot of questions.”

“A society that is not organized in such a way that it protects the vulnerable and powerless from our worst inclinations, is a society that has not realized true equality,”

Many of her characters hunger for power in their own ways, but not just for power, also for justice, for knowledge, for a different kind of future, for a voice. Some turn to academics, others to opiates, still others to religion, to sex, to food, to love. “It’s something I have always been interested in when observing people. How some people go through life trying to fill a void or cauterize a wound,” says Ghaffari. “Often times, they are not aware of what drives them. Out of desperation and this deep sense of woundedness, what they seek and acquire can end up destroying the world around them, but that void is never filled and that wound is never healed.” She cites an example from the novel, when Akbar-Agha says of his brother that he is a broken man and “broken men only know their own suffering.”

Then there are characters like Madjid, Bibi Khanoom’s nephew and a student — filled with a different kind of craving, one driven by hope, by passion. “[They] seek to understand the world around them,” Ghaffari says. “[They] interrogate it and want to know why things are the way they are. And by doing this they begin to know themselves and care for the world around them. And while they may lose the battle, they don’t lose their souls.”