A Girl Called Rumi is a novel of rejuvenation and redemption. It’s a story that unfolds in two cities and in two time frames: Shiraz and San Diego are the places; the time frames are 1981 during the Iran-Iraq war and 2009 during Iranian election protests. The story’s primary narrator is an immigrant who – while still a child – fled Iran and landed in the United States.
Nearly 200 Iraqi Scud missiles rained destruction on Iran during the war; three eventually struck Shiraz. And so this novel of magical realism begins – not with a V2 rocket screaming across the sky – but with an unseen Scud warhead arcing down silently toward a town square filled with scores of unsuspecting people. They have gathered to watch a puppet theater performance of an ancient Persian story of a mythical creature, the Simorgh.
Kimia, who is the protagonist, relates how she was sent by her mother to buy naan but was distracted by a gathering of people in the square. She runs right to the front of a stage to watch. On set an actor ambles about and speaks to the crowd narrating the puppet show unfolding behind him. A great bird flies above the actor on a shadow screen. But moments later the warhead strikes: The sudden fireball puts an abrupt, ear-splitting end to the enchantment. Stunned, a temporarily deafened Kimia takes in the eerily silent scene of smoke and flames, the falling debris, the panicked parents scooping up children, the people running in all directions, the theater stage burning.
This brutal beginning is also Kimia’s first encounter with a principal character in the story, a person she calls The Morshed – the storyteller, a middleman between the puppeteers and the audience, the master performer. Just before the warhead explodes, he locks eyes with her, and it feels like he knows what is about to happen.
Persian culture is suffused with poetry and storytelling, and the man Kimia was watching on the stage before the warhead exploded represents that cultural reality. The Morshed will also be her guide, helping her overcome a fragmented emotional life caused by the war. His role as mystic and teacher, and the allegory of the ancient Persian Simorgh myth which is interwoven throughout the novel, ultimately lead to Kimia’s spiritual redemption. And not just her own.
Other characters in the story also narrate in first person: Kimia’s mother, her brother, a best friend, and a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Some readers may find this unusual, but it is a well-established literary artifice and serves the narrative quite well.
Throughout the novel Honarvar tells the story of the Simorgh. The Simorgh is a symbol of benevolence, first written about by the poet Ferdowsi, and similar to the myth of the Phoenix, the Simorgh can be reborn after plunging to its death in flames. Attar of Nishapur, a Persian poet born in the 11th century, wrote the poem The Conference of the Birds, which expands on the original Simorgh myth. Those stories, along with certain poems by Rumi, are themselves both an interpretive key and a pathway for the characters coming to terms with a past that, one way or another, has damaged them all. But it was not just the Iran-Iraq war that damaged them, it was their own behavior in reaction to it and toward each other that inflicted hurt.
This is the first novel I’ve read that has anything to do with modern Iran. Some readers might dislike the inclusion of many Iranian cultural references and terms, but I found them both interesting and provocative, and they are either footnoted or explained in the text. I found all of the characters three-dimensional and generally believable in their varying personalities and character types. Each narrator sooner or later reveals themself to be not quite what the author originally leads us to believe. There is the widowed mother who recites poetry at any given situation, but uses her husband’s belt or a horsewhip to punish her wayward daughter; the brother who is attracted to order and punishment, but feels guilty about it and is protective of his bruised and beaten sister; the revolutionary guard who wakes up with night sweats despite his conviction that the brutality he commits on behalf of the Mullah’s strict interpretation of Islam is both required and correct.
I found myself drawn ever further into the story and wanting to know how things would develop, especially with The Morshed, who is the most mysterious of the characters. The relation between Kimia and The Morshed is where the magical realism of this novel ultimately expresses itself most powerfully.
The end of the novel shines when the author pulls the symbolism of The Conference of the Birds poem directly into the denouement. How the birds in the myth ultimately relate to the Simorgh is how the surviving characters finally begin to feel their way toward a resolution of their own conflicts, both internal and interpersonal.
Ari Honarvar aimed high with A Girl Called Rumi and has produced a successful, complex, and overall compelling debut novel.
Skip Rhudy’s fiction has appeared in Central Park, Asylum, and multiple micropress literary magazines in the US and Germany. Some of his translations of poetry and prose from German appeared in the literary magazine Dimension and the book Dimensions. In 1990 he translated Wolfgang Hilbig’s novel Die Weiber into English but it remained unpublished. While living in Berlin in 1991 he wrote One Punk Summer, now being reprinted by ECP Books. He’s working on two books: A love story about Texas surf culture, Forgotten Shore, and a memoir about building and flying his own homebuilt aircraft, American Homebuilt. He’s also working on translating Wolfgang Hilbig’s first volume of poetry from German, absence, which small press publisher ECP Books should publish in summer 2022.