Sahebjam, a French-Iranian journalist, was traveling through Iran in the 1980s when he had to stop in a small village. An elderly woman, Zahra, asked him for tea so she could tell him the story of what happened to her niece, Soraya, mere weeks before. Sahebjam grants narrative to her tale to get the story of injustice out.
Soraya was a typical rural Iranian woman. Married to a villager at a young age. Her husband, Ghorban-Ali, became less and less invested in his family and more and more likely to beat them. He also became increasingly interested in young women in the city. When a criminal posing as a mullah comes to town, Ghorban-Ali sees the perfect opportunity to be rid of his wife without any costs of divorce. He, the mullah, and an easily swayed widower friend corroborate to falsely accuse Soraya of adultery and sentence her to death by stoning.
Things can easily go awry when the powers of justice are held in the hands of a select few. A lot rests on whether or not those few are good people. This book tells that tale, and it tells it movingly, regardless of whether or not all the facts of the story are precisely correct. The biggest facts are accurate, and that is what matters.
Sahebjam is a French-Iranian journalist. He thus has both the perspective of insider and outsider, which is the ideal one for a story like this. He understands the people and the village but he also knows how to present and explain things to the non-Iranian reader. Sahebjam clearly and honestly states from the beginning that he got this tale from one eyewitness. Some might argue that this story thus isn’t researched well enough or thoroughly vetted. It is indeed one eyewitness account passed through an author (and for English speakers, a translator). But the core of the injustice is verifiable: the handling of adultery in Islam. Combine this with religion and state being one and the same, and it’s easy to see how if this story didn’t indeed already happen how it could easily come to be.
The first half of the book introduces us to Sahebjam, Zahra (the aunt), and Soraya, as well as the organization of the small town and the adultery laws as followed by fundamentalist Islam. Sahebjam does a good job introducing all the people and explaining the context of the injustice without overwhelming the reader with info dumping.
Essentially, in Islam, when it comes to adultery, the woman has to do all the proving.
When a man accuses his wife [of adultery], she has to prove her innocence [in Islam]. This is the law. On the other hand, if a woman makes an accusation against her husband, she has to produce proof. (location 1079)
If the woman is wealthy, she can pay off the mullah (think of it as paying a penance in Catholicism). But:
In most cases the woman [accused of adultery in Iran] is poor—which means she is a virtual slave to her husband. She has no rights, except for the meager right to remain silent. All the husband needs to win his case of infidelity is two eyewitnesses, who are generally friends and accomplices. As for the accused woman, she has to prove her innocence and that is impossible: no one will come to her aid; no one will bear witness on her behalf. (location 129)
Regardless of whether or not Soraya was a real person (and I do believe she was), these are problematic laws that leave the door wide open for abuse by a few corrupt people. This book demonstrates that danger eloquently.
Sahebjam clearly made a choice to make the tale flow better by giving it some narrative qualities. He inserts dialogue he clearly wasn’t there to hear, and he even talks about what was going on inside people’s heads. I didn’t like that he did the latter, especially. I understand dialogue can help make a nonfiction book flow a bit, and I’m ok with that. But claiming to know what was going on inside people’s minds turned me off the narrative a bit. It leaves the door open for criticism of a story that needs to be taken seriously, and I wish he had made other narrative choices.
At first, it is easy to be irritated by Soraya’s choice to remain silent when accused. She gives up so quickly, one wonder why she never advocates for herself. But in retrospect, it’s a clear, yet subtle, depiction of what can happen to a victim of abuse over time. Eventually their spirit is just beaten out of them. Soraya demonstrates what happens when abused people are left to deal with the abuse and abuser on their own.
Overall, this book highlights the inequality innate is Muslim adultery laws, as well as the dangers of leaving justice to the hands of a few. The narrative structure doesn’t precisely suit a nonfiction account of an event, but the bones at the core of the injustice are still verifiably true. Readers who prefer a dry, precise nonfiction might not be able to look past the narrative structure. Those who can will find a moving tale of how easy it is for injustice to take over a community.
4 out of 5 stars