Sattareh Farman Farmaian’s memoir of “A Woman’s journey from her father’s harem through the Islamic Revolution” is a personal window of a tumultuous period in modern Iranian history. Born in 1921 in the perfumed city of Shiraz, her life runs parallel with a period of huge change and upheaval in her country, a period where she herself is a benefactor, a change agent, and ultimately a target.
Before fatwas and ayatollahs, Sattareh was born to a prince and his eighth wife, becoming one of his 36 children in total. She grew up in a harem, a walled private village of family and servants, loved but sheltered. Even when young, her life was the subject to the upheavals in Iran. Her father was the prince of a dynasty that had ruled the country for more than a century but in the year of her birth Reza Khan, previously a soldier under her father, staged a coup d’etat. Under his new rule, her family lost official authority but remained prominent and powerful. At the same time, the country itself was developing an identity: from provincial regional rule moving toward a single country, renamed from Persia to Iran.
Living with her mother and siblings in a small house on the property, every Friday she was presented to her father for inspection, a short window of contact with the old man she idolised. Unusually for a prominent member of a traditional dynasty, Sattareh’s father believed in the importance of education for his daughters as much as his sons. As she reflects just on the cusp of adulthood, looking at her family, her country and her opportunities:
“All at once I realised what I must have known forever. That I must have more education, that whatever else happened to me, to serve Iran and its people was my destiny.”
This lead to a huge break in tradition: moving to the United States to go to University. It was the middle of World War II, she travels east to head to the west, and discovers social work – a practical tool that she knew would help her people. This becomes a driving force for her, her purpose.
Sattareh is later called the mother of social work in Iran, but when she first comes home there is not even a word for this work in her language. She makes one up, as well as building the School to bring the profession to her country. She so fundamentally believes in basic education for the betterment of her country and is devoted to improving the quality of life for its people. This conviction means she deliberately avoids politics, engaging only with regimes and rulers when necessary to build her own vision. This approach which was once her strength later becomes her downfall.
It is a riveting read. At first I found the style of writing, with Dona Munker, a little awkward and stilted, but once I adjusted to certain conventions and names it was simply enthralling. Hers is a life very fully lived and is interesting on its own, but set within the context of her country at that time it is incredible to behold.
What Sattareh achieves in her life is prodigious; a front-row witness to history and the range of human experience. It is a fantastic way to view the history of Persia in the 20th Century. From abject poverty and suffering to the most illogical tyranny to the greatest offerings of human kindness and idealism, she relates the richness of her life in all its aspects.