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Marjaneh Bahktiari, Kan du säga schibboleth? (Can you Say 'Shibboleth'?)

Ordfront,  2009. ISBN: 9789170372872

Reviewed by Ruth Urbom in SBR 2010:1

Sixteen-year-old Parisa and her younger sister Baran live in a pleasant part of Malmö with their father Mehrdad, a college lecturer, and mother Noushin, who is currently on leave from her job with the council. After a concerted pestering campaign by Parisa, her parents reluctantly allow her to travel to Tehran to stay with Noushin’s sister and her family for a couple of weeks – on one condition: Parisa and her sister must travel together. Baran, aged thirteen, whose interests lie mainly in hanging out with her Malmö mates and listening to hip-hop, is not pleased. Terrified of getting arrested by a stern mullah, she goes out and buys the most voluminous coat she can find and a humongous headscarf in preparation for the trip. Meanwhile, Mehrdad finds himself increasingly sought-after as a public speaker and media commentator on immigration issues – small wonder, as his perfect command of the Swedish language and his opinion that immigrants ought to make more of an effort to fit into their new society go down extremely well with the general public. Some of Mehrdad’s students from immigrant backgrounds are not so receptive to his point of view, however. In Tehran the girls discover that the main pastime among moneyed Iranian teenagers is ‘having fun’, though this determination to have a good time is tinged with a sense of desperation and overshadowed by the likelihood that any activity may meet with the random disapproval of the Basij militia – who’s to say which is more un-Islamic: wearing an ‘inappropriate’ amount of make-up or wearing your jeans tucked inside your boots? The reasoning may well have gone the other way round the week before. When Parisa and Baran’s cousin Negar is hauled in by the authorities for wearing a jacket that is deemed too short and therefore ‘inappropriate’, no amount of pleading can help her before the unsmiling women with their stacks of confession forms - not even citing the evidence that an identical jacket was worn by an Iranian film star in a movie shot in Tehran. Negar manages to persuade her mother Mahsa not to tell their young Swedish relatives of this latest indignity, just as they all conceal from Noushin the fact that Mahsa and Noushin’s mother is suffering from dementia, while Noushin refuses to let on to her sister that she is on long-term sick leave from her job. This book touches on a number of issues related to immigration and identity, as well as the challenges encountered by immigrants to a Western European country and those still living in the place they left behind. Fans of the Persepolis graphic novels and the animated film of the same name by Marjane Satrapi will surely be charmed by this novel’s feisty young female characters. Events in the characters’ lives are told with a generous dose of humour and a great deal of warmth, and the scenes depicting the tribulations of daily life for young people in contemporary Tehran are particularly poignant in light of recent events that have been reported from Iran.

Ruth Urbom

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