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The Ruby Tear Catcher – a review


Sheree Sartain
WVoN co-editor

Iranian political activist, Nahal Sahabi, committed suicide last week after her release from Iran’s notorious Evin prison (see WVoN story).

Sahabi was one of a number of women who have been imprisoned and interrogated in Evin.

Human rights campaigners attribute the horrific treatment that prisoners suffer there as a cause of mental ill-health and suggest that this may have led to Sahabi’s death.

Iran’s past is turbulent and it is over thirty years since the revolution when the pro-Western Shah was overthrown and replaced with a religious fundamentalist leadership.

It was also a political and cultural revolution, a reality felt most sharply by the women of Iran.

In Iran today, women wear traditional Islamic dress and their lives are shaped by Sharia law.

The lives of women in Iran have undoubtedly changed since the revolution, but the contrast is not always clear-cut and it would be wrong to assume that women in Iran ever had the freedom of lifestyle that women in many Western countries have today.

It is against this background that Iranian author Nahid Sewell has written her first novel – which sees the protagonist Leila arrested and imprisoned in Evin for the crimes of her family.

Sewell was born in Tehran and went to university in the USA. She works in IT and usually writes non-fiction.

The Ruby Tear Catcher is written as fiction but draws heavily on Sewell’s own life experience, and although she has never been imprisoned in Evin the background and life stories of Sewell and Leila show strong similarities.

The novel is the story of Leila, daughter of a liberal father and traditional mother, arrested and brutalized by a regime in which people vanish from the streets.

Like Sewell, Leila leaves Iran to attend university in the USA. On her return, to a country in the throes of revolution, Leila finds herself alienated from the country of her birth.

Her affair with fellow student Jack, a Christian fundamentalist, and her arranged marriage to the vicious and adulterous Farhad on her return home give Leila little in the way of comfort.

Leila’s mother wants an Iranian daughter, not a daughter corrupted by a Western education and pre-marital sex. And although she concedes the Western education, the arranged marriage and virginity are non-negotiable.

In this way, Sewell challenges the idea that Iranian women were ever free to decide their life’s path.

Sewell cleverly marks out the old Iran as a seed-bed of what was to come and shows the revolution as an entrenchment of older ideas about women and their role.

Through the story, the monochromatic Tehran of today is cast into stark relief against the bright and colourful Tehran of the past as, lying in her prison cell, Leila escapes to a world of dreams.

Abandoned to her tormentors by her violent husband, she remembers her life – and hopes for rescue.

But although her dreams offer an escape from her present they also bring the cruel taunt of what life once was.

What becomes apparent through this tale is that clearly defined  – and discriminatory – gender roles were present in the old Iran and the seeds of what was to come are sprinkled through Leila’s re-telling of life as it was.

Bound and hooded in her prison cell, Leila is as powerless as she always has been.

The men in her life, father, Ali, brother Amir, and lover, Jack have all – in their own ways – betrayed her.

The women are insubstantial and, like the monochromatic Tehran, grey.

Finally, in prison, Leila is also betrayed by her own body, as she is raped, becomes pregnant and subsequently miscarries her child.

In the end, Leila finds salvation and also rekindles her relationship with the treacherous Jack.

Despite this ending, or perhaps because of it, we know that Leila will remain powerless.

But it becomes difficult when fact and fiction merge, and Sewell, who clearly identifies with her heroine Leila, in real life is now married to ‘Jack’ who is portrayed throughout the book as duplicitous and self-serving. Although I’m not sure that Sewell realises this.

Is this Jack we are talking about or is it Sewell’s husband? For some this may not matter, but for me it does. I don’t like Jack, but I’m not about to conduct a character assassination of Sewell’s husband. That’s her prerogative.

I see no problem with authors drawing on their life stories to use in their novels. Indeed, the maxim is to write about what you know but, and this is the point, you don’t need to tell the reader about it.

The writing should stand on its own merit, it should not need to be bolstered with the author’s claims to truth and knowledge.

The Ruby Tear Catcher by Nahid Sewell. Published by Summerhill Press pp256.

Chapter One is available to download.

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