by Pooneh Rohi
reviewed by Fiona Graham
As snow falls endlessly on Stockholm, a man in late middle age whiles away his empty days shuttling about the public transport system. Nameless, jobless and friendless, he is perceived by fellow-passengers as an ‘Arab’, an immigrant from some Middle Eastern country or other. In the same city, a bright young woman of Iranian background struggles with conflicting demands. Should she agree to her Swedish boyfriend’s long-held wish to start a family? Should they move out to suburbia, where a slightly larger flat might be more affordable? Neither scenario seems readily compatible with her determination to study for a doctorate.
In alternating chapters, we follow the lives of these two protagonists from November to April. Only the young woman’s chapters are dated; the ‘Arab’ (actually an Iranian) exists in a timeless limbo, punctuated only by outings to discount stores and walks through snowy streets. The here and now is interrupted by sporadic flashbacks that gradually reveal their back-stories. For the man, these are sparked off by the news that an old friend in Iran has died of cancer. The woman’s memories of Iran, though happier – she reminisces about her large extended family in a country of perpetual summer – conflict with her very different lifestyle in Sweden.
These skilfully interwoven narratives reveal the pain and loss experienced by both generations: the émigrés, and the young who grow up in a new country, but with parents anchored in the old one. The ‘Arab’, once a Communist, now finds his former political views empty and meaningless. On arriving in Sweden, he discovered that five years of university studies in Iran counted for nothing. His determination to requalify as an engineer in Sweden demanded a sacrifice that ultimately proved fruitless – and caused terrible harm to his family.
The woman speaks unaccented Swedish, but imperfect Farsi. Her mother and other émigrés of that generation rage against the Iranian régime, listen to émigré radio stations and demonstrate against the torture, rape and killing of students. The young woman feels she should be part of the protest movement, but in fact takes a somewhat detached view. She is torn between two cultures, glad to be living in a free and democratic society, but ashamed to have only a tenuous hold on the rich poetic and musical heritage of her parents’ culture. When her boyfriend suggests that she rewrite her research proposal to include Iran, she angrily retorts that she knows nothing of the country.
Pooneh Rohi, herself an academic linguist, sensitively depicts the centrality of language both to the characters’ own sense of identity, and to the role they play in society. Though drawn to her Iranian heritage, the young woman is painfully conscious that she lacks the deep relationship with the literary language which she would have had if she had grown up in Iran. For the older generation, the issue is a different one; her mother speaks a mildly eccentric Swedish that marks her out as an immigrant. The ‘Arab’, obliged to study both Swedish and English before even beginning his second engineering degree, has abandoned his Iranian roots without ever becoming rooted in Swedish society.
The author’s own use of language is richly evocative of the contrasting landscapes that almost assume the role of characters in the novel: on the one hand, the cold white beauty of Sweden in winter; on the other, the colours and fragrance of rural Iran, viewed through the prism of memory. In one horrific flashback to an Iranian jail, she also shows how survivors of extreme brutality like the ‘Arab’ are victimised by resurgent memories. Good or bad, the passages set in Iran have a vividness and intensity that are missing from the present-day Swedish setting, as if a full life is denied to the characters – including the young woman – in their adoptive country.
Foreign rights: Pooneh Rohi
Pooneh Rohi was awarded the Småland Migrant Prize for Araben in 2019.
She has also written Segraren (The Victor), a radio play, and Kräftfångst (Catching Crayfish), a short story (Novellix, 2019).
An extract from Araben is featured in SBR 2020:1-2