A Kurdish Odyssey

Photo by Ariel Zambelich

Novelist Laleh Khadivi ’98 writes about three generations of war, revolution, and exile.

By Bill Donahue

At first, it was just random scribbling: a few scrawled notes and the odd fictional vignette scratched in a spiral notebook as she killed time between shifts at the jazz club where she worked as a cocktail waitress. Laleh Khadivi ’98 was just chilling out, postcollege, in 2003—dialing into her yoga practice and taking long hikes in the mountains near her San Francisco home. When she wrote things down, it wasn’t as though some epic tale was roiling inside her, eager to spill out onto the page. She’d never published any fiction, and didn’t even have dreams of doing so. Rather, a couple of insistent questions tugged at her: Who was she? And where had she come from?

Laleh was born in Iran in 1977. Her Kurdish family fled the country for the U.S. two years later, after Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power, declaring a jihad on soldiers who remained loyal to the departing shah. She retained no memory of the exodus, and grew up a nomadic American, the daughter of an itinerant businessman, stationed first in Dallas, then Los Angeles, then Atlanta. She watched MTV. She listened to Bob Marley and ate Pizza Hut pizza. It wasn’t as though the cry of the muezzin dominated her childhood.

And yet the Khadivis spoke Kurdish at home. They celebrated Zoroastrian New Year, with Laleh’s aunts and uncles crowding the house. Laleh was aware of a deeper, ancestral story. Indeed, on one cross-country driving trip in 2002, she’d zigzagged to Chicago anpd Dallas, so that she could interview four of her father’s siblings about their coming of age deep in Iran’s Zagros Mountains.

So she wrote. She envisioned a distant village with no running water: a high, windy place ruled over by old men with long flowing beards . . .

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It’s now a cool, bright afternoon in San Francisco in 2011, and Laleh is kicking back in a breezy San Francisco café. She is thin, with black hair and dark eyes, and she bears the glazed, distracted look of someone who spends long swaths of time all alone, concentrating. She is a restless physical presence, always twisting and stretching her back and her hands, and she is not prone to moderation. “My yoga class starts in—what?—20 minutes,” she says at one point, checking the clock. “But sure, I’ll have another beer. I’ve been writing 10 hours a day. I feel like I haven’t left my apartment for months.”

Over the past seven years, she has turned herself into an author.

In 2009, Bloomsbury USA published her first novel, The Age of Orphans, which tells the story of Reza, a Kurdish boy whose father is killed by Iranian soldiers in the Zagros Mountains in 1921. Reza is captured by the invading Iranian troops and grows up as one of them, ultimately becoming a merciless hunter of his own people. Publisher’s Weekly praised the book’s “strong, unflinching voice” and “penetrating vision.” The London Independent said the novel was “remarkable for its beautiful and brutal poetry” and described it as “bleakly expressive and always sensitive to the alterity and particularity, the poetry and the politics of an individual life.” The book was translated into Dutch, Hebrew, and Italian.

Next year, Bloomsbury will release her second novel, The Walking, a sequel which stars Reza’s son, Saladin, as he makes a journey familiar to thousands of Iranians. Nineteen years old, he flees the Ayatollah’s Iran in 1979, traveling by bus across Turkey and by boat to the Azores before landing in Los Angeles to lead a lonely and desperate émigré’s existence. The two books are part of a projected three-volume series—a final work will dwell on Saladin’s son, a Los Angeles surfer who is all but oblivious to his Iranian roots.

The heroes of the trilogy are, roughly speaking, contemporaries of Laleh’s grandfather, father, and brother, and they’re beset, as the émigré Khadivis have been, by cultural alienation. Still, Laleh insists that her books are not based on the family tales she heard on her cross-country ramble. “I had to forget those stories before I started to write,” she says.

Her novels are, after all, the opposite of dry, factual reporting. They’re poetic and lyrical—reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez in their magical, exuberant language. When young Reza visits a cave with his male mentors to be ritually circumcised, he beholds the ancient drawings of turbaned men on the rock wall there and imagines his father saying, “Just as I am your father you will one day father and the land has fathered us, the lines of Kurd blood do not cross but flow together from their time to ours.”

No one in Khadivi’s family ever spoke in such incantatory tones, and none of Laleh’s relatives quite inhabited the fictional world she envisions, for it is more keening, more violent and sensually thrumming than everyday life. In a traitorous moment that launches The Walking, Saladin obligingly assists the Ayatollah’s armed thugs. After they murder 11 Kurds, he shoots up the  corpses as they lie in the dirt—and is forever haunted by his transgression. Far away from home, perching midmigration in Istanbul, he imagines the voice of one man he shot: “But here I stand, in a photograph that never fades on every newspaper in the city: tall, broad through the shoulders and chest, bandaged hand over strong heart, to tell you that even in your new life, even far away, you will belong to us, children of the mountain town, the earthbound dead.”