When I met Rabeah Ghaffari, filmmaker, writer, and actress, for dinner at Sofreh, a Persian restaurant in Prospect Heights, she seemed to know everyone there. “I’ve known [owner] Nasim and her husband forever,” she explains. Throughout the evening we had a lively conversation, covering everything from Ta’zieh, the Iranian performance reenacting the massacre of Hussein (Muhammad’s grandson) and his followers, to the merits of reading Dostoevsky before bed. Art, food, and books are cultural products she believes can unite the world and her debut novel, To Keep the Sun Alive, is rich with these references as she dives into the story of a fractured family in the lead up to the Iranian Revolution.
Told over a single day, the novel follows a lonely Iranian man, Shazdehpoor, during an eclipse in modern day Paris. Interwoven are rich recollections of his time in ‘70s Naishapur, where he and his son Majid gather at the family orchard to share stories, eat luxurious home-cooked meals, and contemplate the world around them. At the start of the novel we see fissures that will lead to larger antagonisms: an opium addiction that splits father and son, a mullah constantly overshadowed by his brother, a growing distance between husband and wife. Ghaffari is an empathetic writer, able to suffuse even the smallest character with a rich inner life. The web she weaves between the personal and political is so intricate, To Keep the Sun Alive warrants more than one read.
I had the pleasure of talking with Ghaffari about To Keep the Sun Alive, her real-life inspirations, and the beauty of stories within stories.
The Rumpus: Why don’t we begin with you introducing yourself? Where are you from?
Rabeah Ghaffari: I was born in Iran and I lived there until I was eight years old. My father, who worked at the festival of arts in Shiraz, was invited to the University of Michigan for a one-year artist residency. Before he left, his friend told him, “You should take your wife and daughter with you,” so we left and three months after we left the revolution began. And we didn’t go back. My father was given political asylum and we ended up staying. I’ve been in New York since 1981.
Rumpus: Did you ever leave New York?
Ghaffari: I went to USC for six months and turned around and came right back. I was there for just six months and I really didn’t… it was a culture shock. I came back to New York and I ended up going to NYU for a semester and then I dropped out. I never went to college, really. I went to the Esper studio, and I was in a little theater group with women and we used to do various shows around the city. I would go to auditions for, like, “Terrorist Wife Number One.” I was just really miserable about it.
In 2002, my father was directing Ta’zieh, which was coming to Lincoln Center, and so I suggested that we should make a documentary about that. I went back to Iran to shoot Ta’zieh with my father and it was sort of magical. That was the first time I had been back in twenty years. And when I went back my cousin, who I hadn’t seen since I was eight years old, she said to me, “Do you want to go back and see what’s left of the orchard?” My grandmother had an orchard we used to play in when we were kids. The novel—it’s not autobiographical, it’s fiction—but…
Rumpus: It sounded like a beautiful place, in the novel.
Ghaffari: It was edenic. Because it was enclosed, they would just let us loose. Sometimes we would eat so many fruits we’d get sick; we’d just be covered in juices.
When we went, there was nothing left. There was a piece of the adobe wall that was left. I remember my cousin and I were standing there and I put my hand on it and it fell into dust. And when I finished writing the novel—because I couldn’t figure out why I even wrote this—I remembered that moment. It was one of those things where I wasn’t aware of it at the time.
Rumpus: When did you begin working on To Keep the Sun Alive?
Ghaffari: Well, I wrote a screenplay first and it wasn’t really different than what the book is now. Some of the characters change and stuff but the orchard was the central premise.
Rumpus: How did writing a novel offer you space to do what a screenplay or documentary couldn’t?
Ghaffari: You know what’s really interesting is that I’ve written a couple scripts now, and made a documentary, and edited film, but what a novel is is all of that. The author is all of those people. You’re the actor, the director, the editor, the stage designer, the prop master—you’re literally everything. You are the one doing the work. A film is basically a novel where all the jobs are given out. Really that’s the fundamental difference.
Rumpus: I’m curious to hear more about when you started writing this novel.
Ghaffari: I did all these different movie circuits and then I just kind of looked around and realized, if you want to make a film it’s a really gargantuan effort with fundraising and research and the actors. At the time I had started working on another piece. I wrote sort of fairy tale where most of the characters were fish.
I worked on that like a year or two and then I came back to the this. I looked at it and I was like, “What if I just started writing this as fiction?” The thing about it is, when it comes to novel-writing, you don’t need to depend on a lot of factors to do it. You just need time and some kind of method for writing. That’s it. It doesn’t require anything else to make. To publish, that’s another thing. But it was really the freedom of that, to just be able to say, “Nobody asked me to do this but also nobody’s telling me not to.”
Rumpus: What was the process of finding a publisher like?
Ghaffari: This is where luck comes into play. I get really mad when people are like, “You’ve got to work really hard to get where you need to go. You’ve gotta work hard and you’ll get there.” It’s a load of horse shit because half of it is luck.
Basically I knew no one because I don’t know the publishing industry. As a Hail Mary pass, I was like let me see if I can find an agent that does foreign [rights] because I think this will do well overseas. That was my whole thing. So I just googled foreign rights agents and the first thing that popped up was Jen Kovitz and Cecile Barendsma. Within a week she [Cecile] was like, “I would love to work with you, I think we can publish it here.” It took us over two years. And this is where my luck began, because she really stood by me. She didn’t give up. And that’s how I found my editor, Leigh Newman. A lot of people said no, she said yes. I was really lucky to find these women who believed in me.
Rumpus: I wanted to talk a little bit about the opening and Paris scenes. Why did you split the novel between modern-day Paris and 1970s Iran?
Ghaffari: In Paris, it starts at the beginning of the day and ends with the eclipse, because I wanted to put the pressure of time on the story. There are these leisurely parts with the orchard. The whole movement of the first act in Iran is really showing you what a day like that is. Even though there is some foreboding, it’s very subtle. But in order to show the revolution, I needed to earn that right and take the story back. So everyone eats, or takes a nap or has sex, or has a drink, but I wanted to always have that pressure. I think that might come from my film background where you have an hour and a half or two hours to tell this story.
Rumpus: I’m glad that you brought up the foreshadowing. I read this book a few times and I keep seeing little details I missed before. How did you decide when to pull back, or hint at things? Why was that important to you?
Ghaffari: I think what I decided early on was that it really doesn’t matter if you know how it ends. This isn’t a whodunit. You know from the beginning this old man is in Paris by himself. His family is broken. You know this and you know its bad. I interviewed Tony Kushner for my documentary and he said something that always stuck with me, that I think I took into this book. He talked about coming to the Ta’zieh and how, by the second or third Ta’zieh, you know it will end badly but the reason you go to it because you wish it would be otherwise. That’s how you find your humanity. I thought about it for a long time. One of the exercises of storytelling is to find your own humanity when you don’t want to and there’s some mental wall that comes up. I admire people who can do that. They wipe out the darkness and despair. For me, Majid was the hero.
Rumpus: Majdid is such a thoughtful character—
Ghaffari: I’ve known men like that.
Rumpus: —Tell me about that.
Ghaffari: It’s like that great quote from Ernest Hemingway, ”The world breaks everyone, but those that it doesn’t break, it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave…” What I’ve always loved about that quote is he doesn’t just say the very good and the very brave. He says the very good, the very gentle, and the very brave. Gentle is the one he puts in the middle. I know men like this and I’ve known men like this. I just naturally made Majid a man because I’m fascinated by them. I’m a woman, I know women, so I can write endlessly about women, and I’m very fascinated by women, but I find men interesting, too. And as a writer you really do have to write to everyone, try to understand them.
Rumpus: There are so many distinctive men. The mullah, especially, seemed like he carried those personal wounds into this larger political machine.
Ghaffari: But isn’t that always how it is? Isn’t a family a nation? You could look at political leaders today and trace their behavior and their compulsions to their childhoods. We are all human beings. With the Mullah, I was really careful because I didn’t want to write him as a villain. I’m a novelist, not a propagandist. My great grandfather was a mullah. A lot of people have ignored that connection. It’s like, “By the way, a lot of Iranians are Muslim,” and, “By the way millions of people poured into the street like asked for a revolution.” It wasn’t an accident.
Rumpus: Right. Politics used to seem, for me, otherworldly—it sounded like something outside human will somehow. That’s not what it is. Politics is human will.
Ghaffari: But I also think it’s “How well do we really know ourselves?” How well do we know how the world works? How well do we know what really goes on around us? For example, the 2016 election was shocking to a lot of us, but it wasn’t shocking to poor people, it wasn’t shocking to the disenfranchised. It’s like the water has finally reached your house, but ours is already underwater.
It’s the same thing, I think, in Iran. When the revolution happened, there were a lot of people who were upset. I say this as someone who came from a very privileged family. My father was working with the royal family. We were living large, traveling around Europe. If there’s anybody who should tell you that was a terrible thing that happened [it would be me]. But it was necessary. That revolution was coming. Any group of people who want to revolt, who want a revolution for a better life, I say go for it. I won’t cross the picket line.
Rumpus: That reminds me that there are these stories within the story that your characters tell each other. The one that stuck with me the most involved Iranians protesting sugar cubes—where did that come from?
Ghaffari: There was a Belgian sugar cube factory in Iran. They had a Persian magazine for sugar. I took the tobacco revolt and the oil embargo and I spun it into the sugar factory story. What I wanted to note, which I thought was really important, was that there were a lot of clerics that always stood up for the people, even to the government. They were the last front. I wanted people to understand why when Khomeini came, everyone was like, “Yes.”
It’s not that they were religious fanatics; it’s that there was a history of not being able to trust your government, of knowing that the outside trying to screw you, too. Who are you going to go to? The clerics.
Rumpus: Right! Those stories incorporate so much. It makes the world richer because it helps explain these myths people make for themselves. So were the side-stories all real, or based in real life?
Ghaffari: You know, “The Story of the Lion and the Ass” is a true story. It’s not made up. This was a zoo in Mashhad, and the zoo owner had this old lion and he wanted to rev up business so he decided to do this War of the Ass and the Lion and the ass killed the lion. Nobody saw that coming! My father was a child when it happened and he told me the story like, “You will not believe this.”
The character of Mirza, for example: When I went back to Iran I was at my aunt’s house in Tehran, there was this sort of middle-aged Afghan man helping her pick things up and bringing tea and stuff. I asked, “Who is that?” And she said, “He’s from Afghanistan and he used to be a doctor.” That’s all I ever knew and I took that. It’s always like something I hear or little experiences I remember and then I fill it out. That’s how I constructed the novel.
Rumpus: I’m so glad you bring up Mirza because he’s such a brave and sad character.
Ghaffari: I’ve met a man who lost his son to the revolution and his other son to the Iran-Iraq War. He’s a very funny man. He jokes but there’s always a sadness just underneath, lurking right under there, and he’ll never let out. The zookeeper’s assistant is somewhat based on him too. There’s this sort of sadness. I’m fascinated by that. You know that thing Rimbaud said? “The worst thing about being human is that nothing is unbearable.” People say, you know, if my child died I couldn’t survive. Actually you can, and that’s worse.
Those are the characters that are interesting to me because my favorite writer is Chekhov. I always go back to his stories to kind of remind myself, “This is what you have to do.”
Rumpus: What about Chekhov is compelling to you?
Ghaffari: On one hand, the most fundamental thing about him is that is the depth of his humanity. I don’t know any other writer who does that. But at the same time, his utter lack of sentimentality and what a wicked sense of humor he has—because there is a humor to him. One of my favorite stories is “Grief.” It’s about a man who beats his wife. It doesn’t get uglier than that, but by the end of these six pages your heart breaks for him, too. To me that’s a triumph of the writer, if you can take the most wretched human being and be able to make a space for him, for his life and journey.
Rumpus: That seems to be the case for a lot of your characters. Shazdehpoor seems like a joke character at first, but he’s anchoring the story. I found that so interesting because there are so many outsiders in this novel. Mirza is one. Nasreen is another, and so is her mother, Ghamar.
Ghaffari: People think Ghamar is such a diva but I have such a soft spot for her. I do, I have affection for people who have a hard time. People and their problems are very interesting to me. I’ve never been to Russia but I have a deep abiding love for the people of that country, because of its literature. I know it intimately in a way that maybe I wouldn’t even if I was there for a month, and I think that’s the goal. When you can just bring people in, it really does chemically change them.
Rumpus: So a lot of these characters were based on your own experiences. Were there any parts of the novel or perspectives that you had to do more research on?
Ghaffari: Absolutely. I did some reading; I watched a lot of footage and documentaries about the Revolution. I took it all in and had to let it go. I think one of the reasons I turned the revolution into Majid’s letters, as opposed to being present, was as a way to kind of remove myself. Many things you see are me negotiating removing myself because I wasn’t there.
I was really more interested in using it as a backdrop. Even the eclipse [is a backdrop]. When I was there 2002, it was the thirty-third year when [the lunar and solar] calendars overlapped and Ashura and Chahar-Shanbeh Soori fell on the same day. I saw that with my own eyes. They all went into the streets all along the orchard row and lit fires and got their asses handed to them. I saw that and was like, “Wow, this is still going on.”
Rumpus: What do you want a reader to walk away with when they close the novel?
Ghaffari: A visceral sense of a nation’s humanity. Like a real visceral sense, not pity. Not indignation toward their own government. But just that visceral understanding that there are those complexities that exists all over the world and there’s something much more complex happening behind the scenes.
It’s kind of like what I was saying earlier about my understanding of Russia, even though I’ve never been there. I don’t have to be. Literature is such a profound connector. You have a certain connection and that’s what I think you ultimately want as a writer, especially if you’re writing about a place that has methodically been demonized. You want that feeling, because that’s the only thing that stops us from our worst inclinations.
Photograph of Rabeah Ghaffari © Angela Levin.