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December 16, 2019

Marjan Kamali: Books as Refuge

Earlier this year, Marjan Kamali followed up her debut novel, TOGETHER TEA, with THE STATIONERY SHOP, a beautiful and timely exploration of devastating loss, unbreakable family bonds and the overwhelming power of love. Marjan spent her childhood in Kenya, Germany, Turkey, Iran and the United States. Her family thought it was important to create a sense of belonging --- and they achieved that by participating in the traditions and holidays of the many places in which they lived. In her holiday blog post, Marjan recalls returning to Iran at the age of nine and the critical role that books played during their first Christmas back --- and in the years that followed.


I grew up moving a lot. The United States is the seventh country in which I’ve lived. America is the fifth continent. When you lose your home, it becomes of utmost importance to try and find a new sense of belonging. One way my family tried to create that belonging was to indulge in the traditions and cultural holidays of the many different places in which we lived.

At age five, I moved from Tehran, Iran, to Hamburg, Germany. It was there that I was first introduced to Christmas with all its lights and color and the chubby Father Christmas (der Weihnachtsmann). My sister and I learned how to put out our boots at night so they could magically be filled with candy (a German tradition my parents good-naturedly took on). When we moved to Nairobi, Kenya, a year later, my family continued to celebrate Christmas the way many non-Christian Iranians in the diaspora (and even some in Iran) still do: in a non-religious, completely-focused-on-the-fun-and-gifts manner. To be sure, I realize now that some may not approve of our celebrating the holiday, but at the time it felt like just a way of having fun and feeling included, and there were no discussions about cultural appropriation (we didn’t yet know the meaning of the phrase). There are photos of my sister and me standing next to our tinsel-y Christmas tree in Nairobi, in sleeveless summer dresses after a day at the pool in the sun (one of the benefits of celebrating the holiday near the equator).

At age nine, my family moved back to Iran. It was a pivotal time in Iran’s history. The Islamic regime brought about by the 1979 revolution was still in its infancy. Within a year of our move to Tehran, it became mandatory for all females above the age of puberty to don the hijab. That first Christmas in Iran, we brought out our old tinsel and ornaments and decorated a tiny tree in our living room. It was a way for my sister and me to stay connected to the life we had known overseas --- the life we now dearly missed. Saddam Hussein had attacked Iran just a few months earlier, and we were suddenly a country officially at war. Some nights, in the middle of the sweetest dreams, my mother would wake us up as alarms sounded from sirens in the streets so we could rush down to the basement to take shelter from the bombings.

Still, we exchanged gifts that Christmas. Books of Persian poetry. Novels by Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. A paperback version of THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS. English-language books had become harder and harder to find in post-revolutionary Iran. But my mom had bought what she could get. In the basement, by the light of a dim lamp, I gorged myself on my presents. They were the sweetest, most precious commodity of all: books. They had the power to enchant and take us away from the realities of the Iran-Iraq war. It didn’t matter if the books were my first choice or even “age-appropriate” (another term we didn’t yet know). I lay on my back and got transported, and each time I finished reading, I was stunned by what those authors could do with small symbols on paper. They could create entire worlds. They could take me away from mine. For me, those authors were nothing short of miracle workers. I wanted to have their power.

I have spent many a Christmas in many a climate since (when I lived in Australia in my 30s, Santa wore board shorts and surfed). I have experienced the holiday imbued with fresh grief from the loss of a family member and have given my own kids the joy of books on Christmas morning. But there will always be a certain magic to the Christmas spent in the basement in a country at war, where my solace and refuge were the words spun by authors who inspired me to write my own novels and share them with the world one day.