Could anything be more mass-media-sexy than writing about Iranian refugee women trying to settle down in rural Ireland by running a steamy kitchen called Babylon Café? Just follow the recipe and the next summer's total girlie-relaxation-on-the-beach-novel is in your hands.
I bought Marsha Mehran's Pomegranate Soup on the hols, from the tax free shop of a Viking Line ship, because I was bored and needed some distraction from bingo and the ball sea. I was ecstatic about the recipes (baklawa! elephant's ears!) and am going to experiment with them as winter approaches, because many of the dishes seem ideal, when it's -20 degrees outside and the wind storms in from the porous window frames. The book was certainly worth buying, just for the nutritious value. But what do I have to say about the story itself?
Something positive. The novel was historical. It taught (in a light and entertaining way)ignorant Western readers about the social conditions of the Iranian revolution of 1979. There were even poems by the feminist poet Forrugh Farrokhzad, with whom everyone should get acquainted with without delay. It was a gripping narrative of tight escapes, which didn't reveal everything. Knowing something about Iran, I thought the Iranian side of the narrative (the personal refugee's account) was quite OK, a bit of change from the usual girlie novel content, but then to the Irish side...
Full of touristic clichés about Catholicism, pubs, Irish masculinity. Parochial attitudes, superstition, church-going ladies watching the heathen Amazons from behind their lace curtains, wishing ill for the young women's notorious restaurant. A Catholic priest seduced by foreign food. Culinary metaphors used when dealing with sexuality. You who have read Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate, or seen the film Chocolat, can already guess the plot.
Pomegranate Soup is not desperately bad writing, it is just easy and predictable, faithful to the genre of women's holiday fiction. It teaches me something about the over-use of sensual elements in texts dealing with cultural difference: the description of food and clothes is always the safest way to approach difference, but it is also dangerously essentialist, freezing cultures on their predetermined planes.
What happened in the city of Mariehamn while I was reading Pomegranate Soup? There in the middle of the faraway island town, right on the main street, I happened to walk in an Iranian grocery store, decorated all over with plastic pomegranates arranged in bowls just like in the novel's cover image. Of course it sold the selfsame herbs that the novel described. It was the only "ethnically" oriented grocery store in town. Coming home with my packages of gorme sabzeeh and cinnamon tea, imported via Sweden from Tehran, I again realized how easy it is to shop for cultures, and how difficult it is to write about them in a way that would put us in motion instead of locking us in.