Sahar Delijani was born in Iran and grew up in California. Her debut novel, Children of the Jacaranda Tree, will be published in more than 70 countries and translated into 27 languages.
Set in post-revolutionary Iran, Delijani’s gripping novel is a blistering indictment of tyranny, a poignant tribute to those who bear the scars of it, and a celebration of the human’s heart’s eternal yearning for freedom.
Set in post-revolutionary Iran, and told in interconnected, alternate perspectives, Children of the Jacaranda Tree is a deeply personal tale that gives voice to the men, women, and children who won a war only to find their lives—and those of their descendants—imperiled by its aftermath.
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Evin Prison, Tehran
Azar sat on the corrugated iron floor of a van, huddled against the wall. The undulating street made the car sway from side to side, swinging her this way and that. With her free hand, she clasped on to something that felt like a railing. The other hand lay on her hard, bulging belly, which contracted and strained, making her breathing choppy, irregular. A heat wave of pain spouted from somewhere in her backbone and burst through her body. Azar gasped, seizing the chador wrapped around her, gripping so hard that her knuckles turned white. With every turn, she was thrashed against the walls. With every bump and pothole, her body was sent flying toward the ceiling, the child in her belly rigid, cringing. The blindfold over her eyes was damp with sweat.
She lifted a hand and wiped the moisture from her eyes. She dared not remove the blindfold, even though there was no one with her in the back of the van. But she knew there was a window behind her. She had felt the glass when she first climbed in. Sister might turn around and see her through this window, or they could stop so abruptly that Azar would not have time to put the blindfold back on.
She didn’t know what would happen to her if they caught her with open eyes, and she did not wish to. At times she tried to convince herself that the fear that had crept inside her, cleaving to her, was not justifiable; no one had ever raised a hand to her, shoved her around, threatened her. She had no reason to be terrified of them, of the Sisters and the Brothers, no tangible reason. But then there were the screams that shook the prison walls, tearing through the empty corridors, waking the prisoners at night, cutting across a conversation as the prisoners divided up their lunch, forcing them all to a tight-jawed, stiff-limbed silence that lasted well through the evening. No one knew where the screams were coming from. No one dared ask. Shrieks of pain they were, this much they knew. For no one could confuse howls of pain with any other kind; they were cries of a body without a self, abandoned, crushed to a shapeless splotch, whose only sign of being was the force with which it could shatter the silence inside the prison walls. And no one knew when their turn would come up, when they would disappear down the corridor and nothing would remain of them but howls. So they lived and waited and followed orders under the looming cloud of a menace that everyone knew could not be eluded forever.
From a tiny opening somewhere above Azar’s head, the muffled din of the city waking up intruded into the car: shutters rolling open, cars honking, children laughing, street vendors haggling. Through the window, she could also hear the intermittent sounds of chatter and laughter coming from the front of the van, though the words were not clear. She could hear only the guffaws of Sister at something one of the Brothers had just finished recounting. Azar tried to keep out the voices inside the van by concentrating on the hum of the city outside—Tehran, her beloved city, which she had neither seen nor heard for months. She wondered how the city could have changed with the war with Iraq dragging on into its third year. Had the flames of war reached Tehran? Were people leaving the city? From the noises outside, it seemed as if everything continued as always, the same chaos, the same din of struggle and survival. She wondered what her parents were doing at this moment. Mother was probably in line at the baker’s; her father was probably getting on his motorcycle and leaving for work. At the thought of them, she felt like something was gripping her throat. She lifted her head, opened her mouth wide, and tried to gulp down the air seeping through the opening.
Her head thrown back, she breathed hard, so hard that her throat burned and she started to cough. She undid the tight knot of the headscarf under her chin and let the chador slide down her head. She held on to the railing, sitting stiffly, trying to bear the swaying and lashing of the car as another burst of pain blazed through her like the fiery end of a bullet. Azar tried to sit up; she bristled at the thought of having to give birth on the iron floor of a van, on these bumpy streets, with the shrill laughter of Sister in her ears. Tightening her grasp on the railing, she took a deep breath and tried to shut herself against the urge of erupting. She was determined to keep the child inside until they reached the hospital.
Just then she felt a sudden gush between her legs and held her breath as the uncontrollable trickle ran down her thigh. She pushed her chador aside. Panic swept through her as she touched the pants carefully with the tips of her fingers. She knew that a pregnant woman’s water would break at some point, but not what would happen after that. Did this mean birth was imminent? Was it dangerous? Azar had just started reading books on pregnancy when they came to her door. She was about to reach the chapter on water breaking, contractions, what she should pack in her hospital bag, when they knocked so loudly, as if they wanted to break down the front door of her house. When they dragged her out, her stomach was already beginning to show.
She clenched her jaw as her heart pounded violently. She wished her mother were there so she could explain what was happening. Mother with her deep voice and gentle face. She wished she had something of her mother that she could hold on to, a piece of clothing, her headscarf. It would have helped.
She wished Ismael were there so he could hold her hand and tell her that everything was going to be fine. He would have been frightened, she knew, if he had seen her in these conditions, sick with worry. He would have stared at her with his bright brown eyes as if he wanted to devour her pain, make it his own. There was nothing he hated more than seeing her in pain. The time she fell from the chair that she had climbed in order to pick grapes from the vine tree, he was so shocked, seeing her wriggling on the ground, that he almost cried, gathering her in his arms. I thought you had broken your back, he told her later on. I would die if something ever happened to you. His love made her feel like a mountain, unshakable, immortal. She needed that all-encompassing love, those worried eyes, the way in which, by taking it upon herself to reassure him, to calm him down, she always succeeded in reassuring herself too.
She wished her father were there so he could carry her to his car and drive like a madman to the hospital.
The van came to a stop, and Azar, shaken out of her thoughts, turned around sharply, as if she could see. Although the grumble of the engine had fallen silent, no door opened. Her hands crept up to her headscarf, tightening the knot, sweeping the chador over her head. Sister’s gales of laughter once again burst forth. Soon it became apparent that they were waiting for the Brother to finish telling his story. Azar waited for them, her hands trembling on the slippery edge of her chador.
After a few moments, she heard doors open and swing shut. Someone fiddled with the lock on the back of the van. Clinging to the railing, Azar lugged her body forward. She was at the edge of the car when the doors were drawn open.
“Get out,” Sister said as she fastened the handcuffs around Azar’s wrists.
Azar found that she could barely stand. She lumbered alongside Sister, engulfed in the darkness enveloping her eyes, her wet pants sticking to her thighs. Soon she felt a pair of hands behind her head, untying the blindfold, and saw that she was standing in a dimly lit corridor, flanked by long rows of closed doors. A few plastic chairs were set against the walls, which were covered with posters of children’s happy faces and a framed photo of a nurse with a finger against her lips to indicate silence. Azar felt a great lifting in her heart as she realized they had at last reached the prison hospital.
A few young nurses hurried past. Azar watched as they disappeared down the corridor. There was something beautiful about having her eyes out in the open, her gaze hopping hurriedly, freely, from the green walls to the doors to the flat neon lights embedded in the ceiling to the nurses in white uniforms and white shoes, fluttering around, opening and shutting doors, their faces flushed with the excitement of work. Azar felt less exposed now that she could see, and on equal ground with everyone else. Behind the blindfold, she had felt incomplete, mutilated, bogged down in a fluid world of physical vulnerability, where anything could happen and she could not defend herself. Now she felt as if, with one glance, she could shed the stunting fear that hacked away at her, that made her feel less than whole, less than a person. With open eyes, in the dim corridor surrounded by the bustle of life and birth, Azar felt she was beginning to reclaim her humanity.
From behind some of those doors came the muffled chorus of babies wailing. Azar listened carefully, as if, in their endless, hungry cries, there was a message for her, a message from the other side of time, from the other side of her body and flesh.
A nurse came to a halt in front of them. She was a portly woman with bright hazel eyes. She looked up and down at Azar and then turned to Sister.
“It’s a busy day. We’re trying to cope with the Eid-e-Ghorban rush, and I don’t know if there’s any room available. But come on up. We’ll have the doctor at least take a look at her.”
The nurse led them to a flight of stairs, which Azar climbed with difficulty. Every few steps, she had to stop to catch her breath. The nurse walked ahead, as if avoiding this prisoner with her baby and her agony, the perspiration glistening on her scrawny face.
They went from floor to floor, Azar hauling her body from one corridor to the next, one closed door to another. Finally, the doctor in one of the rooms motioned them in. Azar quickly lay down and submitted herself to the doctor’s efficient, impersonal hands.
The baby inside her felt as tense as a knot.
“As I said before, we can’t keep her here,” the nurse said once the doctor was gone, the door swinging shut silently behind her. “She’s not part of this prison. You have to take her somewhere else.”
Sister signaled to Azar to get up. Descending stairs, flight after flight, floor after floor, Azar clasped the banister, tight, stiff, panting. The pain was changing gear. It gripped her back, then her stomach. She gasped, feeling as if the baby were being wrung out of her by giant hands. For a moment, her eyes welled up, to her biting shame. She gritted her teeth, swallowed hard. This was not a place for tears—not on these stairs, not in these long corridors.
Before leaving the hospital, Sister made sure the blindfold was tied hermetically over her prisoner’s bloodshot eyes.