Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Q&A with Dora Levy Mossanen




Dora Levy Mossanen is the author of the new historical novel Love and War in the Jewish Quarter. It focuses on the Jewish community in Iran. Her other novels include Scent of Butterflies. She was born in Israel, grew up in Iran, and then moved to the United States.


Q: What inspired you to write Love and War in the Jewish Quarter, and how did you create your cast of characters?


A: My family history is a treasure trove of inspiration from which I’ve drawn for each of my books, but most of all for Love and War in the Jewish Quarter. 


For example, my protagonist, Soleiman Yaran, is a dentist to the governor general, the second most powerful man in Iran. My grandfather was Reza Shah’s dentist. The imposing king with the opium-ravaged teeth liked my grandfather. 


But there was a major problem. My grandfather, like Soleiman in my novel, was Jewish. And at the time, Jews were believed to be najes, or impure. The imposing king with the frightening, black stare had ordered my grandfather to solve the problem by reciting the oath of Shahada and converting to Islam.


Although he was aware he might be killed on the spot, my grandfather had refused, telling the king that a man who turns his back on his faith is a traitor. And his Majesty would not want a traitor to take care of him.


Around that time, my great uncle fell in love with the wife of an anti-Semitic Muslim general. The situation was so dangerous, his family had to smuggle him out of Iran in the middle of the night to save him.


For me and my boundless imagination, this family history was irresistible. So, I’d say, these two specific familial events were the first inspirations for Love and War in the Jewish Quarter. Still, there were other stories I needed to tell. Other familial experiences that needed to be put down on paper.


But here we are now. The time is right to tell the story of my protagonist, Soleiman Yaran, which is set against the backdrop of the tumultuous years of 1941 through 1944, when World War II raged around the world. And Iran, despite her declaration of neutrality, was invaded by the Allies, who used the Trans-Iranian Railway as a major corridor for transport of war matériel.


Then, at the most unfortunate time when his wife is about to deliver their first child, Soleiman is summoned to the royal palace to attend to Queen Fawziah Pahlavi’s teeth, setting into motion a series of events that will not only endanger the life of Soleiman’s family, but the entire Jewish population of Iran.

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I never, ever know the ending of my novels! Not when I was writing my first book, Harem, nor when I wrote my fifth, Love and War in the Jewish Quarter. Too often to count, the beginning of the novel jumped to the end, to the middle, to somewhere else, or had to be deleted. 


The ending, when it came to me in its own good time, often continued beyond what could be the most powerful place to end the story. So, I had to take a deep breath and kill my darlings. Ouch!


I am not the type of writer, who has an outline of the story before she starts, but I allow the story to unfold and develop as I go along.  A process I like because I’m so often surprised by where the story will take me and how the characters will act or what they will decide to do.


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything especially surprising?


A: My main source of research for Love and War in the Jewish Quarter were my grandfather, Dr. Habib Levy’s, two books: The Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran: The Outset of the Diaspora and My Memoirs. From childhood, I possessed unquenchable thirst to learn about the world my grandparents, parents, and my extended family grew in.


I was surprised to learn that, despite tremendous prejudices against Jews, my grandfather became the dentist of Reza Shah, the king of Iran. I was surprised to learn how instrumental Iran was in the defeat of Hitler during World War II. I was surprised to learn that although the consumption of alcohol is forbidden in Islam, Muslims at that time used to purchase their wine and aragh vodka from merchants in the Jewish Quarter, who brewed alcohol in their own homes.


There were so many surprises around every corner, I could fill page after page, but you’ll find many in my novel.


Q: The writer Anita Abriel said, “Love and War in the Jewish Quarter is perfect for book clubs and for anyone trying to understand the strife that is still so relevant today.” What do you think of that assessment, and what do you hope readers will take away from the book?


A: I agree with Anita Abriel. When I was obsessing over this novel for years, exploring the themes of forbidden love, war, and social strife, little did I know then that these themes would become even more relevant today, as we, ourselves, struggle to make sense of the rise of anti-Semitism, the possibility of a nuclear Iran, and the war in Ukraine.


And, eternally relevant is the complicated subject of forbidden love, the magnetic pull of love that could make the most reasonable, wise, and level-headed person, such as Soleiman, sacrifice everything and everyone dear to him, even his beloved daughter, to hold Velvet in his arms. These, and so many more themes in the book, raise fertile questions to debate in book clubs.   


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Ah! That is a question I don’t have a perfect answer to. How can I tell you what I’m working on when my process of creation is a series of surprises sprung on me around every corner. I can only say with certainty that if I don’t change my mind, or my characters don’t change their mind, the time and place will be different from Love and War in the Jewish Quarter because I like to be surprised and because I like to learn about new places, cultures, and eras.


Q: Anything else we should know?

A: That I like chocolate. I like a glass of wine in the evenings. That sometimes, I’m too frank for my own good. That I’m a hopeless perfectionist, alas, and I’ve been working hard to change that, but no luck so far. 


That if I’m not on a deadline, I’ll never let go of my book because there’s always more to do and, to me, it’s never done. And that when I do, at last, send my novels out to the publisher, I must take a spoonful or two of passionflower calming syrup and sit in front of the TV for a few hours like a zombie, preferably watching I Love Lucy. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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