Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for We Heard the Heavens Then includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Aria Minu-Sepehr. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
We Heard The Heavens Then is a story of two people: a young Aria Minu-Sepehr – son of a famous General and innocent witness to the violent 1979 Iranian Revolution – and the adult Aria – an author and academic forced to appraise his quick childhood with a measured eye. By turns a lyrical, comical, and horrific memoir, Aria recounts what it was like coming of age in a rapidly Middle Eastern World and what it took to weather the storm and continue to believe in a better future for himself, his family, and his beloved, imperiled father.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1.After reading this memoir, how do you interpret the Iranian-Islamic revolution against the shah and the current political climate in Iran? Has the book provided a new outlook into an ongoing world struggle?
2.Discuss Bubbi’s role in Aria’s ever-changing household. Do you think she resented Aria’s family as much as she sometimes let on? What about her occasional reversions to religion? Was she, despite her occupation, one of the “privileged class”?
3.Why do you think Baba was able to survive when so many of his peers and men of similar rank were sacrificed in the revolution? What about his personality and beliefs do you think accounted for his perseverance?
4.Recreation during a time of uncertainty appears repeatedly throughout the book (waterskiing, Aria walking to the pool-hall amid the uprisings, the many rides in the dune buggy, etc.). How important is levity, even when the world around you is changing violently? Further, discuss how all of these examples intersected with the “darkness” of the revolution (Baba’s injuries, the pedophile, and the Chase).
5.Young Aria is so convinced that he is corrupt by the time of his flight to London that he practically turns himself over (or so he believes) to customs authorities. Discuss the supposed “darkening of his soul,” and what it really means for a boy to come of age amongst a violent uprising. Are children forgiven their allegiances? Should the weight of politics be pressed onto the shoulders of the young?
6.In Isfahan, Aria notes the “seamless merging of king, mosque, and bazaar.” (p. 111) By memoir’s end, how do you view the relationship between the monarchy, the militant clerical faction, and the working class in Iran?
7.Do you see a certain amount of Baba in Aria, both young and older?
8.Aria’s childhood is colored with moments of terror and tragedy. (The burning of Cinema Rex, his father’s dead colleagues appearing in the newspaper, the pool-hall pedophile, and his family’s escape from the military base, to name a few). Which of these seemed most impactful to Aria’s young outlook? How would you have dealt with these moments as a ten-year-old?
9.Baba derides Uncle P and Aunt Z for fleeing to London, only to eventually escape Iran himself. Do you agree with his noble thoughts on staying in place and standing for what you believe in? If you were amongst similar turmoil, when would you choose to leave?
10.How do women play a role in Aria’s strained childhood? (Consider his mother, Bubbi, Mamman Ghodsi, and Aunt Z). How do Aria’s interactions with women during the upheaval compare to his interactions with men? (Namely, his stolid father and the academic Uncle P).
11.Discuss Aria’s evolution from a wide-eyed General’s son into a conscious product of sociopolitical turmoil. How do you think he has changed by memoir’s end? How do you think his childhood has informed his life as an adult, husband, and father in America?
12.In the Epilogue, speaking of Baba, Aria states, “A nation that dared to demand a better political future reaffirmed everything he stood for.” Can you understand Baba’s forgiveness of Iran’s revolutionary spirit, even when that very movement threatened to end his life?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Research and read more about Iran, the revolution, and the current political struggles that plague the Middle East. How do you make sense of it all? How do you perceive America’s involvement? In what ways do you see such turmoil being remedied?
2 Visit http://authors.simonandschuster.com/Aria-Minu-Sepehr/84091676 to learn more about Aria and watch a video of him discussing the book and his bittersweet memories of growing up in a transforming Iran.
3. Do your best to recall your childhood and the instances in which you were faced with the troubles of the “adult world.” Was there a moment when everything changed? Were you aware of politics and global struggle (or did it have some direct effect on you) in your adolescence? Discuss and share your stories.
A Conversation with Aria Minu-Sepehr
1.How would you describe the present situation in Iran? How has it changed from when you were forced to flee as a boy?
In my youth, a tremendous sense of hope and possibility permeated Iran. For my family and class this meant rising up to the challenges of modernity. We placed great value on education, on cosmopolitanism, and ultimately on the goal of becoming a pertinent world player in the twenty-first century. Others pinned their hopes on toppling the king and the possibility of a democratic government. For Iranian communists the promise of pristine equality was never as palpable. And in clerical circles, the real possibility of fundamentalism was on the horizon. By contrast, today’s Iran is robbed of hope. Its youth are stifled. Ideas are illegal. Depression runs deep and wide. What felt within reach just three decades ago has turned into a thing of dreams.
2.How do you view America’s culpability (especially now as an American) in Iran’s current political climate? Does the installation of the original shah and a push for “western modernization” make the U.S. directly complicit in what is considered by most to be a foreign, remote world concern?
Questions regarding historical culpability tend to revolve around crafted start points. If we were to start our clock at the moment when Muhammad Reza Pahlavi was reinstalled as the monarch in 1953 (as the current regime in Iran does), then yes, America would have to face the charge of complicity. But if we were to wind the clock back by a mere eight years to the end of the second world war, we would find the same America pressing Britain and Russia to clear out of Iran, returning to the land its sovereignty. In the complicated narrative of U.S./Iran relations, start points can be deceptive; instead, a measured approach should look at the current impasse in terms of global dynamics, a people’s cultural makeup, and domestic politics.
3.If you could only describe Baba in 3 words, what would they be?
Bold, proud, indebted. (By indebted I mean, Baba was so aware of the gift of his historical circumstance that his reality was shaped by duty and service. Baba’s was the first generation with running water, paved streets, electricity, and modern medicine; he was among the first beneficiaries of Iran’s public education system; his widowed mother made huge sacrifices in seeing him—the only one of his siblings—through all twelve years of school. Later, Baba would be among a handful of men who would be trained as Iran’s first jet fighter pilots.)
4.Of your upbringing, you write, “…deliberately I was allowed to lead an unencumbered childhood. I could question anything, challenge anyone, and the adults of my youth reveled in my audacity. A child’s freedom was the hallmark of the new.” (p. 24) Do you attempt to offer these same liberties to your children in America? How important is such intellectual freedom to you?
I strongly believe that a critical mind results from an early release from expectation. We take it for granted in America that a child’s why? should receive a good-faith answer, but historically, children were required to obey. I not only encourage a critical mindset in my own kids, I reward their whys. And every time we tackle another chiseled truism, I am reminded of my own youth when each of my diversions posed an affront to a culture that was inflexibly fixed and beyond reproach. If you listened to Baba, improvement started with questions. It was a formative concept and one that carries with me today.
5.Similarly, how do you feel now about capitulation? Was the shah’s acquiescence to American law suitable grounds for outcry? As an adult, would you support such a decision from your own government?
Capitulation was outrageous, especially the opaque manner in which it was ratified—at the eleventh hour, reeking of the royal rubber stamp. As an adult, I would have questioned my government and pushed for a more strong-willed parliament. Which is what the intellectuals of the time did, but with poor results. Of all the different groups that rose up against the shah, losing the intellectual cadre was the most damaging to the monarchy. They signaled a loss of faith in a leader who was an exponent of modernity but who ultimately lacked the resolve to carry through.
6.Describe what you mean by the “goodwill of one people for another” and how it can rehabilitate the strained relations between the U.S. and Iran.
Scratch the surface, and it’s the same story over and over: the difficulties between Iran and America are not shared by their respective peoples. Recently, an American traveling in Iran reported to me that he felt safer in Tehran than he had ever felt in any city in his own country. In 2010, the mother of a close Iranian friend marveled at the tremendous respect immigration officers showed her on her arrival to America—“I felt as though they were dealing with their own mother,” she said. My own story is no different. I’ve lived on the West Coast, in the Midwest, on the East Coast, and in the Pacific Northwest, and in each locale, America has been kind to me, eager to know my story, and to share its own. The root of rehabilitation is in depoliticizing our peoples’ plight through common human contact.
7.Have you taken your children to Iran? Is there a part of you that wishes to one day return?
I have not returned to Iran since the revolution, but the thought of visiting my ancestral home lingers in the back of my mind. I imagine I will return one day, and upon arrival I will want nothing more than to sit on a park bench and listen to my native tongue. I fantasize about asking a stranger for directions and buying brine-soaked walnuts at a street corner. The peddler ladles out a few, pearly white seeds, and the taste is exactly as I remember it. But any idea of a return is quickly mired by the thought that my daughters will be shocked by the sexism they see. I want to defend my past and say, this is not who we are. We are not polygamists. We don’t force schoolgirls to cover their little heads and bodies. Our women have the same rights as men. But one look around me, and the end result of thirty years of Islamic rule bears evidence to a different reality. “It wasn’t like this,” I imagine saying, “but the walnuts are still good.”
8.You experienced the revolution in Iran as a child, with your primary frame of reference being your father’s station in the military and the complexities of being in the “privileged class.” As an adult with children and a more-defined political identity, how do you think you’d react to a similar revolution now?
One of the great mysteries of the revolution is how an entire order, fifty years in the making, was supplanted overnight by a completely different rubric. If the values preceding the revolution mattered to anyone, then why was there no public outcry against their revocation? I now think modernists had become too complacent, assuming their nation’s governing infrastructure was solid enough to ensure some fundamental facts of life—the equality of men and women, for instance, or the separation of church and state. Having seen how a society’s most cherished ideals can be whisked away, I would take a much more active role in the restructuring of my society, fighting tooth and claw to save those elemental notions I hold dear.
9.Your book is a wonderful, personal account of growing up amongst the Iranian Revolution. How would you suggest someone learn more?
For a broad-stroke history of Iran, I recommend The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America, by Kenneth Pollack. The revolution itself may be looked at from a different perspective than mine in Marjane Satrapi’s ingenious graphic memoir Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. A look into the life of the shah’s longest running prime minister presents a fascinating window into Iran’s intellectual cadre, the sector on whom the shah depended most and whose ultimate vote of no confidence led to a veritable national suicide. The most authoritative and invigorating account of Mr. Hoveyda’s life is The Persian Sphinx: Amir Abbas Hoveyda and the Riddle of the Iranian Revolution, by Abbas Milani. In many ways the revolution is better understood as a restoration, and to understand what preceded modernity, there is no better analysis than Cyrus Ghani’s Iran and the Rise of Reza Shah: From Qajar Collapse to Pahlavi Power. Finally, for a fantastic journey into the heart of nineteenth century Iran, one could do no better than turn to James Morrier’s classic The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Isphahan.
10.What’s become of the octopus dune buggy?
I wish I knew.