Kamin Mohammadi is a writer, journalist and broadcaster specialising in Iran. She also writes travel books and is a magazine editor and lifestyle journalist too with specialities in Italy, health, beauty, yoga and fashion. Her book, The Cypress Tree, was published by Bloomsbury.
NAW- Tell us about how you became a writer. How long did it take before you had your book out?
I have always wanted to be a writer but before I had the confidence to tackle a book, I worked in magazines as a journalist, an editor and travel writer. I also spent years updating and writing travel guide books, for Cadogan Guides and also co-writing the Lonely Planet Guide to Iran, as well as working as an editor for Conde Nast and I still work as a journalist/feature writer.
NAW- Tell us about your book, The Cypress Tree. What is it about? How did you get the idea for it?
My book is a memoir of my family in Iran. It not only traces my own family’s history but also the modern history of my beloved country, Iran. It is the story of three generations of my family set against the backdrop of modern Iran, covering over hundred years of my country’s modern history as well as telling the stories of some of the great characters that influenced me.
I think any book about Iran is timely in these days, but mine in particular focuses on the human elements while providing an objective analysis of our modern history and what – and why – we have come to this point in our history: a popular revolution followed by an unpopular repressive Islamic state.
One of the facts that most intrigued me and drew me towards telling this story was when I found out that my father had been born just after surnames had come into being in Iran. I was amazed – within the course of two generations, Iran had changed and modernised so dramatically – my grandfather was from a different world, medieval, feudal, rural, and here I was a single girl living alone in London and in between, my father straddled the difficult transition from tradition to modernity. Realising that my father’s birthday coincided with the ascension of Reza Khan to the throne made it even more compelling to me – to be born exactly as the man who would start Iran’s great heaving push into modernity took the throne seemed deeply symbolic, especially given the extraordinary success my father had enjoyed – and how he had blazed a trail for a meritocracy that did not exist before.
Alongside this desire, was one to share my world. Every time I went to Iran, I fell crazy in love with my family, my aunts in particular, and I felt that these immense, funny characters just had to be shared with the world. The book has become the ultimate explanation of myself and my background to my Western friends.
And perhaps overriding all this was a profound compulsion to bridge the gap between the two countries that I belong to and love and which seem so opposed to each other sometimes… I suppose personally, it was expression of a real desire for integration.
NAW- How much research did you have to do for your book? How did you go about it? Your personal experiences must also be a great help, right? But did you also have to do a lot of research?
I had the idea for many years and every time I visited Iran I would gather stories from the family and write them down, asking the elders all the questions I had and sitting at the feet of my grandmother as she recalled the past. I was actually writing, drafting and redrafting for about three years. Around 18 months before that were spent in the British Library reading everything to get the history right – this was very important to me so I was there every day devouring all the experts’ books on Iranian history. And as well as my usual annual trips to Iran, I took two trips in 2006, spending 5/6 months in total living in Iran that year. The year before that I was there for 2/3 months, etc. I also spent a couple of months with key family members in the US for more family research.
NAW- Britain is a very liberal society but incidences of hate crime and racism are not unheard of especially in the eastern part of London, did you ever encounter any untoward incident and how did you deal with it?
More than being just liberal, British society is deeply tolerant and individualistic. Now multi-culturalism is a buzzword, but when we arrived in London in 1979 it wasn’t like that. Despite this, the British are known for getting on with their own business and letting others do the same, so I have to say that in 35 years of living in this country, I have never personally encountered racism. It’s funny you mention east London – it is one of the most diverse parts of London, where historically immigrants have always settled – the Chinese first, then the Huguenots escaping persecution in France in 19thcentury, then the Jews, and now the Muslims! So I feel that is a part of London that is quite integrated and London in general is very welcoming of different races and cultures – it is what makes it so special. I don’t say racism doesn’t exist, but I have been lucky enough not to encounter it in the UK.
NAW- I have many Iranian friends (among them a Jew) and the picture they recount is very different from what we usually hear. Do you feel the western media has painted Iran in perhaps a more negative light than the country deserves?
Absolutely!Even the fact that you mention that one of your Iranian friends is a Jew shows how misrepresented Iran is in the world’s media (I don’t think this is restricted to just western media). We have a strong Jewish community in Iran, the largest community in the Middle East outside of Israel, they have their own representative in the Iranian parliament!
NAW- We were having a very interesting conversation just yesterday between an Iranian and an Indian. The Iranian pointed out that they still had the Zoroastriansm Fire Temple and reservation in parliament while the Indians destroyed the Babri Mosque. So what future do you see for Iran in the new world order under the new leadership?
Let’s see what happens but obviously one has high hopes that Iran will be able to take its rightful place in the world – as a regional power and respector of its citizen’s human rights and liberty. Our history is millenia long and distinguished by the sophistication of its culture, arts and crafts and level of intellectual thinking. I hope that soon we can bring modern Iran back in line with the glories of historical Iran, that is, a country which tolerates differences and celebrates the glories of Islam instead of using the religion to repress people.
NAW- How was it like visiting your home country? Do people know about your work in your native land?
It’s always a joy to visit Iran, mostly because I get to see so many family members who I adore. I also have many friends there and you just can’t beat being back in your own land, speaking your mother tongue. I love Iran, it’s a diverse and dynamic and very modern country with massive potential amongst its people. None of my articles or books have been published in Iran – as far as I know! – but people are always supportive of my work there as they need someone to bear witness to their lives and to go into the world and tell the stories that they cannot.
NAW- Which authors have influenced you?
I can’t say I am consciously influenced by anyone in my writing although I find every book that I love can be an inspiration. When I am writing it’s hard to read other people’s books as I tend to look more at the bones of a book (how did they structure the story, use characters etc) than enjoy the story or style!
NAW- Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you are not writing?
I live part of the time in Italy with my partner! I love ‘la dolce vita’ in Italy but I also love the rush and excitement of London so I am lucky I can have both. I love yoga and travel the world practising yoga and promoting my book, which is very fulfilling!
NAW- Are you working on another book? What are your upcoming projects?
Yes! I am very excited about my new book as it has already found publishers around the world, so I am writing away. Other projects include collaborations with various institutions to bring to life exhibitions about the Iran-Iraq war and a book of essays on Iran, as well as many other diverse projects in various media.