Love and War in the Jewish Quarter: A Novel by Dora Levy Mossanen

Love and War in the Jewish Quarter: A Novel by Dora Levy Mossanen

Set in Iran in the 1940s, Love and War in the Jewish Quarter captures Jewish life and culture as it existed in tense contest and precarious harmony with and within the majority, ruling Islamic community. On the fringes of World War II, but dangerously within the political reach of the Nazi regime and Soviet pressures, Iranian Jews must balance their interactions with Muslims even more carefully than they always had. The Allies are a distant factor; they are not a guarantee of safety as news of Hitler’s internment of Jews creeps ever closer.

[For those interested in the Jewish experience of WWII in this region of the world, One Hundred Saturdays: Stella Levi and a search for a Lost World by Michael Frank is about Rhodes and its Jewish community before and during WWII.]

It is in this tension that Jewish dentist, Dr Soleiman Yaran, finds himself. He is trapped in the conflicting intersection between his Jewish community and roots, the powerful Iranian royal family and governors of the land, his family, and his personal desires. The novel revolves around his attempt to unravel and reconcile his responsibilities and his personal happiness. Embedded in these tensions are deeper, more global undercurrents: as a medical professional schooled in Paris, Yaran also finds himself — as an agent of a Westernized modernity — at odds with ethnic, religious traditions, Jewish and Muslim alike. The war is not the only conflict highlighted in this novel; friction also exists in culture between the traditional past and the modern present. There is a shedding of superstition and tradition in favor of new technologies and practices, beliefs about the roles of men and women in their communities. Gendered expectations, visible through the performances of wife, husband, child, lover, parent, elder, and filial piety, duty to one’s community, and duty to one’s self are strong themes throughout.

Mossanen delivers this internal and historical drama through a romantic storyline, but readers will be disappointed if they expect a historical romance, for a romance it is not. This is a love story about love in the real and brutal world, where individuals are buffeted by cultural and community expectations and traditions. Its realistic setting and story are the novel’s appeal; the unpredictability of life will keep you, Reader, on your toes throughout.

The characters too, are fascinating — multi-faceted and tangible — because they are reflections of real internal conflicts. They are flawed and spurred on to their actions by subjective logics, some which make little sense, except when viewed within the larger landscape of this history and cultural context. The villains in this novel are human in their cruelties. The heroes and heroines are human, unable to manifest impossible archetypes.

A worthy read for all fans of historical fiction of the 20th century.

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