Scattered Pearls is a poignant and inspiring memoir beginning in pre-revolutionary Iran, where Sohila Zanjani grew up under the threat of violence and intimidation from her abusive father. Though she resolved never to tread in the footsteps of her mother and her grandmother, both survivors of domestic abuse, when Sohila migrated to Australia she suffered terrible emotional and physical abuse from her own husband. When she realised that in Australia it was possible to leave her husband and still keep their four children, she found the courage to end the abusive marriage and bring the children up alone. Now a successful lawyer, businesswoman and writer, Sohila Zanjani spoke to Better Reading about writing this powerful memoir that is also an inspiring story of resilience, hope and courage.
Better Reading: Was it a difficult process to write such a book with so many painful memories of the past? Or was it helpful in putting events behind you?
Sohila Zanjani: Since the start my goal has been to pass these experiences to a wider community. I feel I am doing what I need and want to do, even if painful at times. My aim was and is to help the community.
BR: Your parents are now passed away. Was it easier to write the book knowing they couldn’t read it – especially your father whose portrayal isn’t always the most flattering?
SZ: They actually both read an early Persian version of Scattered Pearls that was written in 2002 and they loved it. I recall that before that, when I spent some time sitting with my father and asking him about the past, he had proudly told others about me wanting to write a book. My father never said anything against that early version, though I am not sure that his mind was fully aware at the time, as he may have been in the early stages of dementia. I do remember he paid attention to every word and read it slightly aloud. I think he tried to understand. He very much enjoyed the success I achieved after all I had been through. Writing and creating a book took over the sad experiences my parents and I experienced. My father ultimately regretted his past behavior and manifested it by saying “If I did wrong, you guys don’t do it”.
As for my mother, I have no doubt that my mother shared my goal of passing our experiences to the community in the hope of helping others. She was still alive during much of the writing of this new book, and she used to say, “Perhaps someone reads this and learns something”. She always wanted “people to know”. My mother cried at times and kissed me when I presented the Persian version to her as a Christmas gift in 2002. She felt very proud and felt that she achieved something very good.
BR: Do you think your ex-husband Reza will read the book? Have you had any contact with him since writing it?
SZ: I hope he is alive and reads it, but I have had no contact with him whatsoever for nearly 30 years.
BR: The memoir starts before your birth in pre-revolutionary Iran, through the revolution to the present day. What are your hopes and dreams for the future of your birth country, Iran?
SZ: To see Iran become a democratic country with a parliament full of representatives elected by its people. To see Iran ruled by its people, for the people and of the people – not by a religious group full of self-interest. Ideally I would I love to see Iranians choose to change the name of the country back to Persia. This would clearly distinguish the Persian culture from the Arabic one, and from the false religious culture currently imposed on the nation. I would also like the country’s flag to revert to the original Persian flag that depicted a lion and the sun – images with deep roots in our history. I don’t think any Iranian loves the current flag which looks like a spider and depicts Allah. ‘Allah’ is an Arabic word which has no connection to the Persians/Iranians.
BR: Have you been back to Iran recently? Will having written Scattered Pearls make it hard for you to return?
SZ: The last time I was there was 2007. I’m not sure whether returning now would be harder.
BR: You touch on the misunderstanding of Persian culture, its relation to Islam and fundamentalism. Do you hope that the book will go some way to righting that?
SZ: I hope so. Iranians (or Persians) have generally been peace-loving, generous, kind and hospitable people over our 7000 years of history. However, in the last 37 years the world has looked down upon us primarily due to the anti-human, anti-Iranian behaviour of the current regime.
BR: The book is a painful reminder of how prevalent domestic violence is. You have seen the problem in Iran and Australia. In your experience is the root of the problem universal?
SZ: Yes, it is universal unfortunately. I think in Islamic societies it may be even more so, perhaps due to the view Islam has of women as a kind of second-class creature. However I must add that I am not a religious academic – I am just expressing my opinion based on what has happened in Iran since 1979.
BR: Once you understood that the laws in Australia were different from Iran, you were able to seek help and escape your ex-husband and still keep your children. It was heartbreaking and frustrating to read what you went through and witness how powerless you felt. What is your message to people in similar situations?
SZ: Believe in yourself and your ability to change situations you are trapped in. And seek help. I had my family’s support once they understood the situation I was in. They reminded me of who I was. They reinforced courage in me. They stopped fear getting into me. I think if I hadn’t had my family’s support I may not have survived my circumstances. Thankfully in Australia the authorities and the community are also ready to help when such circumstances are revealed. The important thing is to not to hide but to seek assistance.
BR: What has been the reaction from your children and your siblings to this very personal memoir?
SZ: At the time of this interview they have not yet read it. My children have been looking forward to reading it, but they indicated that they wanted to buy it from a bookshop after it had been published rather than reading the unpublished manuscript. I guess this gives them a sense of pleasure. Many parts of the book will be new to them. I had no time to sit down and talk to them about the past when they were growing up. I hope instead of that I have showed them the past and the future in Scattered Pearls.
BR: Scattered Pearls is written with David Brewster. Could you tell us a little about the process of how that collaboration worked?
SZ: It happened as a result of both of us participating in a competition arranged by a business networking about 1999 in Melbourne. We met at that function and later David helped with various technical issues relating to my business, Prime Law Brokers. In 2009, I read in one of his newsletters that he was also a ‘ghostwriter’. That was exactly when I was looking for someone to help me turn about 2500 pages of journals and diaries (in various forms, both Persian and English) into a new and exciting book. I spent a lot of time translating the original Persian version of the book, plus many other notes, into English for David. And then we started to structure this new book, with much writing and rewriting between us along the way plus over 500 voice memos. It took us seven years from start to finish! But now, in 2016, we have our present for the community. We hope people enjoy reading it.
SZ: I would love too. I also want to learn about other people’s experiences, especially when they find it hard to transform their writings into a book. I want to tell them not to stress, just write. Even if it is just on your napkin!