THIS NOVEL HAS EVERYTHING a simple story should have: characters, setting and plot development. However, what I value in Journeys: A Novel of Iran is the close-up view of 1966 Iran, its land and politics. The story also provides interesting details about Peace Corps policy in the 1960s.
Journeys relates the story of a young Peace Corps Volunteer during her first three months in Rasht, Iran in 1966. Author Seaver traces the growing maturity of young Sherrie Hancock from Hartford, Connecticut as she adjusts to a new life: freedom from a stale relationship in the United States, teaching EFL, and fitting in with Irans complex social system. Sherrie enters the country just as summer vacation begins and succeeds in balancing her relationships with her roommate and fellow PCVs with calmness and the determination to succeed. She also obeys the Corps command to spend the rest of the summer productively, offering an arts & crafts/sports camp to children in Rasht and volunteering at an orphanage. There is a romantic development, too. In the end, Sherrie adapts well, as we knew she would.
Rasht is located in Gilan, a provincial capital in northern Iran. It is in a subtropical zone on the southern coast of the Caspian Sea. The Peace Corps Volunteers complain about the heat and dryness in Rasht. Twice in the course of the novel, they are invited to prettier spots: Ramsar, site of a French-built dam, and Massoleh, an ancient traditional city, built house-upon-house on a mountainside. These locales suggested many more intriguing spots in Iran, and Seavers descriptions piqued my interest in seeing the country.
The social and political backdrop of Iran impressed me as most different from my Volunteer experience in Gabon in the early 1980s. A short summary of the political scene at the time, with information provided by the author and the most recent issue of Smithsonian (March 2005), may help the reader understand events in the novel better: In 1941, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi succeeded his father as Shah of Iran. A decade later, Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh nationalized the oil industry. In a CIA/British-backed coup two years later, the Mossadegh government was toppled and Mohammed Reza, who had lived in exile, returned to power. Over the next 30 years, the Shah consolidated his power with the help of oil revenues. His White Revolution modernization campaign, begun in 1963, instituted land reform, womens suffrage and the Health and Literacy Corps. The Peace Corps was invited back into the country. However, opponents were repressed, and in 1979, the Shah ceded the throne again, forced by an opposition lead by clerics and merchants. In Journeys, SAVEK police are omnipresent, on the alert for radical talk and unseemly behavior. Females cannot walk on the street alone, and one young Volunteer is denounced by a priest for her immodest Western ways. Peace Corps workers are up against dual goals: implementing modernization and preserving the traditional Iranian way of life. B-C Seaver conveys this atmosphere of a country at a crossroads effectively.
In 1966, Peace Corps policy was quite different from the way it was in the early 1980s. Volunteers submitted monthly reports to staff in Teheran. We were supposed to show that we were always doing something, Seaver adds. Pre-service preparation included physical training: Volunteers rose at 6 a.m. for a half hour of exercises every morning. As for vacation allowances Seaver says, We had numerous days off because Iran follows the Shiite Islamic calendar. Now Ruz New Years (March 21) lasts about two weeks. Schools are closed and many businesses shut down. We also took one month of international leave in our second year of service. The Peace Corps ethic of the time infuses the Volunteers consciousness: Serve. Resentment among the Volunteers occasionally erupts. To ensure that trainees fit the desired psychological profile, there was a staff psychologist who met individually with each trainee several times during the training period, offering the option of self-deselection.
Seaver writes, In October 2002, I returned to Iran with a group of returned Volunteers traveling under the auspices of Friendship Force International (a Carter Center initiative) and the National Peace Corps Association. Most of us served in Iran during the sixties and seventies. We were generally encouraged by the changes we saw in (a) the Volunteer selection process, (b) in-country orientation and training programs, (c) opportunities to learn more about the country before accepting an assignment, and (d) ability to keep in touch while abroad through the Internet and e-mail. I am currently working on a sequel to Journeys.
Darcy Meijer was an EFL teacher with the Peace Corps in Gabon, Central Africa, from 1982-1984. She has been teaching English composition and ESL since then.
Darcy is also the Editor of the Gabon Letter, the quarterly newsletter of the Friends of Gabon.