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Dina Nayeri’s new novel, REFUGE, follows the journey of a family across time, place and refugee status. The Hamidi family has been separated for many years. Dr. Hamidi’s children and wife fled to the United States decades ago, while he chose to remain surrounded by what he knows in Iran. Chained to a torn country by an opium addiction and a love of his home, Bahman Hamidi seems to have moved on, remarrying and running a successful dentistry office. But as his age and his country’s increasingly strict laws catch up with him, he yearns to be reunited with his family and begin a second act, outside of Iran.

Bahman’s daughter, Niloofar, has moved on as well. Adapting to every context in which she finds herself, Niloo grows to be a woman of idiosyncrasies. As a young refugee, she found shelter in the black and white and studied obsessively to become a successful scholar. Her skill promised her a shield from the uncertainty of the world around her. Niloo applies her analytic mind to everything --- her cooking, her assessment of fellow refugees, her marriage --- weighing out each ingredient and teaspoon. She believes that “Iranian exiles in the West can be divided into four mutually-exclusive-collectively-exhaustive groups”; writes an exhaustive list of rules she hopes will alleviate the tension in her marriage; and becomes a distant relation to the dreamy, poetry-memorizing father she left all those years ago.

The novel follows Bahman and Niloo as their lives diverge and intersect over the course of several years. It is sectioned by their visits, all just a few days long and happening only every few years. Their interaction is an intimate study of family relationships as well as an earnest exploration of cultural differences between an Iranian citizen and an Iranian refugee.

"Nayeri delivers poignant observations about life as a refugee.... [She] is a master of candid family drama. The narrative never veers into the sentimental nor is it jaded at any point."

As their paths intersect, Bahman and Niloo try to understand how the other has managed to grow into these versions of themselves. “I [Niloo] saw how much these trips had drained me. Did they bring me any closer to Baba [Bahman]? Did they restore my roots of the childhood I had missed? All they did was tarnish my memories. The Baba I had known was trapped in the past, forever thirty-three, as I would be forever eight years old to him. Having never grown together, all we could do was rehash, returning to old ground, changing each other back to a faded snapshot after every goodbye. We couldn’t fathom each other as we were now. Our visits, far from renewing us, were hastening our decay. And surely Baba too was disappointed in my unwillingness to succumb to life’s small pleasures, my inability to sink into every momentary bliss as he did. Maybe that’s why he was an addict and I was not.Like all parents and children, they vacillate between being proud and disappointed of the other. The reconciliation of their relationship hinges on their ability to find harmony within themselves.

Both father and daughter have built identities dependent on place. Bahman’s identity is entwined with the village that raised him. Like a native flower, he is dependent on the nourishment of the beauties of the farming town of Isfahan as much as he is on the opium it provides him. The things he values (family, memories, tradition) reflect his connection to Isfahan. When his home town begins changing in response to the political unrest, Bahman’s identity is questioned. Who is he without his poetry, his opium, his community?

After being uprooted at an early age, Niloo is transplanted into various places that identify her as a weed, an unwanted occupier of space. She responds to this by creating an identity that can fit into a backpack, always leaving her roots folded in on themselves, lest they be violently torn out again. Niloo’s home is a tiny perimeter that she carries with her and is relentlessly guarded. But as she begins to ache for connection, these survival tactics and the identity created around them begin to feel empty. Who is she without her measurements, her guardedness, her autonomy?

It is hard to say if this book is more about family relationships or about the refugee identity, but Dina Nayeri seems to be arguing that these are irrevocably entwined.

Nayeri delivers poignant observations about life as a refugee. Beyond just having “ripped-up roots,” Niloo remembers the isolation she experienced as a child: “The other children had never met someone from the Middle East, never considered dreams of demons other than their own, and they didn’t invite me into their narrow universe. They didn’t explain their song lyrics, the rules for dodgeball, or how to pronounce the many words I mangled. Left to entertain myself, I lived inside my imagination.” Later, Nayeri punctuates an overreaction by Niloo with an exposition of her anxiety: “If Mr. Sun could tear her jacket, then the embassy could confiscate her passport, and the bank manager could leave her credit card number on scraps of paper on his desk, and what’s to keep the whole world from falling into chaos?” These moments invite the reader to understand, on some level, the trauma of exile.

But the focus on the Hamidi family is always clear. Nayeri is a master of candid family drama. The narrative never veers into the sentimental nor is it jaded at any point. Though there are a number of characters who do little to move the story forward (a brother who acts as a cheap foil to Niloo, a toddler of curious lineage connected to Bahman, a fellow Iranian-American who allows Bahman a chance to sum up his reflections on his life), and at times the point of view slips from first-person to third without clear reason, the central characters don’t disappoint. The complex nature of families is on display here in all its nuances. Nayeri gives Bahman and Niloo room on the page to judge, question and love each other. The result is that both father and daughter are flawed, beautiful and human.

Reviewed by Allison Sharp on July 21, 2017

by Dina Nayeri

  • Publication Date: July 10, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • ISBN-10: 0399573259
  • ISBN-13: 9780399573255