'Refuge' is the story of an Iranian family in search of home

Dina Nayeri’s sophomore novel, 'Refuge,' tells a tale of migration and dislocation.

Refuge By Dina Nayeri Penguin 336 pp.

Here’s the seemingly simple narrative frame: A father and daughter are separated and spend the next two decades both avoiding and yearning for reconnection. But Dina Nayeri’s sophomore novel, Refuge, is anything but straightforward, adding manifold layers of repeated displacements, political turmoil, mutable identities, disturbing choices, family dysfunction, and even chronic drug addiction to a non-linear exposition covering decades, continents, and countries. The result is both a commemoration of the ties that bind us and an indictment of the estrangement that isolates, and even kills, us.

Iranian-born, Princeton- and-Harvard-educated Nayeri opens with the global: In June 2009, conservative (militant) incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed victory in the Iranian presidential election, sending reverberations around the world. Violent protests erupted over the veracity of the results with sometimes fatal consequences for Iran’s citizens. Over the next four months, Bahman Hamidi will finally realize that he must extract himself from his homeland, while his daughter, Niloo, for the first time since she fled Iran 22 years earlier, will reclaim her Iranian origins by inserting herself into an Iranian refugee community in Amsterdam.

In 1987, then-8-year-old Niloo left Isfahan, Iran, with her mother, Pari, and her younger brother, Kian, spending two years as refugees in “typical pass-through countries, Italy and the United Arab Emirates,” before settling in Oklahoma. The single night the trio spent in an Oklahoma City homeless shelter before moving into their small apartment – “a logistical oversight by their sponsor family” – is a looming horror that unceasingly haunts Niloo. “Her backpack, a lifetime of treasures she wanted to keep close,” becomes the childhood security blanket she can’t shed even in adulthood.

Niloo’s father, Bahman, can’t bear the thought of losing his ancestral village, his extended community, his comfortable culture, and his lofty status as Doctor Hamidi. Although risking the encroaching dangers of an increasingly oppressive regime, Bahman is also an opium addict who can’t (won’t) stray far from his ready supply.

Over the next two decades, Niloo sees her father just four times in Oklahoma, London, Madrid, and Istanbul, always accompanied by brother Kian, twice joined by their mother Pari. Each time, the distance grows further unbreachable.

Niloo attends Yale, decides she “needed a boyfriend” in her junior year and carefully chooses Guillaume – a Provence/New York hybrid – as her life partner. The two move briefly to Manhattan before arriving in Amsterdam, where Niloo begins to solidify her career as an anthropology professor and the couple starts building a home of their own. Everywhere she goes, feeling she belongs nowhere, Niloo creates for herself “the Perimeter,” a space forbidden to even Gui: “He accepts whatever borders she draws.” Without roots, “all that adjusting depended on one thing: in every new place she had a corner, just a corner, that was hers only.”

Bahman, who refused to compromise his own corner in Iran, hasn’t fared particularly well. After giving up Pari – “the love of his youth” – and their children, he’s married twice more and is attempting to divorce his third wife who, for all her youth and immaturity, has managed to manipulate the courts to put Bahman under house arrest. Unsuccessful thus far, Bahman’s entreaties for a fifth reunion with Niloo and Kian might be his only option for attaining freedom – and perhaps absolution. Relationships will be tested, torn, and – for some – remade.

With eyes wide open, Nayeri is not afraid to expose her characters as flawed, even unlikable. Caught between desperation and expectation, arrogance looms large: Bahman as the male patriarch whose less-than-thoughtful choices nearly destroy multiple lives, Niloo as the self-absorbed loner too damaged by fearful distrust to accept life-saving support. Presenting father and daughter in multi-faceted splendor, however, comes at a literary price for Nayeri: her intense involvement with Bahman and Niloo tends to eclipse her other, clearly lesser supporting cast.

Family separation, magnified with intense, even debilitating longing for something lost, was also the focus of Nayeri’s 2013 lauded debut, “A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea,” which was translated into 14 languages. That global appeal of her first novel should also transfer to “Refuge,” an even more urgent, resonating contemporary story, highlighting today’s scattered, displaced, lost, all-forced-to-be refugees in search of the titular refuge. One wrong move – just one wrong letter – and refuge can quickly become refuse, as in "the discarded," or refuse, as in "to be denied." As governments fall, borders shift, more populations become stateless, Nayeri carefully illuminates the plight of the ever-searching, never-belonging global wanderer. 

Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

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