Category Archives: Iranian

A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea by Dina Nayeri

Teaspoon of Earth and SeaBefore she is even a teenager, Saba Hafezi reveals herself to be quite the unreliable narrator. Telling stories, however, is what will save her youthful soul … and many of those around her. “This is the sum of all that Saba Hafezi remembers from the day her mother and twin sister flew away forever, maybe to America, maybe to somewhere even farther out of reach,” Dina Nayeri‘s ambitious, sprawling debut novel opens.

At 11, Saba and her father are irrevocably separated from beloved mother and twin. Father and daughter quietly settle in a remote northern Iranian village on the Caspian Sea, where a coven of local women raise Saba, feeding her, chiding her, nurturing her, loving her. She is one of an inseparable threesome – the beautiful Ponneh and the desirable Reza whose mother regularly interrupts Saba’s tales with her own. Being only half a family, growing up deprived of her other half, Saba seems to live only half her own life. To compensate, she imagines what Mahtab and their maman might be experiencing on the other side of the world as she carefully constructs their faraway lives based on her obsessions with pirated copies of American television shows and films, and illicit copies of English-language books.

But in spite of her daydreams of (im)possibility, Saba’s must accept some semblance of immediate normalcy. She matures into young womanhood, agrees to an arranged marriage to a much older man who welcomes her with kind gentleness … until she asks for what he deems as too much. She witnesses the controlling, violent, murderous injustices happening all around her, always encroaching closer to home. Safety can no longer be ensured, and both father and daughter realize they must invent a new narrative to guarantee Saba’s future.

“I am an Iranian exile,” Nayeri writes in her ending “Author’s Note.” “This story is my dream of Iran … Saba longs to visit the America on television as I long to visit an Iran that has now disappeared.” Just as Saba feeds her assumptions and dreams, Nayeri had an international team of willing friends, family, colleagues who “helped [her] research this book from the United Sates, France, and Holland.” Takes the world to create a village these days, especially one that no longer exists.

Twenty years after Saba’s last memory of her departing mother and sister (recounted over 420 pages or 15.5 hours if you choose to have Sneha Mathan lull you into imaginary worlds), nothing – and absolutely everything – will have changed: “I must stop telling myself stories, but it is too much in my nature,” Saba ponders on the final page. Even at book’s end with so much revealed, we remain too mesmerized not to continue to believe.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Iranian, Iranian American

A Handbook to Luck by Cristina García

Handbook to LuckTell me if you’ve heard this one before: a Cuban, an El Salvadorean, and an Iranian land on the page and spend decades trying to find their place in the world. Yes? Then, you must have read Cristina García‘s A Handbook to Luck. No? Then read Cristina Garcia’s A Handbook to Luck!

In 1968 Los Angeles, 9-year-old Enrique Florit’s wait for his widowed father’s career as a magician to take off seems to be finally over when Papi announces they’re Las Vegas-bound where he’ll be the warm-up act for Sammy Davis, Jr. Further south in San Salvador, Marta Claros, also just 9, has been forced out of school to sell used clothes to help her pregnant mother; she manages to sneak visits to her brother Evaristo who left the family and lives in a tree. Two years later, on the other side of the world in a Tehran garden, Leila Rezvani is annoyed at her mother who won’t stop flirting with her imported, sweating British horticulturist, even as she’s somewhat awed (then manipulated) by her dying older brother.

Over the next two decades, these three lives (with rare intrusions by the tree-dwelling fourth) will dovetail. Misguided Enrique will prove to be a math wiz who gets into MIT but finds himself unable to abandon his increasingly erratic, gambling father; both remain forever haunted by the accidental death of Enrique’s mother. Desperate Marta finally gets off the San Salvador streets by becoming a teenage bride but finds true contentment thousands of miles away with a married Korean immigrant whose manhood was damaged by seven months of torture. Privileged Leila with her Swiss diploma and her should-have-finished UCLA-degree will marry half a twin and lose herself over and over again. And runaway Evaristo will eventually climb down from his tree, detour through California, before climbing a remote mountain alone …

Cuban-born García – best known for her 1992 National Book Award finalist debut novel, Dreaming in Cuban – moves fluidly between viewpoints and dates, while changing gender, ethnicity, social status, backgrounds with ease. If you choose to stick the book in your ears, narrator Staci Snell effortlessly matches García’s pace, adjusting inflections and tones to voice each developing character. García deftly reveals details of her protagonists’ lives in limited parcels, making sure each chapter both hints at and holds back just enough to keep reading to the next, and next, and next. Magic and accident, running from and running to, entitlement and entrapment – life is about perspective and, as García’s Handbook attests, it’s also about luck.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2007


Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Carribbean American, Iranian, Latin American, Latino/a

Together Tea by Marjan Kamali

Together Tea“In the car, Mina turned on the news. ‘Iran’ was mentioned in the same breath as ‘terrorist’ and ‘rogue.’ Just once, Mina wanted to hear the name of her old country mentioned in the same breath as ‘joy’ or ‘freedom’ or ‘gentle goodness.’” What Mina longs for is exactly what readers receive in Marjan Kamali‘s toothsome debut novel about an Iranian American mother and daughter, and their “Life on the Hyphen.” [Don't, by the way, read with empty belly!] If you choose to go audible, comedian Negin Farsad (The Muslims Are Coming!) adds pitch-perfect authenticity (except not so much with the Korean names, not that I’m quibbling, ahem!).

In 1982, the Rezayi family escapes their native Tehran, and arrives in Queens to begin their immigrant lives: doctor Parviz makes pizzas, ordered about by entitled teenagers, until he’s able to pass the exams for his U.S. medical license and reclaim authority; math professor wannabe Darya bends over a sewing machine in the window of “Wa-g Dry Cleaning” until her love of numbers (and Parviz) leads her to start a Saturday math club which eventually helps her find number-crunching employment at a local bank. Their children are their successful American dream: their doctor oldest son, their lawyer younger son, and their youngest Mina, who is in the midst of getting her MBA, even as she longs to be an artist.

In 1998, Mina at 25 is still unmarried, and Darya is not above creating complicated spreadsheets that should reveal the perfect permutation for a perfect husband for her precious only daughter. “‘Together tea,’” Mina’s mother Darya says “in her Persian way of speaking English. ‘You come, Mina, and we’ll have together tea.’” In spite of her matrimonial objections, Mina is somehow convinced once more to meet the latest suitor who flies up from Atlanta for a sumptuous lunch and stilted conversation. Mr. Dashti’s matched relief when their visit is over gives Mina a sudden new idea: after 15 years away, Mina wants to visit Iran … and Darya surprises both husband and daughter by announcing she’ll be accompanying Mina ‘home.’

Yes, for the quickest description, Tea is something akin to Iranian American chick lit. But given Iran’s history and ‘axis of evil’ relationship with the U.S., Kamali is well aware of the challenges and tragedies on both sides of Mina’s ‘hyphen’: in Iran, revolution and war destroy parts of Mina’s extended family – including her beloved grandmother – while the vicious new regimes suffocate its citizens; in the U.S., Mina is silenced by a bully who lumps her with hostage-taking terrorists even as he literally gobbles up her Darya-packed meals. Darya’s closest American friends are originally Indian and Korean nationals who can empathize about being immigrants, but are also all too familiar with violently torn-apart homelands.

While Mina’s brothers advise her “‘make it easy for yourself’” by associating their heritage “‘with good stuff – like fancy rugs and fat cats,’” her father insists on a longer history filled with “‘astronomy, science, mathematics, and literature, and … a leader, Cyrus the Great, who had the gumption to free the Jewish people and declare human rights!’” Even as Kamali never loses sight of that longed-for ‘joy’ or freedom’ or ‘gentle goodness,’ she also makes sure to bolster her narrative with memorable, substantive heft.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Iranian, Iranian American

If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

If You Could Be MineLet me know if you’ve heard this one before … because I’m convinced this is one of the most unusual narratives I’ve come across in years! Here’s first love with quite the surprising contemporary socio-political twist!

As the daughters of two best friends, Sahar and Nasrin were destined to spend their young lives together. At 8, Sahar announced that she intended to marry Nasrin. Now at 17, Sahar’s mother has been dead for five years, her father never quite recovered – sometimes, he seems to be as much a missing parent as his beloved late wife. Always a serious student, Sahar dreams she will go to Tehran University and become a surgeon. She never imagined that her regular “study sessions” with Nasrin – filled more with stolen kisses than books – would come to such an abrupt end: beautiful, spoiled, pampered Nasrin is fulfilling her parent’s wishes and getting married in just a few months.

Shocked and desperate, Sahar is willing to do anything to claim Nasrin. When she meets Parveen, a friend of her older (wilder) cousin Ali, she’s inspired to change her entire being for the chance to stop Nasrin’s wedding. Parveen is a transsexual; in a country where homosexuality is punishable by death, gender reassignment is not only legal, but the financial costs of changing sex are even covered by the government. After Thailand, Iran has the second highest number of sex change operations in the world! Now Sahar must quickly decide whether first love is worth giving up her identity … 

In an essay on her publisher’s websiteSara Farizan talks about writing the book her “inner teenager … wished for years earlier.” Farizan is the daughter of Iranian immigrants who was “deeply closeted until college”; as she thought of her own struggles with her sexuality, she considered “what it would mean for someone like me to grow up in Iran, having the same feelings I had but being unable to express them as openly as I can in the United States.” And so begins Farizan’s intriguing, engrossing, unique debut novel.

Tidbit: DC-area folks! Take note – Sara Farizan is coming to Politics and Prose tonight at 7:00. Click here for more information.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Fiction, Iranian, Iranian American

Equal of the Sun by Anita Amirrezvani

Equal of the Sun“Based on the life of Princess Pari Khan Khanoom” seems to be the dominant short-hand description (even on its own back cover) of Anita Amirrezvani‘s historical novel set in 16th-century Persia, now modern Iran. Some might find that description misleading, and expect this to be Princess Pari’s story, told in Pari’s voice. The narrative actually belongs to her chief eunuch and advisor, Javaher, who Amirrezvani reveals in the “Author’s Note” is one of several “invented characters.” Lest you feel deprived, don’t: Javaher makes for an excellent protagonist (especially as voiced by a perennial audible favorite, Simon Vance). He takes immediate control with the very first words – “I swear to you …” – as he declares his unwavering intention to “set down the truth about the princess.” He explains, “As Pari’s closest servant, I not only observed her actions but carried out her orders. I realized that upon my death, everything I know about her would disappear if I failed to document her story.”

Scant documentation survives about Princess Pari who was the favored daughter of Tahmasb Shah (1514-1576), the second ruler of the Safavi dynasty which reigned over one of the most significant Persian empires. In Sun, the few known major events of Pari’s royal existence are a vehicle for Javaher to share his enthralling, detail-laden experiences – and Amirrezvani makes exceptional use her fictional freedom – both inside the carefully-guarded harem and considerably beyond the palace gates.

Javaher joins Pari’s service, personally chosen by the revered, celebrated Shah. In order to prove his loyalty to the same royal court that accused and executed his father on distorted charges, Javaher has shockingly emasculated himself as a young man – much later than his fellow eunuchs who were made so in early boyhood. Javaher is determined to reclaim both his shattered family’s honor … and their former power. When the Shah dies unexpectedly without naming his chosen heir, Pari (and much of the court) knows that as his favored protegé, she is by far the best prepared, most knowing successor … if only she were not a woman. More and more, Pari’s brilliant, dangerous machinations rely on Javaher’s silence, his devotion, his intelligence, and his access to outside connections.

Because this is Javaher’s story, Sun moves beyond his royal service with intriguing subplots that include his personal quest to seek revenge on his father’s accuser, his determination to save his younger sister from their greed-driven aunt, and (with enough detail to make one blush at least a few shades of grey) his surprising romantic liaisons (birth control measures not required). Untethered by recorded facts, Amirrezvani’s fictional hero is a fascinating creation, fully aware of his Machiavellian choices, unbending in his determination to succeed: “If this book were discovered by the wrong man, I could be executed, for I have committed monstrous deeds and made mistakes that I would prefer not to reveal – although what man hasn’t?” he muses. “Man is flawed by his very nature. His ears hear only what they wish; God alone knows the absolute truth.” Amen to that.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012


Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Iranian, Iranian American, Persian

The Rose Hotel: A True-Life Novel by Rahimeh Andalibian

In the genre of memoirs (which includes based-on-a-true-story, autobiographical novels), I’ve noticed two distinct categories: the titles you read for the importance of the story, and the memoirs that also turn out to be fabulous examples of great literature. Psychologist Rahimeh Andalibian‘s writing debut represents the former; that said, so little is known Stateside beyond the fear-inducing headlines about the Middle East that a personal account of one family’s experiences is a welcome, humanizing addition to any library.

In the holy city of Mashhad – the second largest in Iran after Tehran – Andalibian and her family lived in luxury in her father’s hotel. “The Rose Hotel and I shared a rare destiny: I was born the day my Baba’s grand hotel opened.” As the only daughter of a devout, wealthy Muslim family, Andalibian grew up both privileged and protected.

The events leading up to the 1979 Iranian Revolution – marked by the creation of an Islamic republic under Ayatollah Khomeini after overthrowing Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi –  too soon destroys the family’s comfortable life. Trouble literally arrives in the hotel’s entrance when Andalibian’s father is asked to imprison, then is later forced to employ, two young men who are known rapists, who allegedly repent their vicious crimes. “If only Baba had never allowed the Ayatollah to turn his hotel into a prison; if only Maman had not relented …,” Andalibian, who was just 4 at the time, writes in hindsight decades later.

Tragedy begets tragedy: Andalibian’s eldest brother runs away and is arrested by an unforgiving regime. The family seeks impossible assistance to reclaim their son, moving from refuge to refuge throughout Iran and beyond. Their scattered lives converge temporarily in London, until what is initially presented as a vacation to California becomes a permanent move.

Beliefs are challenged, morals as twisted, fortunes are lost and made and lost again, and most painful of all, multiple family schisms cause irreparable damage. In the midst of neverending chaos, well-intended lies, and wrenching tragedy, Andalibian comes of age caught between the stifling traditions of a world long gone, and the young adult’s need to push boundaries and establish independence. She mourns, falters, grieves, hopes, celebrates, and – clearly helped by committing 33 years of what she has “questioned, listened, and investigated” to the page – finds self-acceptance and peace.

As literary narrative, Hotel suffers especially from uneven pacing, moving from too much information to sudden gaps; the writing wavers, too, between overly simplistic and unnecessarily florid. Having decided to call it a ‘novel’ – clearly marked on the book’s cover – Andalibian seemingly gave herself room to mold and shape her story. Making a few further adaptations to her experiences would undoubtedly have resulted in a better novel. Once begun, however, the pages will keep turning; like a train wreck, averting the eyes from Andaliban’s ‘you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up’-life story proves nearly impossible.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012


Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Memoir, Iranian, Iranian American

Good Night, Commander by Ahmad Akbarpour, illustrated by Morteza Zahedi, translated by Shadi Eskandani and Helen Mixter

Award-winning Iranian writer Ahmad Akbarpour uses the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988, claiming 1.5 million lives) as the backdrop for this indelible, meaningful story about a young boy who lost his mother – and his leg. “The story is set in Iran,” Akbarpour explains in his author’s note, “But it could be the story of any child in any country where a war is fought for economic, strategic, ideological or other reasons, and in the end leaves everyone far worse off than they were before, especially the innocent victims.”

Alas, the world never seems to have a shortage of deadly conflicts … and no one suffers more than children: if they manage to survive death and destruction, they will have to live the longest with the tragic consequences. Children in war zones are forced to grow up far too early, and need ways to process their trauma. Those who are blessed to be war-free throughout their youth, would do well with exposure to age-appropriate materials that bring awareness of alternatives to intolerance, violence, hate, and body counts.

In the midst of playing alone in his room, a young boy is interrupted by his father, and reminded to remove his prosthetic leg when at home because “[i]t makes a lot of noise and you might damage it.” He does so reluctantly and resumes his game, determined that he “‘… will avenge [his mother’s] death!’” The boy is the titular ‘Commander’ – fighting invisible foes and their land mines, grenades, and injured screams. His only break is a call to the dinner table, where his father, grandmother, aunts, and uncles have gathered to celebrate his father’s upcoming remarriage.

While the Commander replays his terrifying memories – as if repetition might somehow dull the tragedy – life for the rest of his family moves on. Now faced with a major change – a “new mother”! – the Commander works harder than ever seeking justice for his own beloved late mother. Yet when his imagination places him face-to-face with another motherless soldier boy missing his leg, the Commander doesn’t shoot, but instead allows his imaginary enemy to borrow his prosthetic leg “only for tonight.” He calls a cease-fire, initially ashamed, but then his mother commends him from her picture on the wall: “‘Congratulations, Commander. I’m proud of you.’”

Akbarpour’s illustrator, fellow Iranian Morteza Zahedi, channels the stick figures common in toddlers’ drawings, adding hauntingly detailed expressions especially on the face of the young boy. The result is chillingly effective, the boy’s unfiltered insight a sobering reminder of how children clearly comprehend the world around them. Thanks to the great wisdom of the world’s youngest citizens, the promise of peace looms.

Readers: Children

Published: 2005, 2010 (United States)


Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, .Translation, Iranian

That Night’s Train by Ahmad Akbarpour, translated by Majid Saghafi, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault

Banafsheh, a blue-eyed little girl aged 5, is traveling with her grandmother one night on a train, and notices a young woman sitting across from them reading a book. “If my mother were alive, she would be reading a book, too,” she thinks longingly to herself.

The reader, who turns out to be both a writer and a teacher, puts aside her book and quickly develops a friendship with the little girl. Before the young woman alights at her stop, she assures a delighted Banafsheh that she will call and visit the coming Friday. Alas, the young woman breaks her promise, and even the return of Banafsheh’s father who comes home bearing storybooks to share aloud, cannot cheer the disappointed little girl.

While Banafsheh waits, the young woman presents her story-in-progress about her night train reveries to her fifth-graders, asking for their opinions and predictions for what might happen next in her developing narrative. “‘Don’t be afraid to say whatever is on your minds,’” she tells her students. The more she discusses the possible outcome, the more she realizes she needs to see the little girl …

Into a simple story about childhood disappointment and saving redemption, Ahmad Akbarpour, winner of the Iranian National Book Award, weaves a layered treatise on the nature of storytelling when so-called reality and the writer’s imagination overlap, merge, and diverge. The young woman encourages her students to dramatically enhance the story-thus-far by inventing surprising twists and turns. And yet the young woman is absolutely startled when she receives a heartfelt letter from one of her book’s readers who feels she’s been misrepresented by one of the young woman’s characters.

Meanwhile, Banafsheh can only look upon the young woman’s scribbled sheets which hold her work-in-progress with wariness and distrust. Akbarpour then adds yet another meta-layer with his closing “Author’s Note” which details his own experience teaching a “Story Writing for Children class in the summer of 1997″ – not unlike the young woman’s class – during which a blue-eyed second-grader named Banafsheh insists she doesn’t “… even like the Banafsheh in the story.’”

Reading and writing both become their own characters in Akbarpour’s sly prose, as he blends and blurs what might be real-life characters with their unreliable narrators to create quite the literary adventure. Younger audiences will have one sort of experience, we oldsters will certainly have another. Shouldn’t even the simplest stories always be so exciting?

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2012 (United States)


Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Translation, Iranian

Zahra’s Paradise by Amir & Khalid

“The authors have chosen anonymity for obvious political reasons.” When you know something like that about a book – that lives were willing to be risked to get a story out – how could you possibly not read it? In the case of Zahra’s Paradise, I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Written by Persian activist/journalist/documentary maker Amir and illustrated by Arab artist Khalil making his graphic novel debut, Zahra’s Paradise began as an online serial webcomic. In the name of worldwide access, the series was released simultaneously in English, Farsi, Arabic, French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Korean, Hebrew, Portuguese, German, Swedish, and Finnish. The story – set in the aftermath of Iran’s contested June 2009 presidential elections that declared incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad victor – was considered that important. Now with Iran back in near-daily headlines, the urgency to read Zahra’s Paradise grows ever stronger.

The book opens with a gruesome prologue that will be alluded to again and again throughout the coming pages: a brutal father forces his young son to witness the monstrous destruction of a litter of newborn puppies. In the prologue’s ending panels, the butchered, bagged remains sink down in a watery burial: “Now you too are in the stream touched by all that’s still and waiting. A lost generation buried inside the eye of this blog. Zahra’s Paradise.”

“[T]his blog” is the work of a young man named Hassan desperately searching for his younger brother, Mehdi Alavi, who disappeared from Freedom Square (the irony!) while protesting the outcome of the Iran’s elections. From June 16 to August 19, 2009, Hassan records his family’s desperate search via the technological tools remarkably still available to him – his phone camera, his computer, the internet – first for Mehdi himself, and then, as time passes, any news of Mehdi at all. Hassan and his mother beg, demand, even call in dangerous favors to work through a labyrinthine system of hospitals, prisons, government offices, the morgue, and even the cemetery just outside Iran’s capital city of Tehran known as Zahra’s Paradise, named after the prophet Mohammad’s daughter. What Hassan is able to unveil is worse than any nightmare …

That the resulting panes make for an unforgettable story might be enough, but that so much of this graphic fiction is indeed fact is a sobering, outrageous slap of reality. The creators use a “composite of real people and events,” supported by an appendix-like 40+ pages at volume’s end they label “Glossary” that serves as historical record. Most haunting are those final 13 pages of names – real, true, once-living brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents – that make up the “citizens of a silent city named Omid (‘hope’ in Persian).” Printed in near-blinding tiny type, these names are an ultimate reminder to “[l]et them challenge our conscience so that in the future we will prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again.”

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2011

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, Arab, Iranian, Iranian American, Persian

Santa Claus in Baghdad and Other Stories about Teens in the Arab World by Elsa Marston

Santa Claus in BaghdadEight stories about eight teens from eight different countries coming of age during a time of uncertainty and tumult in their native Middle East countries. In the title story, young Amal of Baghdad, Iraq, must find the very best gift for her departing literature teacher even while watching as her family’s already depleted resources continue to dwindle. In “Faces,” Suhayl of Syria comes to terms with his parents’ divorce, desperately hoping to make his mother happy once again.

Aneesi watches in horror when her beloved father is accused of theft in the wealthy Lebanese home in which they both work in “The Hand of Fatima.” When Mujahhid is sent away from Bethlehem and the constant shootings that already claimed his older brother’s life to stay with relatives in a remote village in “The Olive Grove,” he learns new ways of struggling for his people’s rights against the controlling Israelis without having to become yet another martyr.

An Egyptian city girl learns first hand about village life in “In Line,” a young Tunisian boy who sells his mother’s hats befriends a famous artist in “Scenes in a Roman Theater,” two brave girls in Jordan help save another from an honor killing in “Honor,” and a young Palestinian boy living in a refugee camp in Lebanon helps his isolated older brother possibly find real love.

While the circumstances of these young lives might first seem unfamiliar to a western audience, universal truths about what all children want soon emerge. Differences that all too often get magnified by the media fall away as the children in these pages come of age, sharing their lives with friends, dealing with the occasional conflict with parents, and trying to fit into their communities – all the while surviving war, deprivation, political uncertainty, and imminent dangers.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2008

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Short Stories, Arab, Iranian, Iraqi, Lebanese, Middle Eastern, Palestinian