Marsha Mehran: Author who fled Iran with her family then went on to publish the best-selling novel ‘Pomegranate Soup’

 

Marsha Mehran was less than a year old when revolution filled the air in her native Iran in 1978. On 8 September the Shah’s army opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators in Tehran’s Jaleh Square, killing 88.

Marsha’s middle-class father knew the massacre would signal the end of the Shah’s regime, long supported by the US and the UK.

He got his family and his money out, initially to Argentina, predicting that the Shah would soon be forced out and an Islamic Republic installed. He was right. The revolution was complete by February 1979. With a gift for writing and having grown up multi-lingual, with noticeable Farsi, Argentinian, Australian and Irish accents, Mehran would go on to write about the 1979 Iranian revolution and its consequences – not politically, but from a human point of view, using fiction as a screen.

She was found dead, alone and apparently unmissed for at least a week, in a village on the extreme north-west coast of her adopted Ireland, close to the computer screen which had become her closest friend, the bearer of the words of a childless lady. She was only 36. How she died is not yet known but police said there was no foul play and neighbours said she had become reclusive, apparently dedicated to her writing.

Mehran had married an Irishman and settled in Co Mayo by the time she wrote and published her debut novel, Pomegranate Soup, in 2005, about three expatriate Iranian sisters, the Aminpours, who have fled the revolution and settled in an Irish village, a place of “crazed sheep and dizzying roads.” It was, as she had no problem admitting, a novel of magical realism inspired by the late Colombian genius Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

For the work of a first-time novelist Pomegranate Soup was a huge international success, translated into more than a dozen languages and published in at least 20 countries. “I wanted to write a happy story, something uplifting and a joy to read,” she said. “Nothing woven, textual, literary. Just something that would make me happy. Food makes me happy. When you cook for someone, you are extending your heart to them; that’s how Persians feel. You are trusting them with what you make.”

Because it was largely based in a café and included (in this case Persian) recipes, critics compared it with the Joanne Harris novel Chocolat, which became an acclaimed film starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp.

In Pomegranate Soup the Babylon Café, the novel’s scenic centre, initially confuses the local Irish villagers unused to the scents of saffron, cinnamon and cardamom wafting down their streets as the three sisters cook red lentil soup, abgusht stew or rosewater baklava. The book’s local pub landlord, Thomas McGuire, is not happy about those scents invading his own aromas of boiled cabbage and Guinness. Nor is he happy about three exotic ladies – foreigners! – attracting more customers than he, including the local priest Fergal Mahoney (a former stand-up comedian), the lonely widow Estelle Demonico and the hairdresser Fiona Athey.

One critic described Pomegranate Soup as “an infectious novel of magical realism, a delectable journey into the heart of Persian cooking and Irish living.” Matador Films have optioned the book. A sequel, Rosewater and Soda Bread, followed in 2008 and another novel, which she had apparently finished shortly before she died, may come out later this year. It is provisionally titled The Margaret Thatcher School of Beauty and is set in Argentina, where Mehran grew up, during the Falklands war.

Locals in the Irish village where she settled, wrote and died said they knew she was a writer but rarely saw her. They said she had married a local boy, Christopher Collins, who, years earlier, as a bartender in Ryan’s Bar in Manhattan, had seen her walk in and taken a risk, asking her, “Will you marry me and come back to my country?” Brought up feeling homeless, she did. They were later separated but she stayed on in the village of Lecanvey, near Murrisk, almost unnoticed, until an estate agent found her body, saying she was as beautiful in death as she had been in life.

In an interview in 2005, just after the success of Pomegranate Soup, she said: “When people ask me where I am from, I say I am Persian, born in Iran. I write and dream in English, I curse in Spanish and, after a few pints of Guinness, I dance a mighty Irish jig.”

Marsha Mehran, novelist: born Tehran 11 November 1977; married Christopher Collins (separated); found dead Lecanvey, Co Mayo, Ireland 30 April 2014.

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