Neither East Nor West: One Woman's Journey Through the Islamic Republic of Iran
"A refreshingly frank and nonjudgmental journey into another world....It is to Bird's great credit that she allows us, forces us even, to see things in an altogether new light. This is the gift she brings back with her from her journey to the East. She is a marvelously inventive writer who sweeps us along on her magic carpet ride."
"[Written in] graceful, conversational, questioning prose...Neither East Nor West splendidly conveys 'the suspicion, the kindness, the absurdity, the generosity, the repression, the tolerance, the occasional danger and the constant wonder of life in the Islamic Republic.'"
"As a member of the press, Ms. Bird was able to go places and see things that are off-limits to other Westerners--and sometimes to Iranian women, too. She doesn't shy away from describing the more uncomfortable parts of her trip...or from trying to understand the intricate dynamic between Iranian men and women."
"When Bird profiles people, they stay profiled. Each person she writes about is a distinctive and memorable individual, not a type."
"Mesmerizing...Bird never fails to captivate readers."
"Neither East Nor West is a remarkable book and a singular achievement. Among the host of works that have crowded the market since the Iranian revolution of 1979, none, to my knowledge, succeeds as well as this book does in unraveling the perplexing puzzle that Persia appears today to the Western eye. I learned a good deal from it about a country that I thought it was my business to know well.... An engrossing intellectual odyssey delivered with dramatic skills and a novelist's flair.... A literary event."
"Riveting. In fascinating detail, Neither East Nor West captures the magic of childhood memories as well as the complexity of life in contemporary Iran. It conveys all the subtleties of a culture that has often bewildered the West."
"Vividly striped with sensations, yet ample and reasoned, and even seems to possess a certain omniscience."
"Bird's openness and intellectual curiosity, her refusal to be buffered from the country by the use of interpreters and drivers...add a refreshing dimension to her observations."
"I hope that someday Bird's book will be translated into Farsi, where it'll be read as a worded mirror by many to learn, understand and appreciate how our diverse good and not-so-good qualities make us Irani."
Excerpt from Chapter One
I went to Iran to flirt with my childhood. I went to Iran to court the unknown. I went to Iran to see the effects of the Islamic Revolution for myself.
My family and I had lived in Tabriz, a city in northwestern Iran, for three years in the 1960s, when I was a young child. Some of my earliest memories are of Iran--of the mud-brick compound in which we lived, of the horse-drawn droshkies clip-clopping down the streets, of a shrunken beggar man with a monstrous swollen hand larger than my head, of a vendor on the corner who sold my brother and me bubble-gum coins wrapped in bright foil. Silver, pink, green, and gold--the shiny orbs seemed to roll through the hot desert landscape of my earliest memories, drawing me back to a time and place far removed from the New York of my present.
I wanted to go back to that place, if not that time. I wanted to reach through the thick plate glass that separates now from then and remember what life had been like. I could see us all so clearly, moving silently about in a stark, white landscape just beyond the glass: my gentle father, the doctor, who had volunteered his services to the then-undeveloped country through the auspices of the Presbyterian Church; my stylish mother, the lady, who had fled her home in eastern Germany to escape the Russians during World War II; my younger brother, hair the shiny, silvery color of moonlight; and I, an already pensive child yearning to learn how to read.
The world had seemed so orderly then, with well-defined rules and structured roles for everyone. The United States was at the apex of its power, spreading the "light" of democracy and technology into the remotest corners of the developing world; there was no question then about whether America should be in Iran. The sanctity of the nuclear family was as yet unchallenged; my parents' divorce still lay many years in the future. Economic security and happiness seemed the birthright of every American child; what did I know then about the vagaries of love, work, adulthood, and the freelance writer's life?
But even as I remember order and light, I also remember darkness. The half-comforting, half-frightening darkness of childhood, when most things are still shrouded and the world is filled with secrets. Secrets that sometimes flitted past me when I was out playing in our garden, shaded with almond and pomegranate trees, or listening to a bedtime story, or watching my parents and sensing that there was more transpiring between them than just the exchange of big words. At the beginning of consciousness, I saw the world then--though I certainly couldn’t have articulated it--as being filled with dark mysterious mounds awaiting my excavation.
When my parents told their family and friends that they were going to Iran, most people didn't know where it was. My parents had to pull out a map, only to meet with amazed, concerned--or horrified--stares. Some people told them that they were foolish for going; others said that they were selfish for "risking the lives" of two innocent children.
Pre- or post-Islamic Revolution, Iran has always been a cipher to the West.