A WSHU Interview With CT Author Pari Forood
The Iran-Iraq War had a profound impact on PariForood and her family. In 1984 the conflict between the two nations had been raging for four years. According to some reports, by that time a total of about 450,000 soldiers from both countries had been killed or wounded. And that was the year Pari’s 17-year-old cousin, Sahand, was drafted into the Iranian army.
Meanwhile Pari was working in Washington, D.C. as the press secretary for Congressman Hamilton Fish of New York. Pari was born in the United States. Her father is Iranian. Her mother is from Pennsylvania.
One day she gets a call from her father. He tells her that Sahand has escaped Iran to avoid serving in the army and needs her help to get to safety in the United States.
What follows is an intricate ordeal involving black market passport dealers in Pakistan, powerful members of the French government and INS agents in the United States.
Pari Forood tells what happens in her first published book, “The Gates of Light.” She spoke to WSHU's Tom Kuser from her home in Connecticut.
Before you got the call from you father asking for your help, you had met your cousin Sahand only once?
Right! We went to Iran in 1968 when I was 8-years-old. My father brought us over there for three months to meet his parents and all of his cousins. It was extraordinary. It felt like going into 1,001 Arabian Nights, you know a fairy tale, on one hand. And on the other hand it felt like being with your family, like being in a big family reunion. You had that foreign and familiar all rolled up into one. It's probably the beginning of this story, of how I felt, "Oh my gosh! I'm tied to these people from half way across the world, and yet I'm this typical American kid growing up in Scarsdale, New York.
Was it that connection that led you to decide pretty quickly what you had to do?
Absolutely. In 1984, as you said, I was working for Congressman Hamilton Fish in Washington D.C. He was the ranking minority member on the House Judiciary Committee. We had jurisdiction over immigration policy. We were working on immigration policy, right when I got that phone call. So now I'm sort of dealing with immigration on a policy level and on a very personal level, trying to sort of engineer my cousin's arrival into the United States. It was no mean feat, I mean it was tough. The kid was 17-years-old, he's dealing with the black market in Pakistan. Then we get him to Paris and we hit all kinds of snags with the French government. And at the same time I'm in D.C. talking to the head of the INS, which doesn't exist anymore, immigration is now under Homeland Security, but at the time it was the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
You mention your cousin's need to get involved with the black market in order to get paperwork in Pakistan. That part of the book especially reads like a political suspense novel. You get inside the characters' heads. For example, like the passport dealer in Karachi in Pakistan. How were you able to craft that character?
Right! I will tell you the reason why it's not called a straight memoir is because I did absolutely had to flesh out some of those characters. My cousin, I interviewed him. I interviewed my aunt and uncle. I interviewed everyone I could think of, but this is 30 years later. They remember some things, they don't remember others. So I took that character, I took everything they remembered and then gave him a little bit of a background to make him a little more interesting, quite honestly. I hope it's a good read because of that.
Another intriguing part of the book, and your story in particular, was the family connections that you had at the time. You were working for a well-placed congressman, your father had contacts with the government of Francois Mitterrand through his girlfriend. What do you think would have happened to your cousin if these connections hadn't been there?
I don't know. Quite honestly, we needed all of those connections, you're absolutely right. Especially mine. Everybody helped along the way. We had great luck, kismet, I call it, which is an Arabic word, fate, luck, to get my cousin here. That's why I tie it to the poem, "Paradise and the Pari." And that's where that term "the gates of light," comes from. It's a line from that poem. A pari is a fairy in Persian literature, she's trying to get into heaven. And she has three chances to get into heaven. And the whole book is about how different people find home, find confidence, find safety, but they find home. My cousin finds home in getting to America. My dad found home in realizing that he wanted to be here with his American family. I found home in reconciling myself with all the different and disparate feelings that being half-Persian is brings to me. And every immigrant, first generation, second generation whatever, out there in this country and all over the world can realize that finding home, finding peace, finding confidence with who you are, all the disparate and different conflicts and elements, will make you whole and happy and that's really what the book is all about, finding that peace and that home.