Akram, by Akram Arastehjoo (The Scriptory, Stacy Thunes Krieger, Menlo Park, California, 2014, 115 pages).
Screenplay Review by Dennis Moore
January 7, 2015 (San Diego's East County) - Akram Arastehjoo, a descendant of the great Persian Empire, which we now know as Iran, tells her own and personal family story that encapsulates the long and illustrious history of kings and queens, in a screenplay written by Stacy Thunes Krieger, Akram. The author actually derives her name from the Holy Quran; meaning generosity, or “most generous.” This is pointed out by Krieger in this well-written and warm story. Arastehjoo is unabashed in her pride for everything that is Persian, and rightfully so. It comes across in my interview of the author and throughout the story. I have been made aware that Iran actually converted from the original name of Persia to Iran in 1935, but it did take some getting used to. Many seem to prefer that bygone era of Persia, and all it stood for, including the iconic Darius the Great.
This screenplay actually starts in the San Francisco Bay area home of Akram Arastejoo, just prior to her flying to Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport, and directly from there to Azadi Psychiatric Hospital, where her daughter Neda is hospitalized, where she had admitted herself. This sets the tone for the story
“The silhouette is AKRAM, 62, a petite Iranian woman dressed for travelling with a strong, determined face that needs little make-up to convince you of its caliber. An exquisite Persian rug hangs on the wall behind her, a depiction of Persia’s most famous lovers from Samson and Delilah to Rumi and his harem. The rest of the house reflects Akram’s elegance: Louis the XIV and European furniture and artifacts perfectly around the room.”
There are many subplots to this story by Arastehjoo, not the least of which is the author’s escape from a war-torn Iran on horseback during the height of the Iran-Iraq war. She tells of how her never have ridden a horse before, and being compelled by the paid smugglers that were to get her out of Iran on horseback and into Turkey, and later here to America, sleeping in caves along the way. She tells of how the horses were spooked by wolves that jumped out of nowhere and in front of their clandestine operation, and the horse that she was riding rearing up and throwing her to the ground, bruising her and knocking her unconscious. She further tells that along the way to freedom from tyranny, their caravan of smugglers being stopped along the roadside by men, and two of these men being shot to death by her compatriots. Mind you, Akram was the only female in this group. So determined was she to find a better life for herself, and eventually her daughter Neda, that she would risk life and death to pursue it. In hindsight, it would have been difficult to bring her childhood daughter along on such a perilous journey.
The author puts into perspective what she was escaping from in war-torn Tehran, and why she felt it was so absolutely necessary, through a sequence of various street scenes seen from Akram’s point of view:
- An entire brick wall has the words DEATH TO AMERICA scrawled across it.
- A five foot tall image of the Ayatollah Khomeini.
- A huge billboard of a woman wearing a hijab with the words: HIJAB IS A WOMAN’S HONOR. ANIMALS ARE NAKED. A WOMAN WITHOUT A HIJAB IS AN ANIMAL.
- The impoverished neighborhoods of Southern Tehran.
- A man on a ladder changing a street sign.
The author shows her determination in this story, by having to leave her daughter behind in her attempt towards freedom. That decision still haunts her, and her daughter Neda. As a matter of fact, there is a passage in this riveting and emotional screenplay, in which the author wakes up from a nightmare during the course of her escape from Iran into Turkey, screaming; “Neda … Please forgive me, Neda …” That is heart-wrenching, for a mother to have to leave her daughter behind, through circumstances and conditions beyond her control. Arastehjoo tells of an actual tug-of-war between her and her husband at the time, Parviz, over their daughter Neda. Vividly described, it states: “A push and pull ensues with Akram and Parviz, yelling protestations and cries from all three. Neda is in tears.” Mind you, Neda is a little girl, watching her mother leave her behind. This episode between Akram and Parviz, actually brings about a flashback to when Akram herself was a little girl, as stated in this screenplay: “She’s 18 months old and her uncle Mustafa throws her down the stairs. Batool and Shamsi fights over her. Shamsi lets go and looks at her hands, looks back up at Akram, cries.” The effects of this early trauma is yet apparent in both the lives and psyche of both the author and her daughter Neda, although there are signs of healing and recovery. They have travelled a long road together towards this healing and reconciliation. Batool would later on her dying bed ask Shamsi to forgive her for depriving her of those very important formative years in Akram’s life.
In many respects, Akram is actually a love story, as well as a history lesson. It has certain and similar aspects to the William Shakespeare play of Romeo and Juliet, about two young star-crossed lovers whose deaths ultimately reconcile their feuding families. As Romeo and Juliet secretly wed despite the sworn contempt the families had for each other, in Akram, “Batool” does everything she can to undermine the union of her son Mashalla with Akram’s mother Shamsi, even going as far as to steal Akram at birth and raise her as her own child. In defense of Batool, who actually raised Akram as her own child during those very important formative years, she was actually a product of the ancient culture of Persia. During the Qujar and Pahlavi eras of Iran, when it was still known as Persia, Batool’s life and wedding in Tehran of the 1920s is described as: “The bride (Batool) 12 years old – The groom (Hussein) 28.” By the time she is 20 years old she is the mother of four children. Of course, the old traditions of Persia is instilled in her, and she expects her son Mashalla and Akram’s natural birth mother Shamsi to follow suit.
The love story aspect of this story comes across in Shamsi, Akram’s natural birth mother, professing her deep and abiding love for Mashalla, by comparing it with the poetry of Rumi, the ancient Persian poet renowned for his romantic poetry, and revered in the Arab world. This, despite Mashalla’s mother stating that Shamsi knows nothing about love. In this screenplay Shamsi states that her love for Mashalla is deeper than anything that Rumi has ever written. What comes to mind is Rumi’s poem; Only Breath:
Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu
Buddhist or Zen. Not any religion
Or cultural system. I am not from the East
Or the West, not out of the ocean or up
from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not composed of elements at all. I do not exist,
am not an entity in this world or in the next, did not descend from Adam and Eve or any
origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body or soul.
I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
Worlds as one and that one call to and know,
First, last, outer, inner, only that
Breath breathing human being.
The history aspect of this screenplay comes across in Akram’s escaping Iran and the Iran-Iraq war, immigrating to America, and later going back for her child “Neda.” The story and my own communication with Arastehjoo is replete with thoughts and memories of Persia, particularly that of Darius the Great and his Apadana Palace. I get the strong impression from the author that she longs for that bygone era, in which Darius the Great ruled Persia some 5,000 years ago. A cherished rug passed done to the author by her father Mashalla actually tells a story through the artwork and pictures woven throughout its fabric. It depicts lovers and rulers, as well as the poet Rumi. The rug itself is a story in and of itself, as it was actually accepted as payment in a real estate deal by Akram’s father Mashalla. The author admits that she gained her business and real estate acumen from her father, which serves her well to this day. In her escape from war-torn Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, the author guarded this cherished rug with her life, as it has so much family and sentimental significance to it, as well as historical. I am actually filled with pride, to know that my son has the name of this ancient ruler of Persia, Darius. See video of Apadana Palace here.
This is a story that I can see as a movie, with possibly a Selena Gomez in the role of a young Akram, and an aging Angelina Jole in the role of a present day Akram. Celia Cruz would fit well as Neda. This is a story that needs to be told and seen on the screen, particularly considering the many subplots that are ongoing. Neda has actually redefined herself, as she is an established painter and musician, with some of her finest works being put on display at the University of Mississippi.
Yes, I sense a bit of guilt in this story on the part of Akram, for having to leave Neda behind while she was being smuggled from Iran into Turkey, and ultimately to America. But sometimes we as parents have to make those hard choices in life, for the greater good. I can relate to that, as I myself made a similar choice and decision with my now 21-year-old daughter. Akram and Neda have many years of healing and getting to know each other, as well as atonement. Sure, each have been damaged, but they both have the rest of their lives to recover and I see it as a perfect love story between mother and daughter. It is significant to note a poignant statement made by the author while visiting her daughter Neda while warmly and tenderly embracing her at Azadi Psychiatric Hospital, prior to Neda’s recovery: “Neda, all the women in our family have had struggled in so many ways. You are not the only one. It is somehow the curse of the Iranian woman to struggle. But like all of us, we made it out of hell and you can, too, Neda… I know you can.” Those struggles now seems to be a distant past for both mother and daughter. Read screenplay here.
Stacy Thunes, owner of The Scriptory, a Screenwriting, Translating and Editing business in the San Francisco Bay area, with many screenwriting credits to her name, wrote this screenplay under the direction of the author Akram Arastehjoo. The author, Akram Arastehjoo, can be contacted at email@example.com, and the screenwriter, Stacy Thunes Krieger, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dennis Moore is the Associate Editor of the East County Magazine in San Diego and the book review editor of SDWriteway, an online newsletter for writers in San Diego that has partnered with the East County Magazine, along with being a freelance contributor to EURweb based out of Los Angeles. He is also the author of a book about Chicago politics; “The City That Works: Power, Politics and Corruption in Chicago.” He can be contacted at email@example.com or you can follow him on Twitter at: @DennisMoore8