Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith
(1991), a historical fiction novel by Iranian-American author Gina B. Nahai, chronicles the life of Roxanna, a woman born in the Jewish ghetto in Tehran, who attempts suicide in front of her young daughter, Lili, and mysteriously disappears. Lili mythologizes her mother as “Roxanna the Angel,” believing that she saw her mother grow wings and fly from their balcony. The novel retells Roxanna’s past as Lili searches for her over a span of thirteen years, through Turkish whorehouses and ultimately in Los Angeles. The novel received praise for its use of magical realism
to describe the child’s process of rationalizing intense loss, as well as the shifts in culture and identity resulting from globalization in the twentieth century.
The novel begins in 1938. That year, Roxanna is born in the ghetto of Tehran. Before she can even speak, she is labeled a “bad-luck child” by her community, a liberally applied term in Iranian culture that designates an outcast. Many bad-luck children die before they come of age; Roxanna’s sister later comes to believe that the only reason she survived is that she was an angel. Though beautiful, Roxanne is given away to a refugee from Russia, Alexandra, at the age of eight. Alexandra raises her in the ghetto but then dies, leaving Roxanna to fend for herself.
Roxanna meets Teymur, a wealthy man, and lives with him, his wife, and their son. She falls in love with Teymur, and marries his son, Sohrab, as a cover for her true relationship. She gives birth to Lili before Teymur’s wife discovers their affair. She flees the relationship and divorces Sohrab; in doing so, she becomes a pariah in Tehran, a place of ruthless misogyny. Lili recalls Roxanna jumping from the balcony of their home as she looked on. Though the intent of the jump is resonant with the specter of suicide among Iranian women, Lili is adamant that she sprouted wings and flew to freedom.
Growing up fitting in neither Jewish nor Shiite society, Lili feels alienated in an Iran that bases inclusion on strict codes about identity. Her mother’s divorce and abandonment renders her an outcast, as well. Searching for Roxanna in Iran, she finds her sister, Miriam. Miriam, who has followed Roxanna’s travels, relates to Lili the story of her mother’s marriage to Sohrab and affair with his father. Later, she moved to Turkey, where she worked as a kitchen hand and was later imprisoned as a prostitute in a whorehouse. During this time, Sorhab sent Lili to Los Angeles to attend school. After escaping servitude, Roxanna worked for menial wages until she could afford to move to the United States, where her sisters had already fled at the beginning of anti-Semitic Islamic uprisings. There, she settled in Los Angeles, joining an Iranian Jewish community that grew to be larger than the Jewish community in Tehran when the Iranian revolution led to the installation of a fundamentalist Islamic regime.
The end of the novel is bittersweet, as Roxanna and Lili are finally reunited in Los Angeles. Roxanna is now physically bloated with sickness, and her mind full of regret. She explains that she believes she wasted her life on the assumption that it was cursed. However, on her deathbed, she looks hopefully at Lili and sees a glimmer of understanding that she was always capable of transcending the fate her society assigned to her. The novel ends with the notion that Lili will make use of her life, and in doing so, prove that her mother’s life was not ultimately in vain. Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith
suggests that one can transcend exile and oppression by rejecting the cultural assumptions that give these acts of violence power.