Landscapes of a Distant Mother


"SAID is an Iranian-born exile, long resident in Germany where he has become a literary star. However, for his books, he still uses his first name only, apparently for reasons of security. In this book, his first to appear in English, he has produced an eloquent memoir of both his mother country and his real mother, from whom he was separated when he was very young. Tributes have poured in for this sparse and unillusioned account of loss and dislocation, which deals with the psychological consequences of a homelessness that is national and cultural just as much as familial."—Financial Times

"He packs volumes into this brief, poetic memoir. How does one prepare to meet a mother seen only once since birth? The book follows his preparations for the meeting, the meeting itself, and then the aftereffects, which lasted ten years before he could write about it.…This book fascinates with its detailed portrait of a foreign culture and forges an emotional connection with anyone who's ever been a son, daughter, or mother."—Library Journal

"One of the best books I have read in recent years. Deceptively simple and poignant without being sentimental, Landscapes of a Distant Mother is not just another narrative about exile. It is above all about the loss of an illusion—the startling discovery that home is not, and perhaps never was, a home."—Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran

An excerpt from
Landscapes of
a Distant Mother


Saturday, 26 November 1988,
5:35 P.M.

I'm forty-one years old and have only seen my mother once, twenty-eight years ago.

The phone rings. Someone is speaking Persian to me. Someone from Teheran. Someone is asking for me. Someone is crying. I shout at this someone. It is the time of the great executions in Teheran and the time of the condemnation of Salman Rushdie. Meetings, panel discussions, interviews. Defend Salman Rushdie, absolutely. Condemn the mullahs' regime. Make the European public aware. It is suddenly discovering human rights—but only for Salman Rushdie. Not for our people. Three thousand political prisoners are executed at this time. The European press scarcely takes any notice of it. The foreign minister is staying in Teheran at the time. He concludes a cultural agreement with the mullahs. Night after night there is news of new executions. I am friends with only a few of these men, I imagine that I know a few. Among them, men who spent twenty-five years in the jails of the last dictator. Men who waited thirty years in exile, until the Shah's regime was toppled. Many of them were forced to express regret on television and to confess to spying for a foreign power. Then they are executed. It is the time of death, and I am tired.

Now I hear someone weeping on the telephone. Someone I already know. Another execution. Once again I have to call some brother or some sister. Express my sympathy, again. A worn-out formulation as a comfort. Write an article, again. In memory of the murdered friend. Ask those who are left behind for a photograph, as a memento of a friendship that has been extinguished. Go somewhere, if a visa is not required, to some memorial service or other. Embrace some friends or other survivors. Wish them a long life. And myself too. "As long as we live…"

Someone or other on the phone.

I shout at him.

This someone sobs, on the phone. Another stranger takes the phone. He introduces himself, the name means nothing to me. "I'm sorry! The man who just spoke was your brother."

My brother? And I think of you. I know there is a you. Somewhere, in Iran. I know you have several children.

"You mean, my mother's?"

"Yes!" he answers, and introduces himself again.

"And why is he weeping?"

"Because we have found you!"

"What do you mean?"

"You don't know how difficult it was to discover your telephone number."

I suspect as much. I am very miserly with my telephone number and with my private address. I know why.

I think I know why.

"We've been looking for your telephone number for years. That's why your brother is so upset."

"Can he speak now?"

Then your son speaks, and he also apologizes.

"And how did you discover my telephone number?" I use the familiar you.

"First I called your aunt in Teheran. But she said that she didn't have your telephone number. Then a friend gave me an idea. He, this friend, called your aunt, said he was a friend of yours and said he just happened to be in Teheran, he had 'certain problems' and had to call you urgently in Germany."

"Certain problems," I think, is a very meaningful metaphor in Teheran; it opens many a door. My aunt played the noble savior and got out my telephone number.

Then your son spoke about you. You wanted to find me, always, you charged all your sons with finding me.

"How many children does your mother have?"

"Six. Seven with you."

Then he told me that you had had two miscarriages. Then the names follow in chronological order together with their professions.

"Then comes me. I'm twenty-seven years old and studied medicine in Teheran, am married and have one son. Do you know what my son is called?"

How could I know?

"Your name!"

That almost makes me feel uncomfortable.

"Mother told me to do it. You don't mind?"

"No! It's an honor." I am lying. He is weeping.

"Are you married?"



"It didn't turn out that way."

"But now Mother has found you, she will get you married— with God's help."

"Yes, with God's help." We both laugh. Each in our own way. Then he interrogates me. Profession. Politics. Then he tells me about you. At last.

"Mother worries about you. She knows you had certain difficulties, with politics, earlier, and today as well. The whole family knows about it. Mother is always worried about you. At some point in the sixties our older brother came into contact with the left-wing guerillas. And for that he was in prison for a year. At the time he had got hold of an illegal leaflet in which the guerillas were commemorating a fallen comrade. And he had exactly the same name as you. Our brother told us that you were dead. That you had fallen in battle. He made us swear not to tell Mother anything about it.

Then we gave up the search for you. Until 1979, in the "spring of freedom" your name appeared in the newspaper. Then we knew you were alive."

Then he tells me again how difficult it was to get hold of my telephone number. I say nothing.

He repeats himself; he runs out of steam. Now there has to be something else, I think to myself.

Then, finally:

"Mother wants to speak to you."


"No. Mother is not in Teheran."

I am relieved.

"When? When does she want to speak to me?"

"When you let her."

"Whenever Mother wants to."

"No!" he sobs again. "You decide! We've been looking for you for so long. Now you decide!"

We decide on a date two days later, at same time.

"Are you going to call Mother now?"

"Call her, you must be joking. I'll go there tomorrow morning. I want to bring Mother the news in person. I want to see her laugh, see her cry. You have no idea what a great celebration there will be."

He sobs again.

We say good-bye.

The next two days are difficult. I talk to my lover, to friends, I write everything down:

What has happened, what I know about you—very little.

I am waiting for your call. I don't know what will become of us.

You call. We talk to one another.

Trivialities, pathetic things, and funny ones. I ask you how you are.

"Good. Now that I've found my son again I no longer have these constant pains in my legs."

You ask me how I am. "Good," I say, and I believe it. I ask you when you are coming.

"Soon, with God's help."

"Yes, soon," I repeat.

Then the letters we exchanged.

I send you a photograph, a new one. You send several photographs. You with your sons. You with your daughters, alone. Meanwhile your son from Canada also calls. We understand each other better than your son in Teheran and I did. We telephone a few more times.

Then you write that you cannot get a visa to come to Germany.

I telephone Canada, A plan is worked out. You will go to Canada, and so will I. I don't want to, I can't meet you at the airport. That's no place for us. You are not a public mother. Your son in Toronto understands me, at least that's what he says.

But there are no direct flights from Teheran to Toronto. Stopover in Frankfurt. Again I am afraid that you will insist on seeing me in the transit lounge. I hate transit lounges.

They smell of powerlessness and deportation.

Your son in Toronto takes care of everything. He will tell you that I am very busy and travel a lot. That's more like the picture you have of me.

So you are flying alone. Now you are in Toronto. And I am flying to you.


Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 17-25 of Landscapes of a Distant Mother by SAID, translated by Kenneth J. Northcott, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2004 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Landscapes of a Distant Mother
Translated by Kenneth J. Northcott
©2004, 118 pages
Cloth $20.00 ISBN: 0-226-73376-9

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Landscapes of a Distant Mother.

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