The Spice of Life: a Marsha Mehran interview
In tribute to the Iranian author who has died in her adopted Co Mayo, we republish this interview by Emer Martin from August 2005 about her first book, ‘Pomegranate Soup’, an international bestseller based on her time living in the west of Ireland
Marsha Mehran: “When I first came to Mayo, I used to go to a shop with all these wonderful spices. It was run by a middle-eastern family, and I was their only customer. There was something about them that struck me. They reminded me of my family, so sad and lonely and out of place. I was inspired by them and by my time in Ireland, and I put all my family recipes in there and a little bit of magic.” Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
After the 1978 revolution in Iran, an exodus was unleashed upon the globe. The Iranians were a distinctive bunch; for the most part elegant, educated, and highly sophisticated. As they sought out the world’s glamour spots, they never struck me as refugees in the normal sense. Many went to London, or the south of France or California.
There are so many Iranians cruising around Los Angeles, with their Versace sunglasses, nose jobs and Goo Goosh (the Persian Madonna) blasting from the stereos of their Mercedes cars, that the locals have renamed the city Teherangeles.
However, one young, gregarious, and beautiful Iranian ended up a few kilometres from Castlebar, in Turlough, Co Mayo. Marsha Mehran has just written Pomegranate Soup, a book about three Persian sisters who move to Mayo in the mid-1980s. “People did stare at me when I first came here. It wasn’t racist; it was just curiosity. They kept asking me if I was Japanese,” she says.
Mehran’s family were followers of the persecuted Bahai religion, and they fled in 1978 when Mehram was two years old. “My family lived a crazy existence, in many different countries. My parents had a café in Argentina where they served Persian food. I went to a local Scottish school and was schooled in English during the Falklands war. They said good night to me in three languages, Shab be Kheir, buenos noches, good night.”
Mehran met her Irish husband, Christopher, while she was living in New York. “One evening I went into Ryan’s Irish Bar on Second Avenue and Christopher, the bartender, fed me about 15 Malibu cocktails. I kept coming back, not for the free drink – I’m the typical Persian, I can’t drink much – but because Christopher was so kind and charming. I asked him to marry me and he said yes. We moved to Australia, where both my parents were, and got married in a modest ceremony.
“Then Christopher suggested I meet my in-laws for the first time. His family didn’t know we were married until one day his mother called and I said, ‘yeah we’re married’. She had a near heart attack. His family is Catholic, very traditional, and come from a small village near Castlebar. He is from a family of six, and all of them were in the living room waiting for me the day I got off the plane. It was something else, and I was only 21.
“Christopher couldn’t find work in Mayo, so we went to Dublin and lived there for nine or 10 months. Christopher was working at night and I was lonely, and didn’t know anyone in the city. I would write letters to my brother in Australia and they became longer and longer. I had a cheesy epiphany one night as I crossed the Liffey on the Millennium Bridge and said out loud, ‘I am a writer’. People were looking at me strangely.”
Proving to be as peripatetic as her family had, the couple moved back to New York, to Brooklyn, where Mehran wrote Pomegranate Soup in six weeks. “I wanted to write a happy story, something uplifting and a joy to read. Nothing woven, textual, literary. Just something that would make me happy. Food makes me happy. When you cook for someone, you are extending your heart to them, that’s how Persians feel. You are trusting them with what you make.
“When I first came to Mayo, I used to go to a shop with all these wonderful spices. It was run by a middle-eastern family, and I was their only customer. There was something about them that struck me. They reminded me of my family, so sad and lonely and out of place. I was inspired by them and by my time in Ireland, and I put all my family recipes in there and a little bit of magic.”
In Pomegranate Soup, three sisters set up a Persian restaurant in Mayo and the locals are awoken to Eastern sensuality through exotic ingredients and recipes. “In America they love to put everything into boxes. There’s chick-lit, and now they’re calling mine food-lit. But I hate that.”
Mehran got an option for two books, and ran home to tell Christopher. “He was sleeping, I jumped on top of him and said ‘I’m going to be published and they want the next book as well’. Do you know the first thing he said? ‘Okay, I guess I can buy new underwear, now’.”
Mehran laughs happily at the thought of her dreams coming true, as she sits among cardboard boxes. They moved back to Mayo, but are returning to New York for the American publication of the book. So, is she abandoning Ireland? “No, not at all, I’ll always have a bit of Ireland within me because of my husband.”
Pomegranate Soup, though ostensibly a light summer read, has a deeper message for this as it embraces multiculturalism. Mehran acknowledges that this is a very different Ireland to the insular one of the mid-1980s she writes about. “Now I come back to Ireland and people are all different colours, and this is amazing, and it’s only beginning.”
Pomegranate Soup, by Marsha Mehran, is published by William Heinemann (£10.99)