Adapting to Germany's fast-changing society

Nassir Djafaris zweite Roman "Mahtab" berichtet von einer iranischen Migrantin, die sich im Frankfurt der späten Sechzigerjahre zunehmend gut zurechtfindet.
Nassir Djafaris zweite Roman "Mahtab" berichtet von einer iranischen Migrantin, die sich im Frankfurt der späten Sechzigerjahre zunehmend gut zurechtfindet.

Nassir Djafari's second novel "Mahtab" tells the story of a migrant mother from Iran in 1960s Frankfurt. Not only does it describe how the protagonist adapts to an unfamiliar culture, but also reveals just how much Frankfurt itself was transformed during this period. By Hans Dembowski

By Hans Dembowski

Mahtab, the main character, is an Iranian woman in her late 30s who works as a nurse in a Frankfurt hospital. She has been living in Germany with her family for about a decade. Her husband, Amin, runs a small store with great dreams but moderate success. Their youngest son was born in Frankfurt; their daughter and first son were born in Iran.

Mahtab is focused on her family. When her shift is over, she hurries home to prepare dinner for the kids. She does not socialise much with female colleagues, who seem to be obsessed with their looks and whether they are attractive to men. The Iranian mother pays far less attention to the outside world than do her husband and children.

He, Amin, husband listens to shortwave radio and always knows the latest news about the atrocities of the Shah dictatorship back home. He also follows what is going on in other countries of the so-called Third World.

At the same time, he is constantly trying to grasp new business opportunities – without much luck. Mahtab finds his tendency to flirt with German women deeply irritating. She is equally bewildered, if fascinated, by the attention a senior doctor pays her at the hospital.

Cover of Nassir Djafari's "Mahtab", published in German by Sujet (source: publisher)
Over the course of the novel, the main protagonist Mahtab morphs from conservative Iranian wife and mother to independent woman with her own bank account – and swimsuit

Fears for her own daughter

The children go to German schools and accept their peers' views and ideas.

Azadeh, the 21-year-old daughter, in particular, is increasingly independent-minded and expects much more personal freedom than seems appropriate to Mahtab. The parents want all three to get a good education and have a great future.

In the first of 27 chapters, Mahtab and Amin are stuck in a traffic jam caused by young students protesting against the Vietnam war. Mahtab is surprised to see Azadeh in the crowd.

It turns out that the young woman has a boyfriend, so Mahtab does not permit her to go out anymore. Nonetheless, she is forced to recognise that she has become unable to control her daughter's life.

While Mahtab disapproves of her daughter's miniskirt, she is ignorant that many German mothers share her misgivings.

1960s Frankfurt

Djafari describes not only how his main character changes, however, but also gives incidental account of the massive changes Frankfurt was undergoing at the time.

The underground transport system was being built, so the city centre was a permanent construction site. Consumerism had set in and people were eagerly buying washing machines and TV sets.

Birth-control pills had become available, and a side effect was that extra-marital affairs were no longer the scandal they had been in the past.

Young people were rebellious, keenly aware of what was going on in Vietnam and other countries formerly or still under colonial rule. They objected to Western governments' involvement in the crises of far-away nations, likening such involvement to Germany's Nazi past.

Of course, migration was also changing the face of the city – Frankfurt had started to become Germany's multicultural hub.

Mahtab remains oblivious to it all. She is struggling to cope on many fronts. When she discovers her husband is having an affair with an employee, Mahtab decides to move out, taking her sons with her. She finds refuge in the home of a former patient, an elderly lady.

Azadeh takes advantage of the chaotic situation and moves in with her boyfriend. Her mother thinks she is living with her father, while her father believes she is with his wife. The family's reunification starts when the parents begin looking for their daughter.[embed:render:embedded:node:19078]

In the meantime, Mahtab's elderly friend has helped the nurse become more self-confident and independent. Mahtab now has a bank account of her own, for example, and she has started taking swimming lessons.

When she first accompanied her friend to the public swimming pool, she felt embarrassingly naked in her new swimsuit. The protagonist increasingly makes Frankfurt her home, and no longer feels bound by the restrictive gender roles of her childhood.

Nassir Djafari is an immigrant himself. His family moved from Iran to Germany when he was four. He used to work for the KfW Development Bank as an economist. "Mahtab" is his second novel. His first one was about a father-son relationship in crisis.

Hans Dembowski

© D+C | Development & Cooperation 2023

Nassir Djafari: "Mahtab", published in German by Sujet.

Hans Dembowski is editor-in-chief of D+C.

Hans Dembowski ist Chefredakteur von E+Z .