Dona Munker: Writing a Biography

~Writing a Biography ~
DAUGHTER OF PERSIA: A Woman's Journey from Her Father's Harem through the Islamic Revolution


"Lyrical and enchanting....Beautifully written." —The New York Times Book Review.

    DAUGHTER OF PERSIA is the story of the life and times of one of the most remarkable women the Middle East has produced. A powerful personal memoir that combines an eyewitness's account of modern Iran with the suspense of a nonfiction novel, it is the product of an unusual collaboration between its Persian-born subject, Sattareh Farman Farmaian, and her American writer, Dona Munker.

DAUGHTER OF PERSIA has drawn international praise for giving Western readers first-hand insight into America's involvement in the six tumultuous decades that culminated in the Islamic Revolution and laid the foundations of the crisis facing the United States and the world today.

  • About the story and the partnership that produced DAUGHTER OF PERSIA.
   What reviewers and readers say.
  • DAUGHTER OF PERSIA from a writer's perspective.
  • Article: "Finding Our Voice." How an American writer discovered how to tell the story of her remarkable co-author and the story of modern Iran.

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THE STORY of DAUGHTER OF PERSIA

    Born into the harem of a once-powerful and wealthy shazdeh, or prince, "Satti," his fifteenth child and the second daughter of his senior wife, grew up in the 1920s and '30s inside a walled harem compound in Teheran, in an extended family of five mothers, more than thirty brothers and sisters, and a thousand servants. In 1944, Satti, denied a university education because "a woman would come to nothing," defied aristocratic Persian custom and Muslim religious tradition to travel alone across wartime Iran, India, and the Pacific to America, where she enrolled at the University of Southern California, the first Iranian to do so.

    Upon returning to Iran, she founded the Teheran School of Social Work and launched a nationwide network of private community centers and health clinics, through which she also introduced her fellow Iranians to international family planning. For more than twenty years, she and her students waged a courageous war on poverty, disease and overcrowding—until, soon after the onset of the Islamic Revolution, she was arrested, held under threat of death at Ayatollah Khomeini's headquarters, and finally forced to flee the country.

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A LITERARY PARTNERSHIP ACROSS TWO CULTURES

    The collaboration that produced DAUGHTER OF PERSIA began when Satti asked an American, Dona Munker,to read an short account she herself had written of her life and work.

    Fascinated by her story and stirred to curiosity about her baffling nation and its seeming hatred of America, Dona proposed that the two of them work together to describe her upbringing and education, her extraordinary career in international social work, and her country's modern history until her flight from her homeland.

    Their work together eventually resulted in over a hundred hours of interviews, resulting in an "oral history" of more than a thousand pages of transcript. DAUGHTER OF PERSIA, which took four and a half years to write, was written from this oral history, which Dona supplemented with her own extensive research into Persian traditions and culture, Iran's modern history, and the causes of the Islamic Revolution.

    Continuously in print since its original publication in 1992, DAUGHTER OF PERSIA has been translated into five languages (including an illegal edition in Persian), adopted by college courses and book groups in the United States and abroad, and read by more than a quarter of a million people around the world.

For readers' reactions, click here.


WHAT REVIEWERS AND READERS SAY ABOUT DAUGHTER OF PERSIA

REVIEWERS:

    "Lyrical and enchanting....Beautifully written."
                —New York Times Book Review


    "[These] memoirs....intentionally engage a subtle dialogue with American readers. Equally important, perhaps, is the very dialogue which gave rise to this book, that between the daughter of a Persian prince and her 'writer,' Dona Munker, who traces her own involvement in this project to...her curiosity about a people who seemed determined to impose themselves upon American consciousness."   —The Washington Post

    "The cooperation between Dona Munker and Farman Farmaian in writing this book has been felicitous. Munker has captured the forceful personality and the courage and determination of the woman whose tale she tells with lucidity and power....Riveting and informative."
                —Christian Science Monitor

    "Exciting, absorbing...a fascinating psychological document...."
                 —Kirkus Reviews

    "...Outshines more tame biographies...Even fiction fades beside an absorbing adventure which we can only read with growing admiration."
                 —London Daily Mail

    "Daughter of Persia is a phenomenal read....An important book, both for its history and its life-story."
                — 500 Great Books by Women, by Erica Bauermeister, Jesse Larsen, and Holly Smith
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READERS:

    "More people should take the time to read non-fiction books such as Sattareh Farman Farmaian's life-time journey....Many thanks to the author (and Dona Munker) for sharing Sattareh's remarkable personal story!"—Helen Joan Rawson, September 22, 2012 (Amazon reader)

    "Compelling and brilliantly written memoir of life in 20th Century Persia. I read this book a few weeks ago. It was a page-turner and I simply couldn't put it down, essentially spending my entire weekend reading. The author's experiences informed me about the history of the Persia that existed before I arrived there as an American kid attending Tehran American School in the mid-70s...." —D.J. Hamilton, March 7, 2011 (Amazon reader)

    "In this heartfelt autobiography, Ms. Farman-Farmaian provides us with a personal account of Persian history and culture....She is certainly a very courageous individual. I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the Iranian culture."
                —"CathyB," May 3, 2009 (Amazon reader)

    "A well paced and a balanced book! The writer needs to be congratulated for as we end the book we look neither at Shah Reza or Ayatollah with reproachful eyes....The last few pages read like a Dan Brown book. Indeed a very good buy."
                —Prabal Guha Biswas, New Delhi, India, March 15, 2005 (Amazon reader )

    "I am now desperately searching for more books that not only give a fabulous history, but also provide the humanization and insight that this book provided. I encourage you to read it."
                —"Melville" in Ohio, June 18, 2004 (Amazon reader)
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    "I found this book a wonderful and honest account of Iranian culture and what really happened during the revolution. I was only 7 years old when the revolution in Iran changed everything and affected everyone's life....This book definitely shed light on my life long questions. I learned a chapter of history that is never taught in schools. Great book!"
                —"Sehri from USA," May 14, 2002 (Amazon reader)

    "Sattareh Farman Farmaian gives a spellbinding account of her life from birth until 1979...Her tale works not only as a memoir, but also as an anecdotal history of modern Iran up to and including the Islamic revolution which toppled the Pahlavi dynasty....Anyone who wishes to understand at least some contemporary Iranian history should read this excellent tome."
                —John Kwok, New York, NY, May 8, 2001 (Amazon reader)

    "This is one of the best books I have read....Drama, adventure and human frailty—it's all here."
                —A.J., USA, May 5, 2000 (Amazon reader)

"I am an American daughter of an Iranian man who grew up in Tehran the same time as the author, and I was THRILLED to find this book. It provided me with many insights and a sizeable history lesson about Iran and its culture....It is a moving account of a life of courage and dedication by a woman who dared to think beyond her cultural boundaries. I highly recommend it!" Simone P. Stilson, December 26, 1999 (Amazon reader)

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DAUGHTER OF PERSIA FROM A WRITER'S PERSPECTIVE ©

    1. The original title for DAUGHTER OF PERSIA was Shazdeh's Daughter—a reminder that the distant but beloved figure to whom Satti refers simply as Shazdeh, "the Prince," had a lifelong influence on her. What features of Satti's relationship with her father did you find most powerful, whether in her childhood or her adult life? With her mother?

    2. I was astonished to discover what a complex community Shazdeh's compound was. When you began the book, what did you think a "harem" was like? Did the image you had correspond in any way to what Sattareh says? Did reading the book change any of your ideas? Confirm any?

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    3. Having a protector has been part of Persian life for centuries. As a Westerner, I found it difficult to grasp at first why this was so important. Was the need for a protector something you found easy to relate to, or was it alien? Who or what offers "protection" in Western societies? In your own life as an individual? What might happen if the mechanisms of protection Westerners enjoy suddenly disappeared?

    Are there political implications for present-day Iran in the traditional "protection" system?

    4. For Satti, the incident in which her mother refused to go to the police after being cheated by a beggar was a crucial lesson in the Persian axiom "never to trust anyone outside the family."

     Even some Western societies discourage too much independence from "the family." Did your cultural upbringing emphasize independence, or family closeness? Would you find it strange to live in a society in which outsiders are viewed with suspicion, and could you adapt to living that way? Do you think that Western society would benefit from the strong identification with family that Satti grew up with?

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    5. Did Satti's descriptions of individual Persian women in childhood and adolescence—her mother, her stepmothers Batul and Fatimeh, Princess Ezzatdoleh, Neggar-Saltaneh (the wedding party hostess), or Shazdeh's strong-willed sister, Najmeh-Saltaneh, the mother of Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh—contradict preconceptions you yourself may have had of Muslim women as confined and helpless? Did it reinforce them?

    6. If Shazdeh had lived a year or two longer, he would have found Satti a husband. How do you think her life would have turned out if she had been married off by her father? Would she still have been able to fight for social reforms? Do you think she could have found happiness in a conventional marriage?

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    7. A priceless lesson of Satti's student years in "the land at the end of the earth" was the freedom to speak openly and criticize anyone, even teachers and the government. She believed that if Iranians could learn to speak freely, "we could solve our problems." For this reason, she decided that one day she would return to Iran and teach Persians the value of "constructive criticism." Do you observe as much "constructive criticism" in American life today as she did then? On what issues?

    8. Another of Satti's observations as a student was that "America was a wasteful nation." She felt that her American friends, instead of realizing the luxury they lived in, threw away clothes and even food they did not want. Is "Americans are wasteful" a statement you can agree with, or do you think that it is an oversimplification? Should Satti have been more sympathetic to friends whose circumstances were obviously very different than those of Iranians, or was she right to condemn this feature of life in the West?

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    9. One of the (to me) startling facts about Iran's modern history I learned from my co-author was that the after the 1953 overthrow of its democratically elected premier, Mohammed Mossadegh, the CIA's involvement was known all over the country within days. Yet it took half a century for Americans, who enjoy freedom of the press, to learn that their government had been involved in the overthrow of a legitimately elected political leader.

     What was your reaction to the overthrow? Were you shocked? Unsurprised? Do you think a democracy must never become involved in the overthrow of a democratically elected government? Or is it politically naïve to insist that we uphold a principle of democracy even when doing so doesn't seem to be in our national interest?

    10. One of the things about Satti's story that I personally found especially inspiring was the training of the "Bulldozers"—the young men and women she recruited and trained to go into South Teheran to clean up its orphanages, mental hospitals, workhouses, and prisons—in the first few years of her School. I was unfamiliar with this kind of social work, which is very different from the way social work in Western countries has developed. Could the country you live in learn anything from "Bulldozer"-style social work?

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    11. Satti taught the Bulldozers that "social worker" in Persian translated into madadkar, "helping person," in order to make the point that social workers must care not only about themselves and their families but about people who were strangers to them, or who did not share their faith or ethnic group. Do you believe that in (fill in your own country), people are more likely to be taught to care about others outside their own group than in Satti's Iran, or less likely?

    12. Among the points the book makes repeatedly is that compassion toward others is basic to Islam. For example, for Satti's mother, as for most people Satti knew, helping and even caring for the needy was a natural part of life; giving alms was taken for granted even if one risked being cheated once in a while. How does the Muslim attitude portrayed in the book stack up against what you thought before you read it? How does it stack up against the everyday exercise of compassion—religious or otherwise—in your own community?

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    13. In introducing international family planning and birth control to Iran, Satti emphasized that the birth control pill enabled couples to postpone having children until women had recovered from previous childbearing and until families could afford to take care of the children financially. To persuade traditional Persians that family planning was in harmony with Islamic law, she enlisted the support of a prominent ayatollah, who issued a favorable ruling. Her mother, however, was never able to accept the idea of family planning. What did you think of Satti's approach? Did you find her mother's traditional views comparable to conservative views in other faiths and cultures?

    14. Satti criticized the Shah's social and educational policies, yet in retrospect she realized that she had never fully understood what impact those policies were having on the students of her own school. Why do you think she remained unaware of this? Did you think that she should have been more aware, or not?

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    15. One of the things that especially impressed me in the story of the Shah's downfall was how difficult it is to maintain a healthy skepticism when we urgently want to believe that everything will come out all right. For example, many if not most well-educated, democratic, religiously tolerant Iranians like Satti came to believe that the Ayatollah Khomeini would be a beneficial and democratizing influence on Iran, not a religious fanatic. Of course, hindsight is 20/​20, but as you read the book, did you feel that she and others like her might have been able to predict how things would turn out? Or would you, too, have found doing that impossible under the circumstances?

    16. Satti's arrest by her own students was all the more devastating because no one on her faculty or staff—besides the janitor Zabi—tried to prevent it. While she later learned that the students were motivated by ignorance and a false sense of entitlement, she felt shattered by the behavior of others who refused to get involved. Why do you think no one stepped forward to help? Have you ever witnessed or been the target of a similar betrayal at a critical moment? How did you make sense of it?

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    17. Social work has always taught that it is only by solving society's problems through slow, long-term changes—through legislation, behavior, and social policy—that positive, permanent change can come about. However, by definition this approach means co-operating with the existing system. After her release from detention, Satti wondered in anguish whether she had, after all, supported oppression by keeping the school apolitical instead of speaking out against the government's human rights abuses. Was she right or wrong to feel guilty? Is avoiding a stand always the wrong moral choice? On what does rightness or wrongness depend—on adhering to a principle, or on the outcome of the choice? In Satti's position, what would you have done?

    18. Do you think it would have been better to have written DAUGHTER OF PERSIA as a traditional biography? Would reading the story this way have changed what you got out of it? What would have been lost, or gained, if we had written it from a third-person ("she") instead of a first-person ("I") point of view?

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Picture Credits:

     Center column: Reading man, Book of Kings (detail) courtesy UNESCO : M. A. Taraghijeh, Women (detail), reproduced by permission of M.A. Taraghijeh.

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     All material on this website Copyright © 2005-2016 by Dona Munker except where expressly stated or contributed by others. Copying, altering, or reproducing this material in any form without written permission is prohibited by law and may be prosecuted regardless of the venue or purpose of the copying.

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Click here for a talk on SARA AND ERSKINE, AN AMERICAN ROMANCE and how the biographer tracks the clues to the life of the heart.



   "For most Americans, Iran has been less a country than a blob on the map, filled with screaming mobs and glowering ayatollahs, surrounded by a sea of ignorance. DAUGHTER OF PERSIA is a needed, timely and readable antidote. Through the recollections of a remarkable woman, it humanizes and illuminates, confirming that there is another Iran whose inhabitants have for generations striven, not always vainly, for decency and freedom, social and political."

     —Karl E. Meyer, author of Kingmakers: The Invention of the Modern Middle East, Dust of Empire, and Tournament of Shadows (co-authored with Shareen Blair Brysac).

On this page:

   Read about the story and the writing of DAUGHTER OF PERSIA.
   What reviewers and readers say.
  • DAUGHTER OF PERSIA from a collaborator's perspective.


And don't forget...

...to visit STALKING THE ELEPHANT, my blog about writing biography, the writing life, the nonfiction creative process, and of course SARA AND ERSKINE, AN AMERICAN ROMANCE, my work in progress on the World War One-era minister's wife and suffragist, Sara Bard Field, and her extraordinary affair with the outspoken atheist and philosophical anarchist, Charles Erskine Scott Wood.

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