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Searching for Hassan

New Book Illuminates the History and Grace of Iran's Islamic Culture

"This is a lovely book — part memoir, part family odyssey, but, most important, a wise and lyrical appreciation of one of the world's great cultures." — Joe Klein, The New Yorker


The images of the attacks of September 11 are deeply imprinted on our collective conciousness. As we have begun to seek justice and entered battle in Afghanistan, another image we carry with us is that of Islam as a haven for fundamentalists and terrorists. In truth, Islamic culture around the world (including the United States) is much more diverse and embracing.

In a touching and informative book, Terence Ward uses his family's personal journey to Iran in search of a long-lost family friend as a frame in which to describe the richness and beauty of life in the Islamic Republic. Ward's understanding of the political and personal aspects of Islam is illuminating and comforting. Searching for Hassan contains a vision of an Islamic culture that is full of life and hope at a time when our perceptions can be easily overwhelmed by images of death and feelings of anger and hopelessness.

In 1997 Ward and his Irish-American family set out on a long-awaited pilgrimage back home to Iran, where they lived in the 1960s. Since the fall of the Shah, Iran had been closed to the Wards, and communication with one dear friend in particular, Hassan Ghasemi, had ceased. The country and their past were effectively sealed off behind a veil of secrecy and suspicion. But memories of life in this enigmatic land — of cherry orchards and Zoroastrian fire festivals, of the snow-capped Elburz Mountains and honeycombed mosques — inspired Ward's family to return and try to find Hassan. They undertake a journey across the steppes of Iran, guided only by hazy recollections of the name of their lost friend's family village.

Their quest, ultimately rewarded by an emotional reunion, becomes a rediscovery of a nation and its people. They travel into an unimaginably rich Persian past, to the very origins of civilization, and over the landscape of contemporary Iran, a kaleidoscope of ancient traditions and Western pop culture. Ward's keen knowledge of Iranian culture and history, along with his deeply moving journey into his own past, illuminates a country that is both wildly alien and inextricably linked to the American imagination.

Even before publication, Searching for Hassan has surfaced as a point of reference. The New Yorker, in its "Book Currents" column on November 19, calls the search a "nostalgic, sometimes harrowing pilgrimage." Publishers Weekly said the book was a "loving portrait of a constantly changing, complex land." Joe Klein, the author of Primary Colors and a writer for The New Yorker, called Searching for Hassan "a lovely book — part memoir, part family odyssey, but, most important, a wise and lyrical appreciation of one of the world's great cultures. Terence Ward knows Iran and loves it in a way that transcends the politics of the moment. He points the way, through his insight and sensitivity, toward a reconciliation of two great nations — Iran and the United States — that may soon be a reality."

Terence Ward, a citizen of the United States and Ireland, was born in Boulder, Colorado, and spent his childhood in Saudi Arabia and Iran. He has been a management consultant in the field of cross-cultural communication, advising corporations and governments in the Islamic world, and is currently associated with Interchange Consultants in New York City. He speaks Arabic, Italian, Greek, Indonesian, and Farsi. This is his first book.

A conversation with Terence Ward, author of Searching for Hassan

Q) What is your most vivid memory of your childhood in Iran? Do you have an equivalent of Proust's madeleine?

A) Whenever I am given a welcoming glass of tea, childhood images come rushing back to me of long, hot summer afternoons sitting with Hassan, listening to his stories under the shade of a plane tree. In my mind's eye I see our Persian garden and turquoise fountains under the snow-capped Elburz. I wander past honeycombed mosques and bazaar labyrinths. But my most powerful childhood memory is tarof—the cultivated, overwhelming hospitality of the Iranian people.

Q) When Hassan first took care of your family, was there an awkwardness between you? How did he and his family adapt to your large, boisterous Irish-American family?

A) The first day he walked into our garden with his young wife, Fatimeh, Hassan greeted me with a wink. After settling his suitcase in his room, he took my three brothers and me out to the garden and began to weave his tales. Through them, he built a bridge so we could understand his culture. He channeled our loud, boisterous energy with his deft wit and the skill of a matador.

Q) Were you aware then of the great differences in wealth between classes in pre-revolutionary Iran? Did Hassan ever remark on this to you or your family?

A) As wandering nomads pitched their tents with their bleating flocks outside our back wall, a school friend spoke about the thousands of gold coins thrown at a family wedding. "How many gold coins can one man have?" Hassan asked him. "How much bread can one man eat? How much does any man need?"

You would have had to be blind not to see the gap between rich and poor in pre-revolutionary Iran. Villagers like those in Hassan's hometown of Tudeshk lived in shockingly poor conditions. The shah's royal court presided over a spoils system that enriched a few powerful families. Tehran was divided between north and south, between the lovely gardens and villas and the ever-growing slums.

Q) Did you have difficulty leaving Iran and returning to life in the United States?

A) We wept leaving Tehran on our last day. Our new life in America was full of culture shock, and we moved around like nomads before finally settling in Berkeley. Like any refugees from abroad, we were not equipped to face American popular culture. For years during family gatherings we reminisced about Iran and wondered if we would ever be able to return. The brutal Iraq-Iran war left a million dead. My mother would be moved to tears thinking about Hassan and his family, not knowing if they had survived.

Q) Who first came up with the idea of returning to search for Hassan? Was it something your family talked about at holiday times when you reminisced?

A) Richard, my younger brother who lived in Saudi Arabia, excitedly called me in December 1997 with news that Iranian visas could be obtained in Bahrain. Was this the time to finally begin our search for Hassan? We had no idea where to begin. All we had was a black-and-white photograph from 1963 and my mother's garbled memory of Hassan's village. The only problem was that "Toodesht" did not exist on any map of Iran.

Q) The American idea of the nature of Iran is largely defined by world politics and the experience of the hostages held after the shah's fall from power. What do you think is the essence of Iranian culture? What is the side we in the West do not see?

A) For more than two millennia, the Iranian plateau has spawned great treasures of civilization: proud Persepolis, sacred retreat of Darius the Great; Shah Abbas's turquoise miracle of Isfahan, the Florence of Asia; and Shiraz, city of poets, gardens, and nightingales. Yet for most Americans, Iran's phenomenal cultural legacy is almost unknown. For us, contemporary Iran remains a terra incognita hidden behind its black Islamic shroud. Today, however, something critically important is happening: Persian culture is quietly crossing boundaries. Now, more than ever, we need to understand Islamic culture.

One window is Iranian cinema—often compared to the Italian neorealism of Rossellini and De Sica—which has garnered critical acclaim around the world. These films, born in a distant culture, convey a sense of intimacy and familiarity that brings viewers face to face with ordinary life. They brim with humanity and connect at the level of the emotions.

In my book, I've also tried to listen to the beating heart of a more humane Iran, long inaccessible to the world. My family's search was a path of rediscovery. Uniting with our long-lost Persian friends closed a circle in all our lives. On the journey, we learned that the artistic face of Iran—cinema, music, and the masterpieces of Persian poetry—still resonates in the hearts of the people, far more than the bullhorns of the mullahs. Iranian culture is 2,500 years old. It is refined, rich, and enduring. And above all, it is filled with hospitable courtesy, humor, and friendship.

Q) As a New York City resident, how did the attacks of September 11 affect you? What do you think of the response of the people of New York and the response of our leaders?

A) On the morning of September 11, my wife, Idanna, called me. "Terenzio, come quickly. A tower is missing." I found her peering out a window that overlooked the downtown rooftops. We stared in disbelief as a colossal black plume lifted high above New York's skyline. Then the second tower collapsed. In the horrific days that followed, our stunned city reeled from the shock and fear of the terrorist attack.

With friends, we made nightly pilgrimages down to Union Square to light candles for the fallen while a bonding spirit of humanity began to sweep the city. New Yorkers emerged heroically, Mayor Giuliani diligently spoke before the cameras and calmed many fears. Later, our leaders in Washington followed suit, offering New Yorkers as an example to the nation. Our wounded city has now begun to heal.

Q) Do you think there is hope for reconciliation between the Islamic world and the West? Do we have shared values that we can explore?

A) Of course there's hope for reconciliation. This is not a war with Islam. This is a challenge for us all. Our shared values are the universal values of humanity: compassion, respect, dignity, and empathy. In every faith, the same words are spoken over and over again: Love thy neighbor. Do unto him as you would have him do unto you. One thing is certain: we must seek understanding.

I hope that the current conflict will allow our leaders to break old political paradigms and seek a reconnection with the Islamic world. Any disturbance in that part of the world affects us all. September 11 taught us that. Nowhere is safe. The only solution is a long-term holistic cure, not simply a swift amputation. Future engagement by America in the Islamic world should include a push for democracy and an offer of generous financial aid to support education, health, and women's rights. In Washington there is talk of an "Islamic Marshall Plan." This will give Islamic moderates the important tools they need to combat hard-line fundamentalists across the region.

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