Shirin Ebadi’s The Golden Cage: Three Brothers, Three Choices, One Destiny is a heart wrenching tale of three brothers growing up in Iran during the second half of the 20th century, and how their decisions impacted family and friends. The story is told from Ebadi’s perspective, as she witnesses the tumultuous events that transpired on the politically unstable landscape of this part of Iran’s history which continues to the present day. Ebadi is actually a major character in the story, her best friend Pari is the sister of the three brothers, and their families were quite close. This biographical account of the two interconnected families is a somber look at the realities of living under the oppressive regimes that have dominated the Iranian governmental structure throughout the 20th century.
The “golden cage” referred to in the title is an ongoing metaphor throughout the book. It is essentially understood as a self-imposed and self-reinforcing ideological prison. The individual ends up trapped in their worldview, unable to rationally assess opposing views, discounting information that might damage their ideology, and only being open to information that validates it. Ebadi identifies many of the characters throughout the book, herself included, as being trapped within a “golden cage.” Mainly though, the metaphor is applied to the three brothers, Abbas, Javad, and Ali (ordered from oldest to youngest) and to their differing sympathies for varying factions vying for power within the Iranian political landscape.
Abbas, the firstborn, was the first of the brothers to become trapped in his “golden cage.” From an early age, Abbas became enamored with the currently existing regime, ruled by Mohammed Reza, the Shah. As a child Abbas’ closest friends were raised in military and government official households, the time he spent listening to their parent’s conversations instilled a love of honor and duty to the monarchy in him. After bearing witness to the forced removal of Prime Minister Mossadegh as a result of the infamous “Operation Ajax” plan devised by Kermit Roosevelt, Abbas immediately enlists in the military and embarks on a successful career that eventuated in him becoming a General. This results in Abbas distancing himself from his apolitical parents, and growing apart from, and hostile to, his younger brother Javad, who is trapped in a very different “golden cage.”
Javad, the middle brother, ended up prisoner to a much different ideology. Javad showed signs of rebellion from a young age, as Shirin’s father points out after a young Javad had just defeated him in a game of takteh-nard: “That boy’s going to go places…If he’s able to reign in that rebellious nature of his, and if there’s any justice in the world–he’ll go places.”1 Disillusioned by what he perceives to be the oppressive rule of the current regime, Javad turns to the revolutionary ideas espoused in Marxism. This results in him being constantly at odds with his apolitical parents and sets him in direct opposition to Abbas, who represents everything that Javad sees as wrong with the current state of Iran. This results in him being jailed for the majority of the story, which causes immense suffering to his family.
Ali, the youngest brother, had strong religious tendencies from an early age. Ebadi describes the birth of Ali as “the belated and unexpected fruit of Hossein and Simin’s long marriage.”2 A quiet and reserved youth, Ali grew up “[a]s if aware of being an unexpected guest…trying to cause as little trouble as possible.”3 Eventually, Ali would join the Islamic fundamentalist faction in Iran that would assume power under the leadership of Ruhollah Khomeini after the Islamic Revolution. Ali would become a powerful military officer within Khomeini’s ranks. Blinded by his ideology, Ali would eventually refuse to use his influence to reduce the prison sentence of his revolutionary brother Javad.
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All three of these lives, which intertwine in so many more ways than can be described here, were raised in the same household by the same loving parents, Hossein and Simin. Their non-partisan upbringing did not provide them with a single direction to follow together, a political stance would have been necessary in this turbulent political climate. This resulted in a shattered and dispersed family, two brothers ended up living their final days in exile, and the other was executed in prison. The two other brothers die as well, one murdered by an assassin posing as his friend, the other commits suicide after finding out his favorite son is a homosexual. Their choices were very different, but their “golden cages” ultimately resulted in their early deaths, a destiny they all shared.