Inspired by a visit to Tehran 32 years after her forced exile during the Islamic Revolution, Bijan weaves religion and politics with allegiance and tradition.
Seeping with the pervasive, religious brutality of its once-upon-a-time modern culture, “The Last Days of Café Leila” offers the beauty of Tehran prior to the rebel overthrow. Bijan underscores the complexities of Tehran’s history and its present day – and at times violent – domesticity, while giving readers a framework of family and political liberation.
Bijan’s persona is deeply embedded within the pages of Café Leila because “strange things happened when I returned to Tehran in 2010,” she said. “This was a homecoming, but we had no place to go, no family to go back to. But my return to Tehran was not a futile journey. ‘Daughter, what took you so long?’ I imagined hearing from the very soil.”
As an “American” outsider, Bijan “reconstructed the beautiful ruins of my city as a beloved café.” Café Leila became a refuge for outsiders where a seat was always saved. Bijan asked, “Who turns a blind eye to the atrocities that erupt on the street and who shows courage?”
Bijan wrote her characters to remain “open to a whole world of possibility,” by showing compassion and loyalty in a culture ravaged by a savage authoritarian leadership.
“To write about such a place was to enter troubled waters,” she continued. “For I did not want to mitigate the grim and gruesome side of the world beyond the café but to bear witness to loss and explore how people behave in the shadow of fear and mayhem.”
Tapping into the backdrop of her own family script, Bijan narrates what once was through the doors of Café Leila. Donia Bijan was born and raised in Tehran, Iran, the daughter of medical professionals. Bijan’s parents had owned and operated a hospital on an avenue once named after her father. Built by her father “brick-by-brick” in the 1950s on then undeveloped land, the building served as a hospital and home to the Bijan family. “Doktor” Bijan and his wife Atefeh Bijan – a nurse – delivered thousands of babies “to husbands pounding on the gate beside their pregnant wife in labor.” In 1978, while vacationing in Spain, the family received word that they would be executed if they returned to Tehran. Leaving everything behind, they fled to America. Today she describes the building as nothing more than a “relic” of the former Tehran.
“The Last Days of Café Leila” also juxtaposes a deliciously rich narrative of Persian food with a family searching for answers, understanding and redemption. The former chef highlights the beauty of each character, replete with faults, flaws, talents and purpose along with succulent fresh foods and pastries. Readers whet their appetites while hoping that every character remains forever healthy and happy. Bijan’s greatest hope is that readers feel a “sense of place” and “experience a belonging in a new and unexpected light.”
Bijan discovered a love for cooking while attending UC Berkeley as a pre-med student. The Cordon Bleu Parisian cooking school followed suit. Bijan returned to San Francisco and worked in a multitude of famous restaurants. Garnering accolades for her for French-inspired cuisine, Bijan opened her own Bistro, L’Amie Donia in Palo Alto. At the height of its popularity 10 years later, Bijan sold the Café to focus on writing and teaching. Today, Bijan lives in Northern California with her husband and son. “The Last Days of Café” Leila follows her well-received memoir, “Maman’s Homesick Pie.”