The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother's Hidden Lifeby Jasmin Darznik
We were a world of two, my mother and I, until I started turning into an American girl. That's when she began telling me about The Good Daughter. It became a taunt, a warning, an omen.
Jasmin Darznik came to America from Iran when she was only three years old, and she grew up knowing very little about her family's history. When she was in her/em>/em>… See more details below
We were a world of two, my mother and I, until I started turning into an American girl. That's when she began telling me about The Good Daughter. It became a taunt, a warning, an omen.
Jasmin Darznik came to America from Iran when she was only three years old, and she grew up knowing very little about her family's history. When she was in her early twenties, on a day shortly following her father's death, Jasmin was helping her mother move; a photograph fell from a stack of old letters. The girl pictured was her mother. She was wearing a wedding veil, and at her side stood a man whom Jasmin had never seen before.
At first, Jasmin's mother, Lili, refused to speak about the photograph, and Jasmin returned to her own home frustrated and confused. But a few months later, she received from her mother the first of ten cassette tapes that would bring to light the wrenching hidden story of her family's true origins in Iran: Lili's marriage at thirteen, her troubled history of abuse and neglect, and a daughter she was forced to abandon in order to escape that life. The final tape revealed that Jasmin's sister, Sara - The Good Daughter - was still living in Iran.
In this sweeping, poignant, and beautifully written memoir, Jasmin weaves the stories of three generations of Iranian women into a unique tale of one family's struggle for freedom and understanding. The result is an enchanting and unforgettable story of secrets, betrayal, and the unbreakable mother-daughter bond.
A wrenching and unforgettable tale." -BookPage"
Jasmin Darznik is a rare talent, and her family history a dazzler." -More Magazine"
Distinguishes itself from the plethora of recent Iranian American memoirs... a testament to [Iranian women's] resilience." -MS Magazine"
A beautifully recounted homage to her mother's life and struggles." -Booklist"
An eye-opening account that disturbs with its depiction of the place of women in Iranian society, but warms the heart in its portrayal of their gritty endurance." -Kirkus Reviews
Darznik's deeply affecting memoir about her mother, Lili, illuminates the complexity of Iranian women's lives as few books have ever done. Once you read this book, you will see Iran and Iranians with new eyes. A brilliant debut. -Anita Amirrezvani, author of The Blood of Flowers
Intricate, fierce, and genuine, The Good Daughter is a bold and unflinching exploration of faith and family, of love and alienation, of censure and forgiveness. Jasmin Darznik's graceful prose delves with razor-edged introspection into the darkened passageways of her mother's past, and in the process, fulfills the highest ambition of the memoir as a genre: to tell a personal story that, by virtue of its honesty, sheds light on an all too universal truth. -Gina B. Nahai, author of Caspian Rain and Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith
Richly detailed memoir by a daughter who, as an adult, learned of her Iranian mother's secret past: arranged marriage at 13, a baby at 14 and divorce while still a teenager.
After Darznik (English/Washington and Lee Univ.) found a photograph of her mother Lili as a child bride, Lili recorded for her a series of tapes about her family and her life in Iran. Lili's story begins with her grandmother, whose daughter Kobra is Lili's mother and a continuing and forceful presence in her life. Darznik's memoir is not a transcription of audio tapes, however, but an expansion of them into an engaging account of life in Iran in the 20th century, full of memorable characters whose lives take unexpected turns. The author's portrayal of Iranian society and male-female relations are revealing, and her descriptions of clothing, food and drink are especially engrossing. To escape from her marriage to a sadistic husband, Lili was forced to leave her baby with him. Eventually, she moved to Germany, trained as a midwife and acquired a European husband. Returning to Iran, Lili thrived in her new career, but her husband drank too much and failed in business. Threatened by the Iranian Revolution in the late '70s, the family fled to the United States when the author was five, settling in California along with hundreds of thousands of other Iranian émigrés. Since divorce was considered as shameful as prostitution, Lili kept her past a secret. While Lili remained Iranian to the core, retaining the values of her native culture, the author grew up as an American, failing to become "The Good Daughter"—the modest, obedient girl with perfect manners that her mother held up as a model. It was only when she learned of her mother's past and of the existence of her older half sister in Iran that she understood that "The Good Daughter" was a real person, not just a figure in a cautionary tale.
An eye-opening account that disturbs with its depiction of the place of women in Iranian society, but warms the heart in its portrayal of their gritty endurance.
- Grand Central Publishing
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The Good DaughterA Memoir of My Mother's Hidden Life
By Darznik, Jasmin
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2011 Darznik, Jasmin
All right reserved.
Like all the photographs that came with us when we left Iran, this one was as supple and as thick as leather. Its edges were tattered and a long white crease coursed through the image. I might easily have mistaken it for just another old photograph, but this one was nothing like the others.
The girl in it was my mother, Lili, and though she couldn’t be older than fourteen, someone had rimmed her eyes with kohl and darkened her mouth with a lipstick so deep it looked black in the picture. Her dress was satin, pulled taut across her torso and pinched at the waist, and her shoulders turned in awkwardly where a wedding veil skimmed her body. The man at her side was not my father. I’d never seen him before. He wore a gray fedora with his tuxedo and his right hand encircled my mother’s waist with surprisingly elegant fingers.
A bride, I realized with a start, she’d once been this stranger’s bride.
Nearly as astonishing as this revelation was my mother’s expression in the photograph. Eyes fixed on the distance and lower lip pouting, she looked as if the next shot would have shown her crying. I had never known my proud Iranian mother to look like that.
I sat stunned, gripping the photograph between my thumb and forefinger, unable to look away. I was sitting in my mother’s house, a house to which I’d never imagined I’d return. It was late in the afternoon, five weeks after my father’s funeral; I was helping her go through his things and this photograph had fallen from a stack of letters whose Persian script my eyes could no longer follow. A photograph hidden, forgotten, and now found.
Iranians would likely shrug at such a discovery, lift their eyes toward the heavens, and sum up its meaning as qesmat, or destiny. This was a word I’d hear often in the days following my father’s death. Qesmat, my mother told me, had brought me back to California. I hadn’t seen her in nearly a year when she called to tell me my father was in the hospital and that I had to come home…now. I left my apartment on the East Coast without even packing a suitcase. He died before my plane landed in San Francisco, but I returned to my parents’ house still unready for tears.
My mother and I grieved at a distance, each of us in her own way. Lili’s friends encircled her, crying with her and soothing her and praying with her day after day. I kept to myself. I did not cry. Then, three days after the funeral, I drove my mother to the airport. Together we watched my father’s body, housed now in a black-ribboned coffin, being hoisted onto the plane that would carry him across the ocean to Germany, the home he’d given up when he moved to Iran in the sixties to marry my mother. The sky that morning was a rare December blue and nearly cloudless. “Qesmat,” she whispered as the plane arched out of sight, and at this, finally, I cried.
We’d been a world of our own once, my mother Lili and I, a constant, intimate twosome beyond which I could imagine nothing, least of all myself. Then we came to America and I started turning into an American girl. That’s when she began telling me about The Good Daughter. The Good Daughter lived in Iran. She didn’t talk back—as I had learned to do in this kharab shodeh, this broken-down place. Actually, she didn’t talk much at all. The Good Daughter listened. She understood—always—about manners and modesty. She didn’t wander off to play in the streets by herself. The Good Daughter sat by her mother’s side and heeded her mother’s words. When a man looked at her, she lowered her eyes at once. And she was very, very pretty, with a sweet face and long, flowing hair just like the maidens in Persian miniatures.
Over the years The Good Daughter became a taunt, a warning, an omen. When I spoke immodestly, when I wore my skirts too short or let boys flirt with me, I was not my mother’s real daughter, her Good Daughter. “If you become like the girls here,” she’d say, “I’ll go back to Iran to live with my Good Daughter.”
The Good Daughter I knew back then was just a story she’d made up to scare me and make me into a good daughter, too. It was like my mother to tell such stories to keep me close and to keep me good. But I didn’t want anything to do with The Good Daughter of my mother’s Iranian world. The less I resembled her, the better it suited me. By the time I found the photograph of my mother as a young bride, I’d left home, as girls in this country always do and no true Iranian daughter ever would.
And yet for forty days after my father’s death I stayed in my parents’ house, smiling and nodding like The Good Daughter of my mother’s stories while her friends dropped by in the afternoons in their lace-trimmed veils and carefully made-up eyes. “What will she do now?” they whispered to each other, and for forty days I served them tea and quietly watched them eyeing her for clues.
The house was finally empty the day I found the photograph, the funeral rites complete and the visitors gone. The platters of dates and pastries and fruit had all been cleared away and cardboard boxes lay scattered on the floor of every room of the house. I worked long into the afternoon, packing up my mother’s clothes, bills, letters, and leather-bound photo albums. In one of the spare bedrooms I came across my father’s books of Rilke, Kant, and Khayyám and also my grandmother Kobra’s prayer shawl, rosary, and gilt-trimmed Koran. In my old bedroom closet I found the Gypsy dolls my grandmother sewed me years ago in Iran and a Persian picture book defaced by my own childish scribbles.
My mother and I were alone in the house where she could no longer afford to live, and when the photograph slipped loose from a bundle of letters she was upstairs sleeping with an open bottle of Valium on the table beside her bed.
I carried the photograph to the living room and sat cross-legged on the floor for a long time, staring up at the large black-and-white portrait of my parents on their wedding day. Tehran, 1962. She, raven haired with Cleopatra eyes, plays Elizabeth Taylor to my father’s blond and slightly sheepish Richard Burton. I grew up with this portrait and all the stories my mother loved to tell about her wedding to my father. Every pair of eyes, she’d told me, had trailed her on the day she married her damad farangi, her European groom. As proof of who she’d been, of what our country had once been, she hung this picture in every home we ever owned in America: the tract house in Terra Linda, the five-bedroom house in the Tiburon hills, the villa on Richardson Bay. If, for many years, someone had asked me to tell them about Iran, I would have pointed to this photograph of my parents, as if every story began there, in that moment.
Now I’d found a photograph that had survived revolution, war, exile, and something else besides: my mother’s will to forget the past. Although I couldn’t yet imagine the stories it would tell, I slipped it between the pages of a book and carried it three thousand miles away.
Six months later I was back in California, sitting in the new in-law unit my mother had managed to carve out from her Spanish-style villa. The rest of the house was rented out by then, and she was living in two small rooms cluttered with everything she’d salvaged after my father’s death. She’d given up entertaining her friends, said the space was too cramped to serve a proper tea, so what was the point of inviting anyone over anymore?
By then I’d looked at the photograph so many times I could have drawn its every detail from memory. Who, I’d wonder again and again, was the man at her side? What had happened to him? And why had my mother never told me about their marriage?
For a long time her grief over my father’s death, and my own, had made it impossible to ask her these questions. Six months had passed and still I didn’t know how to begin. But the photograph lingered in my mind. I had to know the truth, no matter how painful it would be for me to ask about it or for her to answer my questions.
I cleared my throat. “Maman,” I said at last, and held the photograph out to her.
She glanced down at it and then scanned my face, trying to decipher what, if anything, I understood and what she could still stop me from knowing. She shook her head and continued drinking her tea. “No,” she murmured finally, averting her eyes. “This has nothing at all to do with you.” She set her cup down, snatched the photograph from my hand, and left the room.
I didn’t mention the photograph again. The next days passed awkwardly, each of us holding herself apart from the other, and I was grateful to return to the East Coast. We didn’t speak again for some weeks, but a few days into the beginning of the new university term she called me and accused me of rifling through her things. I’d stolen the photograph from her, she said, and there was just nothing else to say.
Then she started sending me the tapes. The first one arrived in springtime, a few weeks after No Rooz, the Iranian New Year. Eventually there would be ten of them. That year my mother Lili would sit alone in her house in California, speaking the story of her life into a tape recorder for me. The tapes always came marked up in Persian, and I couldn’t make out much more than my name when I opened the envelope and found the first one. As I traced my mother’s inscription with my fingertips, it occurred to me that I didn’t even own a cassette player. The next morning I headed into town to buy one, and with that her story began to pass like a secret life between us.
“If you want to know my story,” my mother Lili began, “you have to know about Avenue Moniriyeh, about your grandmother Kobra and your grandfather Sohrab, and what Iran was then. Because we couldn’t just do what you do here—forget your name and who you belong to. Our lives were not like that. No.”
WHEN SHE NAMED HER ninth child, Pargol Amini indulged her own fancies at last. “Kobra,” she announced to the midwife, and smiled from the bloodstained sheets. The “great one.”
At this, the midwife looked up and considered her face.
Pargol Amini had black eyes and cheeks so fair and flushed they were like snow blotted with blood, as was said back then. In a room that had grown warm and damp with her exertions, she met the midwife’s gaze with a heavy stare.
“Kobra,” Pargol said again, her voice softer but still sure. Even the newborn—a tiny raging bundle with a shock of black hair—was silent at that moment. The scent of cinnamon and cardamom rose from the kitchen and threaded its way through the house. The midwife took in a single sharp breath, bit her lip, and then resumed her task of dusting my great-grandmother’s loins with ashes.
When Pargol was a girl she and her family had left their village in the south, journeyed a hundred miles across Iran’s dusty, red-rimmed central plateau, and settled in the then-walled capital city of Tehran. Though she could not read and had never been to school, she could recite the Koran by heart from beginning to end in Arabic—God’s tongue—and she knew most of the hadith as well.
The names of Pargol’s other eight children had been chosen under the watchful gaze of her father-in-law. Together they made up an unremarkable roster of Muslim names: Ali-Reza, Qasem, Fatemeh, Abolfazl, Mohammad, Ali-Ahmad, Khadijeh, Zahra. But by the time of this child’s birth, Pargol’s father-in-law was dead and she, barely thirty, was already called old, and so on that day in 1921 the list of her children’s names settled finally on one born of her own imagination. Kobra.
Later it was commonly suspected that Pargol had lost her mind. Everyone feared for the child. But Kobra grew up to be the prettiest girl of the family, with the only pair of honey-colored eyes in the house. And with her beauty came a temperament so gentle that it dispelled every rumor about her mother’s willfulness and her own virtue.
Around her neck Kobra wore a black string from which a single tiny blue eye hung and nestled itself in the hollow of her throat. The amulet was meant to protect her from the Evil Eye that since the day of Kobra’s birth had bedeviled Pargol—so fearful was she that jealous eyes would alight on her favorite child.
In Iran they call such children the pearls of their mothers’ fortunes.
The Aminis’ house sat in an alleyway barely wide enough for two people to walk side by side, and along the middle of it ran the joob. These were the open waterways that once traversed the entire length of Tehran, north to south. The joob water started out clear and cold at the foot of Damavand, the snowcapped volcano to the north of the capital, but by the time it reached Pargol’s house near the old southern gates of the city the stream had become thickly clogged with refuse and dirt. Every day there were stories of boys who’d wandered far from home, fallen into live waterways somewhere in the city, and returned in damp clothes—something for which they’d surely be beaten, since the joob was known to carry ringworm, typhoid, and diphtheria and they’d been warned many times not to play near it.
When women ventured into the streets at all, they did so always with the fear that their veils would dip into the waters of the joob and render them najes, or impure. But peddlers wended their way daily through the alleyways, their wooden carts piled high with onions, herbs, vegetables, and fruits. When their wheels ran into the joob or ruts and bumps—of which there were many then throughout the capital—the clatter of pots and pans stopped briefly, then started up again once the peddlers hauled their carts onto a smoother patch of road. Long-haired, cloaked dervishes were also known to traverse the city, hawking poems, soothsayings, and tonics as they went. It could be said that the streets belonged to the peddlers and dervishes and also to the beggars who lined the stone walls of all such neighborhoods.
The house itself was built of hand-hewn bricks, with honeysuckle and jasmine spilling over the high walls that enclosed it. The large colony of sisters and aunts and mothers and grandmothers within never left except to attend a wedding or funeral close by or else to make a pilgrimage to a martyr’s shrine. And for that they always traveled with their men.
Every seven days from behind the walls of her house, Pargol heard the plaintive cry of the namaki, the salt-seller. Humpbacked and toothless, he roamed the city with his salt borne on the back of an ancient donkey. Every few blocks he’d cup his fingers around his mouth, tip his head to the sky, and call out, “Namaki! Namaki!” When she heard his cry, Pargol would throw her chador about her and poke her head out the door for her weekly slab of salt.
Pargol had married a rug merchant by the name of Qoli Amini, known better as Qoli Khan, or Sir Qoli. He stood a full head shorter than his wife, a predicament that, true to both his nature and his outlook on life, he regarded with a mixture of disbelief and amusement. Every day Qoli Khan set out for the great canopied bazaar in the center of the city. Once there, he’d take his place next to the fruit-seller’s pyramids of melons, pomegranates, oranges, bundles of mint and parsley, and crates of dried figs and mulberries. Perched on an enormous gunnysack of salted almonds, his complete inventory of rugs beside him, he waited in the bazaar from morning to night so that people could consider his wares and pay him the modest sums with which Pargol managed their lives.
As Kobra grew, Pargol favored her in a thousand quiet ways, but the strength of her affections was never more evident than when the Bloodletter came calling. This happened twice a year, once at the end of summer and once at the end of winter. Bloodletting was thought to keep a body healthy and strong, proof of which could be found in the rosy tint it lent to even the most sallow complexion. But no matter how many times they were reminded of the treatment’s benefits, nothing kept the children from running at the sight of the Bloodletter’s blistering cups and the jar of slithering black leeches she harvested from provincial riverbanks.
Pargol brooked no resistance. Hands on hips, jaw set, she routed her children out of their hiding places throughout the house. She sent her sons in first, and then one by one she pinned the girls’ plaits to the tops of their heads. When the Bloodletter finished with the boys, she sliced the girls’ backs with a razor and pressed her cups to the cuts or else planted her leeches onto their bare backs. Kobra’s siblings hollered or whimpered, each according to his or her disposition and the vigor of their respective treatments. Pargol always suffered their torments without blinking, but she could not bear to hear her youngest daughter so much as whimper, and so year after year Kobra was left unmolested in her hiding place behind the water cistern in the basement.
Still, when Pargol decided to send eleven-year-old Kobra from the house to learn a trade, not even a long history of such indulgences could stop mouth after mouth from falling open. A girl stayed in her father’s house until her marriage, and even the less pious would have agreed that formal education was wasted on females. But soon after Kobra turned eleven, Pargol predicted that as the last of so many children it was unlikely Kobra would ever marry. For this reason, Pargol explained, it would be necessary to send Kobra to a school that prepared young girls to become professional seamstresses.
Many secretly believed that Pargol wished to keep this one child for herself, and that it was for this reason that of all her daughters it was Kobra whom she sent forth to study and work. But whatever the reason, from then on Kobra could be seen each morning stepping into the streets of Tehran, kerchief knotted at her chin, with a basket of fabric and needles in one hand and a small iron pot filled with rice and stew in the other.
There were twelve other students in her class, all of them from families poorer than her own, but she made her first friends sitting side by side on the floor with those girls. Their teacher, Malekeh Khanoom or “Mrs. Queen,” was a round-faced widow with long hennaed hair and two thick rows of gold bracelets dancing at her wrists, and she laughed easily with the girls. In the mornings she taught them to sew and in the afternoons she taught them to embroider. From the fabrics—silk, velvet, georgette, voile, crepe de chine—Kobra guessed that the garments she would be sewing were meant for the fine ladies of the city, and it thrilled her to run her fingers along the glorious bolts of fabric stacked along one wall of Malekeh Khanoom’s basement and to imagine the materials skimming a woman’s body here, clinging to it there.
Malekeh Khanoom showed the girls how to measure with their hands, spreading her fingers wide like a fan and counting off from the tip of her thumb to the tip of her pinkie. One, two, three. Ample figures would still be in fashion for another few years, and a waist the width of three outstretched hands was considered ideal in the days that Kobra sat in Malekeh Khanoom’s basement learning her trade. The girls watched their teacher and then, shyly at first, spread their own fingers against the fabrics she set at their feet. One, two, three. They looked up to make sure they had measured well, and when Malekeh Khanoom had nodded and smiled at every one of them they took turns cutting the fabric with Malekeh Khanoom’s only pair of brass scissors.
The girls themselves wore cotton pantaloons with sheleeteh, the short, flounced skirts of a curious provenance. The story went that once, during the nineteenth century, a Qajar king had been shown a photograph of some ballerinas on a Paris stage and was so taken by the sight that he set out for France posthaste. During the trip he became an avid patron of the ballet, coincidentally running up stupendous bills at the Paris brothels. These he settled by selling the French government rights to carry out archaeological expeditions in Iran and to retain whatever artifacts they unearthed. On his return, the Qajar king decreed that all the ladies of his court should henceforth appear dressed in tutus. Out of modesty the Iranian princesses wore their silken skirts with long tunics and flowing trousers or white tights underneath. The skirts were given a Persian name, sheleeteh, which suggested the rustling sounds they made when the ladies of the Qajari palaces danced in them.
Now that the Qajars had been overthrown in favor of the Pahlavi dynasty and Western clothes had become a matter of not just fashion but also royal mandate, only poor women still dressed in sheleeteh and their skirts were made of plain cotton, not silk, and issued no pleasing rustles when they walked. My grandmother’s only sheleeteh was apricot colored, and it had belonged first to Pargol, who had worn it to cross the desert so many years ago.
Sometimes Malekeh Khanoom let her students keep remnants from the dresses they sewed. In her first month at the school, Kobra chose two squares of voile and with them she sewed two scarves. One was blue like a robin’s egg and the other crimson as a pomegranate seed. She had no pearls or golden coins, and so she embroidered them with a handful of tiny turquoise beads. She took the two scarves home to Pargol, who wore them constantly—one day the blue one, the next day the red one—with great pleasure, and more than a little pride.
The first year Kobra went to Malekeh Khanoom’s school as a student, but she was so clever and hardworking that the second year she went as an assistant and the third year as a teacher herself.
Then one night Kobra’s brother Ali-Ahmad, the gambler, put forth a proposition that altered my grandmother’s fortunes forever. One evening, after losing a great sum of money—his greatest loss yet in what would be a long and infamous career—Ali-Ahmad turned to his gambling opponent and said, “You can take my sister in marriage.” He did not name her at all but added simply, “The youngest one.”
Ali-Ahmad knew his friend Sohrab had reason enough to accept the offer, but most likely neither of them spoke of it that night or any other. Whether Ali-Ahmad regretted this later no one in the family could ever say. They’d only remember that when he returned home that night with news that he’d found Kobra a suitor the news was met with unbridled glee.
Kobra’s sisters, themselves all recently married, tittered and giggled; her aunts clucked their tongues and smiled. Sohrab was so handsome and cut such a fine figure in the neighborhood that even Pargol took Ali-Ahmad’s news as a stroke of incredibly good luck. By the next morning Kobra’s aunts and sisters had already begun to sew and embroider a crimson tunic and flounced wedding skirt, and by week’s end they’d pooled their monies to buy Kobra a pair of wooden platform shoes at the bazaar. Malekeh Khanoom, Kobra’s sewing instructor, lent out her string of tiny blinking lights (a treasure from farang, or Europe, it was rumored), which Pargol, in a fit of creative inspiration, nestled into Kobra’s wedding veil. And with Kobra so outfitted and Ali-Ahmad’s debts neatly covered by what would have been Kobra’s bride price, my fourteen-year-old grandmother became, for a time, an aroos.
In those years a young bride had no name. Known simply as the aroos, or “the bride,” she truly took her husband’s name only when her mother-in-law died. When Kobra was called aroos, her hair fell in two black braids, thick as coiled ropes, down to the middle of her back. She was shy, neat, and modest, which Sohrab knew would endear her to his mother, a woman known to all as Khanoom, “Missus.” But however beautiful Kobra’s eyes and plaits of black hair, she was simple, provincial, and as unlikely a match for my grandfather, with his elegance and airs, as, it would seem, she was for her own fantastical name.
Sohrab was the first son born to Khanoom after two daughters, and as such he was also her cheshmeh cheraq, the very light of her eyes. By the time Sohrab was two years old, his father had already quit their house on Avenue Moniriyeh and taken three other wives. He’d also long since stopped sending his first wife any money. Khanoom lived by her hands, sewing and knitting, and raising Sohrab and her other children on her own. When, one by one, her husband’s other three wives showed up at her door, passed over just as she herself had been, she took them in, too, and they lived in her house like sisters and worked alongside her.
Since his earliest days Sohrab had been spoiled with the attentions of the many women of his mother’s house. As a boy he was known as the little dandy in their midst, and they sewed all his clothes themselves and ironed them for him, too, even when he was no more than three or four years old and they would not have thought to do the same for their own best garments. Between their endless rounds of sewing and knitting and cooking and cleaning, they plucked the seeds of pomegranates and fed them to him from a bowl. They saved him the soft-bellied figs from their garden and popped them into his mouth whenever he came to sit with the women in the kitchen. And Sohrab took in their attentions just as easily as he had once taken his mother’s milk.
He would not stay at their side for long, though. By the age of seven Sohrab was already the acknowledged leader of the pack of neighborhood boys who wiled away the afternoons in the alleys riding bicycles and shooting homemade slings. By eleven he had the run of the whole city and would often linger in the streets or the qaveh khaneh, coffeehouse, where men recited the Shahnameh, Ferdowsi’s eleventh-century verse epic, for one another. Sohrab would linger in the city long after school ended, leaving his mother to curse her fate and pray, hour after hour, for his safe return.
As a young man of twenty Sohrab had somehow secured a high post in Iran’s national textile bureau. No one quite knew how this had happened. He had neither money nor connections, and it was a job for which he had no qualifications besides his charm and his taste for finery, but these had proved sufficient. On their way to Europe and America, many of the country’s most opulent carpets passed under his hands and exacting eye and could be shipped off only with his consent. His salary was generous by standards of the day, but to satisfy his luxurious tastes he supplemented his income with gambling, a favorite diversion since his teenage years. Within a few years of his marriage to Kobra, Sohrab had done well enough to dress in perfectly tailored Western suits, then still rare in Iran, and also to drive a black Chrysler of which he was no less vain than of his own brilliantined hair.
It was no secret that even after he married Kobra my grandfather’s eyes still lingered on the smartly dressed ladies who had recently begun to appear on the streets of Tehran. It was also a fact known to many that for several years before his marriage Sohrab had courted a lady so chic and lovely it was said she could pass for an aroos farangi, a European’s wife. But this woman, Simin, was twice divorced and unable to bear children; Sohrab knew that until he produced heirs to his family name, he could never marry her. So when his friend Ali-Ahmad had offered Sohrab his sister, whom he’d once seen at Ali-Ahmad’s house and still remembered as a plump and pretty girl, Sohrab had not thought long before saying yes and bringing her to live in Khanoom’s house on Avenue Moniriyeh.
Sohrab’s sisters and three stepmothers took Kobra in with smiles and compliments. “Look at her pretty hands!” gushed one. “And her lovely eyes!” added another. She was given her own small room in Khanoom’s house, and in her first months there Kobra sewed herself a quilt and embroidered a cloth on which she set her prayer shawl and rosary and also her hand mirror and hairbrush. All day she worked in Khanoom’s kitchen, cleaning and chopping herbs for the sabzi, picking pebbles from the rice, and tending the grains over a charcoal brazier. At night she went to her room to wait for Sohrab. In the first years of their marriage, he came to her a few times a week, and it wasn’t long before a baby appeared in a basket by her feet in the kitchen, and her breasts and belly were still swollen when two months later a second child began to grow in her.
They were her pride. As a boy Nader was especially prized by the family, but Lili was a beautiful child, plump and rosy cheeked, with sparkling black eyes, dimples, and an exquisitely tiny nose. The neighborhood women cooed and fussed over her whenever they dropped by the house on Avenue Moniriyeh. Even Sohrab, little given to children as he usually was, seemed charmed by her.
Kobra loved the courtyard of Khanoom’s house and the deep blue tiles of the hoz, the shallow pool that stood there in the shade of a large persimmon tree. Khanoom’s persimmon tree was also a favorite of the neighborhood birds, who would gather to feast on the fallen fruit under its branches. While her children napped in the afternoons, Kobra would steal away from her work to sit on the edge of the hoz and watch the birds as they pecked greedily at the seeds embedded in the fruit’s rotting flesh.
In the years leading to the 1941 Allied invasion of Iran, when Soviet soldiers commandeered the northern provinces and British soldiers roamed the capital and controlled the oil fields to the south, the bread at Khanoom’s house was often dotted with pebbles and splinters and the stews they ate were only rarely prepared with meat. Sitting under the persimmon tree one afternoon in late fall, Kobra was cracking the shells of sunflower seeds between her teeth when she suddenly had an idea. She dusted the seeds from her skirt and went back into the house. She returned with a large wicker basket, which she set at the base of the persimmon tree. She scattered a fistful of sunflower seeds under the tree and then she held her breath and she waited.
She trapped five small brown birds the first day, and Khanoom clapped her hands in surprise, smiled with genuine pleasure, and praised Kobra’s cleverness.
As a child of three, her daughter (and my own mother), Lili, would sometimes come across Kobra hunting birds in the courtyard. A sly smile would spread across Kobra’s face as the creature’s wings fluttered between her fingers. Later when Lili took her place on the floor of Khanoom’s parlor for supper, she’d find a stew set out with bones so tiny and thin they were eaten along with the meat and she would cry and refuse to take a single bite, even though she knew there would be nothing else.
Most nights Sohrab went out with his friends to parties where the ladies were very slender and wore Western dresses and were much more beautiful than Kobra. When she asked to go with him, he told her she looked old and slovenly in her chador and that he would be embarrassed to take her along. She offered to go without her veil or even a simple head scarf, even though this would have made her barely less uncomfortable than roaming the streets naked. Still he went out alone.
Every night after putting her children to bed, she sat cross-legged in her room, propped her mirror against the wall, and set a candle on the floor beside it. She lined her eyes with a stick of sormeh, eyeliner, first outside and then inside along their rims, and then she darkened her mole with its tip. She swiveled up her only tube of lipstick, dragged its crimson grease along her lips, and next blotted her fingers with lipstick and set about rouging her cheeks. She dabbed rose water behind her ears and between the cleft of her breasts, and then she sat peering at herself in her mirror until at last she heard the brass knocker crash against the door.
He always returned well after midnight, his impeccable suits and silk cravats scented by liquor, cigarettes, and the perfumes of other women. Kobra would ask him why he’d come home so late, saying his dinner had grown cold and she had been so worried, and if he answered at all, it would be to tell her that it was none of her business and why did she stay awake at all if it was only to annoy him? But if she ever fell asleep before his late-night arrivals and therefore failed to open the door for him after a second or third banging of the knocker, he would storm into the house and strike her, demanding to know where she had been and why she had not come at once, as any decent wife ought. Lili and her brother, Nader, often woke to the sounds of shouting and crying, and if they left their rooms and came forward Sohrab would beat them, too, though sometimes he would only raise a hand to strike them and stop just before it came crashing onto their heads.
“Besooz-o-besaz,” Kobra would have been enjoined if she’d sought out anyone’s advice. Burn inwardly and accommodate; burn inwardly and accommodate. But Kobra sought no one’s advice. Too ashamed to confide her suffering to her family and too proud to unburden herself to her in-laws, Kobra lifted her eyes and her palms to the sky and confided only in God.
In spring and in summer Sohrab left for months at a time for the cooler provinces. In Karaj or Hamadan he and his friends would recline on carpets thrown across a riverbank, passing around a gold-trimmed qalyoon (water pipe) and drinking araq, a Persian vodka, late into the night. One year he rented a cottage in the foothills of the Alborz Mountains, and toward the end of the summer he sent for Lili to spend a week with him there. She had never spent such a long stretch of time with her father, and it was difficult for her to reconcile the smiling, easygoing gentleman in the countryside with the fierce, formal patriarch she knew at home. Even his clothes were different. Here he wore cream-colored linen slacks and during the hottest parts of the day he rolled up his sleeves and undid the top buttons of his shirt as well, habits unheard of in the city. There were many pretty women about the cottage, but to Lili none seemed prettier than the fair, blue-eyed lady who linked her arm in Sohrab’s and whispered in his ear as they walked together in the garden.
Since she was the only child among the party, Lili idled away the hours outside. What she liked especially was to pluck fruits from the trees—mulberries, sour cherries, and plums—and to hoard them in her pockets so that whenever Sohrab took her in his lap and stroked her hair she could present them to him like treasures. And in the mornings, when her father and his guests were still asleep, she helped the servants set honeydews and watermelons in the crook of the stream that ran behind the cottage.
The fruits would be left to cool in the water all day, and when Lili returned to retrieve them at dusk she’d find the women bathing together there in the stream. Beech trees lined the banks and their leaves shone like silver when the wind tousled them and they caught the last of the sunlight. Because the stream was shallow and the stones of its bed were flat and smooth, she could wade out to the center all by herself, but sometimes the current twisted her skirt around her legs and sent her tumbling. The woman with the blue eyes bathed in the river, too, but there was always a female servant to dip a pitcher into the water for her and pour it over her lovely shoulders and her long black hair, and when she caught Lili watching her she seemed neither surprised nor disturbed by such wide-eyed attentions.
The following spring Sohrab and his cohorts journeyed across the border to Iraq, where he indulged his hosts by consenting to have a portrait taken of himself wearing an Arab headdress. Lili wished desperately that he’d take her with him. He would not consider it, but he promised to bring her back a gift, and so when he changed trains in Ahvaz he stopped at a flower stall and bought a bunch of narcissus flowers, their buds still tight and not yet fully fragrant, and he gave them to Lili when he returned to Tehran.
Kobra had spent the spring of Sohrab’s trip to Iraq burning and accommodating, burning and accommodating. One day she went down to the basement of Khanoom’s house where all the sacks of grain and flour were kept. As Kobra bent down and reached for a bag of rice, a large black scorpion raised its stinger and plunged it into the heel of her hand. She cried out at once, but before one of Sohrab’s sisters could reach her the poison was already coursing through her blood, hot as fire. Her arm tingled and went numb, and she was sure that she would die.
But Khanoom, a seventh-generation Tehrooni with an intimate knowledge of the city’s thousand perils, knew the cure. She hunted down the scorpion in the basement and killed it with one whack of her garden shovel. That night Kobra was put to bed with her hand facing up toward the ceiling and the dead scorpion bandaged to the site of its sting. The creature’s legs, still stiff, dangled from her wrist.
“The sting of a scorpion comes not from ill will, but from its nature,” Khanoom counseled, by way of soothing Kobra.
Kobra did not sleep that night, not a minute. She sat bolt upright hour after hour, drenched in her own sweat, crying for her mother and unable to look away from her hand, but by morning her fever began to break and slowly she understood that she would survive.
Although it was my grandmother Kobra who prayed five times a day, taking care each time to fold her prayer mat and veil into neat squares afterward, in the end it was Sohrab who found deliverance from his marital woes. In the ordinary course of his days, Sohrab had little use for the rituals of faith, but his religion extended him several important privileges then in place for men, one of which would prove especially useful: he could divorce his wife without documents or witnesses. To free himself of Kobra, he had only to speak his desire.
The argument started like any other of their arguments. He’d come home late from a party. In the circles in which he then moved, it had lately become fashionable to take a puff of opium with liquor, a combination that had brought him home even more bleary-eyed and unsteady on his feet than usual. The old curses and recriminations flashed between them, though this time he didn’t strike her with his open hand but instead made a fist. He struck her just once this way, but even in his state he managed to do it with such perfection that the room went black and she fell to the floor. When Kobra opened her eyes it was to the sight of her own blood, streaming so profusely onto the tiled floors that it had formed a small pool beside her.
She left the house on Avenue Moniriyeh with nothing that night—not a single coin—and no clothes but the nightgown she was wearing and the veil she drew around her to hide her bloodied and swollen face. The next morning she would awake in her mother’s bedroom to find that the flesh of her nose had collapsed and spread across the middle of her face. The local bonesetter could do no more for Kobra than slice out the crushed bones from her face and bind her nose with gauze to quell the blood, and you might have said (as many did) that from then on her honey-colored eyes were wasted on her.
“Who can understand the ways of God?” Kobra’s aunt remarked coolly. “It is her qesmat, destiny.”
Her mother, Pargol, was enraged by this callousness. “Bite your tongue!” she hissed.
On the night of Kobra’s wedding six years earlier, Pargol had kissed her on both cheeks and whispered the warning with which Iranian mothers had always sent their daughters into marriage: “You are leaving in a white dress—come back home dressed in white.” By this it was meant she should not return home until she was covered by a white funeral shroud. To do otherwise signified the worst fate that could befall a woman: divorce, and all that it meant to live without the protection of a man. When Kobra appeared before her that night in not a funeral shroud but a bloodied veil, Pargol would not have thought to turn her away, but in truth not even she knew what would become of Kobra now.
One thing, at least, was clear: the children belonged to their father, as Iranian children always had. Neither of them would call Kobra maman, or Mother, again. When Sohrab sent her from the house, Lili and Nader stayed on to be raised by Khanoom and Sohrab’s sisters and stepmothers. Kobra was forbidden from seeing her children, but she missed them terribly and so some afternoons she would draw her veil over her face and stand outside the gates of their school, waiting to catch a glimpse of them. She’d call out their names, slip a handkerchief filled with little candies through the bars of the gate, and warn them not to forget her.
Now that Kobra was gone, Khanoom would have to be mother to Sohrab’s children. She had much to do and was therefore always the first to rise in the house on Avenue Moniriyeh. She’d wake before dawn, when the streets were still empty and quiet. Downstairs in the courtyard she rinsed her face three times from her hairline to her chin, washed the length of her bony, white arms, scrubbed her feet from the tips of her toes to her ankles, and then she ran a trickle of water down the part of her hair. She was a fastidious woman—had never been known to miss a single namaz (prayer) and was so thorough in her ritual cleansings that her palms were perpetually mottled and chafed. By the time she was done performing her ablutions and had turned back into the house for her morning prayers, the first dark figures would be hustling down the alleys outside her house—husbands and wives on their way to the hammam (bath) to purify themselves of last night’s couplings before the muezzin’s voice pealed through the half-lit sky.
Her prayers complete, Khanoom began preparing the samovar. Urn-shaped, wider than a tree trunk, and wrought of pure brass, the samovar sat in the center of Khanoom’s parlor, and from dawn to dusk it would be kept at a boil so that anyone who came to the house could always be offered a freshly brewed cup of tea. Khanoom struck a match and tossed it over the coals, and while she waited for the water to boil she rolled a few leaves of lettuce between flatbread for her breakfast and pulled out one of the dozen hand-rolled cigarettes she always kept in her pockets. She held the cigarette to the coals until it lit and then, cigarette dangling between her lips, she steeped the day’s first fistful of tea leaves in her small china teapot.
Then, once she’d finished drinking her first tea of the day—which she took black in thimble-sized draughts from a tiny crystal teacup—Khanoom pulled on her shawl and took her morning walk through the walled garden behind her house. Khanoom’s father had been a scribe who went by the name Mirza Benevees, or Mirza The Writer. Although she herself could neither read nor write, even in such private moments she always carried herself with the same proud and graceful bearing as that learned forebearer.
From Mirza she’d also inherited her great passion for flowers. She kept little vases in all the rooms, morning glory and honeysuckle and whatever else she found in bloom, but she loved jasmine flowers best of all. Each morning she placed a saucer full of the star-shaped blossoms beside her samovar and then she tucked a few sprigs under the folds of her breasts as well. As the day wore on and Khanoom smoked her cigarettes and poured teacup after teacup and performed her prayers and set about her work, the scent of jasmine rose with ever-deeper sweetness from her chest.
The first month, Lili asked after Kobra every time she sat at the samovar for her first tea of the day. “She’s gone to visit her mother,” Khanoom would tell Lili. “Don’t worry, madar-joon. She’ll come back.” And then Khanoom would pour Lili a small cup of weak tea and with a silver spoon stir in a lump of crystallized sugar until it had dissolved completely. If the tea was too hot, Khanoom would tip some of it into a saucer for Lili and let her drink it from there.
From the time she was four years old, Lili could drink as many as five little cups of sugared tea from Khanoom’s samovar in a single sitting. Lili loved everything that was sweet—candies and pastries, cherry-rice and orange rind–rice—but best of all she loved khageeneh, the thin pancakes Khanoom drenched in honey, saffron, and rose essence and served each morning along with hunks of sheep’s milk cheese and fresh sheets of seeded bread from the bakery down the street.
While her appetite seemed only to have grown with Kobra’s absence, Lili’s brother, Nader, had become nervous and very thin and his eyes seemed always to be searching the rooms of Khanoom’s house for their mother. When he cried at night, Lili took him into her own bed and tucked her quilt around him. He had a face as white as the moon and black eyes fringed with eyelashes even longer and thicker than her own. Since Kobra had disappeared, Lili’s beatings had grown less frequent, but for Nader they seemed only to have gotten worse. Lili knew that if their father heard Nader crying in the night, he’d hit him for it, and so she’d acquired a mother’s ear for even his softest whimper.
One day she came home from school and found her brother dressed in a pair of white cotton pantaloons and a crimson sash knotted at his middle. A large party of women had gathered in the parlor. She saw presents stacked up high along one wall, and when she reached for one her aunt told her she should not touch because the gifts were all for Nader. When he descended the staircase in the strange pants, naked from the waist up and crying like a forlorn kitten, Lili puzzled over what they had done to make him so unhappy and why they’d bought him so many presents to make up for it.
Nader had been circumcised that day and the white flowing pantaloons had been sewn especially to ease his recovery. Kobra had been gone two months by then. Khanoom would regret her absence at such an auspicious event, but the celebration had been long in the planning and so there was nothing to be done for it. As he sat in the center of the room with a pile of new toys next to him that afternoon, her little brother’s eyes were full of all he’d learned, and lost.
But before the end of three and a half months Kobra appeared before the wooden doors of the house on Avenue Moniriyeh wearing her old black chador, a weathered suitcase by her side, looking not so much relieved as exhausted.
Sohrab had divorced her on a whim, without any formal procedure whatever, but just as surely as marriage under traditional Islam comes in several forms—ranging from the temporary and transient to the formal and final—so, too, does divorce. In the days of Sohrab and Kobra’s marriage, a woman living outside her husband’s house could be claimed back within three and a half months, thereby nullifying the divorce. Ostensibly this was to ensure that she’d not left bearing his child—an act tantamount to theft—but in Kobra’s case the rule would serve a different purpose.
Over the next years Sohrab would cast Kobra out many more times, though on occasion she’d grow so miserable that she would leave of her own accord. Each time she found refuge in her mother’s house. Kobra would weep for her children and she’d weep for herself and no one, not even Pargol, was capable of coaxing her from her misery.
However, Kobra’s exile always proved temporary. For the first few weeks following Kobra’s departure Khanoom would be glad to have an end to the midnight rows on Avenue Moniriyeh, but eventually she and Sohrab’s sisters would tire of caring for Kobra’s children, so they’d all head out together to Pargol’s house to claim Kobra back.
Sohrab said nothing whenever Kobra reappeared, but he hardly ever came to her room anymore, and his sisters were never as kind to her as they’d once been. After Sohrab first turned her from the house, Kobra’s stews were deemed too salty, the grains of her rice too short, and her puddings far too bland to eat. Weeks or months would pass, Sohrab would again send her away, and then, before three and a half months had gone by and the divorce could become final, Khanoom would once again pull on her veil and bring Kobra back to the house on Avenue Moniriyeh.
At first these abrupt departures and reclamations set neighborhood tongues wagging, and this shamed Khanoom into hastily fetching her daughter-in-law from Pargol’s house. But over the years so many unmarried cousins and widowed sisters were eventually absorbed into the house that its rooms were always noisy with the voices of women—gossiping and bickering, confiding and accusing. Except for the two hours of the afternoon when everyone went down to the basement to nap, it was impossible to tell who would be coming and who would be going and what would be said about it all, and in time Kobra’s disappearances and reappearances were folded into all the other stories of that house.
Sohrab’s room had five wooden doors, each carved with intertwining vines and many-petaled blossoms. It was the largest room in Khanoom’s house, the only one with a water closet, and it took up nearly all of the second story.
As a gesture of respect, Lili began each day by purifying her father’s hands. She would creep into Sohrab’s room and fetch the jug beside his bed, then go down to the courtyard and pump water from the cistern beside the hoz. Back in the room she quieted her breathing and watched her father as he slept. His eyelashes were so long that they rested on his cheeks when his eyes were closed. She longed to brush her fingers along them, but she dared not touch him for fear of waking him.
She dipped a fresh cloth into the jug and then she began slowly to wash her father’s hands. Soft and exquisitely tapered, Sohrab’s hands were white and unblemished except for where cigarettes had stained two fingers of his right hand a deep yellow. Sometimes he stirred and sometimes he slept right through her ministrations. Because the ritual was her only opportunity to observe her father closely, she always stretched out these moments at his side each morning, washing and rinsing his hands many times over before stealing finally from the room.
At times there seemed to be no end of money in their house and Khanoom worried about where it had come from, but she was happy all the same, always busy buying things for the parlor—new vases, candlesticks, cushions, and carpets. One day Lili came home from school to find a suitcase in her bedroom stuffed with bills. “Do you like this money?” Sohrab had asked her. She glanced at the suitcase and said that surely she didn’t need it. At this he nodded and smiled warmly at her. “Some people will do a lot for this money. But you answered well. You are a good girl.” Then, before closing the suitcase and locking it, he pulled a single crisp bill from the pile and pressed it into her palm. She kept it in a box with her earrings and bracelets and never dared to spend it.
No family of means would ever allow a daughter to walk in the streets alone, even for just three paces, so when Lili started school at age six Sohrab ordered his young manservant, Mamm’ali, to walk her there and back every day. Knock-kneed, skinny, and pimply, Mamm’ali did not speak to her at all, not a word the entire way, but just stared into the distance with her books and notebooks tucked under his arm. She was not at all sorry when Mamm’ali disappeared and instead a driver came for her each morning at seven thirty with her father’s black Chrysler. His name was Saeed and he was a young man of twenty-three with wavy brown hair, dimples, and sometimes a sweet smile for her, too.
Then there were months when Sohrab gambled away all he had and the house on Avenue Moniriyeh became a different house altogether. Khanoom’s trinkets would disappear one by one from the parlor, and at night the family sat down together with only a bowl of unbuttered rice before each of them. If there was any meat, it all went straight to Sohrab’s bowl, though he was known to drop some into Lili’s and Nader’s bowls as well. Saeed the driver disappeared and not even scrawny, pimple-faced Mamm’ali came round to fetch Lili from school. Instead it would be her own smartly dressed father standing by the gates of the School of Virtue with his silver-tipped cane and black fedora. When his debts grew truly substantial, Sohrab went out less often and was surlier than ever. Lili did not mind. It pleased her to have him walk her to and from school, even though his temper was far worse than even Mamm’ali’s. And at home she fluttered around him with tea and sweets, washed his hands each morning, and massaged his brow each night if he let her.
Such intervals of poverty always threw Kobra’s resourcefulness into high relief. With a handful of flour, a cup of water, and a sprinkle of sugar she conjured a stack of pancakes that, while plain, kept her children’s stomachs from rumbling through a whole day at school. An old housedress became a pleated skirt for Lili and three pairs of knickers for Nader. Clippings from their haircuts became the wig for a hand-sewn doll or the mane for a lion puppet. And at such times Sohrab’s guests rarely left the house without Kobra sending Nader after them to ask for a few tomans. Mostly the gentlemen obliged, though one of them was in the habit of tossing a handful of coins at Nader just for the fun of watching him fish them out of the dirty waterways along Avenue Moniriyeh. Whenever that particular gentleman called, Nader returned from his mission bawling, his leather shoes heavy and dark with joob water and his pants sodden to the knees with it.
But soon enough Sohrab’s fortunes would be replenished by a good night of gambling and he’d emerge from his room with a smile, sometimes even singing to himself and snapping his fingers as he skipped down the stairs, and once again he’d be gone from the house until late in the evening. It was then that Saeed the driver would reappear, his own smile a little bolder each time he returned.
Even when Sohrab managed to gamble away all of his savings (and much of his mother’s besides), he’d somehow borrow enough money so that each morning Lili could dress in her dark gray pinafore and take her place among the other girls at the School of Virtue. Modeled on the schools of the French lycée system, this was an institution as stern as both its name and the expressions worn by its two headmistresses, a pair of middle-aged sisters known to the girls as Mistress the Elder and Mistress the Second.
In the mornings two hundred pupils—all girls—assembled by the gates of the school on Avenue Pahlavi. The ones with the cashmere coats congregated near the front of the line, and the ones with shabby coats or no coats at all stood to the back. Lili’s coat was made of soft gray lambskin, and she always stood toward the middle and kept her eyes trained to the front. When the Mistresses Elder and Second called out good morning, the girls promptly formed a line and then, at the Mistresses’ signal, belted out Iran’s new anthem. “O Iran, jewel-studded land!” the girls cried, and only after this would they be let inside.
Most everything at the School of Virtue was learned by rote, and questions of any kind were met with sour looks or else a quick rap against the knuckles. Long before they’d mastered the rudiments of reading and writing, the girls began reciting classical poems by heart. Fountain pens in hand and pots of ink at the ready, they proceeded to take pages and pages of Persian dictation. The study of mathematics, geography, and history advanced through similar feats of memorization and willed incuriosity.
Lili enjoyed nearly all her classes, but one subject, Arabic, proved a perpetual torment. Before starting school she had known it as the language of her grandmother’s prayers and could never read the letters without hearing the sweet tenor and cadence of Khanoom’s voice in her head, but at the School of Virtue Lili was judged not on her memory of these prayers but on her knowledge of their meaning. In this and also in her penmanship Lili was found lacking. Whenever the Arabic instructor reached Lili’s desk, two deep creases sprang up between the teacher’s eyes. She’d bend over Lili’s shoulder, close enough for their breaths to mingle, and proceed to guide Lili’s hand through the letters with her own crushing grip.
The girls wore gray pinafores with round-collared white blouses. Twice a week they stripped off their uniforms and pulled on knee-length black shorts and marched in formation in the school’s courtyard and performed the calisthenics that the Ministry of Education deemed necessary for their bodies. They were accompanied in their movements by military marches streaming from a gramophone—a marvel achieved by the energetic pumping of the machine’s hand crank by their gymnastics teacher. The girls with cashmere coats had special exercise shoes, but everyone else just wore regular shoes to exercise.
Even more than their cashmere coats, Lili coveted the patent-leather dress shoes of the rich girls at her school. Khanoom had always bought Lili’s shoes, and she usually chose a brown leather pair nearly identical to her own. They were presented to Lili once a year at No Rooz, the Persian New Year, along with a party frock and newly stitched underclothes. She’d never quite grasped the ugliness of her shoes until the day she first fixed her eyes on the shiny dress shoes at the School of Virtue. Lili begged and pleaded until at last Khanoom agreed to take her to the bazaar to search for her own pair of patent-leather shoes.
“A hen’s milk or man’s life”—it was said that anything could be bought at the bazaar. Lit only by gas lamps and candles, the marketplace was dim even in the middle of the day. Gripping her grandmother’s hand, Lili walked through the entrance, past the turquoise domes of Shah’s Mosque, and on toward the teeming belly of the market. Together they threaded their way past stall after stall, past the goldsmiths and silversmiths, carpet-sellers, livestock, donkeys, beggars, castabouts, tricksters, and thieves who made their homes within the bazaar’s narrow passages.
Khanoom and Lili walked on until at last she spied the shoes she wanted. Graced with tiny bows at the front, they were shiny and did not have even a single scuff on the bottoms. Best of all they were red, a bright tomato red she’d never even seen any of the girls wearing at school. The shoes were too tight by at least a size, but she had wanted them anyway, and would wear them until blisters bloomed on all her toes and her heels grew thick with calluses.
On the day Khanoom bought the red shoes, they celebrated with a lunch at Shamshiri, the bazaar’s kabob restaurant. They retreated to the back corner, away from the passersby, so that Khanoom could enjoy her meal without troubling too much about her chador sliding off her head now and again. Stomachs rumbling in anticipation, they waited for the server, whom they privately called Mr. Kabobi. Over six feet tall, with a luxurious mustache that curled up at the ends, Mr. Kabobi could shove the meat from as many as three skewers onto their platter between two of his thick fingers. That day Mr. Kabobi appeared, as ever, with a smock smeared with grease and streaks of blood. Khanoom ordered four foot-long skewers, two for each of them, and even in the dark back room of the kabobi the meat still glistened with butter and the rice looked glorious with its orange and yellow swirls of saffron. It was the best kabob in all the city, and Lili, with her new red shoes already on her feet, ate with relish.
In the afternoons she was forbidden to play in the alleys close to the house, but the next day after school she lingered there to show off her pretty new red shoes. All at once a boy came running, shouting out that he’d just seen her father in the streets, just a block away from Avenue Moniriyeh. She ran into the house and hid herself among the pile of mattresses in the basement. One of the children had squealed on her, and when Sohrab found her that day he beat her so severely that she went to bed with a fever that would not be cured by even ten cups of her grandmother’s sugared tea.
Fever or no fever, Kobra or no Kobra, Lili never missed the hammam. Once a week the women of Khanoom’s house bundled their towels, copper bowls, sweets, and fresh clothes into large embroidered cloths, then walked together to the low limestone building that housed the quarter’s communal baths. They splashed themselves with cold water from the fountain early each morning, before the first prayers of the day, but the hammam was their only full bath of the week and therefore also a holiday.
From her bundle Khanoom pulled pomegranates so ripe with juice, they were heavy as stones. “Don’t spill the seeds,” she’d whisper, and press one gently into Lili’s hands.
Then Khanoom and the others disappeared into the steam and the sweet, damp scents. Inside the bathhouse they eased themselves onto low benches, drew water from the fountain, and loosened their tongues with talk until the heat puckered and wrinkled their fingers and toes. Wet thighs slapping against tiles, pitchers and bowls clattering against stone, they scrubbed themselves with coarse rags until their skin raged pink and their heels were raw. They took turns dunking themselves in the warm, elevated pool. They combed and plaited one another’s hair. And then all but the oldest ones lay on tables to be smeared with the warm, sticky paste that ripped loose the hair on their legs and groins.
Lili sat on the steps by the hammam’s entry, her pomegranate balanced between her knees, watching the women come and go. The sky would begin to darken and finally one of her older cousins would come fetch Lili. Her own body would be hastily scrubbed in one far corner of the hammam, and as her hair was washed and combed and wound into braids she’d steal glances at the older women.
“Tsss!” her aunts scolded. “Don’t open your eyes so wide, dokhtar [girl]!”
One year when Khanoom was braiding her hair in the hammam a lady called out to them, “What a pretty girl! Her skin’s as white as alabaster!”
Khanoom gave Lili a quick, furtive scratch on the buttocks to ward off the Evil Eye and then called back a cheerful, “Merci, khanoom!”
“Will you marry her off?”
“She’s only just turned nine….”
“Well, in that case she can grow up with her husband!” the lady replied. To this Khanoom gave no answer but to laugh and consider Lili with a strange, and then very tender, look.
By this time in the afternoon it would be late—Sohrab would be home, impatient for his dinner—and when the others rushed to gather their belongings and began hustling back toward Avenue Moniriyeh, Lili would follow along behind the train of women with her small bundle of juice-stained linens pressed against her chest.
In summertime, when the sky was bright and thick with stars, they all slept on the rooftop. At sunset, after Khanoom hosed down the tiles, piles of mattresses were hauled up from the basement and huge swaths of white netting were strung up to keep the flies and mosquitoes from tormenting them in the night. Divans, cushions, and carpets were assembled in the garden where Sohrab would hold court with his friends late into the night. Lili was forbidden from coming close to them, even just for a peek, but from where she lay on the roof she could see the smoke from the men’s cigarettes snaking its way into the night air and could hear their voices as they told stories and jokes.
Often Lili would fall asleep before dinner, which could be served as late as ten or eleven on a summer evening, and then Khanoom would shake her from sleep. “Wake up, child!” When she opened her eyes she would find her grandmother crouched beside her under the netting with a bowl nestled in her lap. “Eat this and then go back to sleep,” Khanoom would whisper, and heap rice and stew onto a spoon for Lili. Some nights as she chewed, sleepily, in the darkness, she could hear the men in the alleyways that ran along Avenue Moniriyeh, trilling poems as they stumbled back from the meykhaneh, the wine tavern.
Khanoom sewed Lili a prayer shawl festooned with pale pink rosebuds, and at Khanoom’s side she learned to whisper her prayers, press her forehead to the mohr, a holy stone, bend and straighten herself at the proper intervals. At Ramadan everyone except Sohrab woke before dawn to eat the rich foods—dates, porridges, stews—that would fortify their bodies through the day’s fasting, but there would always be a little something for the children to tide them over until sunset: a chunk of halvah wedged between bread, a handful of soaked walnuts, and a few yellow sultana raisins.
Every few months a rowzeh-khan (reader of homilies) came to Avenue Monireyeh to recite passages from the Koran. Lili marveled at how the women’s faces, just moments before alive with chatter and gossip, fell slack and mournful at the rowzeh-khan’s first words. They rocked their bodies back and forth, slowly at first and then faster and faster, and then they’d raise their hands up to the sky and begin to moan and cry and beat their chests with their fists. Listening to these parables of human suffering, they released their own emotions with a fervor that drowned out the rowzeh-khan’s own impassioned readings, but at the end they invariably emerged calm and happy, their worries washed suddenly clean for the day.
Once or twice a year the women of the house boarded the masheen doodi, the “smoke machine” or train that connected Tehran to the ancient town of Rey, to make a pilgrimage at the shrine of Shah Abdol-Azim. Because there was no place for them, as women, to stay once they reached their destination, they always spent the night inside the mausoleum. It was for this reason they always set out from home with their bedrolls and blankets tucked under their arms.
Inside the train’s cabin they napped and gossiped and snacked on huge quantities of watermelon seeds and dried mulberries and pistachio nuts. Slowly the city, with its tangle of buildings and smoke-smudged sky, gave way to views of arid plains, orchards, villages, and great cloudless sweeps of blue. In the spring wildflowers blanketed the desert, and occasionally a cavalcade could be seen inching its way across the buff-hued slopes, the colorful kerchiefs, tunics, and long skirts of its women visible even across a distance of many miles.
In Rey they got off and walked the rest of the way—another half an hour along a crowded dirt road—until they glimpsed the golden domes of Shah Abdol-Azim. Not far from the gates of the cemetery stood a bazaarcheh, a small, tented marketplace that catered to pilgrims and funeral parties. There Khanoom would reach into the folds of her chador and pull out enough coins to buy several skewers of kabob, bread, and fresh herbs, which would be bundled into a cloth and taken into the mausoleum along with their bedclothes and other provisions.
The mausoleum consisted of a single large room with marble floors and tiled walls, and even on the hottest summer days the air inside was cool enough to draw shivers. As the others filed in behind her, Khanoom would strike a match against the wall and proceed to light all the candles. The fire flickered and then blossomed to orange, and as light began to fill the chamber Lili would squint up at the portraits hung all around the mausoleum walls. These were oil paintings of the family’s male ancestors—old men with heavy eyebrows, Qajar-style cloaks, caps, and lances, and a few handsome young men in similar garb. No pictures ever adorned the women’s plaques, and so Lili set her blanket under a portrait of one of the comelier youths, unaware that under the bed she was making for the night lay a corpse that had once matched the portrait she’d claimed as her own.
Then, just like at the rowzehs (preachments), Khanoom and the others would begin to cry, softly at first but with a gathering intensity that echoed through all the chambers of the mausoleum. As a young girl she did not yet understand the reason for their crying and would look at her grandmother and aunts in disbelief and wonder at how all the bickering and gossiping of the journey could so suddenly be forgotten once they entered this strange, dark place. But then, just as suddenly, their mourning would be done, and they’d unfurl their blankets and set out the kabobs for lunch.
Khanoom minded Lili without complaint, including her in all the rituals of the house on Avenue Moniriyeh, but long periods of caretaking exhausted her. To ease her burdens when Kobra’s absences coincided with the children’s school holidays, Khanoom frequently sent Lili to stay with Zaynab, her eldest and only married daughter. Zaynab’s husband, Ismail Khan, had been chosen to serve in Reza Shah’s cabinet soon after the fall of the Qajar dynasty, and his house was situated close to Parliament, in Sar Cheshmeh, Spring’s Source. To Lili it seemed a palace. Visitors first passed through a handsomely appointed foyer. Cushions lay scattered alongside a marble fountain, and perched along its rim were several qalyoon. When Ismail Khan’s diplomatic friends and military comrades appeared at his iron-studded wooden door, a servant would lead them to the foyer, where a second servant would soon alight with a plate of fresh tobacco, and then the visitors would sit by the fountain and take a few puffs from the qalyoon before proceeding through the rose garden and then into the main house.
All her life Lili’s aunt Zaynab loved to tell the story of how she’d once presented herself to the shah. By the time of this fateful meeting, Reza Shah had already torn down the city walls, razing old palaces and mud huts alike to make way for broad boulevards, modern houses, schools, hospitals, government buildings, hotels, and numerous palaces of his own. As a finishing touch, he surveyed his army of 150,000 and sent troops of uniformed officers into the streets with seedlings and watering cans. “If the trees die, you die,” he’d told them, and few doubted the threat.
On the day the shah officially outlawed the veil in 1936 and ordered all the wives and daughters of his government ministers to appear before him unveiled, Zaynab accompanied Ismail Khan to the ceremony wearing a brand-new two-piece skirt suit and a large feathered hat. Women were known to faint from terror in His Majesty’s presence and on the day that would become known as Women’s Emancipation Day many of the ladies in attendance sobbed in each other’s arms and cowered behind walls. Zaynab, however, had drawn herself up to her full height, looked directly into Reza Shah’s eyes, and shaken his white-gloved hand with her own.
Zaynab was Ismail Khan’s second wife. His first wife was said to be old and sickly and had long since retired to a separate residence on the outskirts of the city. And yet, as soon as Ismail Khan left in the mornings, Zaynab would fall into a chair and begin her fretting. Would he return that night or would he choose to stay at his other wife’s house? Did he love his first wife better, or was she his favorite? And, most worrisome of all her worries, would Ismail Khan take another wife now that several years of marriage had proved her infertile?
At her most feverish, Zaynab would send a servant to bring her neighbor Touran Khanoom to the house. A Shirazi woman with pillowy lips and a curvaceous figure, Touran Khanoom had a smile that revealed a fetching gap between her teeth. She’d come to Tehran at seventeen to marry a wealthy and sweet-tempered man who was a distant relative of her father’s.
Zaynab adored Touran Khanoom, not least of all because she was also one of the few women in the neighborhood who knew how to read and could therefore tell the Fortune of Ha-fez. Among the many volumes of Ismail Khan’s library was an exquisite leather-bound Divan-eh Hāfez, the collected poems of the fourteenth-century lyric poet Ha-fez. The book was thought to contain fortunes for all who perused it, and its gilt-lined pages and lavish illustrations enchanted Lili. She’d settle close to Zaynab and watch as her aunt began fingering its pages. The calligraphy was so stylized that Lili could make out only the occasional word. Zaynab would stop several times, furrow her brows, thumb through the book again, draw a deep breath, and finally rest on a poem. At this point Touran Khanoom would lift the book to her lap and read to herself from the page Zaynab had chosen.
“Will he come tonight?” Zaynab would ask breathlessly, leaning toward Touran Khanoom. “Tell me, will he come back to the house tonight?”
“Patience, sister, patience!”
Interpreting the Fortune of Ha-fez was known to be an exacting art, one that called upon both a reader’s creative and critical faculties. Ever mindful of the poem’s portent, Touran Khanoom always took her time before delivering her divinations.
One afternoon when she was ten years old and Zaynab had called Touran Khanoom to her house, Lili asked to have her own Fortune of Hāfez read.
“Why not?” allowed Zaynab. Her own fortune had been promising and her spirits were high that day.
Touran placed her glasses back onto her face and let Lili choose a page from the book.
“One day,” Touran began after several minutes of silent study, “you will be sitting in a garden on a day just as beautiful as this one, and a bird will come sit on your lap. It will lift you up into the sky and carry you to another garden across the sea, and there, in that other garden, a prince will come and marry you.”
Touran Khanoom settled back in her chair and regarded Lili with a smile. “That will be your destiny, my child,” she said finally, and flashed Zaynab a conspiratorial wink. By then Lili was so busy imagining the beautiful bird and the prince that it did not occur to her that Touran Khanoom might not have been reading her a fortune from the book but telling a story entirely of her own invention. In the coming years, however, Lili would turn this fortune over in her mind many, many times, measuring its beauty and promise against the truth of her life.
Excerpted from The Good Daughter by Darznik, Jasmin Copyright © 2011 by Darznik, Jasmin. Excerpted by permission.
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