Persian Girls: A Memoirby Nahid Rachlin
For many years, heartache prevented Nahid Rachlin from turning her sharp novelist's eye inward: to tell the story of how her own life diverged from that of her closest confidante and beloved sister, Pari. Growing up in Iran, both refused to accept traditional Muslim mores, and dreamed of careers in literature and on the stage. Their lives changed abruptly when Pari was coerced by their father into marrying a wealthy and cruel suitor. Nahid narrowly avoided a similar fate, and instead negotiated with him to pursue her studies in America.
When Nahid received the unsettling and mysterious news that Pari had died after falling down a light of stairs, she traveled back to Iran-now under the Islamic regime-to find out what happened to her truest friend, confront her past, and evaluate what the future holds for the heartbroken in a tale of crushing sorrow, sisterhood, and ultimately, hope.
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Table of Contents
PART ONE - Persian Girls
PART TWO - America
PART THREE - Land of Jewels
READING GROUP GUIDE
Praise for Persian Girls
“[A] lyrical and disturbing memoir.” —Publishers Weekly
“[A] poignant, beautifully written memoir . . . a fine, profound book . . . Each scene has the shapely aura of a memory, hauled back from the deep by one telling detail. . . . [A] haunting and moving story.” —JOHN FREEMAN, Times Union, Albany, New York
“Iran again looms large on the world stage. Rhetoric conjures fear of radical Islam and flashbacks to the Ayatollah Khomeini—images that obscure Iran’s rich cultural history as Persia and ignore ordinary people torn between old and new, secular and sacred. Nahid Rachlin fills in the blanks.”
—KATHLEEN McCLAIN, The Charlotte Observer
“Through the touching, tragic story of two sisters, Persian Girls unfolds the entire drama of modern Iran. It’s a beautiful, harrowing memoir of the cruelty of men toward women, and it paints the exotic scents and traditions of Tehran with the delicacy of a great novel. If you want to understand Iran, read Nahid Rachlin.”
—Matt BEYNON Rees, author of The Collaborator of Bethlehem and contributing editor, Time
“In elegant, beguiling, supple prose, Nahid Rachlin has chronicled the traumas and triumphs of a Persian girl, fashioning for herself a persona that is at once global and quintessentially Persian.”
—Abbas MILANI, director, Hamid & Christina Moghadam Program in Iranian Studies, Stanford University
“In Persian Girls, Nahid Rachlin tells her own story with sincerity—speaking for countless lives in many lands where survival is as exceptional as being buried under the dead weight of tradition is not.”
—SALAR ABDOH, author of Opium and The Poet Game
“Riveting and beautifully observed, Persian Girls recounts Nahid Rachlin’s family epic with the same quietly mesmerizing power that makes her novels and short stories linger in the mind years after we’ve read the last page.”
—DONA MUNKER, coauthor of Daughter of Persia
“Rachlin’s remarkable memoir sheds light on an intimate world that is at the center of the world’s stage. With a deft hand, she writes of a life so honestly that it has all the facets of a great novel.”—PATTY DANN, author of Mermaids and The Baby Boat
Also by Nahid Rachlin
Jumping Over Fire
Married to a Stranger
The Heart’s Desire
JEREMY P. TARCHER/PENGUIN
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First trade paperback edition 2007
Copyright © 2006 by Nahid Rachlin
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Published simultaneously in Canada
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eISBN : 978-1-101-00770-9
1. Rachlin, Nahid. 2. Iranian American authorsBiography. 3. Iranian American womenBiography. 4. WomenIranSocial conditions20th century.
5. IranPolitics and government1941-1979. I. Title.
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
Pari, Manijeh, Farzaneh, Farzin,
Maryam, and Mohtaram
I want to express my gratitude to Ashley Shelby, whose astute comments and amazing insights into this memoir made a great difference to the outcome. I thank Gary Morris for believing in the memoir. I thank Kat Kimball and Laura Ingman at Penguin for all their help and enthusiasm. I am grateful to my family and all my friends for allowing me to be open in writing it. Special thanks to my brother, Parviz, who was of great help at crucial times of my life.
This is a book of my memories, as I recall them, and what I was told when I was old enough to understand. I haven’t interviewed family members and friends to get their impressions of certain incidents in our lives. I have changed the names of a few people, institutions, and places for the sake of privacy. I have also made minor changes and compressed certain events and dates, whenever doing so did not compromise the essence of the truth of what happened. In order to tell the story as economically as possible, I have left out or glossed over some people whom I love, their kindness, their importance in my life. My apologies to all of them.
“You’re a perfect creation of God, my dear girl. It was your destiny to be my child. As soon as a baby comes into the world an angel writes its destiny on the baby’s forehead.”
“I don’t see any writing on my forehead,” I said.
“It’s written with a special invisible ink.”
“Does what the angel writes stay there forever?”
“Sometimes if a person pleads with God, he might decide to tell the angel to change the writing. But no one is praying to change your destiny. I want you with me forever.”
I have images of Maryam doing her nightly rituals in her room adjacent to mine, the door open. She kneels by her prayer rug to touch her forehead to the mohr. The scent of rose water she sprayed on the prayer rug and on her chador fills the air. A large, illuminated Koran stands on a wooden table on one side of the living room. She combs her hair and weaves it into a thick braid. Then she extinguishes the burgundy paraffin lamp on the mantel and comes into my room. She lies next to me and sings a lullaby, in her soft, melodious voice.
Lullaby, lullaby, my dear little child
Sparrow is sleeping
Once again the moon is high in the sky
Lullaby, lullaby, my dear lovely child
The flower went to sleep early again
Frog is silent
The pond has gone to sleep
The flower went to sleep early again
Lullaby, lullaby, my little beautiful mint flower
The pond is sleeping . . .
On summer nights we sleep under a mosquito net on the roof and she tells me stories while I look at the bright stars and the moon above. In one story a golden ladder descends from the sky and you can climb on it and go to the moon. I wait for that to happen. Every night I expect it. When nothing happens she says, “Maybe at least you will dream about it.” Then I dream about it, more than once. In the dreams, I climb up the ladder until I reach the moon, touch it, then I wake.
In the morning, after her prayers, she feeds me breakfast in the living room where rays of colored light, filtering through stained-glass panes in the transom over the French doors, shine on the intricate designs of the rug. She cooks the eggs laid by chickens she keeps in a coop in the courtyard. We have bread that is delivered to the door every morning and is still warm.
I was a gift to Maryam from her younger sister, Mohtaram. I was Mohtaram’s seventh baby, her fifth living child (two had died). Maryam hadn’t been able to get pregnant when she was married. Then she became a widow. She had begged Mohtaram to let her adopt one of her children. Mohtaram promised her sister she could have her next child. I was that next child.
Maryam lived in the ancient neighborhood in Tehran where she and my mother grew up. The neighborhood was more or less untouched by the Shah’s attempts at modernizing Iran. Little had changed there since Maryam was a child. Her neighbors were mostly working-class people, strongly observant Shia Muslims. Maryam’s house was a hundred years old and, like most of the houses in the area, conformed to the standard Islamic architecture. It was set inside a courtyard with high brick walls, with no openings to the streets so that women would not have to worry about being seen unveiled by male passersby. Instead, tall French doors with stained-glass transoms opened from each room onto the courtyard and to other rooms. In the courtyard, there were three sets of staircases, one leading to the roof, one to a kitchen, one to a basement.
Maryam shared the courtyard with two other widows. Our rooms lined one side, and the porch, which extended from our rooms, was adorned with six columns engraved with animals and fruit. The communal kitchen was set off in a corner; in the center was a pool of cool, clear water used for ablutions. The courtyard was shaded by large plane and plum and pear and apple trees. The plane tree had a hollow in its trunk. Maryam had covered the floor of the hole with plastic so that I could sit inside it and play with dolls.
In autumn, Maryam and the widows filled the flower beds with roses, asters, and geraniums. Blue snapdragons crawled up the walls. A trellis against one of the brick walls supported an old grapevine with a twisted, gnarled trunk, on which Maryam lavished attention when she gardened.
“God is merciful,” Maryam told me repeatedly. “He answered my prayers and sent you to me.”
Alas, God wasn’t merciful that day when our lives, hers and mine, underwent a sudden and irrevocable change.
It was 1955. I was nine years old. The Treaty of Amity between Iran and the United States had just been signed and Iranian women were eight years away from getting the right to vote. The young Shah, who had replaced his father on the throne in 1941, was set on modernizing Iran. He had attended primary school in Switzerland and he wished to make Iran the Switzerland of the Middle East.
School was about to start for the year and Maryam was taking me shopping to buy fabric to have dresses made for me.
At the bazaar we wove in and out of narrow lanes sheltered by vaulted ceilings. Sunlight poured through little windows carved high into the walls. Donkeys, heavily laden with merchandise, made their way laboriously through the crowds. After we left the bazaar we stopped at a store where Maryam bought me a double-decker ice cream sandwich, fragrant with rose water and full of pieces of hardened cream, pressed between three thin wafers.
That evening she took me to the seamstress’s house for a fitting.
“She’s reached that age. Would you like me to make a chador for her?” the woman said as we were leaving. Islam required women to begin wearing chadors, or head scarves, around the age of nine. Nine was also the age when Iranian girls could legally marry.
Maryam blushed and shook her head. Aware of her embarrassment, I felt blood racing to my face, too.
“Sooner or later I need to get a chador for you,” Maryam said, outside.
“We don’t wear it at school,” I said.
The Shah had made it optional for girls to wear a chador. Maryam chose to wear one. My school’s principal, with his progressive ideas, shared the Shah’s inclinations and didn’t require that students cover up.
The next day began like any other day. I woke to the voice of the muezzin calling people to prayers, Allah o Akbar. After Maryam finished praying we had our usual breakfast—sangag bread still warm from the stone oven it was baked in, jam that Maryam made herself with pears and plums, mint-scented tea. On the way to school I stopped at my friend Batul’s house to pick her up. Batul was my best friend and lived in the same alley as I did. We passed the public baths and the mosques, sights visible on practically every street in the Khanat Abad neighborhood.
It was a crisp, cool autumn day. The red fruit on persimmon trees on sidewalks were glistening like jewels in sunlight. Water gurgled in joobs running alongside the streets. The tall Alborz Mountains surrounding Tehran were clearly delineated in the distance. We paused at a stall to buy sliced hot beets and ate them as we walked.
Tehrani School for Girls was on a narrow street off Khanat Abad Avenue, about ten blocks from home. It had the same Muslim architecture as all the houses around it and was surrounded by an expansive courtyard.
At a class recess, as I stood with Batul and a few other girls under a large maple tree in the courtyard, waiting for the next class to start, I noticed a man approaching us. He was thin and short, with a pockmarked face and a brush mustache. He was wearing a suit and a tie. Even from a distance, he seemed powerful.
“Don’t you recognize your father?” he asked as he came closer.
In a flash I recognized him, the man I had met only once when he came to Maryam’s house with my birth mother on one of her visits. He was there for an hour or so, then left to stay with his brother who lived in midtown Tehran.
I was afraid of my father, a fear I had learned from Maryam. Having adopted me informally, Maryam didn’t have legal rights to me; even if she did, my father would be able to claim me. In Iran fathers were given full control of their children, no matter the circumstance. There was no way to fight if he wanted me back. To make matters worse, my father was also a judge.
So often Maryam had said to me, “Be careful, don’t go away with a stranger.” Was Father the stranger she had been warning me against? Our worst fears were coming true.
“Let’s go,” he said. “I’m taking you to Ahvaz.” He took my hand and led me forcefully toward the outside door.
“Nahid, Nahid,” Batul and my other classmates called after me. I turned around and saw they were frozen in place, too stunned to do anything but call my name.
“Does my mother know about this?” I asked once we were on the street. My heart beat violently.
“You mean your aunt,” he said. “I just sent a message to her. By the time she knows, we’ll be on the airplane.”
“I want my mother,” I pleaded.
“We’re going to your mother. I spoke to your principal; you aren’t going to this school anymore. You’ll be going to a better one, a private school in Ahvaz.”
I tried to free myself but he held my arm firmly and pulled me toward Khanat Abad Avenue. Still holding me with one hand, he hailed a taxi with the other. One stopped and my father lifted me into the backseat and got in next to me, pinning my legs down with his arm.
“Let me go! Let me go!” I screamed. Through the window I saw a white chador with a polka-dot design in the distance. It was Maryam. “Mother, Mother!” As the car approached, I realized the woman wasn’t Maryam.
“Don’t put up a fight,” my father said as the cab zigzagged through the hectic Tehran traffic. “It won’t do you any good.”
Before I knew it we were in the airport and then on the plane. The stewardess brought trays of food and put them in front of us. I picked up a fork and played with the pieces of rice and stew on my plate, taking reluctant bites. Nausea rose from my stomach in waves.
“I have to go to the bathroom.”
“Go ahead,” my father replied.
“The toilet is in the back,” the stewardess said.
I must hold it until I get to the toilet, I said to myself, but my stomach tightened sharply and I began to throw up in the aisle. The stewardess gave me a bag and I turned toward the bathroom with it pressed against my lips.
When I returned, the stewardess had cleaned up the aisle.
“How do you feel?” Father asked me. “Better?”
I didn’t answer.
“You’ll be fine when we get home, your real home,” Father said, caressing my arm. “Your mother, sisters, and brothers are all waiting for you. And I’ll look after you.”
Finally I fell asleep; when I awoke we were in the Ahvaz airport. I was groggy and disoriented as we rode in a taxi. Flames erupted from a tall tower, burning excess gas from the Ahvaz petroleum fields. A faint smell of petroleum filled the air.
We passed narrow streets lined with mud and straw houses and tall date and coconut palms. We entered Pahlavi Avenue, full of glittering luxury shops and modern, two-story houses and apartment buildings. Most of the women walking about were not wearing chadors and were dressed in fashionable, imported clothes. The modern avenue reminded me of the sections in north Tehran where I had ventured a few times.
At its center was a square, dominated by a large statue of the Shah.
“Stop right here,” Father said to the driver, pointing to a house on a street that branched off Pahlavi Avenue just beyond the square.
The taxi came to a halt in front of the large, modern two-story house, with a wraparound balcony and two entrances.
“We’re home,” Father announced. A group of boys were playing hopscotch on the cement sidewalk. I felt an urge to bolt, but Father, as if aware of that urge, took hold of my hand. Grasping it firmly, he led me into the house.
A woman was sitting in a shady corner of the courtyard, holding a glass of lemonade with ice jingling in it. She wore bright red lipstick and her hair in a permanent wave. She looked so different from Maryam, who wore no makeup and let her naturally wavy hair grow long.
“Here is Nahid, Mohtaram joon. We have our daughter back with us,” my father said to her.
Mohtaram, my birth mother.
She nodded vaguely and walked over to where we were standing. She took me in her arms, but her embrace was tentative, hesitant. I missed Maryam’s firm, loving arms around me.
“Ali, show her to her room,” Mohtaram said to the live-in servant, who came out of a room in the corner.
“Go ahead,” Father said to me. “You can rest for a while.”
Ali led me up a steep stone stairway and to a room. He left for a moment and returned with a nightgown, a bathrobe, slippers, and underwear. He told me where the bathrooms were, if I wanted to wash up. He left again and I closed the door behind him.
I lay down on the bed. I ran my hands over the folds of my dress, one Maryam had made for me. The soft springs of the bed felt strange; I was used to sleeping on a mattress rolled out on the floor of my room or under the mosquito net set up on the roof.
There was a knock on the door. “Please come to dinner, miss,” Ali said from the other side.
I kept silent. He knocked again and when I didn’t answer he walked away.
Gradually everything around me blurred and I plunged into a deep, dark sleep.
When I awoke, it was the middle of the night. I felt dehydrated and reached for the earthen pitcher of water Maryam always kept beside my bed. Instead my hand hit a vacuum. I have been taken away from Maryam, I thought in a panic. When Maryam got the message Father sent that he was taking me away, she must have started crying. Then she must have calmed herself by thinking she would come to Ahvaz as soon as possible and plead with Father to let me go back to her. How soon will she be here? Will she be able to take me back? A tangle of disturbing thoughts clogged my head.
Meet the Author
Nahid Rachlin is the author of the critically acclaimed novels Jumping over Fire, Foreigner, Married to a Stranger, and The Heart's Desire, as well as a collection of short stories, Veils. Currently an associate fellow at Yale, Rachlin teaches at The New School and Unterberg Poetry Center in New York.
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