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Things I've Been Silent About: Memories of a Prodigal Daughter

Things I've Been Silent About: Memories of a Prodigal Daughter

3.0 25
by Azar Nafisi

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In this stunning personal story of growing up in Iran, Azar Nafisi shares her memories of living in thrall to a powerful and complex mother against the backdrop of a country’s political revolution. A girl’s pain over family secrets, a young woman’s discovery of the power of sensuality in literature, the price a family pays for freedom in a country


In this stunning personal story of growing up in Iran, Azar Nafisi shares her memories of living in thrall to a powerful and complex mother against the backdrop of a country’s political revolution. A girl’s pain over family secrets, a young woman’s discovery of the power of sensuality in literature, the price a family pays for freedom in a country beset by upheaval—these and other threads are woven together in this beautiful memoir as a gifted storyteller once again transforms the way we see the world and “reminds us of why we read in the first place” (Newsday).

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Absorbing . . . a testament to the ways in which narrative truth-telling—from the greatest works of literature to the most intimate family stories—sustains and strengthens us.”—O: The Oprah Magazine
“Deeply felt . . . an affecting account of a family’s struggle.”—New York Times
“A gifted storyteller with a mastery of Western literature, Nafisi knows how to use language both to settle scores and to seduce.”—New York Times Book Review
 “An immensely rewarding and beautifully written act of courage, by turns amusing, tender and obsessively dogged.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“A lyrical, often wrenching memoir.”—People
In her bestselling Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi wrote about growing up intellectually adventurous in the midst of the Iranian Revolution. In Things I've Been Silent About, she ventures into matters even more private, yet still deeply knotted into political and social upheavals in her homeland. As in her previous books, Nafisi renders her family's story rather than simply laying out its elements. Her father and especially her mother emerge as full-blooded people, both talented and tormented. An absorbing memoir about a distant culture that seems so close.
Elaine Sciolino
A gifted storyteller with a mastery of Western literature, Nafisi knows how to use language both to settle scores and to seduce. Her family secrets pour forth in a flood of revelations of anger, humiliation and deceit.
—The New York Times Book Review
Michiko Kakutani
Things I've Been Silent About is a kind of companion volume to Ms. Nafisi's stunning 2003 memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, but in these pages she turns her focus from life in Iran after the Revolution to her own family, giving us finely etched portraits of her tempestuous, authoritarian mother, and her doting, unassertive father, who was a mayor of Tehran under the Shah. By its end the book builds into an affecting account of a family's struggle to survive the vicissitudes of political and personal strife
—The New York Times
Francine du Plessix Gray
Nafisi's sensory descriptions of Tehran life—the "enticing cacophony" of its streets, the daily forays her mother makes to the market, where she appears to be "so much at home in this world of chocolates, leather, and spices"—are as vivid as the portraits of her exotically dysfunctional family…an utterly memorable (pardon the alliteration) memoir.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Nafisi follows up the internationally acclaimed Reading Lolita in Tehran with another memoir, concentrating this time on her unhappy family life. Her mother was vocally nostalgic for her first marriage to a man who died two years after their wedding day, while her father sought the company of other women-not so much for sexual excitement as for emotional stability. Nafisi's parents' relationship was so off-kilter that when her father, the mayor of Tehran, was accused of plotting against the shah and thrown into jail, one of his main hopes was that it would finally reconcile them. Nafisi grew up determined to "become the woman [my mother] claimed she had wanted to be," but an adolescent education in England and an impulsive first marriage (followed by college in the U.S.) did not bring the happiness she sought. The calm candor with which she narrates her experiences, from childhood sexual abuse to a frightening confrontation when her second husband argues with a religious zealot over her unscarved hair, provides a solid emotional anchor-and the intimate drama at her memoir's core, the conflicting frustration with a parent and the desire for connection, is one that will resonate with readers everywhere. (Jan. 6)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Nafisi (Reading Lolita in Tehran) captures her memories of her mother and father in this story about growing up in the turbulent and politically charged atmosphere in Iran. Central to the book is Nafisi's mother, who adds details and eliminates facts to her life story as it suits her. This element of mistrust is the basis for Nafisi's dysfunctional relationship with this melodramatic woman, who is known for her local coffee sessions that eventually enable her to be elected to Parliament. By contrast, Nafisi's father, who was jailed for his political actions as deputy mayor of Tehran, loves to entertain Nafisi with his tales of the goodness of people even with all the injustice in the world. Her father also gives her the diaries he wrote for her since she was a four-year-old. Fantasy, in various forms, is the mechanism Nafisi's family employs to understand life. Watching Nafisi grow from a child to a mother and a writer shows how her family's story is really her own. Recommended for all public libraries where Nafisi is popular and for all academic collections.
—Joyce Sparrow

Kirkus Reviews
An account of growing up under a chilly, tyrannical parent in a changing Iran, by the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003). An adversarial relationship with her mother defined the choices she made in her life, writes Nafisi, who now lives in Washington, D.C. Raised amid privilege and wealth in Tehran in the 1950s and '60s, the author became aware early on that her parents' marriage, which united two prominent families, was not happy. Both her father and her mother told their children "fictions," she declares, official versions of the family history rather than the truth. She took the side of her literary-minded father, who became mayor of Tehran, and had scant sympathy for her dictatorial, paranoid mother, who lamented the untimely death of her first husband and her inability to go to medical school because of her gender. Nafisi grew up enjoying education abroad and freedoms her mother had never known. During the five years in the '60s that her father spent in jail for "consorting with the opposition," the then-teenaged author agreed to an ill-starred marriage pushed by her mother, simply to get out of the house. While an undergraduate at the University of Oklahoma, Nafisi divorced her first husband and got involved in the nascent Iranian student movement. "In the seventies it was easy for a young Iranian abroad to be antigovernment," she writes. "Inside Iran, of course, it was a different story." She returned to Tehran shortly after the Revolution in 1979 with her new husband, also an Iranian activist. The young revolutionaries had few illusions about the new Islamic regime, however, and Nafisi and her friends were harassed and imprisoned for their subversive activities. She and herhusband finally decided to leave in 1997. She sees her writings as part of the same decision to reject the "complicity and silent acquiescence," whether to a tyrannical regime or a domineering parent, that have plagued her life both personally and professionally. An immensely rewarding and beautifully written act of courage, by turns amusing, tender and obsessively dogged.

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Random House Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


I have often asked myself how much of my mother’s account of her meeting with her first husband was a figment of her imagination. If not for the photographs, I would have doubted that he had ever existed. A friend once talked of my mother’s “admirable resistance to the unwanted,” and since, for her, so much in life was unwanted, she invented stories about herself that she came to believe with such conviction that we started doubting our own certainties.

In her mind their courtship began with a dance. It seemed more likely to me that his parents would have asked her father for her hand, a marriage of convenience between two prominent families, as had been the convention in Tehran in the 1940s. But over the years she never changed this story, the way she did so many of her other accounts. She had met him at her uncle’s wedding. She was careful to mention that in the morning she wore a flowery crêpe-de-chine dress and in the evening one made of duchess satin, and they danced all evening (“After my father had left,” she would say, and then immediately add, “because no one dared dance with me in my father’s presence”). The next day he asked for her hand in marriage.

Saifi! I cannot remember ever hearing his last name spoken in our house. We should have called him—with the echo of proper distance— Mother’s first husband, or perhaps by his full title, Saif ol Molk Bayat, but to me he was always Saifi, good-naturedly part of our routine. He insinuated himself into our lives with the same ease with which he stood behind her in their wedding pictures, appearing unexpectedly and slyly whirling her away from us. I have two photos from that day—more than we ever had of my own parents’ wedding. Saifi appears relaxed and affable, with his light hair and hazel eyes, while my mother, who is in the middle of the group, stands frozen like a solitary centerpiece. He seems nonchalantly, confidently happy. But perhaps I am wrong and what I see on his face is not hope but utter hopelessness. Because he too has his secrets.

There was something about her story that always bothered me, even as a child. It seemed not so much untrue as wrong. Most people have a way of radiating their potential, not just what they are but what they could become. I wouldn’t say my mother didn’t have the potential to dance. It is worse than that. She wouldn’t dance, even though, by all accounts, she was a good dancer. Dancing would have implied pleasure, and she took great pride in denying herself pleasure or any such indulgences.

All through my childhood and youth, and even now in this city so far removed from the Tehran that I remember, the shadow of that other ghostly woman who danced and smiled and loved disturbs the memories of the one I knew as my mother. I have a feeling that if somehow I could understand just when she stopped dancing—when she stopped wanting to dance—I would find the key to my mother’s riddle and finally make my peace with her. For I resisted my mother—if you believe her stories—almost from the start.

I have three photographs of my mother and Saifi. Two are of their wedding, but I am interested in the third, a much smaller picture of them out on a picnic, sitting on a rock. They are both looking into the camera, smiling. She is holding onto him in the casual manner of people who are intimate and do not need to hold onto one another too tightly. Their bodies seem to naturally gravitate together. Looking at the photograph, I can see the possibility of this young, perhaps not yet frigid, woman letting go.

I find in the photograph the sensuality that we always missed in my mother in real life. When? I would say, when did you graduate from high school? How many years later did you marry Saifi? What did he do? When did you meet Father? Simple questions that she never really answered. She was too immersed in her own inner world to be bothered by such details. No matter what I asked her, she would tell me the same stock stories, which I knew almost by heart. Later, when I left Iran, I asked one of my students to interview her and I gave specific questions to ask, but I got back the same stories. No dates, no concrete facts, nothing that went outside my mother’s set script.

A few years ago, at a family gathering, I ran into a lovely Austrian lady, the wife of a distant relative, who had been present at my mother’s wedding to Saifi. One reason she remembered the wedding so clearly was the panic and confusion caused by the mysterious disappearance of the bride’s birth certificate. (In Iran, marriages and children are recorded on birth certificates.) She told me, with the twinkle of a smile, that it was later discovered that the bride was a few years older than the groom. Mother’s most recent birth certificate makes no mention of her first marriage. According to this document, which replaced the one she claimed to have lost, she was born in 1920. But she maintained that she was really born in 1924 and that her father had added four years to her age because he wanted to send her to school early. My father told us that my mother had actually subtracted four years from her real age when she picked up the new birth certificate, which she needed so that she could apply for a driver’s license. When the facts did not suit her, my mother would go to great lengths to refashion them altogether.

Some facts are on record. Her father-in-law, Saham Soltan Bayat, was a wealthy landowner who had seen one royal dynasty, the Qajars (1794–1925), replaced by another, the Pahlavis (1925–79). He managed to survive, even thrive, through the change in power. Mother sometimes boasted that she was related to Saifi on her mother’s side and that they were both descendants of Qajar kings. During the fifties and sixties when I was growing up, being related to the Qajars, who, according to the official history books, represented the old absolutist system, was no feather in anyone’s cap. My father would remind us mischievously that all Iranians were in one way or another related to the Qajars. In fact, he would say, those who could not find any connections to the Qajars were the truly privileged. The Qajars had reigned over the country for 131 years, and had numerous wives and offspring. Like the kings that came before them, they seemed to have picked their wives from all ranks and classes, possessing whoever caught their fancy: princesses, gardeners’ daughters, poor village girls, all were part of their collection. One Qajar king, Fath Ali Shah (1771–1834), is said to have had 160 wives. Being of a judicious mind-?set, Father would usually add that of course that was only part of the story, and since history is written by the victors, especially in our country, we should take all that is said about the Qajars with a grain of salt—after all, it was during their reign that Iran started to modernize. They had lost, so anything could be said of them. Even as a child I sensed that Mother brought up this connection to the Qajars more to slight her present life with Father than to boast about the past. Her snobbism was arbitrary, and her prejudices were restricted to the rules and laws of her own personal kingdom.

Saham Soltan, mother’s father-in-law, appears in various history books and political memoirs—one line here, a paragraph there—once as deputy and vice president of Parliament, twice as minister of finance in the early 1940s, and as prime minister for a few months, from November 1944 to April 1945—during the time my mother claims to have been married to Saifi. Despite the fact that Iran had declared neutrality in World War II, Reza Shah Pahlavi had made the mistake of sympathizing with the Germans. The Allies, the British and the Soviets in particular, who had an eye on the geopolitical gains, occupied Iran in 1941, forced Reza Shah to abdicate, exiled him to Johannesburg, and replaced him with his young and more malleable son, Mohammad Reza. The Second World War triggered such upheaval in Iran that between 1943 and 1944 four prime ministers and seven ministers of finance were elected.

Mother knew little and seemed to care less about what kind of prime minister her father-?in-?law had been. What was important was that he played the fairy godfather to her degraded present. This is how so many public figures entered my life, not through history books but through my parents’ stories.

How glamorous mother’s life with Saifi really was is open to debate. They lived at Saham Soltan’s house, in the chink of time between the death of his first wife and his marriage to a much younger and, according to my mother, quite detestable woman. In the absence of a lady of the house, my mother did the honors. “Everybody’s eyes were on me that first night,” she would tell us, describing in elaborate detail the dress she had worn and the impact of her flawless French. As a child I would picture her coming down the stairs in her red chiffon dress, her black eyes shining, her hair immaculately done.

“The first night Doctor Millspaugh came...you should have been there!” Dr. Millspaugh, the head of the American Mission in the 1940s, had been assigned by both the Roosevelt and the Truman administrations to help Tehran set up modern financial institutions. Mother never saw any reason to tell us who this man was, and for a long time, for some reason I was convinced that he was Belgian. Later, when I reviewed my mother’s accounts of these dinners, I was struck by the fact that Saifi was never present. His father would always be there, and Dr. Millspaugh or some other publicly important and personally insignificant character. But where was Saifi? That was the tragedy of her life: the man at her side was never the one she wanted.

My father, to bribe my brother and me into silence against her impositions, and perhaps to compensate for his own compliance, would tell us over and over again how our mother was imprisoned in her father-in-law’s house, where Khoji, the domineering housekeeper, was the real woman in charge. Even the key to the larder was in the hands of the indomitable Khoji, whom mother had to flatter and cajole to get as much as a length of fabric to make herself a nice dress. Father would remind us that she was treated more like an unwanted guest than as mistress of her father-in-law’s house.

Mother presented herself as a happy young bride, the proud heroine wooed by Prince Charming, and Father painted her as a victim of other people’s petty cruelties. They both wanted us to confirm their own version. Mother flung the past at us as an accusation of the pres- ent, and Father needed to justify her tyrannies on all of us, by provoking our compassion. It was difficult to compete with Saifi, a dead man, and a handsome one at that—the son of the prime minister, with the potential to become whatever she could imagine him to be. My father’s intelligence and goodwill, his future prospects and ambitions as a promising director at the Ministry of Finance, even the fact that he and my mother came from different branches of the same family, appeared poor seconds to what Mother believed Saifi had to offer her. Later she seemed to begrudge Father’s successes in public life, as if they were fierce rivals rather than partners.

The problem was not what she said but what she left out. My father filled in the gaps: Saifi, the favorite first son, had an incurable

disease—nephritis of the kidney, they called it—and the doctors had given up on him. Let him do whatever he wants in these last years of his life, one had recommended. Indulge him, let him have his way. Provide him with all the fun he desires, because he has so little time to enjoy life. When his family proposed to my mother, they conveniently neglected to tell her that he was ill. She discovered it on her wedding night. According to my father their marriage was never consummated. Instead, for two years she nursed a sick husband, watching him die every day. And this was the romance of her life, the man whom she brandished to remind us of our own inadequacies!

Sometimes, when she went on and on about Saifi with that absent look of hers, I wanted to shake her and say, No, that’s not the way it was! But of course I never did. Did he care what would happen to her when she discovered his condition, or what would become of her after he died? She was too proud and too stubborn to have much interest in the truth. And so she transformed a real place and history into a fantasy of her own creation. Ever since I can remember, my brother, my father, and I tried to figure out what it was exactly that she wanted from us. We tried to travel with her to that other place that seemed to beckon, to which her eyes were constantly diverted as she gazed beyond the walls of her real home. What frightened me was not her rages but that frozen place in her that we could never penetrate. While she was alive I was too busy evading her and resenting her to understand how disappointed and alone she must have felt, how she was like so many other women about whom her best friend, Mina, used to say, with an ironic smile: “Another intelligent woman gone to waste.”

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Azar Nafisi is a visiting professor and the director of the Dialogue Project at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University. She has taught Western literature at the University of Tehran, the Free Islamic University, and the University of Allameh Tabatabai in Iran. In 1981 she was expelled from the University of Tehran after refusing to wear the veil. In 1994 she won a teaching fellowship from Oxford University, and in 1997 she and her family left Iran for America. She has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic and has appeared on countless radio and television programs. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and two children.

From the Hardcover edition.

Brief Biography

Potomac, Maryland
Place of Birth:
Tehran, Iran
M.A., Ph.D., Oklahoma University, 1979

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Things I've Been Silent About: Memories of a Prodigal Daughter 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 25 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thought this was a very well written and interesting book. I think the topic of this book is a universal topic about the struggle between children and parents and is not about criticizing Iran or the Iranian government like some people (i.e. the above reviewer) will make it out to be solely because the author is Iranian. However i think this book does point out some very good aspects of Iranian culture that Americans in large part are not familiar with like the Shanameh and the deep roots that literature and poetry have in Iranian culture.

The reviewer above obviously did not read the entire book, since if they had they would know that the author returned to Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution and lived, worked and raised a family in Iran for almost twenty years during her adult life as well spending extensive time in Iran while she was studying abroad.

All in all if you are looking for a good read and an interesting life story which in one way or another most of us can relate to no matter race, religion or country of origin i would highly recommend this book, however if you are looking for a political book about Iran i would suggest you look elsewhere.
PVF More than 1 year ago
This is an enlightening book, because it talks about the culture of Iran and how various family interactions were affected by it. The writing is so excellent that it's hard to believe English is not the author's first language. Some of the information about the political unrest in Iran is fascinating. A thoroughly enjoyable and courageous book.
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Sits alone waiting for hood
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Although this was not as analytical and disciplined as "Reading Lolita.." I found it a very engaging and enlightening counterpoint. The choice to reveal so many details of the family dynamics and the history of the parents (now that both parents are apparently gone) was very positive. It turns out that Nafisi's life (with her moving back and forth between Iran, England, and the US in a very fraught time for her country of origin) was more contradictory, exciting, and challenging than most of the plots of the great novels Nafisi loves to think about (the great writers would have to have kept things more structured!). The book moves along almost on 2 separate planes: what is happening in her personal life or in that of relatives and then what is happening politically in Iran. Although she claims NOT to want to outline the history of Iran or this period -- nor the politics, the book, in fact, provides selected and useful information along with remarkable insight into this extremely complicated country. I felt comprehension, wonder, anguish, and fear at what it all means for our global future. As to the choice of such honesty in relating family, for me this was a very welcome contrast to what I see as the American tendency to sanitize matters and seek the sentimental "reconciliation", create a family picture that is nicer than the reality (unless of course the members are still locked in full-blown animosity.) Applying the same maxim she uses in literary criticism - that good novels represent what is true, even if profane - her message seems to be that we, too, can survive honesty in confronting our own family histories. And in the process learn from history, avoid repeating so many mistakes.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
rossberliner More than 1 year ago
"Things I Have Been Silent About" is an interesting and readable book that does not have the strong political, educational or cultural insight and message of the author's previous, Reading Lolita in Tehran". The book takes us into the author's family and her friends, lovers and world. It is revelatory but ever mindful that some of the people are still alive and her memories are less angry or meditative than real life.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Another engrossing read from Nafisi, didn't want to put it down. More self-indulgent (analyzing family issues) than prior books, so not as hard-hitting and eye-opening on Iranian issues, but still a great book.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This woman left Tehran at the age of thirteen. Therefore, the experiences in the book are through the eyes of a child. This book is good if it is read as a piece of fiction, however, I don't think this book is very accurate in the impressions it leaves one with about Tehran. Because, they are being told to us from a child's point of view. I hope more people will chose to visit the country instead of simply reading books like this.