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By Dora Levy Mossanen
TouchstoneCopyright © 2005 Dora Levy Mossanen
All right reserved.
I pinch my nose shut and gulp down two raw rooster gonads.
"Do not make that face, khanom Simone," Pearl, the midwife, commands. "Do what I say, or your womb will continue to cough up blood each month."
The woman pounds a brown concoction in a cast-iron mortar, her expression so serious she must imagine herself creating life. She rambles about mixing the pulp of a rare fish found in the Caspian Sea, five pulverized pearls harvested in fertile oysters, two grams of gold, and another secret elixir.
I dig my hands in the pockets of my riding breeches as the one-eyed witch raises a thimble of rosewater to my nose to hold back my vomit.
Why would I, the daughter of Françoise and granddaughter of Mme Gabrielle, idols of seduction, banish myself to a stone house on top of the Persian mountains? Why would I ingest gonads? Why would I follow the advice of a mad midwife?
The catalyst was Yaghout, my mother-in-law.
Tired from months of travel from France to Persia, upon arriving at the port of Anzali on the Caspian Sea, Cyrus and I joined a caravan that made its way over tortuous passes toward Tehran. My first glimpse of Persia on approaching Anzali from Baku was the red-tiled roofs of a small town. And, in the distance, a mountain range hidden by clouds. From here, we crossed a vast desert on kajavehs, two-passenger vehicles resembling chicken coops balanced on donkeys. Our faces caked with dust and fatigue, we arrived at Mahaleh, the Jewish quarter. Sabbath candles flickered on windowsills. We negotiated a web of narrow alleys and crumbling walls to Sar-e-chal -- the pit's edge.
A sobering odor assaulted me.
A large heap of decomposing refuse sat in a pit at the center of the quarter. Traders, shopkeepers, and residents, a populace covered in a cloak of sadness, toss their daily garbage into this gorge. Men wear strange hats -- the conical or lambskin of the middle and upper class, the woolly muff of the Cossack, half bowl felt of the working class. The cleric's turban is reminiscent of my mother's fluffy swan pillow. Strange little shops with fronts open to the street line the bazaar. Shopkeepers sit where they can reach everything without rising. Public cooks broil mutton en brochette over hot beds of charcoal. A water carrier, his sheepskin jug on his shoulders, handed me a tin cup. Cyrus waved him away, pulling my foulard over my red curls. I must drink nothing but hot tea, he said, until I become accustomed to Persian germs. Concealed under chadors, weary eyes peeping through horse-hair blinders, women shuffle around like black tents. Even Mme Gabrielle's ghosts would have rejected this gloomy place, where Jews have to comply with the custom of wearing a chador.
To think I fought to leave Château Gabrielle for this.
The camel carrying our belongings had difficulty squeezing through the narrow cul-de-sac. We hired a mule to finish the task of transporting our valises.
"Houses at the end of alleys offer a degree of protection from periodic raids by Muslims," Cyrus explained, causing me further alarm. I clung to his arm and asked the significance of the patch worn on certain jackets. "Jews must display identifying signs so Muslims won't come in contact with us and defile themselves."
"You don't," I said.
"I refuse to comply," he replied.
"But you, a Jew, are the shah's private jeweler?"
"Being the only Persian gemologist with a degree from France, I am needed in court. And I have invaluable connections to the European diamond markets."
Before I had occasion to show more concern, he took me by the hand and led me to my future mother-in-law, Yaghout. Informed of our arrival by the quarter news bearer, she greeted us at the door. She wore the type of pants, vest, and ballet skirt the present shah's father had admired at the Paris ballet and that the women of his harem later made fashionable. If only Cyrus's mother knew that my grandmother had pleasured the present shah on his last visit to Paris.
"Madar, meet my fiancée," Cyrus said, kissing her forehead.
"Pesaram, my son!" she cried out, ignoring my outstretched hand.
I cringed under her scalding stare that traveled the length of my body to rest on my red hair. Bursting into fits of violent sneezing, she feigned an allergic reaction, which I did not realize then was to me. She held a Bible above Cyrus's head as we stepped into her home. In her other hand, she swayed a fire turner, a coal-filled, crackling wire basket. I had an urge to unstopper the tiny pores of my skin and unleash my perfume to mask the pungent odor of the smoking wild rue seeds she used to ward off the evil eye.
Cyrus pulled me into his arms. "Welcome to Persia, jounam."
Yaghout turned on her heels and stormed out into the garden. I glanced back to see her toss the fire turner into a small pool. The dying embers hissed in the water.
I suddenly missed Paris. I missed Françoise and Mme Gabrielle. I even missed my grandmother's repertoire of spirits wandering Château Gabrielle and the surrounding Valley of Civet Cats.
During the two weeks I lived with Yaghout, I tried to ingratiate myself to her. I flaunted the Farsi I had learned from Alphonse, our Persian butler back home. I brewed tea and chopped herbs for rice. I prepared ghormeh sabzi, an herbal lamb stew of red beans and dried lemons. But despite her endless insistence, I refused to wear the chador.
The volley of sneezes my presence triggered, the gurgling of her ghalian hookah, the shuddering rose petals in the foaming water, and the smoke shooting out of her nostrils were rude and frightening. How long was I expected to live with this woman? When she began to pop pills under her tongue to thwart a looming heart attack, I was ready to flee. Nothing Cyrus had said, and certainly none of my fantasies, had prepared me for the dark-eyed, mustachioed Yaghout.
"Is she a virgin?" she hissed to Cyrus one morning. "Do not give me that look, pesaram, but reconsider your decision to wed her. Because if she fails to produce a bloody sheet with Rabbi Shlomo the Penitent's signature on four corners, you will be dead to me."
"Consider me dead right here and now!" Cyrus snapped back.
I had been late for breakfast, still patting my forest of curls into place, when he grabbed my arm and swept me out the door, across the dusty garden with its ancient walnut and mulberry trees, emaciated chickens and loud roosters, and past the outhouse, an open-mouthed grave.
"Stop daydreaming, khanom Simone," Pearl, the midwife, scolds, startling me back to the mountains, the lingering taste of gonads bitter in my mouth. "If you do not become pregnant, your husband will flee to yengeh donyah."
Beard, the owner of the teahouse around the corner, considers yengeh donyah the edge of the world -- somewhere very far from Persia. Somewhere like the Valley of Civet Cats, I suppose.
Out of her chemise, Pearl retrieves a stretch of flesh that resembles puckered leather, rather than the breast she directs under her armpit into the mouth of the child bundled up in the chador around her shoulders. "You see man hameh kareh hastam."
Oui, oui, I suppose, she might be proficient in all manners of child rearing. But I would rather return to Tehran and face Yaghout than allow this woman to nurse my baby when I have one.
Her good eye stares at me, the other milky dull and forlorn like a dead goat's. She lost the eye to the trachoma epidemic in Rasht, a town in the north of Persia, she explains, adding that her one good eye is sharper than my two. She pinches some of the concoction out of the mortar and rolls a smidgen into a lewd colored blob between her callused fingers.
I shake my head, assuring her that I will not consume chicken droppings, which is what the mixture looks like.
"Well, then," she threatens, tying her bundle, "if you do not care to become pregnant, so be it. I came here to make you a proper wife. What else would a devout Muslim do, khanom, than come to the aid of a foreigner in the mountains?"
Pearl had first appeared at my doorsteps a week before. She had a message from Yaghout: Although Cyrus married a French goy, he is still a Persian Jew. And like every one of us he deserves a son to recite the kaddish over his grave.
That day, facing Pearl at the door, right there and then, a palpable fear bled into my veins. What if I never conceive? What if I fail to become pregnant with Cyrus's child?
I opened the door wide, stepped back, and invited the midwife into the stone maisonette that was becoming home.
Wedged between two cliffs with an awesome view of the Damavand Volcano, a source of Persian mythology, the house stands thousands of meters above the capital city of Tehran. The surrounding mountains gush with streams, waterfalls, and wells that join the Karaj and Jajrud rivers to irrigate the thirsty city below. At daybreak, when clouds lounge low on our slate roof, hikers knock on our door. They seek a cup of hot tea, a glass of pomegranate juice, or a date-and-onion omelet before continuing their climb to the summit, before the summer sun bakes the boulders into stony ovens, or winter winds whip the carpet of snow into crystalline shards. The ever-changing shades of stone and earth, rain and snow, give the impression of four seasons encapsulated in one day. The silence, punctuated by the occasional clattering of hooves, cawing of crows, and braying of mules, is profoundly different from the sensual chaos of Château Gabrielle.
The décor of our boudoir with its ancient mirror reflecting images in mottled hues is primitive. The divan is covered with my stitched-together petticoats. Gradually, tentatively, the house reveals its charm, and I come to realize that what would have been impossible in Château Gabrielle -- to love one man -- is probable here. Here it is possible to love a man who, in the high altitude of the mountains, dethorns wildflowers that might prick my fingers, who calls me jounam -- my life -- who gathers back his shoulder-length, silver-peppered hair, and who wears a red diamond earring. In a backward society where bare skin is not tolerated, his white shirt is left carelessly open to reveal a muscular chest the color of almond husks. This is his way of showing his disapproval of a rigid culture that continues to challenge his choice of a wife.
Nevertheless, Château Gabrielle and its women are ever present in the trunk I salvaged from Mama. I pull out her costumes, capes, and masks to coil threads of memory around the mountains and keep my family alive.
And on the mantelpiece above the wood burner, eternally visible as a reminder of what he lost and what he gained, is Cyrus's tallit bag. The taffeta bag is square and flat, and when sunlight pours through the window onto an embroidered Star of David, the threads cast silver webs on the ceiling. Tucked inside is Cyrus's Old Testament, skullcap, and tallit with tzitzit fringes on both edges. Although secularly inclined, he has started attending the synagogue in Mahaleh. His Bible and prayer shawl, his only inheritance, have reconnected him to his faith. In full view on the mantelpiece, the bag must remind him of more than I could guess.
"This prayer shawl and Torah," his mother said, "Are all you will have to turn to if you marry that goy."
"She is Jewish," Cyrus said.
"She is the daughter of prostitutes," his mother replied.
Copyright © 2005 by Dora Levy Mossanen
Excerpted from Courtesan by Dora Levy Mossanen Copyright © 2005 by Dora Levy Mossanen. Excerpted by permission.
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Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide
1. Describe the three women of Château Gabrielle, both individually and in the context of their mother-daughter relationships. What was your initial perception of Mme Gabrielle, Françoise, and Simone? Did your opinion change as the story progressed?
2. Given the limited options available to women in the late nineteenth century, do you understand the decision Mme Gabrielle and later Françoise made to become a courtesan? Does their chosen profession make them superior to men, subservient to them, or of equal standing? What is their reputation, and how are they viewed by society?
3. Mme Gabrielle records the story of her life in a journal, with the hope that by revealing her past to Simone it will change her granddaughter's mind about continuing the family's legacy as courtesans. Do you believe Simone will change her mind after reading the journal? Why does Françoise feel betrayed when she discovers her mother's memoirs are addressed to Simone and not to her?
4. What does Mme Gabrielle gain from the process of revisiting her past? If she could live her life over again, do you think she would make the same choices? Mme Gabrielle describes herself as "Jew and Gentile, and proud of her accomplishments" (21). Has delving into her past allowed her to reconnect with her Jewish heritage?
5. How would you describe Simone before she meets Cyrus? How about when she returns to Château Gabrielle after his death? From what you know about the time she spent in Persia, do you think she would have been happy living there, a place where she was met with hostility because of her Jewish heritage and her French nationality?
6. "One of a rare breed of women who were fortunate to boast a perfect balance of the preeminent male and female attributes, [Mme Gabrielle] utilized these assets to her advantage" (35). What are these assets? Using Mme Gabrielle's encounter with the Shah as an example, how do they work to her advantage as a courtesan and also as a businesswoman?
7. How do Simone's ideas about love and marriage differ from those of her mother? How have Françoise's experiences never knowing the identity of her father, Simone's father leaving her for another woman shaped her views of love and marriage? Does Simone's own experience of finding and losing love make her more understanding of her mother?
8. When Simone makes love with Cyrus at the lake, they are "unaware of Mme Gabrielle who observed them from the clover hill, rejoicing that her granddaughter would belong to her, at last" (152). Why does Mme Gabrielle believe this encounter with Cyrus will change Simone's mind about joining the family profession? What is your opinion of how she attempts to persuade Simone to become a courtesan? Why is it so important to Mme Gabrielle?
9. Discuss Alphonse and Mme Gabrielle's first encounter, which she recounts in her journal. What has made him stay with her for thirty years in such an unconventional relationship? Why do you think Mme Gabrielle has finally chosen to reveal the truth about Alphonse's identity?
10. How does Dora Levy Mossanen evoke the five senses smell, touch, taste, sound, and sight to enrich the story? Françoise tells Simone, "Memory and fragrance are intertwined in our emotional brain. Men will miss you when you leave your perfume behind" (68). How does scent, in particular, play an essential role in the story?
11. Simone refutes the profession of her mother and grandmother, and yet she uses the very same skills of seduction for a different purpose revenge. Does the insight Simone gains alter her opinion about the life of a courtesan?
12. On her quest to uncover the circumstances of Cyrus's death, Simone seeks information from Monsieur Rouge, Monsieur Amir, and Monsieur Jean Paul Dubois. What do you think of her methods for obtaining the information she seeks? What drives her to continue the mission even at the risk of her own life?
13. Courtesan weaves together facets of different cultures and religions. What are the most distinct differences between Simone's life in France and in Persia? Why does Mehrdad tell Simone, "The bullet that pierced Cyrus's heart was laced with hatred of the Jew" (311)? In what other instances do religious differences play out in the story?
14. When Mehrdad comes to Château Gabrielle, Simone at first believes it is Cyrus. What is the significance of Mehrdad's resembling Cyrus so closely in appearance and mannerisms? Why has he come to Château Gabrielle, and what does he want from Simone?
15. Discuss the novel's ending. What is your interpretation of Simone laying down her revolver? What do you think Simone decides to do return to Persia with Mehrdad, remain at Château Gabrielle, or something else entirely? Do you see her fulfilling her grandmother's wishes and becoming a courtesan? Ultimately, do Mme Gabrielle, Françoise, and Simone each find what they are looking for?