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

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

by Azar Nafisi


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812973907
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/02/2010
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 259,084
Product dimensions: 5.28(w) x 8.02(h) x 0.80(d)

About 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.


Potomac, Maryland

Place of Birth:

Tehran, Iran


M.A., Ph.D., Oklahoma University, 1979

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 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.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xi

Prologue xv

Part 1 Family Fictions

Chapter 1 Saifi 3

Chapter 2 Rotten Genes 11

Chapter 3 Learning to Lie 22

Chapter 4 Coffee Hour 33

Chapter 5 Family Ties 43

Chapter 6 The Holy Man 49

Chapter 7 A Death in the Family 58

Part 2 Lessons and Learning

Chapter 8 Leaving Home 67

Chapter 9 Rudabeh's Story 76

Chapter 10 At Scotforth House 87

Chapter 11 Politics and Intrigue 95

Chapter 12 Mayor of Tehran 104

Chapter 13 Rehearsal for a Revolution 115

Part 3 My Father's Jail

Chapter 14 A Common Criminal 131

Chapter 15 The Prison Diaries 138

Chapter 16 A Career Woman 146

Chapter 17 A Suitable Match 157

Chapter 18 Women Like That! 168

Chapter 19 Married Life 179

Part 4 Revolts and Revolution

Chapter 20 A Happy Family 197

Chapter 21 Demonstrations 201

Chapter 22 Revolution 209

Chapter 23 The Other Other Woman 223

Chapter 24 When Home Is Not Home Anymore 227

Chapter 25 Reading and Resistance 238

Chapter 26 Broken Dreams 246

Chapter 27 Father's Departure 254

Chapter 28 The Goddess of Bad News 273

Chapter 29 Facing the World 287

Chapter 30 The Last Dance 304

Chapter 31 The Perils of Love 309

Acknowledgments 315

Suggested Reading List 319

Moments in Twentieth-Century Iranian History 321

Glossary 327

Reading Group Guide

1. What are Nafisi’s “things I’ve been silent about”? Are there things you have been silent about, and why? 

2. In this memoir, Nafisi candidly describes the positive and the negative aspects of her childhood relationship with both her father and her mother. Looking back, which parent ultimately had the most influence on the author’s life? How did the relationships change and develop over time? In what ways do you feel that they were healthy or unhealthy, and why? 

3. In many ways the most powerful relationship in the book is the mother- daughter relationship between the author and her own mother, and the struggles they face in adjusting to each other’s personality and expectations, both personal and cultural. Do you think this tension came from the two women’s similarities or differences? Do you see any parallels to relationships within your own family? 

4. Nafisi writes that “as a family we were fond of telling stories.” Describe the different kinds of stories her father and mother embraced. How were these “fictions” similar or different, and what purpose did they serve? In what ways do you see the author continuing this family habit, or in what ways do you see her breaking from it? 

5. Talk about the theme of silence in the book. Is silence either always a bad choice or always a good one? How does it relate to personal and cultural repression? Do you consider silence a freedom or a constraint? 

6. Nafisi talks about the personal becoming the political. Name three examples of this theme from the book, and discuss the implications of the intersection of public and private in each case. 

7. In the Prologue, Nafisi writes, “Approval! My parents taught me how deadly this desire could be.” What do you think she means by this? Do you agree that the longing for approval can be dangerous, and if so, in what ways? 

8. Nafisi describes the different social, cultural, and religious atmospheres in Iran that shaped the experiences of four generations of women in her family. How were Azar’s grandmother’s experiences similar or different from her daughter Negar’s? What about Azar and her mother? Discuss the ways in which each woman’s experience may have shaped her personality and approach to life. Do you see historical comparisons to women’s experiences in your own family? 

9. Aunt Mina frequently uses the phrase “Another intelligent woman gone to waste.” What does it mean for these women to have “gone to waste”? Can you list five women in Things I’ve Been Silent About who fall into this category? Was there anything, in your opinion, that they could have done to prevent themselves from going “to waste”? Are there public figures, or women in your own life, who might also fit this description? How are their experiences similar to or different from those of the Iranian women in the book? 

10. The stories of the Shahnameh play a large role in this memoir. Who are the Persian literary heroines with whom Nafisi identifies most closely, and why? What relevance do these fictional women have to her own life and to the lives of the women around her? 

11. “My father used to say half jokingly that his years in jail were his most fruitful.” How did those four years in jail affect the arc of Father’s life, and life for the whole Nafisi family? Metaphorically, what other jails are there in the book, and what are the effects on the lives of those trapped inside them? Father found a way to flourish artistically and intellectually during his incarceration. Could it be argued that this kind of confinement is actually beneficial, in some ways, for the development of personality and ideas? Why or why not? 

12. Nafisi says her mother “knew my father would be unfaithful to her long before he even considered it.” Are there conditions that justify infidelity, do you think, or is it always indefensible? Would you consider marriage without love as a form of infidelity? 

13. When parents divorce, the children are always deeply affected; in what ways did the tension between Nafisi’s parents influence her experience and development? How different do you think her life experience might have been had her parents remained together? 

14. Discuss the ways in which places—the different houses, cities, and countries in which Nafisi lives over the course of the book—affect Nafisi’s perception of herself, her family, and Iranian politics and culture. 

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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.