Persian girls a memoir, p.1
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       Persian Girls: A Memoir, p.1

           Nahid Rachlin
Persian Girls: A Memoir

  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Copyright Page



  PART ONE - Persian Girls



















  PART TWO - America














  PART THREE - Land of Jewels












  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




  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA

  Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada

  (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) • Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL,

  England • Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd) •

  Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia

  (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd) • Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre,

  Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017, India • Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale,

  North Shore 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd) • Penguin Books

  (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

  Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  First trade paperback edition 2007

  Copyright © 2006 by Nahid Rachlin

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned,

  or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do

  not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation

  of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

  Published simultaneously in Canada

  All photographs are courtesy of the author.

  Most Tarcher/Penguin books are available at special quantity discounts for bulk purchase for sales promotions, premiums, fund-raising, and educational needs. Special books or book excerpts also can be created to fit specific needs. For details, write Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Special Markets, 375 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014.

  eISBN : 978-1-101-00770-9

  1. Rachlin, Nahid. 2. Iranian American authors--Biography. 3. Iranian American

  women--Biography. 4. Women--Iran--Social conditions--20th century.

  5. Iran--Politics and government--1941-1979. 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

  with love


  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.


  Persian Girls

  “You’re a perfect creation of G
od, 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.”

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