Lifting the veil over Malik Khanum's life
By Susan Hajiani
July 29, 2003
When your heart becomes the grave of your secret,
That desire of yours will be gained more quickly,
The Prophet said that anyone
Who keeps secret his inmost thought,
Will soon attain the object of his desire,
When seeds are buried in the earth,
Their inward secrets become the flourishing garden.
-- Rumi, Mathnawi I 175-177
I flew into Tehran in June 1968 with my Iranian
husband Mikail and infant son Jahan. I only planned to stay in Iran a couple
of years, soaking up the culture
and the exotic nature of the place and escaping my distress with events in
America - the Vietnam war and the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin
The reassuring rituals of an ancient but puzzling land soon replaced the
turmoil, which had been a constant companion through my college
One by one, I met all the relatives of the extended
Hajiani, Aroozi, and Riahi families in a month long procession
of tea ceremonies, invitations,
I learned the intricate art of ta'roof in which the hostess repeatedly
offers rounds of tea, sweets, nuts and fruit to all her guests. I learned
to decline politely twice, only accepting on the third round and
behind on the plate anything I did not really want. I learned to dance
to Persian music and tell stories with the help of my husband translating.
I also learned
to shop daily and set up housekeeping in a city apartment where many of
the conveniences of home in America were nowhere to be found.
Nevertheless, for me, life in Iran retained a storybook
quality. Tales of genies, flying carpets, 1001 nights seemed entirely
I was experiencing
From my doorstep, I could watch Mercedes Benz sedans
as well as camels passing by. I could buy fresh produce at the
local supermarket or from
cheerful Ali, who rang my bell weekly, with his produce and scales
loaded on a patient
donkey. Early in the spring, Ali arrived with tiny, perfect red strawberries
plucked from the mountainside. He recalled how much I had enjoyed them
last year, thus he had brought them directly to me, "Madam". It was
much more personal than shopping in a supermarket. I enjoyed sitting
on the stoop with
my children, chatting with passersby. Some asked for water; others
wanted to know the time. Still others were selling smoked beets,
roasted corn, or marinated
walnuts from their pushcarts.
Once a month, a Sufi, dressed in long robes and
turban, marched down our street at night, singing a strange and
plaintive song. We would
the house to
get a few coins for him. It was tricky bestowing the coins in his
hand because he had a rigid pace that was punctuated by a very
Since I couldn't
understand the verse he was singing, I never knew when it would end
or when he would stop. I often had to rush behind him for several
paces before he came
his next pause.
Within the family, there were contrasts too. "Baba"
Ismail, my father-in-law, was an ebullient, emotional, and generous
Originally from Baku,
Azerbaijan, he had immigrated to Iran after the Russian revolution.
Though nominally Moslem, he was very open minded about social customs
and women. He
that I worked and interested in what I had to say.
I did not realize
how emotional he was until one day he came to visit us. He was
standing at the door holding
the entire stock of balloons from a vendor he had met on the
walk over. After presenting the balloons to me, he began to cry
talk about leaving Russia
over 35 years ago. His sense of loss was very keen, and I struggled
to find a few words of comfort despite my ignorance of revolutions
and exile. But he
to weep until I offered him some tea and cake. After a while
he cheered up and began to play with my son and the balloons.
My mother-in-law, Zahra, known to everyone as Malik
Khanum, was much more difficult to know. She had an extremely hard
was nearly two years
before she called me by name directly. At the time, I thought perhaps
she did not care for Americans or was upset by the fact that her
son had married
person. However, this opinion of mine did not match her behavior:
she cooked beautiful meals for us and served them graciously. She
and loved them unconditionally. I had no idea what she was thinking
of me and this
bothered me considerably. She was not judgmental in any way and
only began to know her by watching carefully. It was a little like
in the mirror,
an indirect process where you learn by reflected observation and
always wonder how real that image is.
There was both a simplicity and complexity in the
most innocent objects and rituals, which initially bonded me to
my new family
to daily life was the central preoccupation with lunch -- a feast,
a ceremony, a get-together and the hinge of family interaction.
life proceeds against the backdrop of lunch and its elaborate preparations.
One day I dropped off my children at Baba and Malik
Khanum's so I could run some errands.
Malik was in the kitchen down the hall from the
sitting room frying garlic to garnish the noodle soup. The fragrance
of the garlic
wafted into the
courtyard where Sedigh the nanny, was squatting by the reflecting
pool, washing clothes
by hand and talking about her husband "the general" who had left
her to raise a daughter by herself. It struck me as a sad story
and I was expecting some tears or bitterness but Sedigh was laughing
and enjoying the story. If
she was bitter, there was no sign of it. She wrapped her chador (long
her middle with her gnarled hands and her hennaed hair slipped
loose from her scarf. Jahan and Keyvan, my two sons, were playing
the ducks that had
been bought for a lunch of fesenjan (duck and walnut stew) in the
not too distant future. Baba Ismail was having his mid morning
snack after working out a business
deal on the phone.
It was another regular day at 38 Khiaban-e-Dey off
the Maidan-e-Kakh in
a pleasant, French-style neighborhood of Tehran. But Saltanat,
the servant girl was not happy. She had been upstairs to feed and
water the caged parrots on the
balcony. She had been to the corner store, fetching things for
lunch, and now the ducks were honking in fright and being chased
around by Malik's two
grandsons from the American mother. When Malik called through the
door for her to rescue the ducks from their torment. Saltanat wailed,
it with these two children. What kind of children are they? I wish
they'd go home."
In a flash, in spite of her age and her giveh (loose
slippers), Malik had sprung into the courtyard, and to everyone's
on the cheek. "Hush up and never talk like that again in my house,"
she said. Malik soon regained her usual composure but the shock
display of temper from her had the house in a state of awe several
hours later when I returned from shopping to take the children
The story was related to me by Sedigh, by Baba Ismail,
by my sister-in-law Vera, and my two nephews. Saltanat was still
sulking and not feeling
like attending to her duties. For a few seconds, I thought how
was. I could not
recall ever seeing Malik express anger. She was always the peacemaker
and her favorite mantra for every conflict was "Bashe,
it be) or "Ayb na daray" (It doesn't matter). Malik
made no comment on the day's unusual event and instead served us
all a small glass
from the samovar. The tea, sweetened with lumps of cube sugar,
was comforting and we soon forgot the little drama that had so
everyone earlier. Besides,
Malik had to decide when to butcher the ducks and to plan tomorrow's
Malik loved her children and her children's children. But her love
for her daughter Vera was as intricate as the hand-knotted Isfahan
on the floor. It also involved hours of labor and care. Malik was
cook, governess, and
chief administrator at Vera's household. She had a house of her
own across town but had tired of traveling to Vera's by taxi with
of rice and
stew. By the time I arrived in Tehran, Malik and Baba had more
or less moved into the lower floor of Vera's three-story house
attend to the needs of the household.
Vera and her husband had
the middle floor and tended to sleep in late in the mornings
because he operated
a dinner club
and worked late hours. Vera, not having much to do since her
mother took such good care of everything, spent her afternoons
cards, and visiting her tailor or hairdresser. The marriage was
going well, but this was politely overlooked. Vera's older boy
called his grandmother
Maman and his mother YahYah. Her younger boy was attended to
by Sedigh the
As a single child who had lost my own mother at
an early age, I marveled at the devotion Malik showed her daughter.
Vera was extremely
great attention with her charismatic personality. She spoke four
been educated at Tehran's French school, Jean d'Arc, and dressed
in the latest fashions from Paris and Rome.
I sometimes secretly
would be a little more tender with me but it was not her nature
doing so much for me; it was unseemly for me to feel slighted.
I was, after all, the daughter-in-law, and a strange one at that
too, first as a teacher, then at the newspaper as an editor.
This made me even more foreign.
Once in a while though she would show a glimpse
of oblique approval. After seeing a tailored dress that I had made
myself, Malik went
to her bedroom
a piece of beautiful fine wool that she had been hoarding for many
years. She said I could have it to sew another dress. I was touched
by her shy
offering and tried hard to create something exceptional. But when
I modeled my creation
for her, she only said, "The first one was better."
Malik would never discipline the children. Her heart
would melt at the sight of an ice cream vendor when she was out
conversations with Malik about how this practice would spoil their
appetite for a good meal
and also result in serious cavities before I realized nothing would
change her soft but very stubborn heart. "Bashe, bashe," she would
repeat and smile. And, of course, the children loved her for it.
After living in Iran for a few years, I was invited
to a sofreh by two of Mikail's
Russian aunts. I was excited to be on the guest list but had no
idea what a sofreh was or how I should behave. I was speaking some
by this time and could
manage small conversation. Many of the relatives also knew English
so I was not frightened by the social nature of the event but by
sofreh is a Moslem Iranian custom that has no counterpart in America
that I know of. It is meant to acknowledge an act of favor from
God and share the beneficence
with one's friends and relatives. One can also make a wish to God
at this time.
Vera encouraged me to get a scarf and instructed
me on how to wear it properly to hide my long blond hair and how
to behave. "Just
sit quietly while the mullah reads from the Koran and after that
will serve a lovely banquet," she
I was always curious to learn more about my strange
and mysterious adopted homeland. When we arrived at the aunt's
home, she had spread
a very large
tablecloth on the living room carpet. The furniture had been removed
from the room, and
the women seated themselves in a square at the edges of the cloth.
All the women except Vera and me were wearing long, black veils
dresses. It was
very somber while they waited for the mullah to arrive. He began
by speaking in Farsi and then reading verses in Arabic from the
Koran. The women
pulled their veils over their heads completely and began to weep
wail in response to the
The scarf I was wearing was not sufficiently large
enough for me to copy their behavior so I stared downward at the
The women were swaying
and crying with increasing fervor and grief. Vera slipped off
to another room, leaving me to observe this ritual without support.
I was beginning
to feel quite
sad; after about half an hour, the mullah left , and the wailing
ceased abruptly. A sumptuous feast of Persian dishes was speedily
on the carpet and everyone
began to eat. I felt much better as I sampled all the delicious
food. On the way home I asked Vera why Malik had not come with
never will go to sofreh," Vera replied but did not explain further.
I continued to struggle with my relationship with
Malik Khanum. It would have been easy to blame the language barrier
as we tried
there was something more, a kind of distance that left me feeling
off balance, excluded while politely attended to. Although it did
it added to my grief. I had lost my own mother to cancer when I
was only 13 and
had ever since been unknowingly searching for that kind of approval
that only a mother can give.
Several years passed and our relationship
stayed on a plateau of reserved politeness while events in Iran
became ever more ominous.
tension between the
Shah and the mullahs of the country was increasing. I began to
notice more and more women wearing the veil when I went out to
do my shopping.
shopkeepers seemed to be less friendly.
The spring of 1978 was
long and hot. Tehran began
experiencing power outages that plunged the entire city of 5
million into chaotic darkness at frequent but unpredictable times.
the work of opponents of the Shah's regime. No one knew for sure
due to strict censorship of the press, but rumors flew. One of
to the possible
return to Iran of the Ayatollah Khomeini, a conservative spiritual
leader who had been exiled to France by the Shah. He had become
a beacon or
the excesses and corruptions of the Shah's regime, especially
among younger Iranians.
I started talking with my husband about returning
to America. We finally agreed that I would take the children back
He would follow
the house. It was a very difficult and wrenching decision, especially
since my heart knew I would never return though he, optimistic
like his mother,
the political turmoil would soon blow over. He agreed that he would
inform his family about the decision but kept postponing it.
began packing, got my papers in order, and bought airline tickets.
Then I went to lunch at Malik Khanum's place. Again, it was a beautiful
of lamb and rice, salads, yogurt and cucumbers. As I nervously
ate, I was wondering how
I could tell Malik Khanum that I would be leaving. I waited until
she served me my tea with her usual grace and blurted it out.
I have decided to leave Iran soon," I said.
She looked at me carefully
and said in measured tones, "You should stay here."
"Why?" I said, "The situation is scary. I'm no longer
comfortable living here - things are changing now, and it's not
the same as
before. I worry about our safety. "
Again, that level look, "You
should stay here for your husband and for your children," she said
with a finality supported by centuries
tradition on a woman's role.
"I am taking the children with me," I said in anguish.
The words seemed rough and cruel, unadorned by finesse needed to
but I could think of nothing better. Malik turned abruptly and
went back to the kitchen.
I collected the children, got in the car and drove home with a
stunning feeling of inadequacy in my mind and heart. In a few days,
our goodbyes, passed
under a Koran for good luck, and flew away from the oncoming revolution,
leaving behind ten years of bittersweet memories and two grieving
We never saw Malik Khanum or Baba Ismail again.
Baba became ill, and Malik was occupied taking care of him and
unable to visit us.
We continued to feel the tensions between Iran and
America. Each night we would turn on the TV to see how things were
going in Iran
men shaking their fists and carrying posters of "Death to the Great
Satan" outside the American Embassy where 52 American hostages
were being held. It was nothing
like our memories of Iran. The children became shy about being
Iranian and stopped speaking Farsi together in public. We continued
some holidays. Little by little, our Iranian life faded into the
past and was replaced by the busy-ness of a working family with
a complicated schedule of
appointments and activities.
After Baba passed away, Malik wanted to visit her
grandsons but was unable to get a visa due to the continuing strained
countries. We then tried to arrange a visa from Germany. My husband
flew to Frankfurt
meet her but the consulate there was no more helpful. They suggested
she go live in Turkey and wait to get a visa there. Malik returned,
dispirited, to Iran as
she had no means to live in Turkey by herself. Shortly thereafter
she had cancer. She went to Germany a second time for medical care
but the German doctors said it was far too late to treat her. She
to Iran with no immediate family at her side.
To help the children
honor the grandmother who had given them so much, I arranged
a small display of pictures, candles,
buffet. But the response
from my family was as reserved as Malik Khanum herself. She had
given them so much, it seemed to be absorbed into their being,
no trace of
herself behind. I persisted and asked for stories. Please tell
me about her; what is your favorite memory?
My older son thought a long time and finally recalled
how grandma had walked him all the way to the hospital after he
fell and cut
My younger son could clearly remember how she made plates of a
sweet, halvah, on the Moslem holiday, Ashura. He described in detail
they lit a bonfire
in the courtyard and cooked the vat of halvah to perfection, carefully
mixing the oil, flour and spices. He recalled how grandma pinched
a design on the
edges of the halvah after it was poured onto dinner plates. But
that's all they could share about grandma. There seemed to be an
veil shrouding Malik
Khanum's memory in death that resembled the veil she had worn in
I decided not to disturb her memory by any further
probes to my husband and sons. Vera was very angry about our failure
and had stopped
with us. Her boys, our nephews, respected their mother's anger.
We were a family estranged, and I knew this would have broken Malik's
Baba's too. I felt very guilty when I remembered the scenes of
departure from Iran. The odd silences around her passing were gradually
by the sounds of our everyday life. By this time the boys were
in high school and
to be completely Americanized. My husband was engrossed in his
architecture practice and rarely spoke of Iran. But I continued
to carry a sense
of longing related
to my Iranian experience. It was always with me perhaps because
Iran had changed me, whereas they had absorbed Iran like air and
From time to time I thought about my mother-in-law,
trying to integrate her cool and warm sides. Then one day about
died we got a letter
from Vera, written in Farsi, so my husband read it. I was waiting
for the translation as usual but he seemed at a loss to proceed.
then he started
I found out from my mother's relative, Ahmad Agha,
that Mother was previously married and gave birth to two daughters
from that marriage.
took me to visit them in Tehran after Mother's funeral. I was
able to establish
a close bond with them right away. Our older sister, Parvin,
is 62 and has four children – two sons who are married
and two daughters, one of whom is married. Parvin looks very
much like mother and she has three grandchildren.
sister is named Vida. She is 58, single, and works for the oil
company. All of them are living comfortably.
I feel so badly for our shy and quiet mother that
she kept this all to herself and never shared her previous life
with any of
these secrets have
gone with her to the grave. But I did learn that the name of
her first husband was
Hassan A. and that the families on both sides knew but managed
to keep us in the dark for over 50 years. Well, this was the
I was overcome by a sense
of understanding and regret as the veil over Malik Khanum's life
lifted. I looked anew at her
sacrifices, her proud love scarred by wounds, her simplicity
and her reticence. I
at facile assumptions I had made about her life and actions as
a Persian woman and I looked in awe at her strength in keeping
grief in silence
For surely, she had defeated the oppressive social
climate of Iran in the 1930s where a woman could be divorced by
phrase "I divorce you"; where women were considered spinsters
by the age of 25 and only virgins were suitable brides. Malik
her second family through silence about her first. In doing
so, she lost all contact with
her first two daughters. And now I understood how fiercely
she had struggled to protect and keep us. At last, I felt a connection
Malik. She, who had
lost two daughters, gave me the gift of her strength that I
not been able to receive
from my own mother.
Susan Hajiani lived in Tehran from 1968 to
1978 where she worked as a English teacher and newspaper
editor while raising her family. She is now
a social worker in Minneapolis.
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