Photos by Zahra Irani-Sefat
July 23, 1998
My mother was ashamed of my grandmother's secret, but more than this, she was furious that I'd found out and extremely worried I might divulge it to strangers. For her, when to tell the truth and when to lie sometimes had little to do with what was the truth and what was a lie, but honor had a place in everything. I had a loose tongue and a well-documented disregard for honor.
She was right to suspect me. But let me start my story this way. With a memory. It is a late afternoon in Tehran and I am three years old. We are alone in her flat and my grandmother, my Aziz, has lain me on her tiny bed that smells of her. An air conditioner is humming somewhere in the room. She is kneeling beside me on the floor, leaning towards me so that her face is very close to mine, and she's spinning a tale that has me squealing in sweetest delight.
I have only a few memories of Iran left -- faces, a street, a visceral memory of Tehran's summer heat -- but just this one scene has stayed whole and vivid.
It must have been soon afterwards that my parents and I left for America. Running to greet her at the airport, I'd bury my face in the soft folds of her neck (even as a young girl I was taller than my grandmother) and, breathing in the scent of her, I'd cry out, "You still smell like Iran!"
In my memories, I always picture her leaving, and she did always leave us. As much as my mother pleaded with her, it was no use at all to try to convince her to stay. The country of her birth was the only country my grandmother would ever accept as her home.
But during her handful of visits to the States, my Iranian grandmother left me a legacy, her stories. Lying side by side in my bed in America, over the years my grandmother told me dozens of fantastical tales about beautiful Persian princesses, who, miracle of miracles, and coincidence of coincidences, were named Yassaman, too!
Her tales regularly featured nasty, menacing old ogres, mythical journeys by sea and by air, terrifying abductions, dazzling treasures, romances and (always, always) the loveliest of wedding celebrations. She would weave poems, limericks, and songs into her narratives. Just one story could last well over an hour.
Instead of putting me to sleep, her late night epics would often stir me into a terrible restlessness, and telling stories transformed her into a mischievous little girl, a blushing, giggling, wide-eyed little girl. When she finished for the night (which was always over my feverish requests for more, more, more!), we would sometimes steal into the kitchen like a pair of naughty siblings and eat watermelon or sweets together in the dark.
In my grandmother's absences my love of oral storytelling eventually transmuted itself into a love of literature. I was a misfit child, unusually quiet but given to precocious outbursts, wary of other children and only really happy when I was reading a book. I read and read with no seeming end to my curiosities.
In her desperation, my mother would frequently have to sweep a book right from under my nose just to get my attention. And the books weren't making me any smarter, she'd complain, they were just sharpening my wicked tongue! "Don't use those big silly English words with me!" she'd cry. These recriminations notwithstanding, the fact that the books I grew up reading were in English rather than Persian was due to a strange twist of fate (or history, if you will).
But my love for literature I trace back to my grandmother's gift for storytelling and to that late summer afternoon in her Tehran apartment that happens also be my one real memory of Iran. And here is the secret I aim to tell: My grandmother planted a love of stories in me, and this grew into another love that she herself could never possibly claim.
But I did not know this until the one day during my her most recent visit when I took my grandmother to visit a nearby seaside town. I'd grown very tall, and I dwarfed her tiny figure as we ambled down the sidewalk together. I remember I had just discovered that Berkeley had a very large collection of Iranian books, and, thinking she would be thrilled to fill her days here with novels in her own language, I excitedly asked what she would like me to bring for her when I next went to the library. But she seemed taken aback and looked quickly away from me.
"Aziz joon!" I cried, stopping so that I could turn to face her. "It's really no trouble. I can bring you any book you like. You know it would only make me happy!" I had been picturing us bending over these books together, my grandmother correcting my enfeebled Persian as I read to her.
"Oh, well," she stammered. "It isn't that. . .I just. . .I just have too much to do." Her face looked horribly pained, and though I thought her reaction was very strange, I somehow knew not to press her on the subject.
Later that same day, when Aziz was napping in the next room, I cornered my mother in the kitchen where she was chopping sabzi (herbs). I told her about my offer and Aziz's refusal.
"Maman, why wouldn't she want to read books?"
My mother's face fixed into a frown, and without looking up from her work, she said quietly, "Your grandmother cannot read. She is illiterate."
She said this in English -- I suppose so that Aziz would not understand if she were awake and within earshot -- but it was rare for my mother to speak English with me, and at this moment the words sounded especially strange. Even through my stupor I could see my mother was immediately sorry she'd let the truth slip out. She was eyeing me carefully, knowing I would not so quickly and easily lay the subject to rest.
My mind raced back to the image of the hundreds of crinkled envelopes that had come from Iran over the years. I could picture exactly the wobbly English lettering on these envelopes and also the precise, flowing Persian script on the thin sheets of stationery they contained.
"But Maman! What about all the letters she's written us? Weren't they hers?"
She sighed. "Your cousin Forugh always wrote those for her."
I was quiet, slowly comprehending, imagining my grandmother sitting in a room with her adult niece, dictating letters for us in her soft, trembling voice. All at once, my disbelief gave over to anger. "Why didn't you tell me before?" I demanded.
But my mother would say nothing more. Now, I grasped the historical context from the start. I knew that when my grandmother was a small child, most of the world's population had been illiterate or just barely literate and an Iran in the first throes of modernization had been no exception. I knew that illiteracy, especially among women, was a quite common story in many Iranian families of that era.
What stunned me were the years of shame and secrecy surrounding my grandmother's illiteracy and that the shame and secrecy had managed to followed us all the way to this country. Why hadn't my mother ever trusted me with the truth?
I can remember her unyielding pride in her heritage and frequent exhortations that I ought never to forget that we were Iranian and therefore part of a great tradition of poets and kings and mystics. My mother had been exceedingly well-versed in Iran's past glories and had always been eager to school me in them. Yet she had sheltered me from the darker parts of her family's history, and of Iran's history, too.
I wonder if my mother's stories would have been as selective had we stayed in Iran. I doubt it very much. She worried about losing me to the alien culture that had threatened to claim me from the very first day we arrived here in America. Given the tremendous insensitivity and animosity that America could teach me to feel towards my native culture, I think she felt personally responsible for inculcating a different story about Iran in me. Fear, as much as her pride, explained her reluctance to tell me whole truths.
Ironically, it is as a consequence of my mother's silences that I have developed a compulsion to know the secrets -- not as a way of compromising or challenging her other lessons, but as a way of fleshing out a fuller version of the past. It wasn't that these darker histories were more true or more important than what my mother chose to tell me (though they were both true and important), but simply that I needed to mark their place, too, along the ways we'd come.
My mother was shrewd, and she knew this about me. I had more than once demonstrated flashes of that shameful and perverse American habit of airing the most intimate family secrets. She also knew that to me writing and reading were not just simply practical skills; she'd for years born witness to my comical tirades on the exalted importance of self-expression. She could predict exactly the indignation her daughter would feel towards a family that would educate its sons (as my grandmother's brothers had, in fact, been educated), but leave its daughter without the barest literacy with which to make her way through life.
But what a life it now seemed to me! The facts I'd heard many times: Widowed at thirty, my grandmother raised two adolescent children alone, and for over thirty years after her husband's death had supported herself by setting up her own business, a small beauty parlor in her Tehran apartment.
Even though I have never told her, once I learned her secret I would always read the facts of my grandmother's life differently. Her accomplishments meant infinitely more to me, knowing as I now did that she had taken herself this far without a scrap of the formal education I'd blithely assumed was my right.
I'll occasionally wonder how much further she could have taken herself if her family had judged her worthy or at least in need of an education, if she'd just been born in a different time, if she'd had but a fraction of the advantages I've enjoyed. . . It's a maddening line of thought. Maddening, too, was my mother's secrecy. But her silences have always spoken to me, and they have a place, too, in my grandmother's story and the stories I tell.