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 Luther King. The reassuring rituals of an ancient but puzzling land soon replaced the turmoil, which had been a constant companion through my college years.
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, and dinners. 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 discreetly leaving 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 credible alongside what I was experiencing every day.
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 our vendor, 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 run in 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 brief pause. 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 to his next pause.
Within the family, there were contrasts too. “Baba” Ismail, my father-in-law, was an ebullient, emotional, and generous old gentleman. 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 was pleased 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 and 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 continued 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 time acknowledging me. It 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 a foreign person. However, this opinion of mine did not match her behavior: she cooked beautiful meals for us and served them graciously. She adored my children 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 I only began to know her by watching carefully. It was a little like looking 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 and ancient/modern Persia. Paramount to daily life was the central preoccupation with lunch — a feast, a ceremony, a get-together and the hinge of family interaction. The drama of Iranian 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 veil) around her middle with her gnarled hands and her hennaed hair slipped loose from her scarf. Jahan and Keyvan, my two sons, were playing with 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, “I've had 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 utter amazement, slapped Saltanat 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 of this unprecedented 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 home.
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 strange this was. I could not recall ever seeing Malik express anger. She was always the peacemaker and her favorite mantra for every conflict was “Bashe, bashe” (let 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 of tea from the samovar. The tea, sweetened with lumps of cube sugar, was comforting and we soon forgot the little drama that had so upset everyone earlier. Besides, Malik had to decide when to butcher the ducks and to plan tomorrow's lunch.
Malik loved her children and her children's children. But her love for her daughter Vera was as intricate as the hand-knotted Isfahan carpets 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 pots 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 to be better able to 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 chatting with friends, playing cards, and visiting her tailor or hairdresser. The marriage was not 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 nanny.
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 beautiful and attracted great attention with her charismatic personality. She spoke four languages, had been educated at Tehran's French school, Jean d'Arc, and dressed in the latest fashions from Paris and Rome.
I sometimes secretly wished that Malik would be a little more tender with me but it was not her nature to be emotional. She was 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 from a far-off place. I was working 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 and retrieved 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 shopping with them. I had several 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 Farsi 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 its religious aspect. The 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 they will serve a lovely banquet,” she admonished me.
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 over black 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 and wail in response to the verses.
The scarf I was wearing was not sufficiently large enough for me to copy their behavior so I stared downward at the paisley cloth. 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 laid out 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 us. “She 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 to share our thoughts. But there was something more, a kind of distance that left me feeling off balance, excluded while politely attended to. Although it did not dominate my life, 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. Political 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. Some 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. These outages were attributed to 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 them related 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 resistance to 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 to Minnesota. He would follow after selling 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, said that the political turmoil would soon blow over. He agreed that he would inform his family about the decision but kept postponing it.
I 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 lunch 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.
“Maman, 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 of Moslem 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 cover this sad event, 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, we said 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 grandparents.
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 , only to pictures of unshaven 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 to cook Persian food and observe 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 relations between the two countries. We then tried to arrange a visa from Germany. My husband flew to Frankfurt to 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 we learned 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 died a week after her return 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, and flowers on the 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, leaving no trace of the woman 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 his head while playing. My younger son could clearly remember how she made plates of a sweet, halvah, on the Moslem holiday, Ashura. He described in detail how 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 imaginary veil shrouding Malik Khanum's memory in death that resembled the veil she had worn in life.
I decided not to disturb her memory by any further probes to my husband and sons. Vera was very angry about our failure to secure the visa and had stopped communicating 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 heart and Baba's too. I felt very guilty when I remembered the scenes of my departure from Iran. The odd silences around her passing were gradually masked by the sounds of our everyday life. By this time the boys were in high school and appeared 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 water.
From time to time I thought about my mother-in-law, trying to integrate her cool and warm sides. Then one day about six months after she 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. A long pause and then he started reading:
I found out from my mother's relative, Ahmad Agha, that Mother was previously married and gave birth to two daughters from that marriage. Ahmad Agha 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. The other 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 us. All 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 story of our sisters…
I was overcome by a sense of understanding and regret as the veil over Malik Khanum's life lifted. I looked anew at her character and sacrifices, her proud love scarred by wounds, her simplicity and her reticence. I looked anew 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 her grief in silence for over 50 years.
For surely, she had defeated the oppressive social climate of Iran in the 1930s where a woman could be divorced by her husband with three repetitions of the phrase “I divorce you”; where women were considered spinsters by the age of 25 and only virgins were suitable brides. Malik created 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 to Malik. She, who had lost two daughters, gave me the gift of her strength that I had 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.