From Nahid Rachlin's latest book, “Persian Girls” (2006 Tarcher/Penguin). Rachlin, born in Iran, came to the United States to attend college and stayed on. She has been writing and publishing novels and short stories, in English. See NahidRachlin.com.
Weeks went by and I didn’t get any letters from Maryam, even though I wrote to her weekly, sometimes daily. The only news I had about her was through bits and pieces I heard exchanged between Mohtaram and Father. Maryam’s depression wove like a dark thread through their conversation.
I was lying on my bed crying when Pari knocked on the door and came in.
“Come with me, I want to show you my room,” she said, putting her arm around me. I dried my eyes and followed her. Her room was between mine and Manijeh’s, along a row that included our brothers’ and parents’ bedrooms.
“I still remember when Aziz took you away,” she said. “I was almost five then but the memory stayed with me because I missed you. Poor Aunt Maryam to have lost you, but I’m happy to have gained you back.”
Pari opened an album with a red leather cover. “American movie stars,” she said. She pointed to each photograph and identified the star. “Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Marilyn Monroe, Kim Novak, Ava Gardner, Montgomery Clift.” Then she pointed to a poster on the wall and said, “That’s Judy Garland, she’s my favorite.”
Pari was wearing a white dress with yellow and red flowers on it, and a white ribbon held her hair back. It struck me that she looked like a younger version of the actress in the poster, with the same lively and expressive face.
“I want to be an actress, if they let me,” she said with excitement.
She began to tell me about some of the American movies she had seen. One was called A Place in the Sun; the photographs of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in her album were from that movie. “It’s mainly a doomed love triangle,” she said. “A man and woman from different classes fall in love. A simple, plain woman in love with him pays the price.”
I had never gone to a movie. The stories Pari was telling me were so entirely different from the passion plays Maryam took me to—dramatic reenactments of the battle that led to the murder of Prophet Mohammad’s grandson, Hussein. The last one I saw was in the yard of a boys’ school, not far from where we lived. For the occasion I had to wear the chador, otherwise I wouldn’t be allowed to go in. The same rule applied to mosques, even for girls as young as eight years old, as I was then. The production was elaborate, with live camels and a good imitation of a battlefield scene. They set fire to an effigy of Umar, made of tissue paper. They condemned Yazid, who had ordered the assassination of Hussein, as a drunkard who disobeyed the rules of Islam.
Through dialogue the actors told the story of how Mohammad became a prophet. Mohammad was born around 570 ad (no one knew the exact date). He was raised by his grandfather and uncle, as he had lost his parents at a young age. He frequently went to a cave in the desert, three miles from Mecca, and meditated. He was sleeping on Mount Hira when the angel Gabriel descended from heaven to give him a message. It contained only one word, “Recite.” Mohammad asked, “What shall I recite?” Gabriel said, “Recite in the name of the Lord who created all things, who created man from clots of blood.” Mohammad was thus filled with divine majesty. What was revealed to him was recorded and became the text of the holy Koran. The Koran was a direct revelation of God. When Mohammad informed his wife, Khadijeh, of his vision, she said, “You never utter a word that isn’t true.” Khadijeh was his first disciple and the first follower of Islam. Mohammad delivered public sermons on his faith. He converted people through his compassionate personality, charming demeanor, and force of divine virtue.
I was brought back to the present by Pari’s voice. “I will have to ask Mohtaram to take us to an American movie. Father wouldn’t want us to go alone.”
One afternoon Pari picked me up from school and took me to the Karoon River, which ran through the center of Ahvaz. We took our shoes off and walked barefoot on the moist sand. As we walked we could hear the singing of the Arab boys who owned and rented out rowboats. Their voices mingled with the flap flop sound of the waves. We passed mud and straw houses, where mostly poor fishermen lived, rows of palm trees so tall that they seemed to be touching the sky. The water was streaked with black from petroleum deposits, but the sky above was a cloudless deep blue. Shells were strewn on the sand. We picked up a few bright orange and pink ones, washed them, and waited for them to dry before putting them in our schoolbags.
After leaving the riverbank we went to the shop on Pahlavi Avenue that carried actors’ and actresses’ photographs, for Pari to buy more to add to her album.
“There isn’t really much in this town, just the river, the park, Pahlavi Avenue with its few shops and restaurants. There’s the nightclub, too, but that’s for men. They drink and watch belly dancers. Father goes and sometimes Cyrus and Parviz, too. Our brothers can stay out late, do what they want.”
“They’re never home.”
“I’m grateful to have one cinema that shows American movies with subtitles. The other one shows only Iranian action movies, poor imitations of American ones. I wish we didn’t always have to go to the movies with Mother.”
“In Tehran there are so many things to do. But truthfully I rarely left our neighborhood. Pari, I’m miserable. I miss Maryam terribly.”
She put her arm around my waist. “You can rely on me anytime. I know how sad it is for you and Maryam to be pulled apart like that.” She came to a stop by a shop. “Let me buy you something. I want to.” We went inside. The shop had a variety of accessories. She asked me what I wanted. I pointed to a tortoiseshell comb and she bought it for me.
Then she took me to Café du Park inside the Melli Park. We sat at a table in the shade of a tree and she treated me to lemonade and pastry.
We walked back through the cooler backstreets lined with brick houses and palm-filled gardens. It was dark by the time we got home.
“Pari, Nahid, don’t you know you should be home before dark?” Father said when we walked in. “This is the last time I want to see you returning home late.”
Father had recently resigned from his judgeship and was now in private practice as a lawyer. He did some of his work at home now, in his office, one of two salons in the house, both near the bedrooms. He emerged from his office periodically to supervise, to ask Mohtaram about domestic affairs, and to discipline us. He commanded and criticized.
“Mohtaram joon, when are you going to learn to run the household well?” he’d say. “Look at the way you shop. We either don’t have enough fruit or we have too much of it; the porch is full of pigeon droppings, and can’t you at least tell Ali to clean it? Or get Fatemeh to come and help out? You’re a grown woman now, not that little girl I married.” Then his tone would soften and he’d add, “Remember, on our wedding night I had to pick you off the ground and put you into the carriage transporting us to our hotel?”
“Ali, Ali, stop staring at pigeons and do your work.” Ali often sat in front of his room on the first floor and threw seeds on the ground for the pigeons.
“Nahid, it’s time for you to gain some weight.”
“Manijeh, don’t cling to your mother all the time.”
“Pari, how many times do I have to tell you not to wear that red dress? Go take it off right now.”
He didn’t criticize our brothers, at least not in front of us women.
In the evening Father was rarely home and that was a relief, except perhaps for Mohtaram, who complained, “He goes out to the nightclub with his friends and they drink arak and watch belly dancers and I have to stay behind.”
As Pari and I spent more time together, Manijeh, who had been cold to me since I arrived, became outright antagonistic. She was the only sibling who addressed Mohtaram as Maman; the others called her Mother, and I nothing. If I absolutely had to talk to her I went and stood in front of her until she looked at me and then I made my request. I never addressed her directly.
“Maman bought this for me,” Manijeh said, showing off her new dress as I passed her on the porch one afternoon. The dress was white linen with a pattern of pink and yellow cherries. She suddenly pulled my hair so hard that tears came to my eyes. “You aren’t really hurt,” she said. “I just touched your hair. And don’t go and complain to Maman; she won’t listen to you. No one wanted you, that’s why they gave you away.” She spoke in a slow, slurred way, her eyes narrowing in hatred.
“Spoiled brat!” I said. “I hate you.”
“I hate you, too,” she said and then called, “Maman, Maman, did you hear what she said?”
Mohtaram rushed to the terrace. “Apologize to your sister,” she said immediately.
“She started the fight,” I said.
“Liar,” Manijeh said.
“You’re the liar,” Pari said to her, joining us from her room.
“Pari, stop that,” Mohtaram said. “Ever since Nahid came here you’ve become nasty to Manijeh.”
“Nahid has nothing to do with it.”
“All of you be quiet,” Father called from his office.
Mohtaram went into her room and the rest of us dispersed to ours, our sanctuaries from always colliding on the porch. I often wondered what Father and Mohtaram talked about in the privacy of their bedroom. Did they have the same kind of conversations as they had in the open or did they say certain things to each other that they didn’t tell us? They appeared like a fortress to me because Mohtaram almost always took Father’s side, but what about when they were alone together? Mohtaram certainly was mysterious. For instance the way she went to Manijeh’s aid as soon as she asked for something. Pari had to keep repeating her requests before Mohtaram would pay any attention; and she ignored me.
“She looks like an angel,” Mohtaram praised Manijeh to whoever was nearby and, “Isn’t she becoming more and more beautiful?”
Of Pari she said, “She’s healthy-looking.”
But to me Pari was more beautiful than Manijeh. True, Manijeh, with her mass of wavy brown hair, light hazel eyes, and well-proportioned features, was pretty, but Pari’s face projected a vibrancy that Manijeh’s lacked. What did Mohtaram think of my appearance? I had no idea. She never said what she thought. I knew what Father thought: “If only she weren’t so thin.”
Father didn’t treat us sisters with particular favoritism.
Both Father and Mohtaram had respect for and encouraged their sons in whatever interests they had. Cyrus wanted to become an engineer and Parviz a doctor. Father and Mohtaram encouraged their desire to go to America to pursue their education.
Father believed his sons would go even further than he himself had—they had inherited his intellect and determination and had the additional advantage of his financial support. Father had put himself through school. He lost his father at an early age. His father had been mayor of a small town, and his mother mismanaged the money they inherited. Father worked to help support the family and went to school at the same time.
In spite of the fact that our brothers were so high up in the household hierarchy and had much more freedom than us sisters, Pari and I didn’t resent them. There was no competition between us as there was between the sisters. In fact we felt they added something to our lives by introducing us to certain things.
Sometimes Parviz put on records and, holding us sisters one at a time, led us through the tango, fox-trot, and a slower dance he said was popular in America. He played Ping-Pong with us at a table that Father had set up on the terrace mainly for him and Cyrus. He joked with me that he and Cyrus had found me inside a large watermelon on the Karoon River’s bank and brought me home to our parents. He praised me for reading a lot.
Cyrus was more reserved than Parviz but still he bought American items for us from a store near the oil drilling company, where he worked a few hours a week to learn certain skills in preparation for engineering school. They were ordinary household products such as Jell-O or Nescafé but Pari and I felt we were getting a piece of America, as we did from American movies.
Copyright (c) 2006 Tarcher/Penguin
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Nahid Rachlin, born in Iran, came to the United States to attend college and stayed on. She has been writing and publishing novels and short stories, in English. Among her publications are three novels, FOREIGNER (W.W. Norton), MARRIED TO A STRANGER (E.P.Dutton), THE HEART'S DESIRE (City Lights), and a collection of short stories, VEILS (City Lights).