New York Times bestseller The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother’s Hidden Life is now available in paperback and will be published in thirteen countries.
Twenty years after she left Iran and knew she would never return, my mother sat alone in her house in California and talked the story of her life into a cassette recorder for me. The first tape arrived in springtime, a few weeks after No Rooz, the Iranian New Year. Eventually there would ten of them. The tapes always came marked up in Persian, and I couldn’t make out much more than my name when I opened the envelope and found the first one.
I’d left home for graduate school on the East Coast the year before. For days at a time no one, and certainly not my mother, knew where I was. I’d only go home for school holidays, just like my American friends, and often not even then.
The distance was a calculated one and more hard-won than I would have admitted to anyone in those days. As a child growing up in America I’d felt ashamed and confused by my mother’s foreign ways, and as a young woman I resented her for them. By my early twenties I’d left home and I had no interest in going back to what I thought of as “her” Iranian world.
That’s when she started sending me the tapes.
Most everything I know about my mother’s life in Iran—that she’d been married before she met my father, and also that she had been forced to give up a daughter as a condition of divorce—I learned from those tapes. When we came to America in 1979 she’d decided to tell no one here about these parts of her past. It was only by sitting alone in a room some thirty years later with a tape recorder that she could begin to tell me the truth.
I spent a week in my apartment, curled up on the futon, staring at the deep green New Jersey woods and listening to my mother’s tapes. I skipped classes and played them a second and even a third time. As I listened, the small, broken voice that I scarcely recognized as hers grew more familiar, for a time, than her “real” voice and more familiar, really, than even my own. Faced by the unfamiliar and heartbreaking candor of those tapes, I listened with an attention I’d rarely ever given her in real life.
Ten years later, I shaped those tapes into a book, The Good Daughter. The following excerpt is drawn from the first chapter, “Avenue Moniriyeh.”
When she named her ninth child, Pargol Amini indulged her own fancies at last. “Kobra,” she announced to the midwife and smiled from the bloodstained sheets. The “great one.”
As a girl Pargol and her family had left their village in the south, journeyed a hundred miles across Iran’s dusty, red-rimmed central plateau, and settled in the then-walled capital city of Tehran. Though she could not read and had never been to school, she could recite the Koran by heart from beginning to end in Arabic—God’s tongue—and she knew most of the hadith as well.
As Pargol, whose own name meant Flower Petal, made this bold pronouncement, the midwife looked up and considered her face.
Pargol Amini had black eyes and cheeks so fair and flushed they were like snow blotted with blood, as was said back then. In a room that had grown warm and damp with her exertions, she met the midwife’s gaze with a heavy stare.
“Kobra,” she said again, her voice softer but still sure. Even the newborn—a tiny raging bundle with a shock of black hair—was silent at that moment. The scent of cinnamon and cardamom rose from the kitchen and threaded its way through the house. The midwife took in a single sharp breath, bit her lip, and then resumed her task of dusting my great-grandmother’s loins with ashes.
The names of Pargol’s other eight children had been chosen under the watchful gaze of her father-in-law. Together they made up an unremarkable roster of Muslim names: Ali-Reza, Qasem, Fatemeh, Abolfazl, Mohammad, Ali-Ahmad, Khadijeh, Zahra. But by the time of this child’s birth, her father-in-law was dead and she, barely thirty, was already called old, and so on that day in 1921 the list of her children’s names settled finally on one born of her own imagination. Kobra.
Later it was commonly suspected that Pargol had lost her mind. Everyone feared for the child. But Kobra grew up to be the prettiest girl of the family, with the only pair of honey-colored eyes in the house. And with her beauty came a temperament so gentle that it dispelled every rumor about her mother’s willfulness and her own virtue.
Around her neck Kobra wore a black string from which a single, tiny blue eye hung and nestled itself in the hollow of her throat. The amulet was meant to protect her from the Evil Eye that had bedeviled Pargol since the day of Kobra’s birth—so fearful was she that jealous eyes would alight on her favorite child.
In Iran they call such children the pearls of their mothers’ fortunes.
The Amini’s house sat in an alleyway barely wide enough for two people to walk side-by-side and along the middle of it ran the joob. These were the open waterways that once traversed the entire length of Tehran, north to south. The joob water started out clear and cold at the foot of Damavand, the snow-capped volcano to the north of the capital, but by the time it reached Pargol’s house near the old southern gates of the city, the stream had become thickly clogged with refuse and dirt. Every day there were stories of boys who’d wandered far from home, fallen into live waterways somewhere in the city, and returned in damp clothes—something for which they’d surely be beaten since the joob was known to carry ringworm, typhoid, and diphtheria and they’d been warned many times not to play near it.
When women ventured into the streets at all, they did so always with the fear that their veils would dip into the waters of the joob and render them najes, or impure. But peddlers wended their way daily through the alleyways, their wooden carts piled high with onions, herbs, vegetables, and fruits. When their wheels ran into the joob or ruts and bumps—of which there were many then throughout the capital—the clatter of pots and pans stopped briefly, then started up again once the peddlers hauled their carts onto a smoother patch of road. Long-haired, cloaked dervishes were also known to traverse the city, hawking poems, soothsayings, and tonics as they went. It could be said that the streets belonged to the peddlers and dervishes and also to the beggars who lined the stone walls of all such neighborhoods.
The house itself was built of hand-hewn bricks, with honeysuckle and jasmine spilling over the high walls that enclosed it. The large colony of sisters and aunts and mothers and grandmothers within never left except to attend a wedding or funeral close by or else to make a pilgrimage to a martyr’s shrine. And for that they always traveled with their men.
Every seven days from behind the walls of her house, Pargol heard the plaintive cry of the namaki, the salt-seller. Humpbacked and toothless, he roamed the city with his salt borne on the back of an ancient donkey. Every few blocks he’d cup his fingers around his mouth, tip his head to the sky, and call out, “Namaki! Namaki!” When she heard his cry, Pargol would throw her chador about her and poke her head out the door for her weekly slab of salt.
Pargol had married a rug merchant by the name of Qoli Amini, known better as Qoli Khan, or Sir Qoli. He stood a full head shorter than his wife, a predicament which, true to both his nature and outlook on life, he regarded with a mixture of disbelief and amusement. Every day Qoli Khan set out for the great canopied bazaar in the center of the city. Once there, he’d take his place next to the fruit-seller’s pyramids of melons, pomegranates, oranges, bundles of mint and parsley, and crates of dried figs and mulberries. Perched on an enormous gunny sack of salted almonds, his complete inventory of rugs beside him, he waited in the bazaar from morning to night so that people could consider his wares and pay him the modest sums with which Pargol managed their lives.
As Kobra grew up Pargol favored her in a thousand quiet ways, but the strength of her affections was never more evident than when the Bloodletter came calling. This happened twice a year, once at the end of summer and once at the end of winter. Bloodletting was thought to keep a body healthy and strong, proof of which could be found in the rosy tint it lent to even the most sallow complexion. But no matter how many times they were reminded of the treatment’s benefits, nothing kept the children from running at the sight of the Bloodletter’s blistering cups and the jar of slithering black leeches she harvested from provincial riverbanks.
Pargol brooked no resistance. Hands on hips, jaw set, she routed her children out of their hiding places throughout the house. She sent her sons in first, and then one by one she pinned the girls’ plaits to the tops of their heads. When the Bloodletter finished with the boys, she sliced the girls’ backs with a razor and pressed her cups to the cuts or else planted her leeches onto their bare backs. Kobra’s siblings hollered or whimpered, each according to his or her disposition and the vigor of their respective treatments. Pargol always suffered their torments without blinking, but she could not bear to hear her youngest daughter so much as whimper and so year after year Kobra was left unmolested in her hiding place behind the water cistern in the basement.
Still, when Pargol decided to send eleven year-old Kobra from the house to learn a trade, not even a long history of such indulgences could stop mouth after mouth from falling open. A girl stayed in her father’s house until her marriage, and even the less pious would have agreed that formal education was wasted on females. But soon after Kobra turned eleven, Pargol predicted that as the last of so many children it was unlikely Kobra would ever marry. For this reason, she explained, it would be necessary to send Kobra to a school that prepared young girls to become professional seamstresses.
Many secretly believed that Pargol wished to keep this one child for herself, and that it was for this reason that of all her daughters it was Kobra whom she sent forth to study and work. But whatever the reason, from then on Kobra could be seen each morning stepping into the streets of Tehran, kerchief knotted at her chin, with a basket of fabric and needles in one hand and a small iron pot filled with rice and stew in the other.
There were twelve other students in her class, all of them from families poorer than her own, but she made her first friends sitting side by side on the floor with those girls. Their teacher, Malekeh Khanoom or “Missus Queen,” was a round-faced widow with long hennaed hair and two thick rows of gold bracelets dancing at her wrists, and she laughed easily with the girls. In the mornings she taught them to sew and in the afternoons she taught them to embroider. From the fabrics—silk, velvet, georgette, voile, crepe de Chine—Kobra guessed that the garments she would be sewing were meant for the fine ladies of the city, and it thrilled her to run her fingers along the glorious bolts of fabric stacked along one wall of Malekeh Khanoom’s basement and to imagine the materials skimming a woman’s body here, clinging to it there.
Malekeh Khanoom showed the girls how to measure with their hands, spreading her fingers wide like a fan and counting off from the tip of her thumb to the tip of her pinkie. One, two, three. Ample figures would still be in fashion for another few years, and a waist the width of three outstretched hands was considered ideal in the days that Kobra sat in Malekeh Khanoom’s basement learning her trade. The girls watched their teacher and then, shyly at first, they spread their own fingers against the fabrics she set at their feet. One, two, three. They looked up to make sure they had measured well, and when Malekeh Khanoom had nodded and smiled at every one of them, they took turns cutting the fabric with Malekeh Khanoom’s only pair of brass scissors.
The girls themselves wore cotton pantaloons with sheleeteh, the short flounced skirts of a curious provenance. The story went that once, during the nineteenth century, a Qajar king had been shown a photograph of some ballerinas on a Paris stage and was so taken by the sight that he set out for France posthaste. During the trip he became an avid patron of the ballet, coincidentally running up stupendous bills at the Paris brothels. These he settled by selling the French government rights to carry out archaeological expeditions in Iran and to retain whatever artifacts they unearthed. On his return, the Qajar king decreed that all the ladies of his court should henceforth appear dressed in tutus. Out of modesty the Iranian princesses wore their silken skirts with long tunics and flowing trousers or white tights underneath. The skirts were given a Persian name, sheleeteh, which suggested the rustling sounds they made when the ladies of the Qajari palaces danced in them.
Now that the Qajars had been overthrown in favor of the Pahlavi Dynasty and Western clothes had become a matter of not just fashion but royal mandate, only poor women still dressed in sheleeteh and their skirts were made of plain cotton, not silk, and issued no pleasing rustles when they walked. My grandmother’s only sheleeteh was apricot-colored, and it had belonged first to Pargol, who had worn it to cross the desert so many years ago.
Sometimes Malekeh Khanoom let her students keep remnants from the dresses they sewed. In her first month at the school, Kobra chose two squares of voile and with them she sewed two scarves. One was blue like a robin’s egg and the other crimson as a pomegranate seed. She had no pearls or golden coins, and so she embroidered them with a handful of tiny turquoise beads. She took the two scarves home to Pargol, who wore them constantly—one day the blue one, the next day the red one—with great pleasure, and more than a little pride.
The first year Kobra went to Malekeh Khanoom’s school as a student, but she was so clever and hardworking that the second year she went as an assistant and the third year as a teacher herself.
Then one night Kobra’s brother Ali-Ahmad, the gambler, put forth a proposition that altered my grandmother’s fortunes forever. One evening, after losing a great sum of money—his greatest loss yet in what would be a long and infamous career—Ali-Ahmad turned to his gambling opponent and said, “You can take my sister in marriage.” He did not name her at all, but added simply, “The youngest one.”
Ali-Ahmad knew his friend Sohrab had reason enough to accept the offer, but most likely neither of them spoke of it that night or any other. Whether Ali-Ahmad regretted this later no one in the family could ever say. They’d only remember that when he returned home that night with news that he’d found Kobra a suitor, the news was met with unbridled glee.
Kobra’s sisters, themselves all recently married, tittered and giggled, her aunts clucked their tongues and smiled. Sohrab was so handsome and cut such a fine figure in the neighborhood that even Pargol took Ali-Ahmad’s news as a stroke of incredibly good luck. By the next morning her aunts and sisters had already begun to sew and embroider a crimson tunic and flounced wedding skirt, and by week’s end they’d pooled their monies to buy Kobra a pair of wooden platform shoes at the bazaar. Malekeh Khanoom, Kobra’s sewing instructor, lent out her string of tiny blinking lights (a treasure from farang, or Europe, it was rumored) which Pargol, in a fit of creative inspiration, nestled into Kobra’s wedding veil. And with Kobra so outfitted and Ali-Ahmad’s debts neatly covered by what would have been Kobra’s bride price, my fourteen-year old grandmother became, for a time, an aroos.
In those years young brides had no name. Known simply as aroos, or “the bride,” they only truly took their husbands’ names when their mothers-in-law died. When Kobra was called aroos, her hair fell in two black braids, thick as coiled ropes, down to the middle of her back. She was shy, neat, and modest, which Sohrab knew would endear her to his mother, a woman known to all as Khanoom, “Missus.” But however beautiful Kobra’s eyes and plaits of black hair, she was simple, provincial, and as unlikely a match for my grandfather’s elegance and airs as, it would seem, she was for her own fantastical name.
Sohrab was the first son born to Khanoom after two daughters and as such he was also her cheshmeh cheragh, the very light of her eyes. By the time Sohrab was two years old, his father had already quit their house on Avenue Moniriyeh and taken three other wives. He’d also long since stopped sending his first wife any money. Khanoom lived by her hands, sewing and knitting, and raising Sohrab and her other children on her own. When, one by one, her husband’s other three wives showed up at her door, passed over just as she herself had been, she took them in, too, and they lived in her house like sisters and worked alongside her.
Since his earliest days Sohrab had been spoiled with the attentions of the many women of his mother’s house. As a boy he was known as the little dandy in their midst, and they sewed all his clothes themselves and ironed them for him, too, even when he was no more than three or four years old and they would not have thought to do the same for their own best garments. Between their endless rounds of sewing and knitting and cooking and cleaning, they plucked the seeds of pomegranates and fed them to him from a bowl. They saved him the soft-bellied figs from their garden and popped them into his mouth whenever he came to sit with them in the kitchen. And Sohrab took in their attentions just as easily as he had once taken his mother’s milk.
He would not stay at their side for long, though. By the age of seven Sohrab was already the acknowledged leader of the pack of neighborhood boys who wiled away the afternoons in the alleys riding bicycles and shooting homemade slings. By eleven he had the run of the whole city and would often linger in the streets or the qaveh khaneh, coffeehouse, where men recited the Shahnameh, Ferdowsi’s tenth century verse epic, for one another. He’d linger in the city long after school ended, leaving his mother to curse her fate and pray, hour after hour, for his safe return.
As a young man of twenty Sohrab had somehow secured a high post in Iran’s national textile bureau. No one quite knew how this had happened. He had neither money nor connections, and it was a job for which he had no qualifications besides his charm and his taste for finery, but these had proved sufficient. On their way to Europe and America, many of the country’s most opulent carpets passed under his hands and exacting eye and could be shipped off only with his consent. His salary was generous by standards of the day, but to satisfy his luxurious tastes he supplemented his income with gambling, a favorite diversion since his teenage years. Within a few years of his marriage to Kobra, Sohrab had done well enough to dress in perfectly tailored Western suits, then still rare in Iran, and also to drive a black Chrysler of which he was no less vain than of his own brilliantined hair.
It was no secret that even after marrying Kobra my grandfather’s eyes still lingered on the smartly dressed ladies that had recently begun to appear on the streets of Tehran. It was also a fact known to many that for several years before his marriage, Sohrab had courted a lady so chic and lovely it was said she could pass for an aroos faranghi, a European man’s wife. But this woman, Simin, was twice-divorced and unable to bear children; Sohrab knew that until he produced heirs to his family name, he could never marry her. So when his friend Ali-Ahmad had offered Sohrab his sister, whom he’d once seen at Ali-Ahmad’s house and still remembered as a plump and pretty girl, Sohrab had not thought long before saying yes and bringing her to live in Khanoom’s house on Avenue Moniriyeh.