September 1997
The Iranian

From "Veils and Words" by Farzaneh Milani (Syracuse University Press; 1992).

"There are no walls around the houses here," I wrote in my diary, in an entry dated December 24, 1967. This was a few days after my arrival in America. It took me years to realize that in America other kinds of walls, mainly invisible, existed. I had to learn about their presence, respect their sovereignty, abide by their rules. I could not neglect them, trespass them. I could not disregard them. This meant not only learning the English language but also mastering the metalanguage, the verbal and nonverbal codes of interaction, the different systems and styles of communication.

Many times, unaware of these "walls", I asked the wrong question, volunteered the inappropriate answer, looked too closely when I was supposed not to "see", listened too intently when I was assumed not to "hear". Heaven knows how often I talked when I should have kept silent and how frequently I should have talked but remained mute, producing nothing but silence--long, embarrassing silence. Heaven knows how often, with eyes wide open, I stumbled over those walls, mile by glorious mile of invisible walls.

I had thought if you don't want people to hear, you whisper; if you don't want them to see, you cover. To protect your privacy, I had thought, you erect easily perceptible walls around the private object or subject; you cover it from view; you conceal it with silence. My acclimatization to American society, however, taught me that privacy can take different shapes and can be protected in more ways than one. Life taught me that silence can speak eloquently and that words can veil profusely.

A product of two cultures, I felt outside the circle of both, out of place, dislodged, dislocated. I was immersed in discontinuities; engulfed in geographical, cultural, and temporal exile. Neither the daughter of my mother nor the mother of my daughter, I felt suspended between the twentieth century A.D. and fourteenth century Hegira. The gap between my mother and my daughter, products of different cultural experiences, values, systems of signs, dreams, and nightmares, had caused a disturbing disruption in the matrilineal chain of my identity. I lived surrounded by a past that was breaking up around me with violent rapidity. Uprooted and transplanted, with an unpronounceable name and coming from a country that was first not quite known and then known for all the wrong reasons, I looked every which way for a sense of familiarity, of belonging and reunion. I wanted something solid to hold on to. Perhaps my choice of "veiling" --this portable wall-- as the topic of my research was above all a symptom of a boundary crisis. Perhaps by reconstructing, piece by piece, my understanding of this aspect of Iranian culture, I wanted to find a lost or hidden part of myself.

A poem I wrote years ago best epitomizes my frantic search for bearings, for familiar boundaries. It portrays my internal turmoil at this point, as if I were running in two directions at once. One, nostalgically backwards, for familiar walls and veils, for certainties lost, perhaps certainties that I never had and that I now needed to find in a veiled grandmother. The other, frantically running sideways and forwards to master the vertigo of open spaces, to master how to negotiate the new, unfamiliar, invisible walls. Memories of Jasmine and Grandmother allowed me, in this poem, to cut through the thickening distance. Although my grandmother's world was small and bounded, and I clearly yearned for a larger and less confining space, still some elements of her more sharply circumscribed universe --bounded like her prayer rug-- attracted me.

Jasmine, too, derived from the Persian word `Yasaman', seems locked forever, like Grandmother, with my childhood memories. There is something about jasmine that captures with special intensity the incandescence and luminosity, the simplicity and innocence of childhood. Is it its starlike whiteness? Is it the trembling delicacy of its blossom hovering over its stem and leaves almost like a dream? Is it its ephemeral beauty, its long-lasting sweet fragrance, its generous yielding of flowers every single day of summer? Whatever it is, there's something about the jasmine that takes me to places where I have to leave words behind, to the places where I have left my childhood, places that continue to invade my dreams--in the setting of my earliest memories. In my past. There, there is jasmine; plenty of it,; in abundance; in profusion. I grew up with it. The hot summer sun. Dust in the air. And suddenly, the jasmine. Like fresh snow; like a mind untainted by questions. Like certainty.

She always smelled of jasmine
and wore black shoes that shined
crowned with a ribbon on top.
It is Grandmother I'm talking about,
with her jasmine scent
and her world marked and bounded,
as clearly as her prayer rug.
And as she prayed
her arms would rise from the prayer rug
like pillars soaring into the sky
above sadness
above storms
to the height of creativity
to the pinnacle of heaven,
then again to the depths of submission.
She always smelled of jasmine
and never harbored any doubts
as to her choice of perfume.
It is Grandmother I'm talking about.
She knew with astounding confidence
that her life-story was but her destiny
that she had in her own hand
the key to eternity,
she even knew that if she wanted
she could summon the prophet Khezr
to demand of him whatever she desired.
And how generous he was,
Grandmother's green-clothed phantasm,
magnanimous, bearer of plenty,
without anger, without guile,
beyond needs, beyond expectations
with his blessings and gifts
flowing free like the waters
of an endless stream.
She always smelled of jasmine
and wore black shoes that shined
crowned with a ribbon on top.
I'm telling you about my grandmother.

Farzaneh Milani's note: "Grandmother and Jasmine", Omid 1, no. 2 (Nov.-Dec. 1987): 91. I have benefited from Kaveh Safa, Afsaneh Najmabadi, Bahiyeh Nakhjavani, and Geoffrey Gardner's translations of "Grandmother and Jasmine". I am most grateful to them.

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