Our guest this week is author Nahid Rachlin. Born in Iran, Rachlin convinced her parents to let her attend college in the United States, and never came back. She went to Columbia University MFA program on a Doubleday-Columbia Fellowship and then to Stanford University MFA program on a Stegner Fellowship. Her publications include a memoir, Persian Girls, four novels, Jumping Over Fire, Foreigner, Married to a Stranger, The Heart’s Desire, and a collection of short stories, Veils. Her works have appeared in more than fifty magazines, including The Virginia Quarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, Redbook, Shenandoah. She lives in New York City. To learn more about Nahid, visit her at: http://www.nahidrachlin.com
For many years, heartache prevented Rachlin from turning her sharp novelist’s eye inward: to tell the story of how her own life diverged from that of her closest confidante and beloved sister, Pari. As adolescents, both refused to accept traditional Muslim mores, and dreamed of careers in literature and on the stage; they devoured forbidden books and entertained secret romances. Their lives changed abruptly when Pari was coerced to marry a wealthy, cruel suitor who kept her a virtual prisoner in her own home. Nahid narrowly avoided becoming the bride of a man of her parents’ choosing, and instead negotiated with her father to pursue her studies in America.
As Nahid began to achieve literary success in the United States and to loosen family binds, Pari’s dreams dwindled: her husband quashed her every hope and ambition. When Nahid received the unsettling and mysterious news that Pari had died after falling down a flight of stairs, she traveled back to Iran—now under the Islamic regime—to find out what happened to her truest friend, confront her past, and evaluate what the future holds for the heartbroken. Persian Girls traces not only Nahid’s life, but also the interconnected lives of her aunt, mother, and sisters, in a tale of crushing sorrow, sisterhood, and ultimately, hope. Below is an excerpt from Persian Girls.
The day began like any other day. I woke to the voice of the muezzin calling people to prayers, Allah o Akbar. After Maryam finished praying we had our usual breakfast-- sangag bread still warm from the stone oven it was baked in, jam that Maryam made herself with pears and plums, mint-scented tea.
On the way to Tehrani Elementary School I stopped at my friend Batul’s house, at the mouth of the alley, to pick her up. We passed the public baths and the mosques, sights visible on practically every street in the Khanat Abad neighborhood. It was a crisp, cool autumn day. The red fruit on persimmon trees on the sidewalks were glistening like jewels in sunlight. Water gurgled in joobs running alongside the streets. The tall Alborz Mountains surrounding Tehran were clearly delineated in the distance. We paused at a stall to buy sliced hot beets and ate them as we walked on.
At a class recess, as I stood with Batul and a few other girls under a large maple tree in the courtyard, I noticed a man approaching us. He was thin and short with a pock-marked face and a brush mustache. He was wearing a suit and a tie. Even from a distance, he seemed powerful.
“Don’t you recognize your father?” he asked as he came closer.
In a flash I recognized him, the man I had met only once when he came to Maryam’s house with my birth mother on one of her visits.
I was afraid of my father, a fear I had learned from Maryam. Having adopted me informally, Maryam didn’t have legal right to me; even if she did, my father would be able to claim me. In Iran fathers were given full control of their children, no matter the circumstance. There was no way to fight if he wanted me back. To make matters worse, my father was also a judge.
So often Maryam had said to me, “Be careful, don’t go away with a stranger.” Was Father the stranger she had been warning me against? Our worst fears were coming true.
“Let’s go,” he said. “I'm taking you to Ahvaz.” He took my hand and led me forcefully towards the outside door.
“Nahid, Nahid,” Batul and my other classmates were calling after me. I turned around and saw they were frozen in place, too stunned to do anything but call my name.
“Does my mother know about this?” I asked once we were on the street. My heart beat violently.
“You mean your aunt,” he said. “I just sent a message to her. By the time she knows we'll be on the airplane.”
“I want my mother,” I pleaded.
“We're going to your mother. I spoke to your principal, you aren’t going to this school any more. You’ll be going to a better one, a private school in Ahvaz.”
I tried to free myself but he held my arm firmly and pulled me towards Khanat Abad Avenue. Still holding me with one hand, he hailed a taxi with the other. One stopped and my father lifted me into the back seat and got in next to me, pinning my legs down with his arm.
“Let me go,” “Let me go!” I screamed. Through the window I saw a white chador with polka dot design in the distance. It was Maryam. “Mother, Mother!” As the car approached the woman I realized it wasn’t Maryam.
“Don't put up a fight,” my father said as the cab zigzagged through the hectic Tehran traffic. “It won't do you any good.”
Before I knew it we were in the airport and then on the plane. The stewardess brought trays of food and put them in front of us. I picked up a fork and played with the pieces of rice and stew on my plate, taking reluctant bites. Nausea rose from my stomach in waves.
"I have to go to the bathroom.”
"Go ahead,” my father replied.
"The toilet is in the back,” the stewardess said.
I must hold it until I get to the toilet, I said to myself, but my stomach tightened sharply and I began to throw up in the aisle. The stewardess gave me a bag and I turned toward the bathroom with it pressed against my lips.
When I returned the stewardess had cleaned up the aisle.
"How do you feel?" Father asked me. "Better?"
I didn’t answer.
“You’ll be fine when we get home, your real home,” Father said, caressing my arm. “Your mother, sisters and brothers are all waiting for you. And I’ll look after you.”
Finally I fell asleep; when I awoke we were in the Ahvaz airport. I was groggy and disoriented as we rode in a taxi. Flames erupted from a tall tower, burning excess gas from the Ahvaz petroleum fields. A faint smell of petroleum filled the air.
We passed narrow streets lined by mud and straw houses and tall date and coconut palms. But Pahlavi Avenue was wide and full of glittering luxury shops and modern, two-storied houses and apartment buildings. Most of the women walking about were not wearing chadors and were dressed in fashionable, imported clothes. The modern avenue reminded me of the sections in north Tehran where I had ventured a few times.
“Stop right here,” Father said to the driver as we entered a square.
The taxi came to a halt in front of a large modern, two-story house, with a wrap-around balcony and two entrances.
"We’re home,” Father announced. I felt an urge to bolt, but Father, as if aware of that urge, took hold of my hand, and grasping it firmly, he led me into the house.
A woman was sitting in a shady corner of the courtyard holding a glass of lemonade with ice jingling in it. She wore bright red lipstick and her hair in a permanent wave. She looked so different from Maryam who wore no make-up and let her naturally wavy hair grow long.
“Here is Nahid, Mohtaram joon, we have our daughter back with us,” my father said to her.
Mohtaram, my birth mother.
She nodded vaguely and walked over to where we were standing. She took me in her arms, but her embrace was tentative, hesitant. I missed Maryam’s firm, loving arms around me.
“Ali, show her to her room,” Mohtaram said to the live-in servant, who came out of a room in the corner.
"Go ahead," Father said to me. “You can rest for a while.”