Nahid Rachlin "Sisters"
As I sit in a room in my apartment in Manhattan I see myself clearly coming back from high school in Ahvaz, a town in Southern Iran. I am looking for my older sister, Pari, so that I can read to her a story I had written during history class, instead of listening to the lecture. "I wrote a story today," I would say as soon as I found her in one of the many rooms in our large house. I would sit next to her and read to her, about the rigidities at school, or some shocking scene I had encountered on the street. (Walking by the lettuce fields one early morning I saw a half naked woman lying among the bushes, her blouse torn, blood flowing out of her face which was so badly beaten that it was barely recognizable, and then police appearing on the scene).
Pari always responded not to the story itself but to the anguish that the story expressed. She listened not so much to my story as to me. I remember the intensity of my desire to express my feelings and reactions to what went on around me, and equally-matched eagerness to hear her reassuring voice.
She loved movies and the two of us would go to see whatever was shown in the two movie houses in town, mostly American and European movies dubbed into Farsi. She had aspirations to one day become an actress. We would stop on the main street at a shop that carried photographs of actors and actresses and she would buy a few-- of Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman-- to add to an album she kept. If I close my eyes I can still vividly see her standing on the stage of our high school's auditorium (a school for girls only-- a similar high school for boys stood in another part of the town), wearing striped pajamas, a mustache, and dancing and singing along with other girls dressed similarly, doing an imitation of an American musical. I would watch her and dream about writing something myself that one day would be put on a stage, with her acting in it.
I can hear my father's voice saying to her scornfully, "Don't you have any sense? An actress is a whore." (About my writing he would say, more respectfully, "You're just a dreamer").
Our parents´ goal for us sisters was to marry, preferably soon after high school, men they selected for us, and settle for a life of domesticity. Higher education was for our brothers. Although our parents were modern, and didn’t practice the Muslim religion-- we didn’t have to cover up when we went out, we didn’t even pray-- they still followed many of the values of the culture, an amalgam of Western ideas and old-fashioned, traditional ones, some dictated by religion.
Instead of giving in to our parents’ vision for us, Pari and I aspired to the more independent, glamorous women we saw in American movies and read about in books in translation. Ahvaz, with its large oil fields attracted Americans who came there for jobs and Pari and I were also aware of how much more freedom and independence the American girls living there had.
Now years later, I can’t stop wondering how was it that I managed to get myself out of the roles prescribed for us and Pari did not. Was it just that I was stronger than her?
I must digress here to earlier years of my life, when I lived separate from Pari.
My mother had promised me to her sister when she was pregnant with me. Her sister, Maryam, had been unable to have children from her husband, a man much older than she was, who died soon after they got married. She had begged my mother to let her adopt what would be my mother´s eight living child (three had died before me and three would come later). My grandmother had stayed with my mother to help her with the pregnancy and birth. When my mother went into labor my grandmother sent for the midwife-- in 1946 there were no obstetricians in Ahvaz. After helping deliver me and cutting the umbilical cord, the midwife put ashes on the wound for antiseptic purposes.
My grandmother thought it best to wait six months before transporting me from one daughter to another. They lived far apart, my mother in Ahvaz, my aunt in Tehran. This gift must be protected and delivered in health. I needed to be a little older to stand the arduous fourteen-hour train ride.
The Shah´s attempts at modernity and beautification of the country hadn’t gone far. The train from Ahvaz to Tehran was old, the tracks bumpy, needing repair. I had been sleepless on the long ride. After I finished the bottle of my mother's milk, my grandmother bought some goat´s milk at a station where the train stopped. Other families in the compartment asked her questions about me, were amazed at the task she had taken on. The women tried to help my grandmother, holding me so that she could sleep a little. When we reached Tehran, there were no taxis waiting by the station so we had to take a horse- cart.
I can imagine my grandmother getting off the horse- cart at the end of a long dirt alley and walking slowly with an infant in her arms. She walked faster as she saw her daughter, Maryam, squatting by the door of her house. Maryam jumped up as we approached and my grandmother put me into her arms. “This is the happiest day in my life,” Maryam said excitedly.
A few days later my grandmother left to go back to the Kashan, where oldest son and wife lived. But during her future visits, when I was old enough to understand, she told me, “Maryam loved you from the moment she laid her eyes on you.”
During the years I lived with my aunt as her child, my mother was a shadowy figure to me. We lived in a house in an alley set in a maze of other interweaving alleys, in an old neighborhood of Tehran. The house was one of three attached houses my aunt had inherited from her husband. We occupied a row of rooms in the biggest house. Our neighbors were all observant Muslims-- a milieu very different from that of my parents.' I found out later. There were mosques on almost every street in the neighborhood. The voices of muezzins calling people to prayer filled the air three times a day. I had a sunny corner room with a mantle on which I kept my toys. A rug with designs of flowers, leaves, and peacocks was spread on the floor. Two large embroidered cushions were set on the rug against the wall. My aunt's bedroom was next to mine and she always closely attended to me. None of the rooms had any furniture other than rugs on the floors and some cushions to lean against. At night we rolled out mattresses on the floor. The Muslim religion requires that people, poor or rich, live simply. If they have more than they need they should give it to the poor. This helped to bring people closer to each other, created a supportive environment.
Maryam took me everywhere with her, to the public baths, to the market to shop, to visit a neighbor. She served me my favorite food, was indulgent with me. I went to bed when I wanted, threw my toys around, roamed through the courtyards freely. She was also full of praise, something that motivated me to do well at school, made me more courageous than most girls in the neighborhood, and gave me strength.
The rooms across the courtyard were rented out to two widowed women and they shared many daily activities with Maryam. The day started at dawn when the women got out of their beds at the sound of the muezzin, washed ritualistically at the pool’s faucet, and then prayed. Aunt Maryam saying the words, Allah O Akbar, aloud in the midst of silent prayers woke me if I hadn't already been awoken by the voice of the muezzin. I was still too young to pray but I had lived with her longer than the nine years, I probably would have been encouraged to do so.
My aunt and the two widows, who had no children, and I often ate our meals together -- two kinds of rice dishes, two or three kinds of bread, lamb stew and chicken, green salad and a yogurt salad, halvah, fruit and pastries for dessert. On warm days we ate in the courtyard and on the colder ones in Maryam’s living room. The air became aromatic with spices-- turmeric, mint, and saffron. My women collected what was left of the food and put them on plastic platters to give to beggars who came to the door every day.
Once a year, my mother came to Tehran to visit her relatives, my uncles and aunts, and stayed with us part of the time. But she paid no particular attention to me. There was no bond between us. I called my aunt mother and my own mother Aunt Mohtaram or nothing at all. The fact that she was my biological mother didn’t have much relevance for me, didn’t register anything significant. I was afraid of my father, whom I had met once when he came along with my mother, a fear I caught from my aunt. He’s very powerful, she told me. My father was a judge (later he had a successful private practice as a lawyer). In addition, he owned a cotton thread factory. His being wealthy and educated made him more powerful in my aunt’s eyes and in reality he was.
Then our worse fears came true. When I was nine years old my life changed suddenly. I remember that day vividly. It was an autumn day with a pale, cool sunlight shining on everything. I was playing with a friend in the yard of our elementary school when I saw a man standing on the steps of a hallway, looking for someone. He was thin and short with a pockmarked face and a brush mustache, but gave the impression somehow of strength, power. He was wearing a fancy looking suit and a tie, a contrast to the plain clothes men in the neighborhood, even the male teachers, wore.
His face brightened at seeing me and he began to walk over to me. “Don't you recognize your father?” he asked as he reached me. “Let's go, I'm taking you to Ahvaz. I'll explain later.”
I stared at him, fear rushing through me. He took my arm firmly and led me outside. “I already spoke to the principal; you aren't coming back here anymore. You're reaching an age when you need me to look after you.”
I was silent, in shock. I looked back and saw my friends were staring at us, in shock too. Before I could say anything to them, my father prodded me forward. Finally I asked, “Does my mother know about this?”
“You mean your aunt. By the time she knows we´ll be in the airplane. I sent a message to her through your uncle.”
“I want to talk to my mother myself, now.”
“Don’t call your aunt mother any more. You’re going to live with your real mother.”
“I want to talk to my mother.”
“Your aunt you mean. You’ll have a chance to talk to her when she comes for a visit. If she loves you, which I know she does, she´ll understand it’s better for you to live with us.”
“I want to go home and talk to her, let me go, let me go.”
“Your home is in Ahvaz from now on.”
From the corner of my eyes I saw a woman in a chador looking like my aunt. I screamed, “Mother, Mother.” Then as the woman came closer I realized she was not my mother-aunt.
“Don't try to put up a fight. It isn't going to do you any good,” my father said, raising his hand to hail a cab. “It’s all for your own benefit. I’m taking you back. You need my supervision.”
It was all swift, getting to the airport, on the plane, then riding another taxi to a house that became my second home, one I never adjusted to as long as I lived there. “You'll like it here, I'm sure,” my father said as we entered the house.
We went into a hallway and came into a palm-filled courtyard with a pool at its center. I saw my mother sitting by the pool talking to an old man. She was wearing bright red lipstick and her hair had a perm—so different from Maryam’s natural look. She got up and embraced me tentatively. Her embrace was weak compared to my aunt’s strong one. No, I couldn’t think of her as my mother; my aunt was my mother. Then the woman, who was supposed to be my mother, but I couldn’t think of her that way, looked at the live-in servant, who came out of a corner room and said, “Ali, show her to her room.”
Her cool reception of me, which didn’t change during the time I lived with her, was painful.
I followed Ali up the steep stairway to the second floor and then to a room. He left and came back in a few moments with a bundle of clothes, a robe, slippers, a dress, some underwear, which he put on the bed. “I'll come and get you for supper.” He left, shutting the door behind him.
I sat in the unfamiliar room, shivering, even though the temperature must have been above 90 degrees. Then I lay down on the bed with my own clothes still on. My body curved uncomfortably in the soft springs, being used to a mattress against the hard floor. The spikes of the palm tree in front of the window were threatening. In my aunt’s house we didn’t have palm trees, Tehran was a much cooler city. We had a plum tree, cypress trees, rose bushes.
Finally I fell asleep and kept dreaming about my aunt.
My aunt had no legal right to me but even if she did, my father, would have been able to take me back. My aunt came to Ahvaz soon after to take me back. She cried and begged but my father was adamant in keeping me. My mother who perhaps found me to be a burden would have complied. My aunt and I parted tearfully and soon it became clear that the home my aunt had made for me was shattered forever. I saw her only once or twice a year when she came to visit.
My parents’ house was large and had all the modern conveniences, phone, refrigeration, city-supplied water, showers, but to me it was a cold place, because of not sensing any love from my mother. Also it seemed chaotic, not arranged around any steady rituals as my aunt´s home had been, something that I missed. My mother already had two boys and two girls before me, and we all interacted in random ways. Even though we were one family, the connections were loose, it seemed to me.
I was lonely in my parents’ home until Pari began to become my friend. She had been lonely in the middle of her own family, she said. She was four years older than me and she remembered when my grandmother took me away. She had missed me for days.
We both came to the conclusion that our mother´s degree of attention, of love, for her children was unequal and not easy to understand. Pari, the daughter who came after my brothers, was neither the target of our mother´s hostility, nor the focus of her attention. Whereas I had a feeling that my mother deliberately tried to obliterate me, Pari felt forgotten. She had to shout to get my mother´s attention. Finally Mother would sigh and say something like, “All right, I heard you... go get what you want, leave me alone now.” In my case she just looked away in irritation or called my father over to say to him that I was acting too demanding. “How many notebooks a week does she need?” she said to him. She lavished a great deal of attention on one sister, the one who was two years older than me and two years younger than Pari. If we challenged Mother about her favoritism she would try to justify it. She preferred her oldest son to her younger one, she said, because he survived after two, who had been born before him, had died of childhood illnesses. She claimed that our middle sister needed more attention because she was weak and sickly. Of me she said, “It’s her own fault, she’s always giving me trouble.” Perhaps her feelings towards me were the most complicated and irrational because she had given me away to her sister. It could even be out of loyalty to her sister that she did not want to love me; she didn’t want to compete with her sister for my love.
When I think back, I see my mother as a child playing house, treating her children like dolls. She made a great deal of our looks. Pari, was “healthy looking.” Indeed her skin glowed as if there were light behind it and her expression was vibrant. I was “too thin.” She said of our middle sister, Manijeh, “She looks like an angel.”
Perhaps Mother never had the chance to grow up, become an adult. She was only nine years old when she got married; had her first child at fourteen. The legal minimum age for a girl to marry at that time in Iran was nine. (That could have had something to do with the fact that my father took me back when I was nine-- he saw me as reaching adulthood, needing his supervision more). As soon as Mother reached that age she was married to him, a man selected for her by her parents. Father was her second cousin on her mother´s side. He was twenty-eight years older than she and was already a lawyer. They were married in Tehran, where their parents lived; then he took her to Ahvaz.
One afternoon, when Pari was sixteen and I twelve, I came home and found her sitting in her room, looking sad.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“A suitor is here with his mother. They’re in the living room. Do you want to see what he looks like?”
The two of us walked softly, slowly, to the living room. We took turns looking through the key hole. Our parents were sitting with a man and a woman on the maroon velvet sofa and the two matching armchairs and having tea. The suitor was thin and tall and had a desiccated, humorless face. We walked back to Pari's room. “Did you see his ears? They were sticking out,” she said.
In a moment our father came to the room’s door and said to Pari, “Come in now, his mother wants to talk to you.”
Pari got up reluctantly and followed him.
An hour or so later, from my room, I heard an argument going on the porch. The suitor and his mother must have left.
“I don't want to marry him,” Pari was saying.
“Be sensible,” Mother said. “When you have your own children you'll be happy to have a husband who can provide well for them.”
“You want to marry a poor teacher who can barely support himself? Father said. He was referring to a high school teacher, at the
boy´s school, on whom Pari was in love with from afar. He too liked Pari and had sent his mother over to ask for Pari´s hand. Our parents had dismissed the idea.
A little later Pari said to me bitterly, “They´re selling me. He has nothing but money to recommend him.” We both blamed our mother more than our father. Pari said, “She´s a woman, she should understand her daughters better,” and I agreed.
She argued with them, day after day and got out of marrying that suitor. But then when another suitor, an even wealthier one came for her our parents started putting the pressure again. She finally gave in but partly because she hoped she would be able to pursue acting after getting married. The suitor had said he would take her to Tehran after they got married and in the big city she would be able to find what she wanted. Once they were married he immediately denied having made that promise.
Before the wedding reception a Muslim priest came to our house and, reading from the Koran, married Pari and Taheri. The reception followed, in the garden of a club. The place was decorated with bright lights for the occasion and a musician and belly dancer performed. The food was lavish. Pari was wearing an expensive diamond on her finger and emerald earrings and a matching emerald necklace, given to her by the groom. She looked beautiful and rich. But my most vivid image of her from that evening, one that lingers the most strongly with me, is the expression on her face. As she sat in her wedding gown next to her dark-suited husband she looked a million miles away.
A few months later, on a visit home, she said to me, “I don´t know why I gave in. I shouldn’t have. It must be a weakness in me. Now I feel like a prisoner with this man that I can’t love and who has gone against all his promises—he doesn’t let me audition for acting even in respectable studios.”
I managed to evade the forces that trapped Pari by fighting and fighting with my parents, trying to convince them to send me to the United States, where my brothers went to study as soon as they finished high school... It was a long battle, full of arguments and tears but I didn’t give up as easily as Pari did. The strength, which my aunt had fostered in me, finally wore my parents out.
One evening at the dinner table, with both my mother and father present, I said suddenly, propelled by a churning defiance inside me, “I didn’t choose to be your child.”
My father flushed. “What is this nonsense?”
“You forced me to come here, now you force me to do whatever you want.”
My outburst was provoked by my father having taken away a book in translation I was reading. It was a book called, Mother, by the Russian writer, Maxim Gorky. I had been drawn to it because of its title, being preoccupied by the issue of motherhood. As it turned out it was a political book about the country Russia. Still I liked reading it and was upset that Father had taken it away from me. He was acting on his fear that I was reading a banned book-- communism was considered to be the enemy of the country-- and would not listen to my reasoning that I would never show it to anyone outside the family. I had bought it in a bookstore that sold books in translation, some banned. Even under the Shah (and more so under the new government) many books were considered to be “dangerous,” spreading the “wrong” ideas among young people.
A few days after that fight, I found my father standing at the door of my school. My heart began to beat loudly, afraid of why he had come there. We had not exchanged a word since my outburst. I followed him to the park, a few blocks away from the school. We did not talk until we were sitting in the shade of the awning in the park´s cafe. After he ordered lunch for both of us he said, “I’m going to let you go. I asked Parviz to send application forms for you to fill for a women´s college near him. He will look after you.”
“You’re sending me to America?” I mumbled, incredulous.
“I know sooner or later you’re going to get all of us into trouble, the way you talk, those books you read... writing things... My license could be taken away because of you.”
His fears were due to the fact that anything could be interpreted as “Anti-government.” Under the Shah with his huge secret police force people were arrested and put in jail with the slightest provocation. The books in translation I read, the essays and stories I wrote and read in my composition class, all of that could make me a suspect, a “revolutionary.”
He was letting me go and that was all that mattered to me.
Not only was I admitted, but I was offered a full scholarship, covering room, board and tuition. My situation had changed so suddenly that for days I could not quite believe it. I went up and down in my moods, fantasizing about going away and then falling into despair that it would not happen, that Father would change his mind.
Then it really happened. Father came into my room and said, “We have to update your passport and get you a visa. You´ll leave by September.”
In America I managed to go my own way. My brother was not really looking after me. He had his own life to lead and by then he was too Americanized to follow my father’s expectation that he had to protect me.
I met my husband on my own, in a class I was attending at the New School University in New York City, where I had come immediately after graduating from the small women´s college near St. Louis.
I feel that having been raised by my aunt, though I didn’t look to her as a role model, was still the best thing that happened to me, a good fortune Pari was deprived of.
The only benefit I had from the trauma of being torn from her home and forced into my parents´ is that it made me think about things. I didn’t choose my aunt or my mother´s ways of life. I chose a third alternative. But I cannot say that I haven’t paid any price for my independence. My aunt and Pari didn’t become integral part of my life in America, couldn’t be because of the huge distance between the countries, and because of the vastly different ways we live and that certainly was a huge loss.
The last time I spoke to Pari on the phone she asked me, “Are you still writing?” I wished I could have asked, “Do you have a part in a new play?”
edited by Kristen D. scott
Nahid Rachlin went to Columbia University Writing Program on a Doubleday-Columbia Fellowship and then went on to Stanford University MFA program on a Stegner Fellowship. Her publications include a memoir, PERSIAN GIRLS (Penguin), four novels, JUMPING OVER FIRE (City Lights), FOREIGNER (W.W. Norton),MARRIED TO A STRANGER (E.P.Dutton-Penguin), THE HEART'S DESIRE (City Lights), a collection of short stories,VEILS (City Lights) and CROWD OF SORROWS, (Kindle Singles). Her individual short stories have appeared in more than fifty magazines, including The Virginia Quarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, Redbook, and Shenandoah. One of her stories was adopted by Symphony Space, “Selected Shorts,” and was aired on NPR’s around the country and two stories were nominated for Pushcart Prize.
Her work has received favorable reviews in major magazines and newspapers and translated into Portuguese, Polish, Italian, Dutch, German, Arabic, and Persian. She has been interviewed in NPR stations such as All Things Considered (Terry Gross), P&W magazine, and Writers Chronicle. She has written reviews and essays for New York Times, Newsday, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. Other grants and awards she has received include the Bennet Cerf Award, PEN Syndicated Fiction Project Award, and a National Endowment for the Arts grant.
She has taught creative writing at Barnard College, Yale University and at a wide variety of writer’s conferences, including Paris Writers Conference, Geneva Writers Conference, and Yale Writers Conference. She has been judge for several fiction awards and competitions, among them, Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction (2015) sponsored by AWP, Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award sponsored by Poets & Writers, Katherine Anne Porter Fiction Prize, University of Maryland, English Dept., Teichmann Fiction Prize, Barnard College, English Dept.
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