Authors: Parnaz Foroutan
and for my daughters
here are two stories as to how our
family arrived in Kermanshah from Tehran. The first story is this, that once upon a time, your great-great-great-grandfather worked in the royal court of Fat’h Ali Shah as an expert goldsmith. The Qajar king was so pleased with this Jewish goldsmith’s re-creation of His Highness’s own radiant countenance on a gold coin, that he granted the goldsmith permission to create the coin currency of his kingdom. And so, night and day, if you were to walk through the
alleyways of the
and pass the goldsmith’s shop, you’d hear the
his industrious hammer, and if you were to peer through the crack of the door, you’d see his back bent in the dim light, pounding out the details of His Majesty’s face, coin after coin after coin.
Now it just happened that this Jewish man had a most beautiful young daughter. Hair like a field of golden wheat. Eyes deep blue. His Highness, Fat’h Ali Shah, earned a certain notoriety for his collection of beautiful young girls. Indeed, the official count of the Royal Harem numbered 158 wives, from the Afshar lineage of princesses to the Zand, all of whom had certain unique traits that made them worthy of the king’s interest. Despite the richness of his stock, Fat’h Ali Shah employed his most trusted eunuchs to continue scouring the cities and villages in search of his next
And it must have happened this way, that one of these eunuchs, in the sullen blue of the evening, passed the goldsmith’s shop and saw in the golden glow of the lantern not only the man bent over his toil, but also a most exquisite young Jewess, her hair capturing the warm light, her skin the translucent pink of Darya-e Noor. And the eunuch hurried off back to the palace to report to The Crown, who listened, mesmerized by the descriptions of the child, and he raised his arm from the bejeweled rest of the Peacock Throne and with a subtle motion of his ruby laden fingers, ordered the eunuch to procure the girl at once.
When news of the Shah’s intentions reached the ears of the goldsmith, he put down his hammer and looked up from his work to see the eunuch’s face waiting expectantly
behind the pile of coins. For a young girl to become a wife of the king, such honor bestowed upon a Jew, no less, and the financial and personal gain it allowed the family. . . . The eunuch smiled and nodded at what he thought was gratitude brimming over in the old man’s eyes. The goldsmith mumbled that the king’s wish was his command and with that, the eunuch turned and left.
That night, the goldsmith gathered all his possessions, his pots and pans, his clothes and blankets, his tools, his kettle, his rugs, his goat and rooster, and he loaded up his sad, old donkey with many bulging burlap bags and when the night watchman’s snores sounded through the silent sleeping streets, he slowly opened the door of his home and shooed out his wife, his sons and his beautiful daughter, the goat and burden-laden donkey, into the alley and began walking with great haste in the direction of Baghdad. They walked all the way to the city of Kermanshah and when the old man felt he was far enough from the Qajar Court, he laid down his load and built a new home in the Jewish mahalleh of that city.
That is the official story of why your great-great-great-grandfather left Tehran for Kermanshah. The second story is this, that the Jewish goldsmith was appointed coin-maker for the king, and that he made coin after coin after coin. Then, in the still of one night, without taking official leave from the king’s court, he left Tehran with many bulging burlap bags and arrived in Kermanshah a very, very rich man.
n the outskirts
of Los Angeles, in the
sprawl of suburban homes that sit in the lap of dry, gold hills, there is a garden. In the warmth of late summer evenings, the perfumes of honeysuckles and jasmines in this garden are maddening. Earthen pots of cosmos and geraniums surround the yard. Near the back wall grows a pomegranate tree. A fig tree fruits in the late summer, the grape arbor hides her clusters in among the leaves, the boughs of the apple tree nearly touch the soil in autumn, and the orange tree, soaking beneath the Southern California sun, provides year-round. Mint vines creep to cover
the grounds, and nasturtiums explode in blossom. This garden belongs to an elderly woman. Her name is Mahboubeh Malacouti. Her first name means “the most beloved.” Her last name means “of the heavenly.”
Mahboubeh tends to the trees and flowers of her garden, dirt in the creases of her hand. She pats the trunks of her trees, and speaks to them softly. “This you must learn,” she says to them, “that the word
is a Farsi word. It means ‘the space within enclosed walls, a cultivated place set apart from the vast wilderness.’” She talks to her roses, holds up a thorned stem and says, “First, I grate the end of your stalk.” She rubs a small knife against the stem. “Then bind you to the stalk of another rose.” She wraps string about the two sticks and pushes them into the soil of a small pot. She waters the bare sticks, and waits silently for the water to be absorbed. Then, after a long while, she says, “You will take root, and once you have roots, you can grow in the soil of any garden.” Her garden brims with blooming roses, yellow, pink, loose-leafed, petals in candy-stripe of red and white, pungent and scentless, long stemmed and short bushes. Each year she grafts more and more, searching for a rose with the color and the perfume of the one she remembers from another garden.
Mahboubeh carries with her stories. They pour out of her and fill the spaces she inhabits, like so many hungry ghosts, begging to exist. Sometimes she forgets the parameters of that space, the dictations of time, and she slips into the past of her stories. The urgent horn of a car in the street
outside her home sounds, and in her mind, Mahboubeh hurries through the crowded streets of Tehran a young woman again, with her books clutched against her chest, her heels
against the sidewalk, her eyes focused on the end of the block, the turn that follows, to the gate of Danesh Saraye Alee. She greets the schoolmaster who waits outside to ensure the safe passage of his charges. She enters the school, walks up the stairs, against the marble of the hallway to the classroom, with its scent of chalk, its wooden desks, the chatter of girls, laughing and talking. An instructor walks in and the girls rise immediately and, in unison, greet him,
salaam Agha Mohebi,
and he responds
Be seated, class,
before he picks up the chalk and begins writing on the board. Mahboubeh copies furiously in her notebook, page after page, and at the end of the year, again, and again, and again, she is recognized as the best, the brightest among the students. The schoolmaster announces her name, and she hears applause until a neighbor shouts in English, “I’m coming, give me a minute.” Then, Mahboubeh looks about her as though she is waking from a dream.
She remembers the garden from her childhood. A tall brick wall separated it from the streets of the Jewish mahalleh in Kermanshah. Within those walls, the garden grew secretive and lush, teeming with flowers and fruiting trees. It encircled the family estate, and in the middle of those buildings sat a courtyard, surrounded on all four sides by the family home. A large fountain gurgled in the middle of that courtyard.
There is a photograph of Mahboubeh standing before that fountain as a young woman, already married, returning to visit Rakhel on the day the family estate in Kermanshah is sold. The remaining members, Yousseff’s widow and all her children, will move to Tehran, trailing an old, embittered Rakhel behind them, who cursed and damned fate and G-d and every member of the family on the whole of the journey there, and for the rest of her days, which she spent in the attic of the new mansion on Shah Reza Street, yelling from an open window so that all those passing below could hear how she was cheated out of her fortune.
On that last visit, Mahboubeh asked Rakhel again, “How did my mother die?”
And the old woman sat there, quietly, pensively, reflecting. Then she looked up at Mahboubeh and answered, “I’ve told you a thousand times, a thousand times.
Degh marg shod.
She died from sorrow.”
That usually ended the conversation between them, but Mahboubeh knew that this might be the last chance she’d have at getting an answer from Rakhel and so she summoned her courage, looked the old woman in the eyes, and asked, “What sorrow?”
. The kind that chokes you. That one that clenches at your throat.
” Rakhel said, holding her own throat with a bony hand. “All that anger and all that grief welling up inside you, and no voice to scream it out beneath the sky, so that you have to swallow it. Until it turns into a poison inside and eats your heart.”
“What was the source of sorrow?” Mahboubeh asked.
“What do I know? Why do you ask me?”
“Because you were there.”
Rakhel looked out of the window, at the gardens. It was late summer. The leaves were green, dusty. The air carried the chill of an impending autumn.
“I was there,” she said.
“And you saw.”
“Yes. I saw,” Rakhel said. She looked at Mahboubeh for a moment, nodding her head. Then she turned to look out of the window again and said, “Do you think I could have done anything? I had as much choice as she. I swallowed my share of grief, too. But she was frailer than me.”
“What did you see? Tell me what you saw.”
“Leave me be,” Rakhel said. “Here I am, my own home sold from underneath me, with nothing more than this head scarf on my head to call my own, with that thief selling whatever she can get her hands on, selling the wealth I built, and me, a beggar now when I was once a queen. . . . And you come here with your questions to steal the last bit of peace left me?”
Mahboubeh got up, quietly, and looked at the old woman glaring at her. “I’m leaving,” she said.
“Go. To hell with the rest of them. Go and don’t ever come to see me!”
Mahboubeh did see Rakhel again, in Tehran, but always in a crowd of relatives and family, which didn’t afford an opportunity for them to speak privately. When Rakhel
became too old to attend the gatherings, Mahboubeh would see her peering out of the attic window, from behind the curtains, each time she rang the doorbell of the house on Shah Reza Street. Sometimes Rakhel only looked down at her, then withdrew into the dark room. Other times, she leaned out of the open window and yelled obscenities. But by then, everyone in the neighborhood knew of the old woman in that attic, and they either chuckled or quickened their pace when passing. When Rakhel died, she did so with a single breath. The doctor emerged from the room and said, “She was just a shell. So old. Nothing left in her, but that last breath.”
That was the summer of 1977, before the students took to the streets. By 1978, nothing remained for Mahboubeh in Tehran. Everyone she knew was either dead, or leaving. So Mahboubeh packed her one suitcase, lined her coat with money, and hid her jewels in jars of powders and creams. And she remembers thinking, as that airplane lifted her away, that she had finally escaped history.
Mahboubeh walks into the kitchen from her garden to search in the album on her table for that photograph of herself standing in the courtyard of the old family estate. She remembers preparing for that day. She painted her mouth red and wore a tailored black dress with black heels that strapped around her stockinged ankles. She cannot remember who took the picture, but she remembers turning afterward to look behind her, to where the fountain glistened beneath the noon sun. And behind that fountain to where
Uncle Asher’s home stood, stately and tall. And somewhere, in one of the many rooms of that home, she knew that Rakhel sat waiting.
Instead of the photograph, Mahboubeh finds a picture she clipped from the pages of a travel magazine some years ago. It is of a hammam designated for Jewish women in Kermanshah. A large, empty room, save for a single attendant, an old woman in a dark floral print chador standing beside the pipe that must have fed the baths with hot water. Mahboubeh stares at this image for a long while. She remembers the proprietor of that hammam, waiting beside the door.
She sits at her table, holding the picture and remembering, and somewhere in the incremental spaces between the shifting of the morning shadows, Mahboubeh imagines Rakhel as a girl of fifteen, perhaps half a century before the time this photograph must have been taken, looking up to the ceiling of that same hammam, where a mosaic of mirrors reflects fragments of the bodies in the room below. Buttocks and thighs on the green tile work, legs stretched out over the edges of the large central pool, arms raised overhead, straight backs and curved backs and large hips, slender hips and sagging breasts, and breasts like apples, and flat girl chests, the wild hair below navels, stomachs round and protruding and flat and ribs beneath the skin.
The old attendant scrubs Rakhel’s shoulders with a coarse mitt, moving her body violently back and forth. Ash-colored flakes of dead skin fall from her arms onto the
marble floor. Rakhel’s sister-in-law Khorsheed sits naked beside her and worries over the skin of her heel with a pumice stone. Her black abundant hair covers her shoulders and breasts, and her thighs and the plump flesh of her arms shake and jiggle with each move. She stops, turns to Rakhel and says, “I don’t want my feet to become like yours, Dada. Rough-skinned like some shoeless peasant’s.” Khorsheed nudges Rakhel with her elbow to get her attention. “See how dainty and white they are? Soft, too, like I’ve walked on rugs of silk my whole life.” She holds up her foot beneath Rakhel’s nose and wriggles her toes. Rakhel pushes her foot away. Their mother-in-law, Zolekhah, looks up at them in warning, then continues to apply indigo and henna to turn her own white hair a raven black.
The steam rises and rolls thick into the air and carries the scents of rosewater and soap. Suddenly, the door bursts open, pushed by a crowd of women that fills the room. The women throw their heads back and their tongues rapidly hit the roofs of their mouths. The sound
rings through the vaults of the large room, crashes against the stone and tiled walls, echoes in the corridors announcing the arrival of a soon-to-be bride. Servants balance on top of their heads wide silver trays laden with fruits and sweetmeats, they carry rugs and pillows as they walk through the hammam to the dressing room to arrange for the feast that follows the ceremonial bath. The eldest hammam attendant begins clapping a rhythm. She walks around the room, motioning with exaggerated gesture for the women
to join her, until all the women in the hammam are clapping to her beat. She stands in the middle of the room and sings, “Lips press lips . . .”
“Lips press lips,” the women chorus.
“Navel presses navel . . .”
“Navel presses navel.”
“An aleph straightens into
“Vah, vah, Khadijeh Khanum! Where did you hear that one?” An elderly woman says and the rest of the women laugh.
“Here’s one more polite for your taste,” she says. “Dum dum dadee dum dum . . .” The attendant waggles her head, snaps her fingers and moves her large hips to the rhythm of the women’s clapping.
Rakhel turns to watch the young bride, still standing hesitantly in the doorway. Her breasts are tiny swollen buds, her nipples small and pink, her straight body without hips, yet, the beginning of soft brown hair between her legs. The girl blushes and holds back until the mother of her betrothed finally takes hold of her shoulders and pushes her forward into the room. The bride’s own mother walks closely behind her and burns seeds of wild rue in a small plate, the smoke to ward off glances of envy.
Amidst the singing and the blessings, the family of the young bride and groom take her to a far corner of the hammam and sit her on a chair. They close in around her, part slightly to allow in Naneh Adeh, the old midwife, and a sudden hush falls upon the room. The older woman approaches
the young bride, kneels before her, takes her face, looks her in the eyes and asks if she has known a man. The young girl shakes her head frantically, her eyes wide and round. The woman places her wrinkled hands on the girl’s thighs, pulls them open, holds the outer folds of her vagina with the dry fingers of one hand and explores the hidden folds with the fingers of the other. All the women hold their breath and wait. No one moves. The silence is suddenly broken by the old woman’s confirmation that the girl is untouched. The singing and dancing resume and they lead the girl to another corner of the room to remove the down of her arms and legs and to pluck and shape her eyebrows.
Rakhel turns to see her mother-in-law studying her back, her forehead wrinkled with concern. “Rakhel, is Asher happy with you?” Zolekhah asks.
Khorsheed turns quickly to glance at Rakhel, who meets her look with alarm, then drops her gaze to the floor.
“Does he send you to the
“Dada went to the miqveh earlier this week, Naneh Zolekhah,” Khorsheed says.
“I am speaking with Rakhel, child. Rakhel, does my son have frequent husband-wife relations with you?”
“Khorsheed has been with my Ibrahim for less than a year and she is already pregnant.”
Rakhel is silent. In the hollowness of the hammam’s vaults, she hears the accusation amplified and feels a hundred eyes on her skin. Her body feels cold. The attendant pauses a
moment in her task, still holding Rakhel’s arm, and squeezes the girl’s hand in reassurance.
“Perhaps Rakhel Khanum is not eating well enough,” the attendant suggests.
“She eats well,” Zolekhah responds.
“Does she eat enough red meat?” asks a woman from across the hammam.