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Words on Fire

Farideh Dayanim Goldin celebrates the literature now being produced by Iranian Jewish Women

Farideh Dayanim Goldin  |  Autumn 2005  -  Number 199

  
  
 

Iranian Jewish women have produced far more literature in the last two decades than during the previous 2,000 years. Whether in novels by Dorit Rabinyan, Gina Nahai and Dora Levy Mossanen, or memoirs by Farideh Goldin and Roya Hakakian, they have proved that, with access to education and freedom of speech - both denied them for centuries - they can shine.

It is worth remembering that prose writing in general, and especially by women, is relatively new in Iranian literature. Simin Daneshvar’s novel Savushun, published in 1969, was the first by an Iranian woman. (It later appeared in English in M. R. Ghanoonparvar’s translation [Washington: Mage, 1990].)

Jewish women appeared on the scene much later. Elham Yaqoubian published her first novel, Daryaye Khamoush (The Silent Sea), in 1994. Homa Sarshar published a play and two volumes of her essays, Dar Kooche Paskooche-haye Qorbat (In the Back Alleys of Exile), only after she was in exile in 1993. These books, if available at all, are still only in Persian.

In recent times non-Jewish women writers have flourished in Iran. According to an article by Nazila Fathi in The New York Times (29 June 2005), 370 women have published novels in the last decade and ‘Iran’s best-selling fiction lists have become dominated by women’. Since the Jewish population of Iran has plummeted from over 100,000 to 25,000, there is little hope that Jewish women will create works of fiction in Iran. However, they are thriving abroad. The prose literature they have published in Israel and the United States has opened a window onto Iranian Jewish life in fiction and memoirs.

The three novelists I have mentioned have all produced stories with Iranian Jewish settings wrapped in mythical fantasy and the exotic. In her first book Persian Brides (translated by Yael Loton; Edinburgh: Canongate, 1998), the Israeli writer Dorit Rabinyan captures Jewish women’s lives in small forgotten corners of Iran. When she was growing up in Kfar Saba, she told me, the neighbourhood children made fun of her background, following her on the streets, yelling ‘Parsi, Parsi!’ Instead of distancing herself from her heritage, Rabinyan found herself obsessed with the country of her ancestors. She loved listening to the sometimes bizarre, sometimes fanciful stories the women of the family told and retold of Iranian Jewish life.

At the same time, she had trouble juxtaposing these magical, cosy and warm remembrances that her family had created in Israel with the grim media images of Iranians. When I interviewed in 1998, she said:

I watch the angry faces of Iranian men on my TV, fists clenched, eyes blood-shot with anger, calling for the destruction of Israel, my destruction. It is surreal because in their faces I also see my uncles, my father, the men who have shown me nothing but love. I have a hard time separating the two. Why do they hate me? Who are these people to deny me a visit to my ancestral homeland? Why do they deny me the sights and sounds of a country I carry with me everyday?

By choosing magic surrealism to write Persian Brides, Rabinyan reveals her understanding of a culture which is both enchanted and unreal. Desiring to become brides, female children test their readiness for marriage by cleaning sabzee (herbs). Supernatural forces rule the characters’ lives. When Miriam Hanoum was a child, she taunted cats even though the villagers warned her of the cat’s revenge:

But Miriam Hanoum did not heed their warnings, and when at last she married and bore her first child on a hot night, her arms were scored with scratches left by the claws of dead cats . . . A hate-filled embittered alley cat stretched his lithe body, climbed in through the open window, padded up to the baby, and crouched on top of it, covering its nose and mouth. When the baby stopped breathing, the cat rose quietly and slunk back out through the window.

Also, since it is written in a magic-realist style, the historical and geographical mistakes in her book (for example the presence of camels in northern Iran) do not detract from the novel. Drawing on superstition Rabinyan’s Iranian ancestors practised, the book is filled with scenes of evil jinns in the hammam and old Judeo-Persian words, long forgotten by all but the oldest Iranian Jews. The result is a fascinating mystical story.

In her second novel, translated as by Yael Loton Our Weddings in Britain (London: Bloomsbury, 2002) and Strand of Thousand Pearls for the US market, Rabinyan chooses a more realistic style. Although once again she depicts Persian weddings, the setting is now Israel. She adds another proverbial theme of her family life, the difficulties of immigrants in Israel. Her protagonist, Iran, falls asleep,

before she allowed herself the soundless tears of emigrants, in which were blended her regret for the place she had left with fears of the place she was heading for.

Whereas Persian Brides shows a long-gone magical homeland, Our Weddings probes the reality of life as immigrants, lonely and troubled even in the Holy Land.

Born in Tehran, Gina Nahai spent many of her younger years studying abroad. Her father, François Barkhordar, told me that the situation was never ideal for Iranian Jews, still less for Iranian Jewish women. He sent Gina to a Swiss boarding school so she would learn to be independent, knowing that some day she would leave for a different country. He added: ‘I never thought my daughter could reach her potential as a Jewish woman in Iran.’ At the start of the Iranian Revolution, Gina and her family immigrated to the United States. Living in California, Nahai studied political science and was awaiting acceptance at the law school when she started recording life stories based on anecdotes that women in her family exchanged as they gathered in the kitchen to cook. Like Rabinyan, she found in these tales the impetus for her first novel, Cry of the Peacock (New York: Crown, 1991). By the time her admission papers to law school arrived, she had decided on a change of career and instead studied creative writing.

Cry of the Peacock presents Iranian Jewish women’s life journey through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries up to the Islamic Revolution. Nahai chooses Isfahan, the birthplace of her maternal grandparents, as the setting for her compelling plot. In this as well as her second novel, Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith (New York: WSP, 2000), she concentrates on women’s lives in the Jewish ghettos, their victimization by Muslims, abuse by male co-religionists - and their unbroken will to survive.

The author’s masterful use of myths and the traditional style of exaggeration give her first novels their Persian flavour. Like Rabinyan, Nahai employs magic realism to tell stories that are foreign to her even if they emanate from her Iranian heritage. Roxanna, the heroine of Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith, grows wings at night and flies away from the intolerable life in the Jewish ghetto and in her husband’s home, leaving her daughter behind. Later, she finds her way to Los Angeles to be reunited with her daughter. However, her guilt swells within her, and she blows up to an enormous size. She confesses, ‘There is a sorrow within me so deep, I have not been able to give it a name.’ The only cure is almond tears made by her daughter, which enable her to talk and to shed the guilt of wanting to be independent. Becoming light again, she puts her hand around her daughter’s shoulders and the two take flight. Roxanna shows her daughter the path of the long journey that brought them to America.

Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith is the tale of a Jewish woman’s dream of leaving the ghetto behind, however great the cost; it is a mother-daughter story; and it is an immigrant story. In her third novel, Sunday’s Silence (Orlando: Harcourt, 2001), Nahai departs from the themes of her previous novels and writes about a small sect of snake worshippers in the Appalachian mountains. She told me that so many of her readers thought Jewish life in Iran was primitive that she wanted to prove that American life can be strange as well. She is currently finishing another book, Dreams of a Caspian Rain. Set in Iran, it’s a story of a Jewish girl who is slowly going deaf. It is also a story of loss, ‘and the way we deal with it - in the West - and the way we used to, at least, and still do in a large degree, deal with it in the East,’ Nahai said about her new novel.

Both Dorit Rabinyan and Gina Nahai portray Iranian Jewish life in the ghettos of Iran and the strong women who struggle to survive. They both explore the sorrows and the rewards of exile. Similarly, Dora Levy Mossanen chooses these familiar topics in her two books Harem (New York: Scribner, 2002) and Courtesan (New York: Touchstone, 2005). Her sense of alienation and exile is, however, more personal. Born in Israel of Iranian parents, she returned to Iran at age 9 when her parents decided to rejoin the extended family. Having seen Israeli women wearing shorts and serving as soldiers carrying Uzis on their shoulders, she was shocked at the sight of chador-clad Iranian women.

At the onset of the Islamic Revolution, Mossanen fled to the United States. However, she feels like a citizen of three countries, even though she will not be able to return to Iran because of her Jewish religion and Israeli birthplace. She found it quite shocking, therefore, when her French publishers decided to erase a major part of her identity on the French edition. As she told me earlier this year,

I turned the book to the back cover, searching for my bio, and this is what it said: ‘Dora Mossanen is an Iranian who lives in the United States.’ No mention of being born in Israel, living in Iran and fleeing the Islamic Revolution, as every other one of my books does. Apparently my Jewish identity didn’t sit well with my French publisher.

Harem and Courtesan are tales of intrigue and the fantastic, of Jewish women in Persian harems, and more. In Harem, Rebekah’s dying mother marries her off before puberty to Jacob the Fatherless, believing that her daughter would be financially secure. The marriage is nightmarish. Jacob rapes the young child-bride despite his promise to the mother that he would wait until she matured. His abuse culminates when, to punish her for giving birth to a girl, he brands Rebekah between her breasts with a scorching poker. In return, the young mother tricks him into the same fiery furnace he had used to heat the instrument, incinerating him and ending the terror that hangs over herself and her new-born daughter, Gold Dust.

I asked Mossanen if she could respond to the criticism that her books are slightly pornographic. She replied that she thinks of them as ‘sensual and lush’. She added: ‘Sensuality was so organic to the story that I never stopped to think that I might be criticized.’ I asked her which action of her female characters seemed the most courageous to her. She chose Rebekah the Bundle Woman. After she became a prostitute by necessity, she had the chutzpah to approach the most prominent member of the Jewish community to suggest marriage between their children, reversing the rules of khastegari, proposals. When she is begrudgingly allowed inside the opulent house, Rebekah voices ‘the words no Jewish mother would utter, even now’, Mossanen said. ‘I’ve come to ask for the hand of your son, Ebrahim, for my daughter, Gold Dust.’ Obviously, not just her female characters are gutsy, but also the author. By writing such a sexually open book, Mossanen crosses the cultural and gender boundaries of her Iranian background.

The first chapter of Courtesan is narrated by the daughter of ‘Françoise and granddaughter of Mme Gabrielle, idols of seduction’. The year is March 1901, the place Persia. The story, again, centres on a Persian king and his intriguing court, a sensual and seductive woman and her daughter, the Muslims and the Jews.

The three novelists Dorit Rabinyan, Gina Nahai and Dora Levy Mossanen portray the sometimes forgotten Jewish women as multi-faceted, fascinating characters who can endure and survive Jewish ghettos, search for independence and influence a king. Iranian Jewish women are portrayed as sometimes exotic, but never dull, and certainly no longer silent.

In Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith, one of Nahai’s Iranian immigrants to the United States says, ‘This is the land of choices and chances.’ He adds: ‘This much I know about living in exile . . . You can love the old country all you want. Sometimes, exile is the best thing that can happen to a people.’ In the months following the Revolution of 1979, many Iranian Jews believed that they would eventually return to their ancestral home. Decades later, however, they are more comfortable in their adopted homelands and the western democracies that have hosted them. Consequently, many have lost their fear of sharing their innermost thoughts, a taboo strictly observed in the old culture. Although the Revolution destroyed Iranian Jewish communities that date back to the destruction of the First Temple, it has also been a blessing. Comfortable with their newly found freedom of speech, Iranian Jews outside their ancestral homeland have researched their history and background at a furious pace. Newly found voices have given women’s literature another dimension through the publication of two books of memoirs, my own Wedding Song: Memoirs of an Iranian Jewish Woman, (Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2003) and Roya Hakakian’s The Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran (New York: Crown, 2004).

Modesty and secrecy prevented Iranian women, especially Jewish women, from recording our life narratives until recently. Writing of the self is frightening; it has consequences. Narratives cannot possibly explain the author’s life without involving other family members and friends. Even before I decided to write my autobiography, I received messages from relatives threatening lawsuits if I spoke about family matters in my lectures. From our Iranian past, we have imported into the West the taboo against speaking and writing candidly. Both Roya and I agree that writing and publishing our memoirs gave us sleepless nights. We feared the disapproval of family and friends; we feared the backlash of emotional exposure that terrifies most writers of memoirs. Being Iranian Jewish women made the sharing of these private stories even more daunting.

Two striking sections of these books are the prologue to Wedding Song and the last chapter of The Journey from the Land of No; in both, words are literally on fire. When I was a teenager, my father burned my books because family members complained that they could corrupt a young woman. I walked into the kitchen one early morning to find my books in a wood-burning stove:

Now curling at the edges, crumbling, the black of the words disappeared into the red of the flames and the gray of the ashes - exorcised worlds flew in tiny particles from the pyre and swirled in the air. Breathing them, I wondered where I could take my mind now that their magic had fled through the chimney.

This book-burning wasn’t new. Relying on the mercy of whatever government was in power, we, the Jews, tried not to cross the ever-shifting boundaries - not to make waves culturally or politically. Years earlier, my father had burned his younger brother’s papers and poetry during the coup of 1953, as the Shah’s agents searched the neighbourhood for revolutionaries.

Being his guardian, Baba feared for my uncle’s safety, and our family’s as well. As the police neared our home, my father tore through my uncle’s room, searched in the Passover dishes in the attic and dug among the onions and spices in the pantry, looking for illegal documents. He found armloads of anti-Shah literature and tossed them in a bonfire. In his haste, he also burned my uncle’s collection of poetry, short stories and paintings. By the time the American-supported agents reached our home, the only traces of the passionate arguments against the king were deliciously spiced ashes flying in the wind.

In a similar episode, Hakakian’s father burned her books before they fled Iran:

Among the ashes, in the bonfire, my world was burning: my newspapers and magazines, my fifth-grade appreciation certificate from the shah’s minister of education.

Hakakian felt as if her father burned her books ‘to punish me for what should never have been a crime’. Words have been more dangerous than swords in Iran both during the reign of the Pahlavis and under the Islamic government. It is, therefore, not surprising that Jewish women didn’t write before, that it has taken them so many years to produce the first autobiographies.

Exile, again, is a strong theme in both books. In her memoir, Hakakian portrays the shock of her involuntarily exile, the decision to leave everything behind and to venture into an unknown and frightening world, and the sorrow of dreams evaporated in a Revolution gone wrong. The last chapter of Wedding Song records my family’s escape from Iran to Israel. Soon we scattered around the globe trying to find homes. As the oldest child, I could not communicate with my youngest sister for many years. She escaped to Israel with our parents at age 4. I lived in the United States then, having young children of my own. Forgetting her Persian, my sister spoke only Hebrew, a language I do not understand. Now we communicate in English, a borrowed tongue for both of us.

Nostalgia among the Iranians in exile and westerners’ curiosity about Iran reinforce this momentum in recording Iranian Jewish stories. I started writing my memoirs at my daughters’ request. They wanted to know about a country they might never be able to visit. Later, I added stories that were not just mine, but were also drawn from generations of women who didn’t have voices of their own. The realization that I could speak for them helped me risk the publication of my personal life narratives. Otherwise, the stories of those women who had come before me, who had endured oppression and poverty, would have been lost. The details of our everyday lives, I thought, were worth sharing, whether our custom of cleaning sour grapes for Passover or visiting the women’s public baths, the hammam, in the Jewish ghetto, or countless other ways we lived.

Similarly, Roya Hakakian told me in 2004 about writing The Journey from the Land of NO, ‘Many English-speaking friends always wanted to hear the story of Iran and its revolution as I had seen it.’ It was important for Hakakian to tell the story of the Revolution from her point of view. In a talk at the International Iranian Conference in Bethesda, Maryland, in May 2004, Hakakian recalled how she had originally been sympathetic to the cause. She even called herself ‘an antisemitic Jew’ who thought of herself as an Iranian first before the Revolution turned against its critics. Like many other Iranians, she had hoped that the Revolution would bring equality and justice to the masses, never imagining that she would be forced to flee her country.

This surge of writing by Iranian Jewish women outside their country of origin has excavated long-buried tales of suffering, injustice, revolutionary zeal, courage and passion. It will undoubtedly produce many more books. It will be fascinating to discover if Iranian Jewish men join this wave of literary creativity . . .

Farideh Goldin was born in 1953 in Shiraz, Iran, to a family of dayanim, the judges and leaders of the Jewish community. Her family moved out of the mahaleh, the Jewish ghetto, to a Muslim neighbourhood when she was 8, where she experienced both friendship and antisemitism. Later, attending an American-style university, she was torn between her loyalty to her family and a western education that promoted individualism and self-reliance. Her memoir Wedding Song records her struggle to reconcile these two worlds. She can be reached via her website: www.FaridehGoldin.com

  
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