I heard Jasmin Darznik, an Iranian who arrived in the US at age 3, speak at the Charlottesville Festival of the Book this year as part of a panel on memoirs. She teaches English and creative writing at W & L.
When her father died, as she was helping her mother move, she found a photograph that she eventually learned was her mother as a 13 year old bride. Her mother's great secret was the story of her first husband, which involved learning the meaning of the word "sadism," and the daughter from that marriage in 1950-51. To explain this photograph, her mother Lili sent the author a series of tapes detailing the life of Lili's mother Kobra from her birth in 1921, through Lili's life, to the time when the author Jasmin came of age in California.
The life of the women in Iran during that time is the focus of this mesmerizing book. Their existence is loving and filled with beauty, against the backdrop of the all powerful men who just don't come off very well. Of course the women are at times cruel to each other, but their powers are fleeting. The households described seem to be organized similarly to prides of lions; one man and many women, although only one is a wife. I was especially taken with this description of one aspect of the lives of the women, the visit by a "reader of homilies" who came once every few months to recite passages from the Koran.
Lili marveled at how the women's faces, just moments before alive with chatter and gossip, fell slack and mournful at the rowzeh-khan's first words. They rocked their bodies back and forth, slowly at first and then faster and faster, and then they'd raise their hands up to the sky and begin to moan and cry and beat their chests with their fists. Listening to these parables of human suffering, they released their own emotions with a fervor that drowned out the rowzeh-khan's own impassioned readings, but at the end they invariably emerged calm and happy, their worries washed suddenly clean for the day.
The joy of cleanliness and wonderful food are recurring themes of their lives, not surprisingly. No amount of work was too much to achieve these goals. In her effort to keep her husband, Kobra, the author's grandmother, killed a chicken each morning to make a cup of broth for his breakfast. It ultimately was not enough. Great steaming platters of stew and orange crisped rice, as well as towers of plump dates and cups of cardamom-scented tea figure in many tales. The author writes beautifully; the operatic events of her mother's life flow artfully and she skillfully conveys the beauty of their lives. I often found myself hungry as I read.