The Good Daughter-Interview with Jasmin Darznik
Q: So this is a story that really all begins with a photograph. Tell me about the photograph.
A: This picture was of my mother I recognized her right away. That she was very young and she was standing next to a man who was not my father. A man I hadn’t even seen before. And in this photograph she looked very vulnerable and frightened too, which was not how I recognized my mother at all.
Q: And how did you find this photograph? How did it come to be? How did you find this photograph?
A: I was back in California my father had just passed away and I was helping my mother pack her things up, she couldn’t afford to live in the house anymore and as I was going through some of old letters this photograph from a stack of papers and other pictures, just fell into my hands by accident.
Q: Did it feel like something that was hidden? That she was keeping it someplace or was it just kind of mixed in with all of her other affects?
A: It was jumbled in. I didn’t have a feeling that it had been hidden away. It had a feeling more of having been misplaced.
Q: And what happened? What did you do when you saw this photograph?
A: Well I was absolutely incredulous at first. I couldn’t square at all this girl I was seeing the photograph with the mother I knew. She’d never told me about this first marriage. My father had just passed and my mom was grief stricken. It was very difficult to go to her at that time. What I did is I went back home and I waited a little while and then I called her on the telephone. I asked her about it for the first time when I was back on the east coast and at first she refused to say anything. She accused me of having stolen the photograph from her. She told me this had nothing to do with me. That was her life and not mine and I had to rights to ask any questions.
Q: Tell me more about the photograph itself, tell me about the details of it?
A: It had the texture of leather these old photographs from Iran we others from the 50s and 60s that almost the texture and feel of leather. It had a white crease that ran through it, it had scalloped edges as well, black and white and in the photograph my mother was dressed as a bride, as a young bride had she had in the photograph lipstick and coal lined eyes which was an extraordinary counterpoint to her very extreme youth.
Q: How old is she in the photograph?
A: She’s thirteen.
Q: And what about the man in the photograph?
A: The man in the photograph is visibly older.
Q: So tell me more about the man in the photograph.
A: The man was visibly much older than my mother. He wore a tuxedo and had a fedora on his head, which was a kind of strange combination to me. His face was pleasant enough but what really struck me was how much older he was than her and how small and vulnerable she looked beside him.
Q: What was your first thought when you saw it?
A: Utter disbelief. It was nothing I could recognize. Nothing I could make sense of. I was completely confused. This was a story no one had ever told me. I couldn’t even imagine it really as belonging to my mother’s history at all.
Q: Did it cross your mind for a moment oh maybe this was a costume party or this, but you knew right away my mother had been married before.
A: It was absolutely evident to me that this was a wedding photograph.
Q: And tell me more about her reaction when you confronted her.
A: She shut down totally. My mother and I at that point only spoke to each other infrequently. I’d moved clear across the country, we had a lot of bad blood between us, we spoke only infrequently and so it wasn’t all that surprising that she wouldn’t talk to me about the photograph but she was certainly abrasive and rather harsh in her reaction accusing me of having stolen the picture for one thing. Telling me this had nothing to do with me. Asserting that this was her story and not mine.
Q: So she was angry. She was defensive
A: She was angry. She was defensive and taken aback suddenly this part of her life that she’d manage to keep secret for 50 years at that moment so soon after my father’s death to have that history revealed was for her very frightening.
Q: And you didn’t push her on it even though you knew there was so much more.
A: There was and I actually called her a few times but was met with an utter refusal to talk or engage at all about the past.
Q: And then one day the tapes start arriving.
A: She starts to send me a series of cassette tapes. She doesn’t tell me, she doesn’t warn me ahead of time that they are coming. The first one shows up at my doorstep without even a letter she’s written in Persian script on it and the only thing I can make out barely, just barely is my name and at that time I didn’t even have a cassette tape player I didn’t have a player on which to even put this cassette tape. I had to go out and buy one and I spent several weeks holed up in my apartment listening to this tape over and over and over again trying to reconcile the story she was telling me and also the expressions and the tenor of her voice with this very steely unsentimental mother that I’d known as a child.
Q: What did she tell you on the first tape?
A: The first tape was the story of her mother. The first tape told the story of her mother and father’s very tempestuous marriage. My grandmother had several times been cast out of the house and suffered a lot of abuse under my grandfather’s hands. She began by telling that you can’t understand my story until I tell you about your grandmother and about your grandfather. Iran wasn’t like American you couldn’t just leave your home, leave your family, our lives weren’t like that. In order to understand my story you have to first understand your grandmother’s story and your grandfather’s story.
Q: So she started with context. Did she start I’m just curious did she yes you found the photograph yes I have but here’s what I’ve got to tell you first? Did she at any point just come forth and say yes you found the photograph of this secret I’ve kept hidden but here’s the back story or did she just start right in with you can’t know anything about until you understand all these other things.
A: She wanted to make clear to me the circumstances that made this marriage. The circumstances under which she was given away. It was becoming increasingly rare to marry girls off that young at 13. My mother would be the last in her family to be married quite so young. Her cousins who were just a few years younger would be married at 16 and 17 and then 18. And I think she really wanted to convey to me the particular circumstances under which her marriage was hastened. And her marriage took place.
Q: So she felt like she needed to paint a broad picture to help you understand. Did she say anything I’m just curious about her tenor did she say anything there is so much you need to know and what was kind of as you mentioned her tone?
A: Her tone was very much like the same tone she’d taken with me over the years whenever she talked about Iran she’d say you don’t understand it, you can’t possibly grasp what Iran was. What do you know about Iran so it was in part it was the voice of instruction. It was the voice of authority. She needed to tell me what Iran was in order for me to understand what her story had been.
Q: Here’s what you don’t know, here’s why I kept this a secret. Do you think that’s why she decided to tell you all this on tape?
A: It’s not a conversation we could have initiated face to face. Particularly at that juncture in our relationship. We talked so infrequently I rarely went back to California. I didn’t want much to do with her Iranian world and I think it’s a story she could only tell by sitting in a room, by herself and getting her license herself license to speak without interruption, without interjection. She needed to command the story and to let it come out whole rather than being pestered and fragmented by questions and my queries.
Q: She needed to pour it all out.
A: She needed to get it out in one breathless whole.
Q: But it didn’t come all just on one tape. You get one tape. And then?
A: And I would get sometimes one or two the first one was just one cassette tape. Sometimes she’d send me two together and they could come at intervals of a week. The tapes would come to me over a course of a few months so it was as if I was watching a whole history unfold and there would be times where I’d wait and wonder when the next would come and we’d speak on the telephone. We sometimes I would allude to the cassette tapes and she would say you just have to wait. I can’t tell you on the telephone. You have to wait for the rest of the story to come to you.
Q: What was it like waiting for each new tape?
A: It was so suspenseful. It was as if I were reading in installments a novel. It was that episodic and suspenseful. It was as I were waiting the latest installment in a Victorian novel.
Q: Right and you had no idea where the story was going. I mean anything could happen. All you had was a photograph.
A: And I knew nothing about this first marriage. I definitely didn’t know about that daughter that she reveals. That was stunning.
Q: We’ll get to that.
A: But it was very painful to listen too. There were times where she cried on the cassette tapes recounting the night of her wedding for example. She sounded almost like a small child and actually wept onto the cassette tapes. I’d never I could barely remember having heard my mother cry before and there were times where she had such disgust and hatred too toward her first husband when she was recounting his abuses towards her she could become so hateful in her words and it was an absolutely extraordinary history to hear.
Q: was it difficult to not be able to discuss it with her? You couldn’t console her? You couldn’t help her tell her story.
A: It was her story to tell. She had made clear to me that she needed to tell the story in this way to me and in between when talked she would say I’ll answer your questions later. You just have to listen to these tapes before we can even talk you need to know the full story. She wanted so much for me to understand her version of the story before I pressed her with questions.
Q: Talk about the elephant in the room you have a mundane phone conversation about this and that meanwhile she’s pouring her life out to you on tape and you can’t really discuss it.
A: But it was exactly this tension between trying to square who this girl was and who my mother was. It was almost like two plotlines were unfolding. There was the relationship we had, which was quite fragmented and frayed and then there was a new relationship too evolving and emerging. My gradual understanding of who she had been and what it had taken for to bring me to America for one thing. All of the loss and longing that had become warped once we left Iran. It was becoming clearer to me as I listened to these tapes the force of that history and how it had given me the mother I knew.
Q: Had she ever done anything like this before?
A: My mother had a tradition she’d established with other women of her family, many of my mother’s female relatives her aunts, her own mother, her grandmother were illiterate and they couldn’t write letters once we left Iran. They couldn’t write letters to each other and it was also quite expensive and sometimes impossible to get a phone call through to America and they had for this reason established a custom of making cassette tapes for each other and these could come once or twice a year sometimes they would send several more. A good number of them could gather in a room and together they’d all have a conversation together and send her these voices from home. And my mother had sent cassette tapes to her mother and her grandmother and aunts over the years so her making the tapes she’d never made a tape for me before but in a sense it was part of a tradition that she’d established with her family in Iran.
Q: As you are learning all of this, as you are learning this hidden history what was it like to know.
Q: What was it like to learn all of this?
A: It was shocking and I had a feeling too other than confusion of just pure what is this story and how does it fit into the stories I know. I was also angry. I couldn’t believe that she had suppressed all this. That she’d kept it hidden from me. It seemed extraordinary that she had kept secret all of these years of her life this marriage. Amazing.
Q: What did it say to you about the culture of the country that you left and that your parents left?
A: It spoke to me about what I did know, which was all of the taboos in Iranian culture surrounding difficult cultural aspects like divorce and domestic abuse, alcoholism, these were all subjects we could never broach in conversation. Iranians, polite Iranians would never talk of such things publically. The story she was telling me was one that I’d never seen written anywhere at all. It was a story if I knew about divorcees they’d be spoken of even here in America in hushed voices. Divorce was a taboo subject even certainly domestic abuse and alcoholism were subjects you could never talk about publically. You kept those stories hidden.
Q: So in a way it wasn’t unprecedented that she had kept all this secret and yet she’d kept it secret from you. From her own daughter. So that’s really the twist. What, aside from the hard facts what did it tell you about your mother? What did you learn about her from hearing this secret history?
A: Most of all it revealed to me her steeliness and her drive. Divorce in 1950s Iran I knew even growing up in America this was exceedingly rare and listening to the tapes what became quickly striking to me was how much drive and determination it took for her to leave that first husband in order to seek that divorce. It revealed to me aspects of my mother that I hadn’t known existed so early in her life. That absolutely correlated to the tough, strong woman who had raised me.
Q: And how did all this new information square with the woman, the mother that you knew?
A: I understood that it was all of the trauma of that first marriage that had brought to bear her protectiveness and her harshness really in raising me. Her fear for me became so much clearer. I could understand and begin also to have compassion for a woman that I couldn’t much understand growing up.
Q: So there is a huge amount of insight that it gave you obviously. How did your mother raise you?
A: My mother was one of those strict old world mothers. She was far stricter than any Iranian mother though Iranian mothers were notoriously strict in our community.
Q: What was your mother like?
A: My mother was the strictest Iranian mother in our community.
Q: How did your mother raise you?
A: My mother was so strict in her raising of me. Iranian mothers were already pretty strict but she was far stricter than any of the Iranian mothers that I knew of. My parents ran a motel in Northern California and she used to tell me you can’t go into the streets. You can’t be seen. There was a bell that rang whenever someone came to the motel and whenever she heard she’d tell me hide yourself, hide yourself. She was so anxious that I should go out by myself. She had this constant fear that I’d get lost and she’d tell me when I was very little she’d say if you misbehave and if you go out I’ll go back to Iran to my good daughter the one that I left behind and I believed her when I was really little I thought that this good daughter is going to steal my mother away from me so I have to stay close, I have to keep myself good. As I became a teenager and rebelled more and more from her she’d invoke this good daughter too from time to time but by then I dismissed it as a fiction. I would think this is just one of my crazy Iranian mother’s ways of trying to keep in line.
Q: It’s just an expression.
A: It’s just, yet another strange Iranian turn of phrase, yet another bizarre behavior of my Iranian mothers.
Q: Some way that she was trying to control you. In other words you didn’t take her literally that I have a good daughter that I left behind.
A: Absolutely not. I didn’t believe that there was a daughter. I just thought this was her way of trying to control me.
Q: When did you find out that there actually was a daughter she’d left behind?
A: I only found out for the first time on those cassette tapes. Those tapes that she would send to me over the course of several months were the first that I would hear of this daughter that she’d had at 13 and left behind in Iran.
Q: And tell me more about the circumstances of her being forced to leave her daughter behind.
A: It was very rare for women to seek divorce in those years. My mother had no legal right to seek a divorce. It was only her father who could procure a divorce on her behalf and he did so with the instruction that she never see her daughter again. That she not even speak the daughter’s name again. She was only able to divorce with this promise of leaving her daughter behind.
Q: And is it because children belong to the father in Iran at that time or?
A: It’s long been part of the Iranian culture that children belong to their fathers. At that time women had very few legal rights and as a matter of cultural mandate children went automatically almost nearly always to their fathers. The only circumstance under which this might be different is if a women’s family was prominent and wealthy which was not the case with my mother’s family.
Q: So if they were powerful enough they could have taken the children.
A: Claimed back the child. My grandfather though, my grandfather believed that this was the only way that my mother could make a new life for herself. He never considered seriously letting her keep that child. Or letting her be raised even by another member of the family. He thought that the only way that she might make a new life for herself would be to break completely from her daughter.
A: Showed her the picture I found. Her face lights up. I mean he’s God to her. He’s God because in some ways because he was so absent but also because he had all of the power and he was the one who saved her life. She really believes that he saved her life.
Q: That you learned for the first time you learned who the good daughter really was. Your mother’s first marriage ends with divorce and she’s forced to give up Sarah you half sister. Did she stay in touch with her?
A: Over the years they would see each other. Once Sarah was smuggled into the house and aunts of my mother’s helped bring her to the house and this would actually force my grandfather would then decide to send my mother abroad because he was so fearful that she would persist in seeing Sarah and that was I part the reason why he sent her abroad was to make sure that they didn’t see each other again. When he died she was able to come back to Iran and see Sarah again. Sarah once ran away from home and came to my mother and grandmother’s little flat in the city they were living in together and Sarah had found them all by herself she’d trekked through the city to find my mother. Sarah was raised to think my mother left her behind on her own volition that she’d left her behind. That she’d abandoned her. She’d been raised also to think my mother was a bad woman, a loose woman. That she was even a prostitute she’d been told. And yet she had I think we can understand an extreme desire to see her mother again. From time to time they would see one another but it would always be a broken relationship as hard as my mother tried over the years later when she returned to Iran with my father to patch up the relationship. There would always be tremendous pain on both sides. My sister was by then a teenager and my mother was scarcely in mid 20s and suddenly had on her hands a deeply resentful, angry teenage girl who she couldn’t begin to know how to raise.
Q: No you mentioned that your father had sent your mother to Germany in some ways to try to keep her
A: My grandfather.
Q: Pardon me your grandfather, sent your mother to Germany trying to keep her away from Sarah where she ends up completely her education, and eventually meets the man who’d become your father and they move back to Iran. You were born in Iran and unwittingly spent time with Sarah.
A: My grandmother used to run a hair salon in Tehran and from time to time a girl would come visit me there. She would play with me, she’d draw with me, she’d play dolls with me and I remember her as very beautiful. She would have been by then 20 years old when I was 2 and 3 years old. I can scarcely remember it it’s so dim in memory but I can remember visits by this girl with long beautiful hair would come to the salon but nobody told me that she was my sister. Nobody told me where she came to visit or at and once we came to America I forget that she had even been part of our lives.
Q: She’s just a distant memory.
A: Only a memory that would I would recover by listening to these tapes. When my mother started to tell about the 60s and 70s in Iran about Sarah and those years I finally recovered these memories of her at this hair salon where she would come and play with me.
Q: What were the circumstances. Your parents left Iran just before the revolution. What were the circumstances? Why did they decide to leave?
A: There was a feeling that trouble was coming. They weren’t calling it yet an Islamic revolution but many people certainly the wealthy Iranians of the time were beginning send money abroad. They were beginning to leave the country and there was a feeling that trouble was coming. And my mother I think also in part was seeking a fresh start. My father had begun drinking quite heavily in Iran and she also was very pained by the impossibility really of restoring the relationship with Sarah. And I think in part it was a feeling that they could begin again in another place.
Q: And how old were you?
A: I was 3.
Q: Do you remember anything about leaving Iran?
A: I don’t remember much. I remember the last night Tehran. I remember it snowed that night. I remember driving across the country with my parents when we came eventually to the states. I remember that drive that drive in a Buick across the US. But really I can’t remember much about those years.
Q: Did all this help you understand why your mother raised you the way she did?
A: My mother threw everything she had and wanted and feared to me. Once we came to America everything that she had never been able to give to her first daughter, my mother had so much ambition for me. She used to drag me from piano lessons to Persian lessons, to German lessons, to ballet lessons, to; she had so much ambition for me. And she would say, very often she’d say you have to make something of yourself in this country. You have to make something of yourself, even when I was 6 or 7 years old and couldn’t even begin to understand what making something of yourself would be but this was her rallying cry to me over the years and I understood that in part this was an expression of all she hadn’t been able to do for her daughter, for her first daughter. All that had been so difficult for her to do in her own life. To seek out an education. To become a professional woman. I began to understand that all of that ambition for me was part of this story as well.
Q: While you were growing up did your mother stay in touch with your sister?
A: They spoke on the telephone from time to time and it was in the 80s that my mother describes often she’d get phone calls from Sarah these were the years of the Iran/ Iraq war and she was very fearful that Sarah would be hurt or of course she had a lot of fears for the rest of the members of her family as well. They would talk on the telephone from to time. My mother would send money and gifts and whatever she could back to Iran but it’s like the phrase in Persian like a broken vessel. It was impossible really, especially as the years went on to have any true relationship across those kinds of distances. She does tell me that once it would have been in the 80s she sat on the telephone with Sarah for some hours and told her the whole story. She told her about the abuses that she’d suffer. She wanted too much for Sarah to understand. She didn’t want to leave her behind but she had no choice. And Sarah would ask her again and again but why did you leave and there was nothing my mother could say in answer to that. She had a deep need to be understand and I don’t think Sarah ever really understood that there had been choice. That the only way that she could survive was to leave her behind.
Q: Has she ever been back?
Q: She’s never seen her again?
A: No. For many years she would say next year. Like many Iranians in Iran I’ll go back next year. And of course every year that went by made it just that more impossible to return and I think eventually it was just too painful. She couldn’t go back to Iran.
Q: When you were growing up was your mother full of stories about Iran, about the family and what life was like? Was she, were they fond memories?
A: My mother told so many stories as I was growing up she loved to tell me about how she had been a professional woman. She loved to tell me they used to call me Madame Doctor _________________ doctor in Iran. She loved to tell me about her wedding to my father. How shocked her whole family had been that she’d brought back a European groom for herself. She regaled me with stories of Iran in the 60s and 70s. She wanted to impart to me how moderate and western Iran had been at that time. She spoke, she never spoke about her earlier life but she loved to regale me stories about her professional life in Iran and particularly her wedding to my father.
Q: Now she was a professional woman as you say she was a midwife.
A: She was the first woman in her family to work outside the house and she was a midwife. She had a practice of her own and was very proud to have made something of herself under very difficult circumstances.
Q: And tell me a little bit about your father?
A: My father was, let me see how far back should I go Paul? My father
Q: He was an engineer, they met in Germany
A: They met in Germany. My father was German. He actually was born in Danzig which was Poland at the time that he was born. He was the only man left in the house after the Second World War and his family were Catholic and absolutely horrified when he decided to marry my mother. First of all because she was Middle Eastern but particularly because she Muslim and my father decided to convert to Islam. He knew this was the only way he could marry my mother and they were absolutely horrified by his conversion. They were horrified when he left Germany for what would have been a barbaric medieval country.
Q: But it was a real love story. I mean he left his home, his homeland and left his religion and moved to another part of the world for
A: He was very bookish and quiet but he had a lot of love for Iranian literature and history and architecture. He’d been an engineer and he had read and studied a lot even before he met my mother about Iran of antiquity and to him Iran was a wondrous place and he found himself actually very welcomed by my mother’s family once he converted and as he began to speak _____________. He was so beloved in the family. Iran in the 60s and 70s was rapidly modernizing and he was able to make far more money than he would have in Europe. Iranian firms were eager to add European professionals to their ranks so he was for a time he enjoyed a lot of privilege and prestige in Iran.
Q: I loved that they called him Mr. Engineer.
A: Mr. Engineer. Mr. Engineer.
Q: Where you close you and your father?
A: We were. My father was when I was growing he was. Sorry Paul it’s hard for me to talk about him. My father drank a lot when I was growing up and he was absent a lot of the time. He was a very gentle man. He encouraged me to read, which is something I’ll always, I always feel grateful to him is that he used to take me to the library or to the bookstore and he’d say you can buy as many books as you want, as many as you can carry and we shared that. We shared a love of books but he was gone for much of the time. He was often at home but behind a locked door. He was sometimes gone for weeks at a time and I didn’t know where he went. He would go off and for two or three weeks at time and I had no sense of when he was coming back. But we shared closeness. He had a quiet to him that felt very safe to me.
Q: Did he know anything about your mother’s life?
A: He did. My mother actually told me the story of how one night he told her he wanted to know everything and so she had sat and recounted the story of her first marriage, of that surrender of Sarah and he had listened with a patience she’d never encountered before and she would tell me how at the end he cried and she knew that she’d found a good man. A man who could listen like that was a good man.
Q: Did he have any relationship with Sarah? When you were living in Iran?
A: He did. He saw her from time to time but in Iran my father had always, he had always I’m sorry I always stumble over the word alcoholic sorry. He began drinking quite a lot in Iran and my mother was also anxious that my mother became anxious that Sarah and my father shouldn’t spend so much time together. She was afraid of exposing Sarah to his alcoholism and so however she tried to bring Sarah into the family she felt that it would hurt her, damage her even more to witness my father’s drinking.
Q: So that was another struggle for them. The distance. I’m just going to jump ahead a little bit. I know parts of this are hard and you’re doing great. It’s ok. Do you want to take a little break or.
A: No, no I’m ok.
A: Smell off of him because their mother would have been so.
Q: They sound like a pretty tough crew.
A: And that was another reason why they had I mean she couldn’t stay in Germany really.
Q: Well I mean that episode but the pin when Elsa pricked you did you like how that felt and I kind of see her.
A: She’s like out of a fairytale.
Q: These wicked witches yeah absolutely.
A: That’s what they felt like to me wicked witches and they used to say stuff like you know you’re pretty but if your mother was someone else you’d be prettier.
Q: What a horrible thing to say.
A: Isn’t that so terrible.
Q: That’s just unbelievably horrible.
A: Just so terrible.
Q: What sort of daughter were you growing up?
A: I was my mother’s American daughter. By which she meant the bad daughter. I was the rebellious one the one who talked back. The one who wore miniskirts or persisted in wearing miniskirts or covertly wearing makeup. Flirting with boys. All the things that good Iranian daughter wouldn’t do or shouldn’t do.
Q: Was she strict? Tell me about the rules the kind of things that she imposed on you? The bad daughter.
A: I wasn’t allowed to go on sleepovers. I wasn’t allowed as I got older to go on dates. You couldn’t even suggest something like that. Any kind of rebellion was done covertly and she also didn’t like that I wrote journals and I could be very forthcoming in my journals and she would sometimes snatch them away and say well you shouldn’t write these things. These are not parts of your life you should write to even yourself. So she had a very keen sense of propriety and also the face that you showed, especially among other Iranians. She was so anxious about gossip and rumors and always told me you need to behave in front of my friends and was very anxious about saving face among her Iranian friends.
Q: How has this book changed your relationship with your mother?
A: I have so much more compassion and respect for her now. Understanding how many times she’s had remake herself. The little girl in that picture became.
Q: You were telling me about how she didn’t want you to even keep a journal, how strict she was, do you think your mother feared losing you in a way the way she lost her daughter?
A: My mother was terrified of losing me. And I think when I was little it was actually a physical fear of losing me but over the years it became a fear of losing me to America. Of losing me culturally. Of losing really the only family that she had in America. She cut off from all of her family. I was the only one left. And she was terrified that I’d leave home and that I’d leave her.
Q: And how has writing the book changed your relationship or has it?
A: It has so much. I understand all of the forces that shaped her love for me. All of her fear. The terrible trauma having given up that child, that first daughter was the cause of all of her fear and protectiveness toward me. She overcompensated I think everything that she couldn’t give that daughter she tried to give me a hundred times to me.
Q: And then she maybe resented it that you didn’t seem to want to accept it, or you wanted to be more American or every time you rebelled against her it was that much more of a struggle.
A: Absolutely. An American made my mom more Iranian then she would have been possibly in Iran itself. Iran became fixed in her mind in 1967. Iran the Iran that chose to remember and to preserve was the Iran in which she had been that strong professional woman. It was a past that was very difficult to give up to come to America and suddenly have to make your life over she was nearly 40 when we came to America, running a motel single handedly. It was very difficult for her to make a new life for us in America and I didn’t fully understand what it took for her to makeover our lives here until I understood the story of her first marriage and the woman also that she’d been in Iran and had to leave behind when we came to America.
Q: Just so I don’t forget and this might be difficult I didn’t ask you at the time. Your mother’s first marriage was an abusive one and you right that the abuse began right from the beginning. What happened?
A: My mother’s first husband beat her. It began very early in the first week of their marriage. The first night of their wedding. He could be depressive and quiet and she would think he’d changed and then suddenly without provocation he could light into her and beat her. In the beginning he would beg her to forgive him. Say that it had been a passing. He would beg her to forgive him and she thought that she could temper him by being a better wife. By taking better care of him.
Q: This is a 13 year old girl.
A: She was a child. And she had very little contact with him before she married him. She would only really get to know him once they married and it was that very first week that it became clear to her that he was a fearful. That very first week she knew that she’d married a frightening man.
Q: And she left him eventually well can’t say she left him. She sought the divorce eventually because she feared for her own safety and for her daughter’s safety.
A: She, let me back up just a bit. He also would hurt himself. He on several occasions took a knife to himself and she had increasingly a fear that if he could hurt himself what possible chance was there that she would be safe, what chance was there that her daughter could be safe? He screamed at the little baby and she knew very little about child bearing but she knew that you couldn’t make a child an infant behave by screaming at her. And now I’ve forgotten your question.
Q: That eventually that she knew she had no option but to divorce because of fear for her own safety.
A: It became a matter to her of life and death. She knew that eventually he’d likely kill her and she also was very scared for her daughter. She also began to fear that her daughter would be endangered by his behavior and felt there was absolutely no way she could survive.
Q: But when they divorced she had to leave her daughter with this man and with his family.
A: All of her family members gathered around her and said that this is the only way children don’t belong to their mothers, they belong to their fathers. They told his grandmother will care of her, don’t worry. His grandmother will take care of her. She’ll be just fine. She’ll be safe. She’ll be raised with more love than you could even imagine and they all rallied around her and convinced her that the daughter would be put in her grandmother’s care and would be safe from her father.
Q: And she was.
A: For a time she was until her grandmother passed away. She was in the care of her grandmother and was loved by the family. When her grandmother died she became this is very hard to say, let me phrase it like this. You know my mother had the feeling I don’t know how much of this you can edit but I’m going to start to say and you can take what you will of it of but when my mother returned to Iran and saw her after several years of absence she had a feeling that the family had made a servant of her daughter and was infuriated that they taken her out of school and this was her first order of business. My mother insisted that Sarah be put back into school. She could not stand to see Sarah raising the other children of her father’s family. She felt absolutely desperate to have her daughter return to school. To make something of daughter.
Q: Your mother was in a terribly abusive first marriage. Tell me more about her first husband.
A: My sense. My sense from her is that he was mentally ill. That his rants and his abuses were of a different order than she’d ever known in her family, her extended family, the times when he would take a knife to himself terrified her. Even more in some ways than being beaten herself. He was mentally ill. I don’t know, I don’t have a sense from her exactly how but the abuse was far worse than anything she’d ever seen.
Q: Because certainly there were abusive marriages that she would have known about in her extended family but this was on another order.
A: And she’d witnessed of course first hand my grandfather’s mistreatment and abuse of my grandmother but his rage and his beatings were so much worse than she’d ever seen in her own family.
Q: I think we’ve covered that now and it’s fair that it’s good that you want to mention that he’s you suspect that he’s mentally ill.
A: Yeah because some people just feel like oh well all Iranian men are like that and I feel like I think there was something else going on here. But this is so much the problem is like you don’t talk about this stuff. You never give it a name you know you just say oh well he was just different or you now. No one ever gave a name to his abuse. She had no name for it.
Q: Is that why do you it was tolerated in some way? Not that it was tolerated but that this wasn’t you know that her father didn’t step in and end the marriage before even she did. That was just a woman’s lot?
A: Everyone looked away. Everyone looked away. A woman was supposed to burn inside her the phrase went and accommodate. Basically it was a ___________. Burn in _____________ and accommodate. A woman’s life always registered some measure of abuse and hardship. There was a sense that a woman had to endure and certainly there was nobody she thought who would help her. Nobody who could help her. If she had gone to her mother, her mother would have had no power at all to help and they all looked away. And there is something else I want to say about that is that
Q: What are you own feelings about Iran? The Iran of your mother’s time and now?
A: There was so much pain in the story my mother told to me about the Iran of her girlhood and of her young adulthood but there was also a lot that beautiful too in the story she was telling me. The communities that were then created among themselves were one thing. Seems to be extraordinary that women survived depended completely on forging together and helping each other and that part of Iran I love. Now you want to ask me about Iran now. You mean the political situation or
Q: Just in general I mean do you have is it anger, is it pain, is it hope, is it nostalgia?
A: I want so much to go back to Iran and to have a sense of what life is like there now. I left when I was so young Iran has become strange and forbidding to me from the vantage point of America and I have a lot of curiosity. I would to go to Iran and know it as it is now.
Q: You know we are witnessing right now and across the middle east this extraordinary moment where history is playing out in public in front of us. But sometimes you know history happens behind closed doors, it happens in hidden spaces much like your families, what do you think are the links between sort of public history and personal history?
A: That’s a big one Paul. Public history.
Q: Is all history personal?
A: To echo the take away there.
Q: Oh is that from the take away.
A: Well this is a story that was suppressed and can only be told in a private venue. Women’s lives have been shunted public voices of women have been shunted aside. Women rights in extraordinary numbers in Iran now, many women rights and women in fact dominate Iranian publishing now but very few women write memoirs and this story, this private story is one that in Iran at least I don’t think could be told as a memoir in a public voice. So is that in part an answer to your question?
Q: I guess well it makes me wonder do you think now as change sweeps across this part of the world perhaps someday all the way from Tunisia to Iran that we are going to see more of these kinds of stories.
A: I do think we will. I think that so much of Iran’s story remains elusive to us. I think Iranians have had a sense at least in America I’d say many of the memoirs are written with a degree of remove, that many of the memoirs and stories we’ve seen come out of Iran have been written to save face in a way in front of Americans. Iran is so alien in some ways demonized in American and western media that there has been a sense that we need to preserve the darker aspects of our story. Those are not secrets you should tell Americans because it will confirm their worst suspicions of who we are. So possibly as Iran and the Middle East create new histories for themselves there will be a greater openness and a wiliness to tell stories that we haven’t been able to tell yet.
Q: I heard that too. It almost sounded like the cat turned on the faucet or something.
A: There is so much more interest now in the Middle East and I think it’s a moment of great opportunity. Americans want to know about Iran. They want to know about the Middle East and it’s as my mother told me on these tapes she said the story was always here for you but you weren’t ready to listen to it and I think sometimes that we are approaching a time that we in America can listen to stories from the Middle East for the first time with more curiosity and compassion than we have possibly before.
Q: Have you been back to Iran?
A: I have not been back to Iran.
Q: Do you want to go back?
A: I have to go back.
Q: When do you think you are going to go?
A: It’s become difficult to go back to Iran in the last couple of years since the 2009 elections but truly it’s been difficult for me emotionally to make that trip back and it’s one that I feel deserves not just a few weeks but really several months and so I’m waiting for that time and I’m also readying myself emotionally for what’s really a very painful but potentially wonderful return.
Q: Have you been in touch with Sarah?
A: I’ve had some contact with her children recently. I can’t imagine though beginning that relationship over the telephone. I can’t imagine making cassette tapes for her. I think it’s a relationship I can only begin by going to Iran. And spending time with her.
Q: Has she asked you to come?
A: She’s asked all of us to come. She asks my mother every time they talk she says when will you come back to Iran and I know she asks after me as well. She wants us all to return. My mother can’t go back. It’s become too painful for her to return. And so if anyone goes now it will be me. And on my own.
Q: How do you think you’ll know when you are ready?
A: When I’m ready? I think
Q: Do you think you’ll know when you are ready to go back?
A: This book has made me closer, has brought me closer to returning. I feel I’ve recovered so much of my family’s story but it’s also revealed to me how much I don’t know still. Parts that I can only recover by going back. This book in some ways the closest I could get to Iran here. And it’s the beginning of imagining returning to Iran and knowing for the first time parts of the story that still elude me.
Q: Has writing this book maybe made you a good daughter?
A: I feel good and I feel that I’ve been a good daughter in that for the first time really as an adult I’ve sat down and listened. I’ve listened with a compassion I couldn’t really muster when I was younger. The act of writing this book with my mother has brought us so much closer, working together on the story of her life has given me so much more tenderness and understanding for her so there is a goodness I think that in here is in the act of listening to someone’s story and telling it as best you can.
Q: We talked a little bit about this before but I didn’t ask you about your reaction how do you feel as you watch what’s happening across the middle east right now so much change, so much that was hidden coming out into the open?
A: I’ve been watching for years and I have so much hope for the country. I have many relatives still in the country. The thought of an attack on Iran terrifies me but I’m also so heartened by Iranians who took to the streets in 2009 and showed the world an Iran that many had not known before. Those thousands and thousands of young Iranians on the streets in 2009 showed the world an Iran that many didn’t know.
Q: Are you in touch with anyone there?
A: I have now friends who go back colleagues other professors who go back from time to time but the closest person to me was my grandmother who passed a few years ago and all of the relatives I have I haven’t seen for many years. If I go back to Iran it would probably be with a colleague or friend that I’ve made here in the states.
Q: So you are not hearing anything about how Iranians are reacting to what’s happening in Egypt or in Tunisia or.
A: I have as much or as little as everyone else. I watched it all go down on Facebook the protests of 2009 and that was uncanny. It recalled to me the events of 1979 that brought my family here and it was extraordinary to hear those cries of God is great echoing off the rooftops of Tehran because we’d heard those cries in America in 1979 when we left.
Q: I’ve pretty much covered everything I think I want to cover. Is there anything that I didn’t ask you about that you want to discuss?
A: I don’t think so. I think we talked about everything.
Q: Yeah I mean like we said I can’t have you just tell the story you know going all the way back to Cobra and _______________ a it’s difficult to do that visually and there is just so much detail there I think we would just get lost in it. So I’m going to shorthand the story and a lot of that’s going to come back to the pictures that we look at. But it’s almost 12:30 maybe you do your work and you guys grab some lunch.
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