APRIL 19, 2016
“INSHALLAH, qesmat-eh toh besh-eh” — “God willing it will be your destiny” — is a Persian phrase I’ve heard since childhood, particularly after someone announces a wedding or a pregnancy or even when someone appears with a shiny new car or some other sign of newfound happiness. The words, however, also indicate how much a person’s fate wrestles with her self-determination. A common belief for those who use the expression is that your qesmat (destiny) is set. You are born with it, so your qesmat is either good or it’s not. (The latter is often referred to as “qesmat-esh nabood”: “it wasn’t meant to be their lot.”) Luck and superstition and evil eyes are weighed against grit and will and a fervent insistence to make your own life.
In Parnaz Foroutan’s debut novel, The Girl from the Garden, destiny and determination collide in an Iranian-Jewish family in early 20th-century Kermanshah. The narrator, Mahboubeh Malacouti, is named for a divine destiny (Mahboubeh means “the most beloved” and Malacouti means “of the heavenly”). Yet we know from the start that Mahboubeh’s lot is not quite heavenly. Having fled Tehran in 1978, Mahboubeh lives alone as an older woman, solemnly ruminating on her past. Her garden, somewhere in Los Angeles, is a place where she doesn’t have to talk to anyone — except her pomegranate trees and roses — where she can close her eyes and picture her family back at home.
At the heart of Mahboubeh’s story is the formidable Rakhel, a woman married to the patriarch of the Malacouti house, Asher. Regarded as the “one of the richest merchants of the caravansary goyim and Jew alike,” Asher has built a small fortune out of what his father left to him. Despite his comfortable life, Asher’s marriage fails to give him the one thing he covets most: a male heir. The burden of fertility falls to Rakhel, who tries everything in her power to conceive but cannot. Meanwhile, her younger sister-in-law Khorsheed (married to Ibrahim, Asher’s younger brother) becomes pregnant immediately. Matters become even worse when Asher decides to take a second wife. The household is faced with a series of entangled betrayals and lies. Foroutan explores the resulting borderless terrains of pain; her characters are driven to madness, and time may not heal actions that are unforgivable.
Foroutan structures the narrative around Mahboubeh’s falling in and out sleep, dreaming about her family. This gets a bit tedious; there is no distinction between days, eras, or settings. Mahboubeh sits in her garden, searching the past, hoping to find answers to her mother’s absence and her father’s sorrow. The Los Angeles garden is a source of strength for Mahboubeh, a sensorial and sensual reminder of a garden she knew in Iran before 1978. Although she thinks she “has escaped history,” exile becomes a way for her to perpetually inhabit the past.
Mahboubeh doesn’t interact with anyone. “This place is a loneliness named Los Angeles,” she thinks. “Los Angeles is not home. It is the place that erases all memory of the past.” These are the only sentences that offer a glimpse into Mahboubeh’s interior life as an exile. Otherwise, we hear and see nothing of Los Angeles in this novel.
Unlike some Iranian-Jewish-American fiction and memoirs that seem obsessed with detailing the in-between-ness of exile, Foroutan does not describe anything specific about anyone or anything in Los Angeles. Perhaps the most poignant story of exile comes from Foroutan’s choice to have the older Mahboubeh remain isolated in one of the largest Iranian-Jewish diasporas in the world. This novel is not populated with Iranian-Jewish restaurants or synagogues, but with incoherent memories, a fragmented life, and geographic disorientation.
It’s a compelling choice for an Iranian-Jewish-American writer. Los Angeles — sometimes called Tehrangeles — has become (to borrow a term from the Arab immigrant Kalaj in André Aciman’s Harvard Square) an “ersatz” of all things from Iran’s past. LA is a substitute Tehran: Tehran-plus or Tehran light. Tehran without the Mullahs. Tehran with nostalgia. Across Westwood, Pico, and Ventura Boulevards, you have your choice of Iranian-Jewish synagogues, butchers, grocery stores, Judaica shops, and restaurants. But, Foroutan is completely uninterested in this Los Angeles. She’s interested in the stories before all that ersatz.
Or, maybe the issue isn’t Los Angeles. In this novel, Foroutan is not terribly interested in public spaces. Her descriptions of Iranian-Jewish life in early 20th-century Iran almost exclusively take place within the domestic realm, around the panoptic structure of the courtyard, the kitchen, the cellar, and the bedrooms of the Malacouti family. The family is not religious; the fact of their Jewishness comes up only in terms of how the men navigate the public sphere. The novel portrays almost no aspects of religious observance. The family’s own sense of its Jewishness (as opposed to its public branding as such) appears more subtly, in consultations with a Rabbi, or attending the miqveh, or uttering Hebrew blessings for the dead. This is a world where Muslims and Jews, however fraught their relationships and however vitriolic the public discourse around them, live side by side and sometimes in the same home. The people most privy to the secrets of the Malacouti household are Fatima and the other household help — who are there to do everything from tending to the house to assist in delivering a baby in the middle of the night. The people who inhabit this novel are as likely to utter “‘Ya Abolfazl, ya Allah’” as they are “zichrono livracha.” Rakhel prays for a son, chanting “Baruch Atah Hashem” while the muezzin’s song “La ilaha illallah” floats through the windows.
Foroutan’s novel — “inspired by her own family history” — is part of a growing body of literature, art, and culture on Iranian-Jewish life in the 20th-century diaspora. In the last 15 years, various Iranian-Jewish-American artists, writers, and critics have brought to life the history of Iranian Jews. Gina Nahai has published extensively on the life of Iranian Jews inside and outside Iran both in critically acclaimed fiction (her most well known are Cry of the Peacock and Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith, which have also been the subject of academic essays) and as a regular contributor to the Jewish Journal. Roya Hakakian and Farideh Goldin penned memoirs about life as Iranian Jews. Dalia Sofer’s lyrical Septembers of Shiraz has just been turned into a Hollywood film featuring Salma Hayek and Adrien Brody. Mike Shouhed has invited the Shahs of Sunset audience into his parents’ home for Shabbat with tahdeeg. In 2012, UCLA’s Fowler Museum featured “Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews,” which is now available as a coffee-table book. Houman Sarshar’s collection of essays, photographs, and archives on Iranian-Jewish life, Esther’s Children, is the most comprehensive documentation of this 3,000-year-old history in English, aside from Habib Levy’s earlier encyclopedic compilations.
Like them, Foroutan examines what it means to be a Jew in a Muslim country. In Kermanshah in the early 1900s — especially for a man — it meant exclusion and punishment. Describing how he first encountered the label “Jew” during the 1940s Vichy Regime in Algeria, philosopher Jacques Derrida writes:
As for the word Jew, I do not believe I heard it first in my family […]. I believe I heard it at school in El Biar, already charged with what, in Latin, one would call an insult [injure], injuria, in English, injury, both an insult, a wound, and an injustice […]. Before understanding any of it, I received this word like a blow, a denunciation, a de-legitimation prior to any right, prior to any legality.
The patriarch of Foroutan’s novel, Asher, carries this denunciation most acutely: “Jew. Jew. They whisper behind my back like the word itself is filth in their mouths. Do you know what this does to a man?” And this branding of “Jew” is less about his inability to practice his faith than an attack on his manhood, his masculine way of being in the world.
Jewishness as “denunciation” is one of the most poignant aspects of the novel, especially in the context of the “impure Jew” (Reza Shah asked foreign delegates to use this term in 1935) in Persia at the turn of the 20th century. As Hooshang Ebrami explains, the roots of impurity laws (najasat) toward outsiders/nonbelievers in Iranian Shi’ism are quite complex, involving sociohistorical links to sixth-century Zoroastrian practices, European colonial influence during the Safavid era (1501–1722), and the increased tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, in part fueled by European “agitators.” According to Ebrami and Habib Levy, the influence of anti-Semitic Europeans in Iran from the 16th to the 18th century helped drive worsening living conditions for Jews. During the same moment, “Purity of Blood” laws in Iberia marked once-Jewish conversos as having impure blood. Thus, across both Muslim and Christian worlds, the “impure Jew” was fixed (though not always in identical ways) in a larger cultural imagination. The regulations rendered by Shiite clergy during this time meant that Jews were not allowed to have Muslim names and could not leave their homes when it rained (for fear that water would facilitate the transmission of impurity and pollution of the Jew to a Muslim).
The long legacy of the “impure Jew” becomes a source of great anger and pain for Asher and embarrassment and shame for Ibrahim — connected in both cases to their anxieties about their masculinity. As merchants in Kermanshah — a province that was a popular trade route with Baghdad to its east, Kurdistan to its north — Asher and Ibrahim interact with other merchants, caravansaries, and travelers journeying across the Near East. When a group of Kurdish farmers visit their home, the men bemoan together the colonial presence in Iran that exploits the land and labor of ordinary Persians. One of the men discusses the Iranian Constitutional Revolution, when “we fought for our right to be men.” Ibrahim retorts, addressing colonialism’s influence on masculinity: “‘Neither the Russians, nor the British, would ever allow us that. To be men. Mules, at best, to carry the burden of their greed,’ ‘But never men.’” Asher finds this observation insufficient, since it doesn’t address his condition: to be marked as “third world” and Jew. “Even if the foreigners allowed it, brother, do you think the clergy of our own country would allow you and I, two Jews, to ever fully be human?” he says.
This is one of the only overtly political scenes in the novel, where we get a sense of how Asher and Ibrahim’s sense of the world affects their role as patriarchs: one where they are feared, where they dominate, and where they influence the ways women conduct themselves. Foroutan’s men are angry and ashamed, but they still have moments where we can see their vulnerabilities and limitations. Foroutan’s women, on the other hand, both submit to and subvert prescriptive ideas about femininity and “the good wife.” Her women are far more nuanced and complex — but that’s also because she spends the greater part of the novel fleshing out their interior lives. Rakhel has little patience for what she understands as weakness; vulnerability only leads to disempowerment. When Mahboubeh comes home with scraped knees, sopping and hiccupping and sucking her thumb after a group of boys chase and taunt her, Rakhel’s impatience and dismay is palpable: “And all you got today was a little taunting, huh? No bloody nose? No broken ribs? … Don’t bother me with your sniffling.” Rakhel explains that a young girl’s only job is to learn how to be a wife; childhood is frivolous: “I told you to stay at home. Stay home, learn to keep a house. A girl who sucks her finger and reads. Fine bride you’ll make. Covered in dirt. Don’t know a thing about cooking. Couldn’t darn a sock.”
Rakhel carves a space for herself in the family home. She is neither simply subservient nor dominant, but a shrewd, calculating survivor. Like a Scheherazade, desperate to keep Asher a little bit longer in the evenings before he runs off to his second wife, Rakhel learns about Tabriz rugs to buy, regions to buy land, the most profitable antiques and jewels. She advises her husband, who readily adopts all her suggestions. She tells Mahboubeh, “‘I built his empire … I made Asher Malacouti richer than rich.’”
Foroutan’s greatest strength is evoking the interior lives of her female characters and the social spaces they inhabit together, when men are absent. The novel’s heart is the devastating burden placed on women’s bodies — as vessels or depositories. Yet Foroutan deftly shows how women create space for erotic energy, primarily with one another.
Many of the reviews so far of Foroutan’s novel are concerned with an ancient, historic patriarchy that “enshrouds” women’s lives. But, as I read the novel, it felt incredibly contemporary in how it mapped our cultural obsession with fertility and reproduction. Celebrities (Chrissy Teigen, Kim Kardashian, Tyra Banks, et al.) have publicized their battles with fertility, while other reality stars (the Duggars) have made a living off of their fertile brood. Then there are the countless websites, blogs, support groups, treatment centers devoted to reproduction. How women understand their relationship to femininity as motherhood is a question that has only become more relevant in the 21st century.
In a world before mommy blogs and girls nights, the miqveh — a ritual bath to rid the body of monthly and sexual impurities — is a space where women reveled in a shared privacy. The scenes from the miqveh contain some of the novel’s most lyrical, languid language, showing how women respond to the erotic pulse in their bodies when alone together. A bride is greeted with “klilililili,” the ululation vibrating the hammam walls; women clap rhythmically and surround her singing a bawdy and suggestive song: “‘Lips press lips … navel presses navel … an aleph straightens into a qaf’s round ladel …” as they wiggle their hips and snap their fingers.
This is a rare moment in the novel where joy and laughter are visceral, communal, even free. The miqveh is a refuge, a respite, a place where women can abandon their bodies to ritual, naked in dance, laughter, without worrying or performing for the male gaze, even while preparing their bodies for men. Still, no Bechdel tests are truly passed in this permissively brutal place, where inspections of virginity can determine one’s fate, and the burden of being branded infertile is psychically poisonous. The miqveh is then both a playful place, complete with erotic sounds and gyrations, but also a site of discipline and punishment, where the tenets of patriarchy are reified and extended. Perhaps one of patriarchy’s greatest achievements, Foroutan seems to signal, is the ways in which women become its gatekeepers.
Unable to conceive, Rakhel is embarrassed, embittered, and desperate — both soliciting remedies and wanting to hide from the unwanted attention. The women tell her about a cousin who walked through a specific city gate — she is told to eat more meat, camel rennet, or sheep fat. They shout advice and warnings: to not get up quickly after he has finished, to lay still for an hour, better yet two, to raise your hips after in a certain way. And, meanwhile, to remain calm, “because a peaceful woman makes for a peaceful womb.”
When Khorsheed gives birth, she’s surrounded by women: her mother-in-law, her sister-in-law, an old midwife, the maids. They are there to spread the blanket, boil the water, place rags against her skin. Her husband waits outside, terrified. But even in birth Khorsheed feels the burden to be a good girl: “A woman in the village I grew up in took so long to push out her baby, the girl was born with a head shaped like a honeydew melon, and not much smarter than one, either.” Even if women aren’t granted power, life and death rests within their bodies. When Asher’s mother asks him to reconsider taking a second wife, he retorts: “Wife? What sort of wife is she to me if she cannot do her sole task? And what business of her is it, besides? A girl to decide my fate? A girl who cannot do what even a stupid cow can do with ease?” In scenes like this, women in the novel are called useless, denying how integral they are to the foundation of life.
The novel’s interweaving of patriarchy, fertility, and fate in early 20th-century Iran reflects a world that is at once far away and still eerily present. We wonder at our own mistaking of weakness for power: petty and violent men, dehumanized in the streets for being najis, implode when they come home. I want things to have been different for Rakhel and Khorsheed and Asher and Ibrahim, but Foroutan doesn’t indulge such sentimentality. These characters’ qesmat was set: not as “the destiny that G-d has written for you,” but the destiny written by patriarchy, by familial honor, and by the man-made limits written for women, which also happen to destroy men.
Leah Mirakhor is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the College of Wooster. Her articles have appeared or are forthcoming in African American Review and Studies in American Jewish Literature.