Family Secrets in Tehran
In an exclusive excerpt from her new book, Things I’ve Been Silent About: Memories, Azar Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, examines her parents' troubled marriage, riven by secrets, regrets, and political drama. Plus, The Daily Beast's Salameh Nematt talks with Nafisi.
I have often asked myself how much of my mother’s account of her meeting with her first husband was a figment of her imagination. If not for the photographs, I would have doubted that he had ever existed. A friend once talked of my mother’s “admirable resistance to the unwanted,” and since, for her, so much in life was unwanted, she invented stories about herself that she came to believe with such conviction that we started doubting our own certainties.
In her mind their courtship began with a dance. It seemed more likely to me that his parents would have asked her father for her hand, a marriage of convenience between two prominent families, as had been the convention in Tehran in the 1940s. But over the years she never changed this story, the way she did so many of her other accounts. She had met him at her uncle’s wedding. She was careful to mention that in the morning she wore a flowery crêpe-de-chine dress and in the evening one made of duchess satin, and they danced all evening (“After my father had left,” she would say, and then immediately add, “because no one dared dance with me in my father’s presence”). The next day he asked for her hand in marriage.
When his family proposed to my mother, they conveniently neglected to tell her that he was ill. She discovered it on her wedding night.
Saifi! I cannot remember ever hearing his last name spoken in our house. We should have called him—with the echo of proper distance—Mother’s first husband, or perhaps by his full title, Saif ol Molk Bayat, but to me he was always Saifi, good-naturedly part of our routine. He insinuated himself into our lives with the same ease with which he stood behind her in their wedding pictures, appearing unexpectedly and slyly whirling her away from us. I have two photos from that day—more than we ever had of my own parents’ wedding. Saifi appears relaxed and affable, with his light hair and hazel eyes, while my mother, who is in the middle of the group, stands frozen like a solitary centerpiece. He seems nonchalantly, confidently happy. But perhaps I am wrong and what I see on his face is not hope but utter hopelessness. Because he too has his secrets.
There was something about her story that always bothered me, even as a child. It seemed not so much untrue as wrong. Most people have a way of radiating their potential, not just what they are but what they could become. I wouldn’t say my mother didn’t have the potential to dance. It is worse than that. She wouldn’t dance, even though, by all accounts, she was a good dancer. Dancing would have implied pleasure, and she took great pride in denying herself pleasure or any such indulgences.
All through my childhood and youth, and even now in this city so far removed from the Tehran that I remember, the shadow of that other ghostly woman who danced and smiled and loved disturbs the memories of the one I knew as my mother. I have a feeling that if somehow I could understand just when she stopped dancing—when she stopped wanting to dance—I would find the key to my mother’s riddle and finally make my peace with her. For I resisted my mother—if you believe her stories—almost from the start.
I have three photographs of my mother and Saifi. Two are of their wedding, but I am interested in the third, a much smaller picture of them out on a picnic, sitting on a rock. They are both looking into the camera, smiling. She is holding onto him in the casual manner of people who are intimate and do not need to hold onto one another too tightly. Their bodies seem to naturally gravitate together. Looking at the photograph, I can see the possibility of this young, perhaps not yet frigid, woman letting go.
I find in the photograph the sensuality that we always missed in my mother in real life. I would say, when did you graduate from high school? How many years later did you marry Saifi? What did he do? When did you meet Father? Simple questions that she never really answered. She was too immersed in her own inner world to be bothered by such details. No matter what I asked her, she would tell me the same stock stories, which I knew almost by heart. Later, when I left Iran, I asked one of my students to interview her and I gave specific questions to ask, but I got back the same stories. No dates, no concrete facts, nothing that went outside my mother’s set script.
A few years ago, at a family gathering, I ran into a lovely Austrian lady, the wife of a distant relative, who had been present at my mother’s wedding to Saifi. One reason she remembered the wedding so clearly was the panic and confusion caused by the mysterious disappearance of the bride’s birth certificate. (In Iran, marriages and children are recorded on birth certificates.) She told me, with the twinkle of a smile, that it was later discovered that the bride was a few years older than the groom. Mother’s most recent birth certificate makes no mention of her first marriage. According to this document, which replaced the one she claimed to have lost, she was born in 1920. But she maintained that she was really born in 1924 and that her father had added four years to her age because he wanted to send her to school early. My father told us that my mother had actually subtracted four years from her real age when she picked up the new birth certificate, which she needed so that she could apply for a driver’s license. When the facts did not suit her, my mother would go to great lengths to refashion them altogether.
Some facts are on record. Her father-in-law, Saham Soltan Bayat, was a wealthy landowner who had seen one royal dynasty, the Qajars (1794–1925), replaced by another, the Pahlavis (1925–79). He managed to survive, even thrive, through the change in power. Mother sometimes boasted that she was related to Saifi on her mother’s side and that they were both descendants of Qajar kings. During the fifties and sixties when I was growing up, being related to the Qajars, who, according to the official history books, represented the old absolutist system, was no feather in anyone’s cap. My father would remind us mischievously that all Iranians were in one way or another related to the Qajars. In fact, he would say, those who could not find any connections to the Qajars were the truly privileged. The Qajars had reigned over the country for 131 years, and had numerous wives and offspring. Like the kings that came before them, they seemed to have picked their wives from all ranks and classes, possessing whoever caught their fancy: princesses, gardeners’ daughters, poor village girls, all were part of their collection. One Qajar king, Fath Ali Shah (1771–1834), is said to have had 160 wives. Being of a judicious mind-set, Father would usually add that of course that was only part of the story, and since history is written by the victors, especially in our country, we should take all that is said about the Qajars with a grain of salt—after all, it was during their reign that Iran started to modernize. They had lost, so anything could be said of them. Even as a child I sensed that Mother brought up this connection to the Qajars more to slight her present life with Father than to boast about the past. Her snobbism was arbitrary, and her prejudices were restricted to the rules and laws of her own personal kingdom.
Saham Soltan, mother’s father-in-law, appears in various history books and political memoirs—one line here, a paragraph there—once as deputy and vice president of Parliament, twice as minister of finance in the early 1940s, and as prime minister for a few months, from November 1944 to April 1945—during the time my mother claims to have been married to Saifi. Despite the fact that Iran had declared neutrality in World War II, Reza Shah Pahlavi had made the mistake of sympathizing with the Germans. The Allies, the British and the Soviets in particular, who had an eye on the geopolitical gains, occupied Iran in 1941, forced Reza Shah to abdicate, exiled him to Johannesburg, and replaced him with his young and more malleable son, Mohammad Reza. The Second World War triggered such upheaval in Iran that between 1943 and 1944 four prime ministers and seven ministers of finance were elected.
Mother knew little and seemed to care less about what kind of prime minister her father-in-law had been. What was important was that he played the fairy godfather to her degraded present. This is how so many public figures entered my life, not through history books but through my parents’ stories.
How glamorous mother’s life with Saifi really was is open to debate. They lived at Saham Soltan’s house, in the chink of time between the death of his first wife and his marriage to a much younger and, according to my mother, quite detestable woman. In the absence of a lady of the house, my mother did the honors. “Everybody’s eyes were on me that first night,” she would tell us, describing in elaborate detail the dress she had worn and the impact of her flawless French. As a child I would picture her coming down the stairs in her red chiffon dress, her black eyes shining, her hair immaculately done.
“The first night Doctor Millspaugh came...you should have been there!” Dr. Millspaugh, the head of the American Mission in the 1940s, had been assigned by both the Roosevelt and the Truman administrations to help Tehran set up modern financial institutions. Mother never saw any reason to tell us who this man was, and for a long time, for some reason I was convinced that he was Belgian. Later, when I reviewed my mother’s accounts of these dinners, I was struck by the fact that Saifi was never present. His father would always be there, and Dr. Millspaugh or some other publicly important and personally insignificant character. But where was Saifi? That was the tragedy of her life: the man at her side was never the one she wanted.
My father, to bribe my brother and me into silence against her impositions, and perhaps to compensate for his own compliance, would tell us over and over again how our mother was imprisoned in her father-in-law’s house, where Khoji, the domineering housekeeper, was the real woman in charge. Even the key to the larder was in the hands of the indomitable Khoji, whom mother had to flatter and cajole to get as much as a length of fabric to make herself a nice dress. Father would remind us that she was treated more like an unwanted guest than as mistress of her father-in-law’s house.
Mother presented herself as a happy young bride, the proud heroine wooed by Prince Charming, and Father painted her as a victim of other people’s petty cruelties. They both wanted us to confirm their own version. Mother flung the past at us as an accusation of the present, and Father needed to justify her tyrannies on all of us, by provoking our compassion. It was difficult to compete with Saifi, a dead man, and a handsome one at that—the son of the prime minister, with the potential to become whatever she could imagine him to be. My father’s intelligence and goodwill, his future prospects and ambitions as a promising director at the Ministry of Finance, even the fact that he and my mother came from different branches of the same family, appeared poor seconds to what Mother believed Saifi had to offer her. Later she seemed to begrudge Father’s successes in public life, as if they were fierce rivals rather than partners.
The problem was not what she said but what she left out. My father filled in the gaps: Saifi, the favorite first son, had an incurable disease—nephritis of the kidney, they called it—and the doctors had given up on him. Let him do whatever he wants in these last years of his life, one had recommended. Indulge him, let him have his way. Provide him with all the fun he desires, because he has so little time to enjoy life. When his family proposed to my mother, they conveniently neglected to tell her that he was ill. She discovered it on her wedding night. According to my father their marriage was never consummated. Instead, for two years she nursed a sick husband, watching him die every day. And this was the romance of her life, the man whom she brandished to remind us of our own inadequacies!
Sometimes, when she went on and on about Saifi with that absent look of hers, I wanted to shake her and say, No, that’s not the way it was! But of course I never did. Did he care what would happen to her when she discovered his condition, or what would become of her after he died? She was too proud and too stubborn to have much interest in the truth. And so she transformed a real place and history into a fantasy of her own creation. Ever since I can remember, my brother, my father, and I tried to figure out what it was exactly that she wanted from us. We tried to travel with her to that other place that seemed to beckon, to which her eyes were constantly diverted as she gazed beyond the walls of her real home. What frightened me was not her rages but that frozen place in her that we could never penetrate. While she was alive I was too busy evading her and resenting her to understand how disappointed and alone she must have felt, how she was like so many other women about whom her best friend, Mina, used to say, with an ironic smile: “Another intelligent woman gone to waste.”
Excerpted from Things I've Been Silent About by Azar Nafisi Copyright © 2008 by Azar Nafisi. Excerpted by permission of Random House Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.