When you have nothing to lose By Helle Merete BrixNEW YORK, HUMAN RIGHTS SERVICE One day several years ago, a young Iranian woman named Nahid rode a bus from St. Louis to New York. This was before the 1979 Iranian revolution, and she had just barely received her father’s permission to study at an American university, just like her two brothers. Now she wanted to go to New York and pursue her studies further. Nahid had almost no money and nowhere to live. She sent a letter to her father i Iran saying that she would not be coming home. It made him so angry that he didn’t reply until 12 years later.
”How did you dare?” I asked Nahid, who today has the last name of Rachlin and is a delicate – and pretty – woman of 64. We have been sitting at a café in the West Village. Nahid Rachlin replies:
”I had nothing to lose, and it made me fearless. I didn’t want to go back to Iran.”
Nahid Rachlin found a place to live, and found work, friends, and a boyfriend at college. She has lived in New York ever since – the only city where she really feels at home:
”Nobody is from here. Everybody is an immigrant. And it makes me feel I fit in. I’m a part of it all.” Married to the boyfriend of her youth She is also still married with the boyfriend she had then, Howie, with whom she had a daughter, Leila. Howie was the young man with the large, dark hair and blue eyes who always made sure to sit next to her in psychology class. One day he asked her out. One night they slept together.
Howie, who is a psychologist, has a Jewish background; it wasn’t easy for either a Muslim or a Jewish family to accept that Nahid and Howie had chosen each other. None of their parents came to the wedding. In her autobiography Persian Girls: A Memoir, Rachlin writes: «I was that glad that there weren’t any watchful eyes staring at me – that no one would be inspecting my sheets the next moning, looking for virgin blood.” A painful writing jobRachlin has been interested in writing since she was a child and bought magazines from a little shop. Today she has four critically acclaimed novels to her name, among other books. She works at Yale University, and also teaches that indispensable subject, creative writing, at various educational institutions in New York.
Persian Girls came out in 2006, and is the reason why I asked for an interview. For this skilled and painful autobiography also deserves to be read in Scandinavia. It was not an easy book to write, she explains:
”Psychologically it was very hard, because I had to go back through some painful things. One can make things up in fiction, but not in an autobiography.” -Det var psykologisk meget hårdt, for jeg måtte gå igennem smertelige ting. Man kan digte i fiktion, ikke i en selvbiografi.
The story – and the book – begins with Nahid’s upbringing in Teheran at the home of Maryam, whom she considers her mother. But Maryam is really her aunt. She is a widow and has not been able to have children herself, so her sister Mohtaram has given her Nahid. Nahid grows up in the old part of Teheran, untouched by the shah’s attempts at modernization. The hundred-year-old house has a yard surrounded by a high wall – which keeps uncovered women from being seen by male passersby. The neighborhood’s residents are extremely devout working-class Shia Muslims. Maryam, who wears a chador, shares the house with two other widows.
But when Nahid is nine years old, her life undergoes a dramatic change. Suddenly one day her fahter, whom she has almost never seen, picks her up at school. She is forced to board a plane to Ahvaz, where her father and Mohtaram, her actual mother, live with their other children. An entirely new life begins. Superficial modernization In the book, Rachlin describes her life with her new, well-to-do family, who on the surface seem Westernized and modern. The women don’t cover themselves, the men drink alcohol, and they all watch American movies. Nahid’s father is well educated – he’s a lawyer. He’s much older than Nahid’s mother – they were married when Mohtaram was nine years old and he was 34. In her book, Nahid writes: «After the wedding, my father made a room for his child bride for her to live in until she was old enough to function as a wife.”
In Persian Girls the reader becomes acquainted with an Iran where even before the Islamic revolution men called the shots. For example, they decided that their wives – like Nahid’s mother – would be pregnant almost constantly. And naturally they chose the men their daughters would marry. Rachlin explains:
”People in the U.S. have a romantic view of the shah’s regime. But the modernization was largely superficial. Even when he was in power, women had to ask their men for permission to do anything.”
To stress her point, Rachlin has included a part of the late, celebrated journalist Oriana Fallaci’s interview with the shah. In the interview he says: «Women are only important in a man’s life if they are pretty and charming.” And: ””Women and men are equal under the law, but not when it comes to their abilities…..”Her sister’s tragic deathThe painful turning point in Persian Girls is the fate of Rachlin’s sister Pari. Pari and Nahid are close, and they both dream of going to college. But Pari is forced to marry a much older man, who completely controls and dominates her. One day, when Pari falls down a staircase and dies, it is unclear what really happened. She has tried several times to escape her marriage. But her parents have forced her to go back to her husband every time.
In addition to reading about Pari’s tragic marriage and tragic death, we hear about Nahid’s life, first in Iran and later in college in America. While her father is strict and patriarchal, her two brothers are gratifyingly different. They naturally have much more freedom than their sisters, but it is they who teach their sisters to dance the tango and fox trot. One of the brothers also praises Nahid for her interest in literature. And it is only because the brothers are going to the U.S. to study that Nahid, after the application of a great deal of pressure, is allowed to do the same.
Emotional attachment Liberation from the norms that Rachlin grew up with has been difficult.
”It was hard. I wanted to rebel against my backgound, but these values had sunk into me. Intellectually, I could liberate hyself, but emotionally it was as if I was still tied down.
In the U.S. it takes some time for the young Nahid to feel at home. It is tragicomic to read in the book about the president of the college who wants Nahid to wear chador on Parents’ Day. Because on this day it is the tradition that one dress in the traditional clothing of one’s homeland. Nahid protests; for her, thechador is a kind of prison, just as religion is. But the president of the college puts pressure on her.
Twelve years after Nahid writes to her father that she is not coming home, he writes back. He has been angry for all these years. Now he wants a reconciliation. Nahid has kept in regular touch with her siblings, and also with Maryam, her aunt. So she and Howie go to Iran. It is still before the revolution, and as Rachlin writes in the book: «It was hard to tell what he [her father] really felt about the fact that I had married a man from another country and another religion, whom I had gotten to know on my own. If my father had any reservations, he didn’t show it.”
Shortly after Howie and Nahid return to the US, the countdown to the Iranian revolution begins in earnest. On November 4, 1979, Iranian students occupy the American embassy in Teheran. Nahid’s father dies in 1980. Aggressive Iranian men Today giving lectures is an important part of Rachlin’s work. The great majority of her lectures attract interested and sympathetic readers. But every fifth lecture or so, Rachlin says, draws more difficult audiences: angry Iranian exiles who feel that she has, with her books, besmirched Iran and Islam. Rachlin says:
”The Iranian government condones the oppression of women. But certain Iranian women are very concerned to not give Iran a bad name. Instead of sympathizing with the idea that conditions should change, they defend them.”
Even worse – unsurprisingly – are the reactions from certain Muslim and Iranian men:
”Some of them write horrible e-mails. Others show up and sabotage my lectures. At one lecture the police had to be called in. At that one, a man jumped up and shouted that I had written this garbage ’that should be flushed down a toilet.’ Two months ago a well-dressed lecturer came to a meeting of a reading group and wanted to know if I was a Muslim, for ’you don’t act like a Muslim.’ He completely destroyed the discussion. I replied: ’You’re the one who gives Muslim men a bad name.’ I also threatened to put up a sign at the door of the lecture hall the next time: ”Iranian men not allowed.” Rachlin laughs. And goes on:
”It is a deeply rooted idea among them that a woman shouldn’t step forward.”
Rachlin has been back in Iran since the revolution, partly to look into the circumstances of her sister Pari’s death. But it’s been five years now since she’s been there. It’s too dangerous. As Rachlin explains, the reason is simple: murders of female writers in Iran occur all too frequently for her to dare to go back.
On the other hand, her ”mother” Maryam, who remarried and moved to Dubai, has been to the U.S. and visited Rachlin and her family. And the past has been integrated into the present in another way:
”If I had stayed in Iran it would have been difficult to forgive what I experienced. But my mother, who gave me away, was not a bad person – she was very nice. My sister and I were given lives that led in entirely different directions. But my sister is not gone. She is in the book.”
Translated from the Danish by Bruce Bawer
Nahid Rachlin’s website