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Persian Girls: A Memoirby Nahid Rachlin
Synopses & Reviews
Praised by V. S. Naipaul, Anne Tyler, and other writers, Nahid Rachlin has spent her career writing novels about hidden Iran-the combustible political passions underlying everyday life and the family dramas of ordinary Iranians. With her long-awaited memoir, Persian Girls, she turns her sharp novelist's eye on her own remarkable life.
When Rachlin was an infant, her mother gave her to Maryam, Rachlin's barren and widowed aunt. For the next nine years, the little girl lived a blissful Iranian childhood. Then one day, Rachlin's father kidnapped his daughter from her schoolyard, and from the only mother she'd ever known, and returned her to her birth family-strangers to the young girl.
In a story of ambition, oppression, hope, heartache, and sisterhood, Persian Girls traces Rachlin's coming of age in Iran under the late Shah — and her domineering father — her tangled family life, and her relationship with her older sister, and unexpected soul mate, Pari. Both girls refused to accept traditional roles prescribed for them under Muslim cultural laws. They devoured forbidden books. They had secret romances.
But then things quickly changed. Pari was forced by her parents to marry a wealthy suitor, a cruel man who kept her a prisoner in her own home. After narrowly avoiding an unhappy match herself with a man her parents chose for her, Nahid came to America, where she found literary success. Back in Iran, however, Pari's dreams fell to pieces.
When news came to Nahid that her sister had died, she traveled back to the country where she had grown up, now under the Islamic regime the West has been keeping a wary eye on for the last few years, to say good-bye to her only friend. It is there she confronts her past, and the women of her family. A story of promises kept and promises broken, of dreams and secrets, and, most important, of sisters, Persian Girls is a gripping saga that will change the way anyone looks at Iran and the women who populate it.
"This lyrical and disturbing memoir by the author of four novels (Foreigner, etc.) tells the story of an Iranian girl growing up in a culture where, despite the Westernizing reforms of the Shah, women had little power or autonomy. As an infant in 1946, Rachlin was given to her mother's favorite sister, a widow who had been unable to conceive, and was lovingly raised among supportive widows who took refuge in religion from their frustrations as women in an oppressive society. But at the age of nine, Rachlin's father, whom she barely knew, met her at school without warning and brought her to Ahvaz to live with her birth family. Miserable in the new household, young Nahid was befriended by her American movie — obsessed sister Pari. Both sisters developed artistic ambitions, but only Nahid managed to escape the typical female fate, convincing her father to send her to college in the U.S. Less lucky is Pari, whose life of arranged marriage, divorce from an abusive husband and estrangement from her son ends in depression and early death. Exuding the melancholy of an outsider, this memoir gives American readers rare insight into Iranians' ambivalence toward the United States, the desire for American freedom clashing with resentment of American hegemony." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Nahid Rachlin grew up in Iran in the days of the shah, and the details of her difficult life in this sorrowful memoir reflect the recent history of that conflicted country. The author recalls an idyllic early childhood, growing up with a widowed, childless aunt who considered herself Nahid's real mother. (In a story that could have come out of the Old Testament, Nahid's birth mother, who had four... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) other children, agreed to give her sister the fifth child to raise as her own.) Maryam, Nahid's aunt, adored her and raised her in the old, devout way. They lived a simple life, full of affection, suffused with prayer and the love of God. Then, in 1955, when Nahid was 9, 'the age when Iranian girls could legally marry,' Nahid's birth father turns up on her school playground, abducts her from her loving aunt in Tehran and takes her to the booming oil town of Ahvaz, where he resides with the rest of his family. He is a prosperous judge and businessman with plenty of children and a very full life, and the central question of this memoir — in personal terms — is never addressed. Why did Nahid's father consent to this 'gift' from one sister to another in the first place? Why did he give his tacit approval of the situation for nine long years? Why did he suddenly decide, apparently unilaterally, to snatch back his child and keep her under his own roof? If nothing else, this illustrates the point that in a seriously patriarchal society, you don't go around pestering the patriarch for answers. The welcome Nahid receives in her 'real' home is decidedly mixed. Her two older brothers seem oblivious; her mother, Mohtaram, is cold and distant; the sister closest to her in age — Manijeh — takes an instant loathing to her, and Nahid enthusiastically returns the compliment. Only a middle sister, Pari, almost five years older than Nahid, looks upon her with favor. We know early on that Pari will come to no good because (a) her mother doesn't love her, and (b) Pari has already fallen under the sway of American influence. She takes Nahid to her room and shows her pictures of 'Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Marilyn Monroe, Kim Novak, Ava Gardner, Montgomery Clift.' Pari dreams of becoming a movie star, about as unrealistic an idea as dancing a polka on the moon. So the family dynamic lines up. The older brothers, because of their father's wealth, will soon be going to college in America. They're blissfully self-absorbed. Nahid's mother and the favored sister, Manijeh, spend their time sneering at Nahid and Pari. The father — who, in the photograph in the text here, looks tiny, clenched and beleaguered — strives to keep order in a home beset by divisions. This family is 'modern': They don't pray, the men drink arak, the women don't wear chadors, but the family (and the nation, even under the shah) is obsessed with the purity and chastity of women. If that weren't enough, the shah has gone overboard in his use of SAVAK, the dreaded secret police; Nahid's father's sternness may stem from real fear. When he forbids the rebellious Pari to act in a high school play or prohibits Nahid from buying a book that might be controversial, he's not just exercising mindless authority, he's keeping in mind that SAVAK 'could, at any time, declare someone guilty, arrest them, and even execute them for speaking against the Shah.' Pari is the one bound to make trouble for her family. She becomes smitten with a comparatively penniless high school teacher, declaring that she, of course, 'loves' him. Her parents, grounded in financial reality and the customs of the day, insist that she accept a highly unpleasant rich man in an arranged marriage. After countless tantrums and family scenes, Pari gives in and marries the rich man, who turns out to be a sadist or worse. Pari returns home to beg and plead for her freedom but, naturally, is sent back to her awful husband. Nahid has been having tantrums of her own, sobbing and crying in her room, insisting that she be allowed to go to America. Manijeh, the hateful sister, becomes involved in the machinations of an arranged marriage with a man who backs out of the proceedings, then comes back. The marriage, another awful venture, occurs. Civil unrest flares. Nahid's father, fearful for her because of her headstrong ways, suddenly relents and sends her to the United States. He and his wife must stay and continue to make their way in Iran; she has given birth again — to two more girls. Here is where the tone of the memoir changes. Nahid finds herself in a tiny Christian college full of mean, vapid coeds and nearly dies of loneliness. In 1979, the shah is forced to leave Iran, and the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returns to the country with his own form of (deeply religious) repression. In 1980, Iraq invades Iran, and eight years of butchery ensue. It's not exactly clear what Nahid Rachlin's position on all this actually is. She's terrified and repelled by the Khomeini regime, but she still reveres the devotion and old ways of her now aged aunt. She plainly adores her sister Pari but never seems to grasp that the goal of being a movie star is one of the weakest and most deceptive of American dreams, full of sorrow and trouble and rejection — and simply not going to happen in a society that disdains entertainers as the lowest of the low. Time and again, reading this book, one feels most sorry for the father of this unruly family. The boys never return to Iran — why should they? The women persist in their unhappiness, which is their only weapon: You can boss me around, they seem to say, but you can't make me like any of it. They pitch fits, go on hunger strikes, lock themselves in their rooms, speak to no one for days on end. So Nahid's life plays out against a backdrop of tragedy. She has escaped to America, but she's lost so much of what she loved. Again, the author doesn't comment directly on the meaning of these events. She just tells the tales of individuals crushed. This is just a story of how it was, during a certain period of time, for one upper-middle-class family in Iran, destroyed from within and without by forces it couldn't begin to reckon with." Reviewed by Carolyn See, who may be reached at carolynsee.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[S]uspenseful, vivid, heartbreaking." Boston Globe
"Rachlin keeps an empathetic eye on the family she left behind, even as she creates an American life. But the soul of the book is her poignant relationship with Pari and the vastly different ways their lives play out." Charlotte Observer
A story of promises kept and promises broken, of dreams and secrets, and most importantly, of sisters, Persian Girls is a gripping memoir that can change the way anyone looks at Iran and the women who populate it.
For many years, heartache prevented Nahid Rachlin from turning her sharp novelist's eye inward: to tell the story of how her own life diverged from that of her closest confidante and beloved sister, Pari. Growing up in Iran, both refused to accept traditional Muslim mores, and dreamed of careers in literature and on the stage. Their lives changed abruptly when Pari was coerced by their father into marrying a wealthy and cruel suitor. Nahid narrowly avoided a similar fate, and instead negotiated with him to pursue her studies in America.
When Nahid received the unsettling and mysterious news that Pari had died after falling down a light of stairs, she traveled back to Iran-now under the Islamic regime-to find out what happened to her truest friend, confront her past, and evaluate what the future holds for the heartbroken in a tale of crushing sorrow, sisterhood, and ultimately, hope.
About the Author
Nahid Rachlin is the author of the critically acclaimed novels Foreigner, Married to a Stranger, and The Heart's Desire, as well as a collection of short stories, Veils. Currently a fellow at Yale, Rachlin teaches at the New School and the Unterberg Poetry Center in New York.
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