Monday, September 14, 2015

Parnaz Foroutan Presents Beautiful Literary Family Drama in The Girl From The Garden

Dada, Dada, Dada. Mahboubeh remembers who even the mention of Radhel's name made the women and the children of the household nervous. She was all everyone ever talked about. The only authority. Mahboubeh walks into her garden with a length of rope in her hand. The rain fell for a long while for days and days, with fierce winds. Mahboubeh's feet sink into the mud. She walks slowly. Should she fall, who knows how long before someone comes. The fig tree leans dangerously to one side. Mayhoubeh wraps the rope around its trunk several times, then walks to the line of confers growing behind the fig tree. "Which one of you shall bear the burden?" The tree tops sway. Beaded drops of rain sit on their needles. Mahboubeh raises a trembling finger and takes a drop. "Such diamonds," she says. "For my eyes only?" She chooses he middle tree and wraps the end of the rope around its trunk. "Hold her, for now, until I can hire a man to build her a crutch." She pulls on the end of the rope, then knots it. She walks back to the fig tree and plucks a dried fig from its branch. She remembers how the other children ran to their mothers whenever Rakhel caught themn, cursing and yelling that she'd summon a djinn to visit them in their sleep and choke them for their thievery. Mayhoubeh had no one to run to, no one to protect her from Rakhel's anger and spite...
Mahboubeh  wants to reach out the tips of her fingers and touch Khorsheed's cheek. "Paradise is a Farsi word, Mother," Mahboubeh whispers. "It means an enclosed space, a garden set aside from the surrounding wilderness..."
In the outskirts of Los Angeles, in the sprawl of suburban homes that sit in the lap of dry, gold hills, there is a garden . In the warmth of late summer evenings, the perfumes of honeysuckles and jasmines in this garden are maddeing. Earthen pots of cosmos and geraniums surround the yard. Near the back wall grows a pomegranate tree...

Mahbouleh tends to the trees and flowers of her garden, dirt in the creases of her hand...Mahboubeh carries with her stories. They pour out of her and fill the space she inhabits, like so many hungry ghosts, begging to exists. Sometimes she forgets the parameters of that space, the dictations of time, and she slips into the past of her stories...She remembers the garden from her childhook. A tall brick wall separated it from the streets of the Jewish mahalleh in Kermanshah...

The Girl from the Garden

By Parnaz Foroutan

Sometime during the last century,  the Malacouti family lived in the Jewish mahalleh in Kermanshah... Perhaps there are other members of the family still alive, but we are given the family history through Mahbouheh. She lived in Iran during her early years, but now lives alone, an elderly woman, in Los Angeles...

All she has left is her Garden...and her memories, albeit sometimes faltering... Certainly we are honored that she has been willing to share the life of her family with us. It must have been a hard story to tell--as much as it is a hard story to read... The story is both factual and fiction.

While the culture and the book begins first with the story of two brothers, Asher and Ibrahim, I, an elderly woman who also lives alone, was drawn to the lives of the women living at that time, and in particular, Mahbouheh's mother...

Early on in the story I picked up and predicted what was going to happen and one woman came to mind  as the story went on... I didn't care about identifying anybody else... It was Mahbouheh's mother I saw in my mind...heard her tale... Her name was Khorsheed... And I imagined that Mahbouheh looked exactly like her mother...

Amidst the singing and the blessings, the family
of the young bride and groom take her to a far corner
of the hammam and sit her on a chair. They close
in around her, part slightly to allow in Naneh Adeh,
the old midwife, and a sudden hush falls upon the
room. The older woman approaches the young
bride, kneels before her, takes her face, looks her
in the eyes and ask if she has known a man. The
young girl shakes her head frantically, her eyes
wide and round. The woman places her wrinkled
hands on the girl's thighs, pulls them open, holds
the other folds...and explores the hidden folds with
the fingers of the other. All the women hold their
breath and wit. No one moves. The silence if
suddenly broken by the old woman's confirmation
that the girl is untouched. The singing and
dancing resume and they lead the girl to
another corner of the room to remove the down
of her arms and legs and to pluck and shape
her eyebrows...
Khorsheed and Rakhel, children, played together in the area surrounding their family's estate. It would be natural, except that they were both married, and one of them was pregnant... They are the wives of Asher and Ibrahim, with Asher, the older son, now head of the prosperous family. Their mother, Zolekhah, lives there as well as a number of servants...

It is important to note that marriage and progeny are closely tied together and many marriages are arranged with, perhaps, a chance for the future husband to see his wife before their formal vows are made. It is also important to note that the pregnant teen was not Asher's wife...but Ibrahim's...

And there the trouble started. Rakhel, wife to the oldest son, had not yet become pregnant. Of course, the problem was Rakhel, everybody said. And Rakhel slowly builds her defenses, while trying not to be jealous, envious of Khorsheed. But if sometime during their play, Khorsheed may be hurt in some way, accidentally of course, nobody really imagines that it could have been done on purpose...

Former hammam now photo gallery
Outside of the basic story, I was interested in learning more about the historical activities of the Jewish women... It was clear that, given the communal use of the hammam for all women, that their personal lives were also shared communally. Indeed, during visits, the women would enter a home and if the men were not there, would shed their outside garments and welcome their friends. I realized that there was also a broad superstitious environment and in daily life, special activities occurred to prevent harm--all seemingly more colloquial, perhaps, than religious... Fascinating historical material is entwined in the beautifully written novel that very much complements the terrible story that is being shared.

Because the lives of this family were slowly falling apart... One tragic issue, for instance, was that Asher had seen a woman to whom he was greatly attracted. Not his wife. So that, when his wife had not conceived after too much time, and this other woman was divorced, he took her as a second wife... That story literally grabs your heart strings as it, too, causes further turmoil in the family... especially as to what happens to the second wife who also did not conceive...

Readers move back and forth-- It was 1978 when Mahboubeh realized that there was nothing remaining for her in Tehran. Everyone she knew was either dead or leaving... She remembered thinking that she had finally escaped history, but, then as she grew older, it was the history back home that haunted her...

On that last visit, Mahboubeh asked Rakhel again, "How did my mother die?"
And the old woman sat there, quietly, pensively, reflecting. Then she looked up at Mahboubeh and answered, "I've told you a thousand times, Degh marg shod. She died from sorrow."
That usually ended the conversation between them, but Hahboubeh knew that this might be the last chance she'd have at getting an answer from Rakhel and so she summoned her courage, looked the old woman in the eyes and asked, "What sorrow?"
"Degh. Degh. The kind that chokes you. That one that clenches at your throat. Degh," Rakhel said, holding her own throat with a bony hand. "All that anger and all that grief welling up inside you, and no voice to scream it out beneath the sky, so that you have to swallow it. Until it turns into a poison inside and eats your heart."

Throughout her life, Mahboubeh has asked first, her father, and then others why had her mother died. It was clear that she never received a satisfactory answer so that readers begin to seek the answer to this mystery, just as Mahboubeh... What had happened to her mother? Why did it seem that everybody was keeping something a secret and she not permitted to know...and understand...

Rakhel pulls back the curtains of the window facing the garden to look at the dark sky from the warmth of her bed. Her ankles rest on the windowsill, her toes press against the cool glass. A rooster crows, then another. The sky above is still dark when the first note of the muezzin's song rises from the minarets to announce the morning. Allah hu Akbar.
She images the town awakening. The silent motions of believers, kneeling in prayer. The rustle of bedlothes as children stir in their sleep, the pouring of water into iron kettles, the crackling of fires, the tired shuffle of the feet of women walking across kitchen floors. The muezzin's song ends. La ilaha illallah ripples the air, the rings growing wider and more distant and then a moment bereft of sound, until the silence is finally punctuated by birdsong...

The days fall one after the other, each day comes the calls for prayer. Does anybody outside of the Jewish mahalleh even know what is happening to the Malacouti family, for surely everybody at the estate knows... And readers have the great opportunity to read of a family drama like no other. Could it have happened to another family? I do not think so, the creative characters that populate this journal are so uniquely drawn that you find your heart breaking along with each one of those in that family. It's an awesome story, one that is haunting and memorable... And if it is truly only fiction, yet based upon the author's life to some extent, readers will not help but wonder--just how much of it is true--and whisper of God's merciful love on all...


Parnaz Foroutan was born in Iran and spent her early childhood there. She received PEN Center USA's Emerging Voices Fellowship for this novel, which was inspired by her own family history. She currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two daughters.

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