Family Secrets

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Reviewed by Francine du Plessix Gray
Sunday, February 1, 2009



By Azar Nafisi

Random House. 336 pp. $27

Oh Mother, eternally recurring Mother of women's memoirs! In her preface to Things I've Been Silent About, Azar Nafisi promises us a family chronicle that, like her previous work, Reading Lolita in Tehran, will reflect on "a turbulent era in Iran's political and cultural history." But we soon find ourselves so obsessively focused on a venerable staple of women's writings -- the maelstrom of a tortured mother-daughter relationship -- that socio-political concerns such as the rise of Mossadegh or the fall of the last Shah fade from consciousness. There is no reason to complain: The author's super-mom is as perplexing and fascinating as any we've met in contemporary letters.

That mother, the beautiful, elegant, notoriously outspoken Nezhat Nafisi, was a doyenne of Tehran society who briefly served as a left-wing member of Iran's Parliament. As depicted here by her daughter, she is a hysteric plagued by her perceived lack of fulfillment, often throwing temper tantrums that alienate the relatives and friends whom she most loves. A prodigious mythologizer who turns "glacial" whenever her version of reality is contested, she constantly reshapes her past to aggrandize herself, often boasting, for instance, that she would have become a great doctor if she'd been allowed to attend university. As invasive as she is insolent, she forages shamelessly in her daughter's diaries and personal mail, listening in on her phone conversations and commenting on them with disdain or sardonic rage.

Yet this harsh, aloof perfectionist, who is so arrogantly proud of her excellent French that she won't let her daughter speak it with even a faint accent, is occasionally capable of tenderness and generosity. "When . . . I needed her," Nafisi writes, "she turned soft and caring, as if her good genie had suddenly woken from a long sleep." In sum, what the author and the rest of her family find most frustrating about the intractable Nezhat is her total unpredictability. "Each person would pass her on to the next like a dangerous explosive, hoping she would blow up somewhere else."

Nafisi's father, however, provides a safe haven from her mother's turbulence. "If Mother commanded and demanded," she writes, "my father lured and seduced." A genial, even-tempered, highly regarded civil servant who spent some years as mayor of Tehran, Ahmad Nafisi is also a man of formidable culture. During a jail term contrived on trumped-up charges by jealous rivals, he reads French novels and Buddhist texts, paints still lifes, polishes his German, translates poems by Paul Éluard and Victor Hugo. His friends and admirers are so numerous that when he is set free in 1966 on a bail of $6.5 million, the money is raised in a matter of days. A gifted storyteller, he fires his beloved daughter's literary imagination by initiating her into both Persian and Western literature, helping her to build what she calls her "portable home" -- her literary career.

But the true drama at the heart of Nafisi's memoir is that, try as she might to "protect them from each other," these two extraordinary people -- her parents -- remain savagely estranged. With typical impudence, Mother insists that her marriage to Azar's father had been "a mistake, a poor second" to her life with her first husband, a high-society invalid (his father was Iran's prime minister), who died within a year of their unconsummated marriage. Father responds to his wife's insolence by describing her as "one of those who think they are God's chosen people and [never make] mistakes"; by engaging in a few dalliances; and, ultimately, by divorcing her.

How does young Azar deal with this maelstrom of a family? First, by escaping into scholarship: A gifted student, she attends boarding school in England and Switzerland, and university in the United States. Having finished her PhD thesis on Vladimir Nabokov at John Hopkins, she returns to Tehran in 1980, the year after the Islamic Revolution that dethroned the last shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlevi, and installed Ayatollah Khomeini. She first teaches at the University of Tehran, from which she is expelled for refusing to wear the obligatory veil, and eventually at the University of Tabatabai, where the novelists she reads with her students -- Eliot, Austen, Twain, Flaubert -- offer her beloved refuge: that "democracy of voices" so direly lacking in the Islamic Republic.

Azar's other haven from the tempest of Mother's home -- marriage -- is far riskier. Sex with her unloved first husband, a well-born, insensitive engineer whom she will soon divorce, makes her feel wretchedly "dirty and guilty," leading her to a sense of shame "that would not wear off for a very long time." The author's second and seemingly happy marriage to her current husband is enthusiastically welcomed by her parents, and one senses that this accomplished, fiercely independent scholar and feminist remains touchingly dependent on parental approval. She is radiantly proud when Mother boasts to her friends of her daughter's rebellious achievements or urges Azar to "tell them, tell them what 'they' [the imams] are doing at the universities to women" each time she gives a lecture or speaks on the BBC.

Nafisi's abiding sorrow is that she was not able to be present at her parents' deaths. Her father died in 2004, the day after his doctor permitted him to travel to London to see Azar and her brother. Her mother had died a year earlier, steeped in illusions, as she had lived: Her friends allayed the misery of her terminal illness by assuring her that the Islamic Republic regime had been toppled, and that President Rafsanjani was "awaiting trial." Nafisi is now free -- how poignant this liberation is for all memoirists -- to write about the things she'd "been silent about."

Nafisi's sensory descriptions of Tehran life -- the "enticing cacophony" of its streets, the daily forays her mother makes to the market, where she appears to be "so much at home in this world of chocolates, leather, and spices" -- are as vivid as the portraits of her exotically dysfunctional family. My one grievance concerning Things I've Been Silent About is that, like many a Near Eastern family reunion, the book is excessively crowded. Chatty cousin after chatty cousin, friend after friend, ponderous wise man after ponderous wise man barge into Nafisi's pages, too briefly described to warrant our interest, crowding and often muddling her narrative. But this is a modest complaint to make about an utterly memorable (pardon the alliteration) memoir. ·

Francine du Plessix Gray is the author, most recently, of "Them: A Memoir of Parents" and "Madame de Staël: the First Modern Woman."

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