Veil of Roses, page 1
About the Author
This book is dedicated to
the women of Iran.
And to Farhad.
Duset daram, Farhad Joon.
And your feets, too!
My first thanks goes to the Bantam Dell Publishing Group, in particular: Danielle Perez, Micahlyn Whitt, Nita Taublib, and Patricia Ballantyne. I would also like to thank Wendy McCurdy and Erica Orden for their early support of the book. This story is so much richer for the involvement of so many at Bantam.
I am appreciative to Lani Diane Rich, a great friend and writer, whose enthusiasm and support for my writing has been steadfast. She went first, paved the way for me, and continues to share her learnings. I suspect I’ll never meet a writer as generous as Lani.
Huge thanks go to Stephanie Kip Rostan, my agent at the Levine Greenberg Literary Agency, not only for finding this book the perfect home, but for providing her big-picture perspective and always direct editorial feedback. My gratitude also goes to Beth Fisher, Melissa Rowland, and Monika Verma.
Heartfelt thanks: to Meg Files and my Wednesday-night writing classmates, especially Jason Shults; to Michelle, for the sometimes-fresh coffee and always wonderful brainstorming sessions; to both my close and extended family, who expressed only enthusiasm for this book; to Sherry & Todd, Alex & Nanette, Mike & Ilene, Lisa in Tosa, Terri in Boston, and Susan in Hilo—great friends, all. Your confidence in me means so much. And finally, thanks to the members of my own homeland—Farhad, Carly, and Luke. (Carly, I hope this book proves to you for once and for all that your mom really is a writer, not a wronger!)
As I walk past the playground on my way to downtown Tucson, I overhear two girls teasing a third: Jake and Ella sitting in a tree. K-I-S-S-I-N-G. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage!
Curious, I stop mid-stride and turn my attention to Ella, the redheaded girl getting teased. She looks forward to falling in love; I can see it by the coyness in the smile on her freckled nine-year-old face. I shake my head in wonder, in openmouthed awe. I think, as I so often do: This would never happen in Iran.
None of it. Nine-year-old girls in Iran do not shout gleefully on playgrounds, in public view of passersby. They do not draw attention to themselves; they do not go to school with boys. They do not swing their long red hair and expect with Ella’s certainty that romantic love is in their future. And they do not, not, not sing of sitting in trees with boys, kissing, and producing babies. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, there is nothing innocent about a moment such as this.
And so I quickly lift the Pentax K1000 that hangs from my neck and snap a series of pictures. This is what I hope to capture with my long-range lens: Front teeth only half grown in. Ponytails. Bony knees. Plaid skirts, short plaid skirts. That neon-pink Band-Aid on Ella’s bare arm. I blur out the boys in the background and keep my focus only on these girls and the way their white socks fold down to their ankles. The easiness of their smiles. They are so unburdened, these girls, so fortunate as to take their good fortune for granted.
Ella sees me taking pictures and nudges the others, so I lower my camera, wave to them, and give them my biggest, best pretty-lady smile, one I know from experience causes people to smile back. And sure enough, they do. I wave one last time and then I walk on. I am changed already, from just this little moment. These fearless girls have entranced me, and I know that when I study my photographs of these recess girls, I will look for clues as to what sort of women they will become.
I hope they find romantic love. And passionate kisses, and men who look at them with eyes that see all the way into their souls. Then I know they will be happy, and I know they will be whole.
First comes love, then comes marriage. A childhood chant, a cultural expectation. Americans believe in falling in love with every fiber of their being. They believe it is their birthright; certainly, that it is a prerequisite for marriage. This is not so where I was raised. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, marriages are often still negotiated between families with a somewhat businesslike quality. In most modern families, girls have some say in the matter. They can discourage suitors, or, as I did, delay marriage by seeking a university degree.
It isn’t that Iranian men necessarily make bad husbands. Like my dear father, many are kind and gentle and interested in their wives as people, not just bearers of their children. Then again, some are not. There are family teas, gift-givings, and dinners, but a woman often spends no time alone with her fiancé before her wedding. So it is, as one might say in America, a crapshoot. A woman goes into her husband’s family in a white gown and she leaves it only in a white shroud, in death.
That is our culture.
And that is our future, inescapable for most girls.
Inescapable, it had begun to seem, even for me.
On the occasion of my twenty-seventh birthday, my parents hosted a celebration dinner for me in their fine north Tehran apartment. We typically do not celebrate birthdays in a large fashion, but it had been a troublesome time for me and they hoped to bring me happiness. In only my fourth year of teaching, I’d recently resigned my position, against the advice of my parents. And this after I’d dreamed so long of being a teacher, a teacher of young girls. Increasingly since I’d begun, I suffered stabbing headaches, murderous stomachaches. My constitution simply wasn’t strong enough to bear the demands of being a teacher of young girls in a religious regime.
Once I resigned, my physical ailments diminished, but so did my world. I rarely left home; the streets were hostile and I had no destination, no dreams, to carry me forward. Not yet twenty-seven, I felt the weariness of someone who’d lived one hundred joyless years. I fell into a horrible depression.
My dear parents must have suspected my desperation, for they gathered together all the people I loved for a grand birthday celebration, all the people they knew could make me laugh. There were Minu and Leila, my dear friends from university with whom I’d giggled my way through, spending hours at Leila’s house dancing to bootleg videos of Siavesh concerts. There were Mehrshad and Roxanna, my father’s brother and his wife; and, most important, Ali and Homa Karmoni, whose friendship with my parents was unquestionably the stroke of grace that made their lives in Iran bearable. The roots of their friendship ran long and deep. Ali Agha hired my father as an engineer way back when not many would consider hiring him because of his Western ways, and Ali Agha had guarded my father’s job ever since. Besides that, we vacationed with them and celebrated holidays with them and treated them as if they were our own family.
They had one adored son, Reza, twelve years older than me. He’d been living in London fo
“You know, Agha Reza returns from London next month,” she announced on this night as we gathered around a sofreh in our dining room and ate a celebration dinner of lamb kebab and saffron rice. “He has accepted a job at the Free University and is ready to settle down and be married. A professor, you know.”
I felt Minu and Leila’s eyes on me, but I averted my gaze from them and smiled politely at Homa Khanoum. I tried to hide my heavy heart, tried to suppress the instant realization that this, then, is how it would happen. I no longer had to wonder. I was cocooned in my father’s house with no job and no other marriage prospects. My parents loved Agha Reza as if he were their own son.
This, then, is how it would happen. I would go into their house in a white gown, as Reza’s wife, and I would leave it only in a white shroud. And in between, my world would remain so small.
So painfully, so suffocatingly…small.
Shortly before dawn, the party ended. The women rubbed off their makeup, cloaked their beautiful party clothes under their manteaux, and tucked their coiffed hair under their headscarves. My mother, my father, and I kissed each guest upon both cheeks. We warned them, Be careful, watch for the roadblocks, and remember, please please remember, if stopped by the bassidjis do not say where it was you drank the homemade beer. And do you think perhaps you should spend the night? But no, no. It was time to brave their way from the safeness of our home into the dark Tehran night, out onto the public streets, where bad things could happen and often did.
When finally they were out the door, my father pushed it closed with both hands and leaned his forehead against it for a long moment.
“Baba?” I asked. “Is something wrong?”
He instantly turned to me. “I remember when I turned twenty-seven,” he said with a half smile. “My world was filled with much happiness and hope for the future. Do you remember, Azar, the year we turned twenty-seven?”
“Of course,” my mother answered. She stood off to the side and shifted nervously. “Of course.”
This would have been when they lived in America, I knew. My father studied as a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1970s. In a decision he’s regretted for the rest of his days, he brought his family back to Iran for an extended visit during the tumultuous days immediately after the Shah was deposed and Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile. We got stuck during the clampdown that followed, and my father has never been able to secure for himself permission to leave the country. He, an educated man who’s seen a successful democracy in action, who believes deeply in the doctrine of separation between church and state, is destined to live out his years in a repressive religious regime. There are many men like my father in Iran. I lived in America from the time I was an infant until shortly after my second birthday. I remember none of it, of course. All I have are stories handed down by my parents and my sister, Maryam, who is eight years my elder.
“Your mother and I have a present for you, Tami Joon.” My father loves giving presents. It must have been hard for him to delay giving it to me until after the party. He would have been thinking of it all night long.
“What is it?” I returned his smile.
He nodded at my mother, and she disappeared into their bedroom to retrieve the gift. My father clapped his hands together and blew on them as if he were outdoors in front of our house on a chilly Tehran morning, scraping frost off the windshield and waiting for the engine to warm up so he could drive to his job as a transportation engineer for the city. But he was not outside. He was inside, and our home was toasty warm, and my stomach fluttered with the sudden suspicion that this would be no idle gift.
My mother returned a moment later with a plain white box of about twelve square inches. She handed it to my father and took her place next to him. She wrung her hands together and bit her bottom lip and looked at me in a way I shall never forget. It was a look of pride and excitement and fear all rolled into one.
“Here, open it.” My father thrust the box at me.
I stepped forward and accepted it with shaky hands. I lifted the lid and returned it to my mother’s outstretched hand. I looked warily at the top layer of tissue paper before peeling it out of the way.
“Is this my…?” I caught myself. Of course it could not be the same; that gift was tucked away in my bureau, underneath a stack of silk hejab. That gift had not been mentioned in years, and I had thought it was all but forgotten.
I lifted the blue porcelain perfume bottle from the box. I looked quizzically at my father. He nodded. Yes, Tamila. It’s what you think.
My eyes filled with tears as I set the box on the foyer table and twisted the lid off the perfume bottle so I could smell it again. So I could see it again. So I could remember the first time I had received this very same gift.
It had been on my fifth birthday. My father, so much younger then, pulled me into his lap and handed me this same rounded perfume bottle. It was my mother’s, the one that always sat upon the tray on her dressing table. I loved it. I especially loved squeezing the little spritzer on those special occasions when she allowed me to spray rosewater on the soft undersides of her wrists, which she would rub together and hold up for my little nose’s approval. I thought it was a fine gift. A wonderful, grown-up gift for a girl who adored her mother like I did mine.
But when I raised the perfume bottle to my nose and inhaled, I wrinkled my child’s nose in confusion and felt my smile leave my face. It was not like my father, my beloved Baba Joon, to make a mean joke, but after carefully twisting off the spritzer and discovering it contained only sand, I had to press my lips together and will myself not to show disrespect by letting tears spill from my eyes.
My father pulled me close and kissed my forehead. “My beautiful Tamila, this is not just any sand.” He took my hand and stroked the back of it with his thumb, his lullaby to me.
“This,” he said reverently, “is sand from America. I brought it back with my own hands to give to my beautiful Tamila Joon on her fifth birthday, so she can keep it safe and know that when she is older, she has a special job to do. She is to take this sand and return it to where it belongs. She is to return it to America.”
My mother’s gentle voice drew me out of my reverie. “Tami.”
I looked to her, met her gaze. “There’s more in the box,” she prompted me, and handed it back. She no longer bit her lip. She no longer wrung her hands. Instead, she looked at me with a steadiness I rarely see in her. I felt my hope rising, and this frightened me, for in Iran hope is seldom fulfilled and nearly always suffocated. It is a dangerous thing, for an Iranian girl to allow herself to hope.
My father was unable to contain his impatience. “Take it out,” he ordered, stepping closer as if to force me if I hesitated any longer.
I braced myself and peeled back the next layer of tissue paper. I gasped. Was it really, could it be, yes, it was! I gaped at my father. He broke into a broad, proud grin.
In the bottom of the box was a passport.
A passport for me! There was also a one-way airplane ticket out of Iran to Turkey, and from there I was to obtain a visa and ticket to the country of my parents’ dreams.
He’d done it.
My father was saving me.
He was sending me to America.
“How did you…?” I began to ask in wonder, but my father waved my question away. He’d done it. That’s all I needed to know.
“But what about…?” I looked searchingly into my father’s eyes. What about Agha Reza, I wanted to ask. What about him and the marriage proposal that seems to be coming? But I stopped myself. There was nothing of Agha Reza in his eyes.
“Thank you, Baba Joon. Oh, thank you so much!” I threw my arms around him.
“Shh, shh.” He quieted my sobs, rocked me back and forth. “This is your chance. You go to America and make us proud.”
I stepped back, nodded at him,
“I’ll miss you so much, Maman Joon.”
“I love you, Tami Joon,” she whispered in my ear. “I love you so, so much. And know that it’s a beautiful, beautiful world out there.” She choked on her words and did not speak again until she had regained her steadiness. She pulled back from my embrace to grip my forearms, to capture my gaze. “Go and wake up your luck,” she commanded me. “Promise me you will.”
I looked back at her, and for a moment, this is what I saw: America. Her America. My mother, my mother’s younger self, firmly rooted in California’s rich soil.
Long ago, she gave me some pictures from our time in America. I consider them my most treasured possessions.
There is one of me eating French fries at McDonald’s, sitting on my father’s lap. There is one of me being pushed from behind on a baby swing by Maryam at the children’s playground at Golden Gate Park. There is one of me naked in the Pacific Ocean, running from the cold waves and squealing in delight.
There is another from that day at the ocean.
In this one, I am wearing a pink one-piece swimsuit with a big yellow daisy in the middle. My mother holds me. My legs are wrapped around her waist, and my head rests on her shoulder. A wave washes over her feet. She looks straight into the eye of the camera. My mother’s skin is tanned, her long hair windblown. She knows nothing yet of segregated beaches and confiscated passports and shrouding oneself from the sun’s warmth and men’s eyes. All she knows is the beauty of this day. She wears cutoff denim shorts and a pink bikini top. She wears big gold hoop earrings and bright red lipstick. Red nail polish, too. Remarkably beautiful, she looks so happy. So happy and so free.
This is not the mother I know. The mother I know has always worn hejab, has always covered herself in the regime’s mandated head covering. She has always ducked her head and averted her eyes when passing men in the street. I do not remember the carefree, unburdened mother in the picture at all, but I miss her every day of my life, even so. The mother I know has always been sad.