Fertility and Fortune: The Story of a Persian Jewish Family's Downfall

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Women chatting along the old walls of the Imam (Shah) Mosque in Iran. The Mosque was built in 1611 by the Shah Abbas I of Persia.
Women chatting along the old walls of the Imam (Shah) Mosque in Iran. The Mosque was built in 1611 by the Shah Abbas I of Persia. Credit: Dreamstime

“The Girl from the Garden,” by Parnaz Foroutan, Ecco, 288 pp., $26.99

Parnaz Foroutan’s debut novel, “The Girl from the Garden,” is the story of a wealthy Persian-Jewish family in the Iranian city of Kermanshah. Asher, a rich merchant, fails to biologically father a child and his attempt at saving face destroys the lives of his young wife, Rakhel, his second wife, Kokab, and his sister-in-law, Khorsheed. Foroutan’s beautiful and at times painful book seems to suggest that a woman’s liberation from a passive and muted existence in patriarchal Jewish-Iranian society could only come at the price of disintegration.

Set in 1917, the story unfolds retrospectively through the eyes of Asher’s niece and Khorsheed’s daughter, Mahboubeh, an elderly woman living in modern-day Los Angeles. Foroutan herself was born into a Persian-Jewish family and as a young girl moved from Iran to Los Angeles, where she still lives. She has explained in several interviews how the story on which she based her novel had circulated in her family for generations. During family gatherings for parties or events, the elders would retell the story of her aunt Rakhel, or “Dada,” describing her as a monstrous and powerful matriarch. Foroutan believed she had to go beyond her family’s caricature of Rakhel, and tell her story from the beginning. She chose to do so through the eyes of Mahboubeh.

Mahboubeh – a character fashioned after Foroutan’s grandmother – left Iran in 1978, a year before the Islamic Revolution. In Los Angeles, on the brink of dementia, she fears the loss of her childhood memories. For the author, Mahboubeh’s memory loss is symbolic of the immigrant experience in the “City of Angels.” As she explained in an interview with LA Magazine, for Jews (and Muslims, too) the migration from Iran to Los Angeles meant the loss of connectedness to and memory of the past, of ancestry and heritage.

In order to counter her forgetfulness and while tending to her garden, listening to the faint sounds of the surrounding city, or filing through old photographs, Mahboubeh begins to imagine her way into the minds of her ancestors: Rakhel, a 15-year-old baker’s daughter, is married to Asher Malacouti, a merchant and head of the wealthiest Jewish family in town who wants to have a son. As time passes, and Rakhel fails to conceive, the young couple grows desperate, and Asher, blaming Rakhel, begins to resent his wife. He eventually takes a second wife, Kokab. Divorced after having “brought shame” to her first husband by showing her face unveiled in public, Kokab is forced to live apart from her young daughter. Her mourning for the loss of her child, in addition to Rakhel’s jealousy and hatred, prevent Kokab from fully integrating into the Malacouti family – and participating in her marriage. Kokab refuses a second pregnancy, prompting Asher’s brother Ibrahim – in a gesture of seeming compassion – to let Asher raise his newborn son. That decision will ultimately end in disaster for his wife, Khorsheed.

Meanwhile, Rakhel, consumed by envy over Asher’s sexual attraction to Kokab and sister-in-law Khorsheed’s pregnancy, increasingly alienates herself from her surroundings. “The poor, poor child,” a domestic servant observes, when during a locust storm Rakhel refuses to flee the garden but remains seated on the grass, covered with insects: “It happens this way, sometimes, when a woman suffers too much.” Rakhel develops from a vulnerable teenager into a bitter woman who criticizes other, younger women for their lack of docility, diligence or chastity toward their husbands.

Women as trapped birds, untended plants

“The word paradise is a Farsi word,” Mahboubeh explains at the beginning of the story, referring to her childhood garden of the Malacouti home, where Rakhel, Khorsheed and Kokab lived. “It means the space within closed walls, a cultivated place set apart from the last wilderness,” she concludes. Her family’s garden – “secretive and lush, teeming with flowers and fruiting trees” – is not only the central place in the novel, but also its most elaborate image. After all, what is a garden? The history of mankind began with the archetypal garden, the Garden of Eden. But unlike Eden, in which God provided Adam and Eve with evergreen plants, eternal sun and growth, a human garden must be cultivated by a gardener; it could blossom or wither.

Standing in the garden next to a fountain, Khorsheed “looks at the shiny brown earth in her hand. In an instant, she sees the dissolution of her form into a thousand forms, decomposing, growing, nourishing. She imagines her body wedded to worms, crawling with ants. She sees her flesh moving away from her bones, until she crawls the glistening earth, becomes food for birds, then flies all over the whole wide land.”

In “The Girl from the Garden,” cultivation also applies to women in the patriarchal Jewish-Iranian culture of the early 20th century. Like a garden, the women in the novel are tended and shaped by rules of attraction and demeanor: eyebrow plucking, hammam bathings, chaste clothing, modesty, submission, self-sacrifice. “All day, the women walk back and forth in the same enclosed space,” Ibrahim observes, standing at his bedroom window overlooking the garden, “now with this task, then with that, and sometimes aimless, it seems, in perpetual circles.”

Elsewhere, Foroutan makes use of slightly clichéd images to illustrate domestic patriarchy and female confinement: women as trapped birds or plants prevented from full bloom. “Rakhel listens to the sound of caged birds, the coo of doves, finches chirping, a yellow canary, mad with song, longing for flight.” While standing in the garden, Mahboubeh muses, “So much longing ... enclosed in this sheath, waiting to blossom,” while holding a pomegranate seed in her palm. The seed then makes her think of Kokab “with so much life held fast within her.”

At the same time, Mahboubeh remembers how, from within the uniformity of the everyday, the women of her family would make their lives meaningful by frequently gathering to celebrate even the smallest, seemingly unspectacular things – such as the plucking of a bride’s eyebrows, a baby’s first meal, cooking Shabbat dinners, for mere gossiping, storytelling and the like.

With the Malacouti family, Foroutan depicts the insurmountable separation of the two sexes under patriarchy and, at least from a contemporary, Westernized perspective, the mind-boggling lack of communication, solidarity and compassion of men toward their wives. Instead of, for example, understanding Kokab’s indifference with regard to a possible second pregnancy, Asher can’t but interpret it as an act of selfishness and self-pity. When Kokab tries to explain, “My child, her name is Layli. You never asked. The child I have lost, my daughter” he leaves the room, infuriated. It is just another scene from a seemingly bygone world, where women’s actions are interpreted according to male self-interest – a world that, of course, is not entirely a thing of the past.

The writer is a journalist, writer and literary scholar. She lives in New York.