I started making a list in my diary entitled “Things I Have Been Silent About.” Under it I wrote: “Falling in Love in Tehran. Going to Parties in Tehran. Watching the Marx Brothers in Tehran. Reading Lolita in Tehran.” I wrote about repressive laws and executions, about public and political abominations. Eventually I drifted into writing about private betrayals, implicating myself and those close to me in ways I had never imagined.
--From Things I Have Been Silent About
Azar Nafisi, author of the beloved international bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran, now gives us a stunning personal story of growing up in Iran, memories of her life lived in thrall to a powerful and complex mother, against the background of a country’s political revolution. A girl’s pain over family secrets; a young woman’s discovery of the power of sensuality in literature; the price a family pays for freedom in a country beset by political upheaval–these and other threads are woven together in this beautiful memoir, as a gifted storyteller once again transforms the way we see the world and “reminds us of why we read in the first place” (Newsday).
Nafisi’s intelligent and complicated mother, disappointed in her dreams of leading an important and romantic life, created mesmerizing fictions about herself, her family, and her past. But her daughter soon learned that these narratives of triumph hid as much as they revealed. Nafisi’s father escaped into narratives of another kind, enchanting his children with the classic tales like the Shahnamah, the Persian Book of Kings. When her father started seeing other women, young Azar began to keep his secrets from her mother. Nafisi’s complicity in these childhood dramas ultimately led her to resist remaining silent about other personal, as well as political, cultural, and social, injustices.
Reaching back in time to reflect on other generations in the Nafisi family, Things I’ve Been Silent About is also a powerful historical portrait of a family that spans many periods of change leading up to the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79, which turned Azar Nafisi’s beloved Iran into a religious dictatorship. Writing of her mother’s historic term in Parliament, even while her father, once mayor of Tehran, was in jail, Nafisi explores the remarkable “coffee hours” her mother presided over, where at first women came together to gossip, to tell fortunes, and to give silent acknowledgment of things never spoken about, and which then evolved into gatherings where men and women would meet to openly discuss the unfolding revolution.
Things I’ve Been Silent About is, finally, a deeply personal reflection on women’s choices, and on how Azar Nafisi found the inspiration for a different kind of life. This unforgettable portrait of a woman, a family, and a troubled homeland is a stunning book that readers will embrace, a new triumph from an author who is a modern master of the memoir.
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Azar Nafisi is a visiting professor and the director of the Dialogue Project at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University. She has taught Western literature at the University of Tehran, the Free Islamic University, and the University of Allameh Tabatabai in Iran. In 1981 she was expelled from the University of Tehran after refusing to wear the veil. In 1994 she won a teaching fellowship from Oxford University, and in 1997 she and her family left Iran for America. She has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic and has appeared on countless radio and television programs. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and two children.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I have often asked myself how much of my mother’s account of her meeting with her first husband was a figment of her imagination. If not for the photographs, I would have doubted that he had ever existed. A friend once talked of my mother’s “admirable resistance to the unwanted,” and since, for her, so much in life was unwanted, she invented stories about herself that she came to believe with such conviction that we started doubting our own certainties.
In her mind their courtship began with a dance. It seemed more likely to me that his parents would have asked her father for her hand, a marriage of convenience between two prominent families, as had been the convention in Tehran in the 1940s. But over the years she never changed this story, the way she did so many of her other accounts. She had met him at her uncle’s wedding. She was careful to mention that in the morning she wore a flowery crêpe-de-chine dress and in the evening one made of duchess satin, and they danced all evening (“After my father had left,” she would say, and then immediately add, “because no one dared dance with me in my father’s presence”). The next day he asked for her hand in marriage.
Saifi! I cannot remember ever hearing his last name spoken in our house. We should have called him—with the echo of proper distance— Mother’s first husband, or perhaps by his full title, Saif ol Molk Bayat, but to me he was always Saifi, good-naturedly part of our routine. He insinuated himself into our lives with the same ease with which he stood behind her in their wedding pictures, appearing unexpectedly and slyly whirling her away from us. I have two photos from that day—more than we ever had of my own parents’ wedding. Saifi appears relaxed and affable, with his light hair and hazel eyes, while my mother, who is in the middle of the group, stands frozen like a solitary centerpiece. He seems nonchalantly, confidently happy. But perhaps I am wrong and what I see on his face is not hope but utter hopelessness. Because he too has his secrets.
There was something about her story that always bothered me, even as a child. It seemed not so much untrue as wrong. Most people have a way of radiating their potential, not just what they are but what they could become. I wouldn’t say my mother didn’t have the potential to dance. It is worse than that. She wouldn’t dance, even though, by all accounts, she was a good dancer. Dancing would have implied pleasure, and she took great pride in denying herself pleasure or any such indulgences.
All through my childhood and youth, and even now in this city so far removed from the Tehran that I remember, the shadow of that other ghostly woman who danced and smiled and loved disturbs the memories of the one I knew as my mother. I have a feeling that if somehow I could understand just when she stopped dancing—when she stopped wanting to dance—I would find the key to my mother’s riddle and finally make my peace with her. For I resisted my mother—if you believe her stories—almost from the start.
I have three photographs of my mother and Saifi. Two are of their wedding, but I am interested in the third, a much smaller picture of them out on a picnic, sitting on a rock. They are both looking into the camera, smiling. She is holding onto him in the casual manner of people who are intimate and do not need to hold onto one another too tightly. Their bodies seem to naturally gravitate together. Looking at the photograph, I can see the possibility of this young, perhaps not yet frigid, woman letting go.
I find in the photograph the sensuality that we always missed in my mother in real life. When? I would say, when did you graduate from high school? How many years later did you marry Saifi? What did he do? When did you meet Father? Simple questions that she never really answered. She was too immersed in her own inner world to be bothered by such details. No matter what I asked her, she would tell me the same stock stories, which I knew almost by heart. Later, when I left Iran, I asked one of my students to interview her and I gave specific questions to ask, but I got back the same stories. No dates, no concrete facts, nothing that went outside my mother’s set script.
A few years ago, at a family gathering, I ran into a lovely Austrian lady, the wife of a distant relative, who had been present at my mother’s wedding to Saifi. One reason she remembered the wedding so clearly was the panic and confusion caused by the mysterious disappearance of the bride’s birth certificate. (In Iran, marriages and children are recorded on birth certificates.) She told me, with the twinkle of a smile, that it was later discovered that the bride was a few years older than the groom. Mother’s most recent birth certificate makes no mention of her first marriage. According to this document, which replaced the one she claimed to have lost, she was born in 1920. But she maintained that she was really born in 1924 and that her father had added four years to her age because he wanted to send her to school early. My father told us that my mother had actually subtracted four years from her real age when she picked up the new birth certificate, which she needed so that she could apply for a driver’s license. When the facts did not suit her, my mother would go to great lengths to refashion them altogether.
Some facts are on record. Her father-in-law, Saham Soltan Bayat, was a wealthy landowner who had seen one royal dynasty, the Qajars (1794–1925), replaced by another, the Pahlavis (1925–79). He managed to survive, even thrive, through the change in power. Mother sometimes boasted that she was related to Saifi on her mother’s side and that they were both descendants of Qajar kings. During the fifties and sixties when I was growing up, being related to the Qajars, who, according to the official history books, represented the old absolutist system, was no feather in anyone’s cap. My father would remind us mischievously that all Iranians were in one way or another related to the Qajars. In fact, he would say, those who could not find any connections to the Qajars were the truly privileged. The Qajars had reigned over the country for 131 years, and had numerous wives and offspring. Like the kings that came before them, they seemed to have picked their wives from all ranks and classes, possessing whoever caught their fancy: princesses, gardeners’ daughters, poor village girls, all were part of their collection. One Qajar king, Fath Ali Shah (1771–1834), is said to have had 160 wives. Being of a judicious mind-?set, Father would usually add that of course that was only part of the story, and since history is written by the victors, especially in our country, we should take all that is said about the Qajars with a grain of salt—after all, it was during their reign that Iran started to modernize. They had lost, so anything could be said of them. Even as a child I sensed that Mother brought up this connection to the Qajars more to slight her present life with Father than to boast about the past. Her snobbism was arbitrary, and her prejudices were restricted to the rules and laws of her own personal kingdom.
Saham Soltan, mother’s father-in-law, appears in various history books and political memoirs—one line here, a paragraph there—once as deputy and vice president of Parliament, twice as minister of finance in the early 1940s, and as prime minister for a few months, from November 1944 to April 1945—during the time my mother claims to have been married to Saifi. Despite the fact that Iran had declared neutrality in World War II, Reza Shah Pahlavi had made the mistake of sympathizing with the Germans. The Allies, the British and the Soviets in particular, who had an eye on the geopolitical gains, occupied Iran in 1941, forced Reza Shah to abdicate, exiled him to Johannesburg, and replaced him with his young and more malleable son, Mohammad Reza. The Second World War triggered such upheaval in Iran that between 1943 and 1944 four prime ministers and seven ministers of finance were elected.
Mother knew little and seemed to care less about what kind of prime minister her father-?in-?law had been. What was important was that he played the fairy godfather to her degraded present. This is how so many public figures entered my life, not through history books but through my parents’ stories.
How glamorous mother’s life with Saifi really was is open to debate. They lived at Saham Soltan’s house, in the chink of time between the death of his first wife and his marriage to a much younger and, according to my mother, quite detestable woman. In the absence of a lady of the house, my mother did the honors. “Everybody’s eyes were on me that first night,” she would tell us, describing in elaborate detail the dress she had worn and the impact of her flawless French. As a child I would picture her coming down the stairs in her red chiffon dress, her black eyes shining, her hair immaculately done.
“The first night Doctor Millspaugh came...you should have been there!” Dr. Millspaugh, the head of the American Mission in the 1940s, had been assigned by both the Roosevelt and the Truman administrations to help Tehran set up modern financial institutions. Mother never saw any reason to tell us who this man was, and for a long time, for some reason I was convinced that he was Belgian. Later, when I reviewed my mother’s accounts of these dinners, I was struck by the fact that Saifi was never present. His father would always be there, and Dr. Millspaugh or some other publicly important and personally insignificant character. But where was Saifi? That was the tragedy of her life: the man at her side was never the one she wanted.
My father, to bribe my brother and me into silence against her impositions, and perhaps to compensate for...
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