Escaping self-exile

The search for redemption in the Teheran shtetl yields further subjugation inGina Nahai's new novel

By DONALD WEBER
October 2, 2007 07:08

 
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Caspian Rain By Gina B. Nahai MacAdam Cage 290 pages; $25.00 'Sometimes exile is the best thing that can happen to a people," reflects Roxanna, the strong-willed runaway heroine of Gina B. Nahai's highly regarded Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith (1999). In her novels Nahai takes the enabling power of exile as her core subject, conjuring richly imagined tales of Iranian Jewish life in transition: from the Old World ghettos of Teheran, where Jewish families lived for centuries as a self-conscious minority according to strict social hierarchies and constraining codes of behavior, to the liberating air of Los Angeles, a sun-drenched "goldene medina" where, since the fall of the shah in 1979, 30,000 Iranian Jews live, thriving in "a land of choices and chances" (a quote from Moonlight) basking in, perhaps, the best of all possible diasporas. Nahai's power as storyteller, in the tradition of magical realism, flows from her desire to weave the brutal facts of modern Iranian history with fantastic narratives of familial rupture and political displacement. "The surreal is woven into the culture" of Iran, Nahai has remarked. Her fiction thus blends fable with social criticism; from her clear-eyed yet deeply empathic perch in the New World, Nahai sounds the emotional costs of exile as she explores the trauma of loss for her fellow émigrés. In Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith a banished daughter - the dangerous Roxanna, "possessed with a thousand demons" - sprouts wings to escape her mother's shame-ridden, murderous rage, and flies off to enact a dream of personal freedom beyond the closed world of Iranian Jewry. The novel concludes with a powerful image of homecoming: Roxanna's long-alienated, New World daughter, Lili, is reconciled with her self-exiled mother, and together they hover in the skies over post-shah Teheran (a startling journey of reverse migration, from Los Angeles to Iran), as Roxanna unearths the repressed fragments of family history - a therapeutic act of filial bonding through memory and love. In her ultimately less exhilarating, somber new novel, Caspian Rain, Nahai tells the story of another restless woman, Bahar, a poor Jewess from the Teheran ghetto thwarted in her romantic desires, haunted by unspeakable shame, trapped in - and by - the gossipy web of Iranian Jewish life. Caspian Rain is narrated by Yaas, the all-knowing and (as we sadly discover) self-sacrificing daughter of Bahar, a young woman who dreams of an alternative destiny, beyond the limits of the Jewish ghetto. Yaas's father is the repressed Omid Arbab, the son of wealthy parents obsessed with social boundaries, embarrassed by ill-mannered, declassé Jews. Caspian Rain chronicles her parents' disastrous marriage, above all Bahar's rage at her plight as ignored and eventually betrayed wife. Nahai also explores Bahar's complex response to Yaas's slowly enveloping deafness. A family history of imagined judgment haunts Bahar in the figure of her deaf "ghost brother," who died as a young boy after being hit by a car. His specter returns at key moments to unsettle or, perhaps, beckon Yaas; he looms as a symbol of the repressed shame that haunts the family. Only 12 years old but deeply wise about her dysfunctional family, Yaas recognizes the malign effects upon her mother of what she calls "the end of hope, the setting in of shame." Caspian Rain is thus Yaas's narrative of how she salves her mother's emotional pain so that Bahar can ultimately see her daughter. In this respect the novel deepens the core theme of Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith: the impact of a mother's self-chosen exile. As Roxanna recalls, "I saw how alone she [Lili] was, how invisible she felt, how afraid she was to look in my eyes and realize I had not seen her." In Caspian Rain, Yaas feels invisible, exiled in her deafness. "When I went deaf," she reflects, "I became an exile in my own land." Yaas seeks, in effect, to overcome the mournful underside of exile - experienced as loss and filial severing - by restoring her place in Bahar's (occluded by shame) line of vision. Nahai sets this deeply felt, if abstract, narrative of imagined mother-daughter restoration against a more accessible, if predictable, novel of Iranian Jewish manners. Readers will be absorbed by Nahai's colorful evocation of the shtetl characters of Cyrus Street in the heart of Teheran's Jewish ghetto. Bahar is a restless daughter of this bounded neighborhood, possessing "an air of aloofness, a strange confidence that is unnerving," a "certain defiance of convention." She dreams of being a teacher, and is filled with "unremitting joy," "unrestrained" laughter and an "indestructible faith." By contrast, Bahar's husband, Omid, is a model of restraint and repression befitting his snobbish family's upper-crust demeanor. Obsessed with "decorum and tact," the Arbabs "are modern Jews who believe themselves Iranians first and Jews second." In the tradition of immigrant Jewish American fiction, the more assimilated Arbabs recall Anzia Yezierska's parvenu Jews, on the move from Delancey Street (the equivalent of Cyrus Street in Teheran's ghetto, where Bahar grew up) to the tonier precincts of Riverside Drive, disparagingly termed "alrightnik's row." Bahar, unfortunately, only sees the promise of freedom reflected in Omid's eyes, but clear-sighted Yaas recognizes that her mother is "blinded by joy, giddy with the prospect of escaping her destiny once and for all." Bahar is also innocent of Omid's disdain for her natural exuberance, unaware that he severely judges her lack of "poise." "She'll just have to learn the ways of civilized folk," Omid thinks to himself, revealing his bad faith and latent misogyny, "and become a person he can take with him to parties." "I want to become someone," Bahar implores her new husband; "You've done that," he acidly replies, "by marrying me." Caspian Rain chronicles the suffocating atmosphere of Bahar and Omid's doomed marriage, following the tragic arc of what their daughter calls "our desolate, haunted lives." Defying his family's concern with status and appearance, Omid eventually runs off to Los Angeles with a mysteriously beautiful woman, Niyaz, with whom he is infatuated, and starts a new family. She possesses "an air of aloofness, a strange confidence" - qualities that, in their compelling power (Niyaz embodies the mobility and freedom he craves), ultimately dislodge Omid from the narrow orbit of Arbab civility. As for Bahar, she has a short-lived moment of happiness by the Caspian shore, where the family journeys to salvage its future. For Yaas, the Caspian looms in her memory as the cherished site of reawakening. "I feel my heart expand with joy," she recalls; by the sea, on the threshold of total deafness, she was able, somehow, to hear the rain fall. Yaas associates this ecstatic moment with the sound of her mother's voice; indeed, she returns to her broken family with the desire never to forget that sound. The ability to remember her mother's voice, she feels, will enable her to preserve the deeper self-exiled by deafness: to be "able to hear - through memory - even after I have gone deaf." Despite this moving evocation of a daughter's desire to build a bridge with her mother through words, via the connective tissue of memory, the startling revelation at the end of Caspian Rain feels imposed, a narrative surprise. As does Yaas's refusal, born of profound daughterly love, "to save her [mother] from the good fortune that will augur such devastation in her life." Why is Bahar doomed to repeat a life of "despair" - the meaning, it turns out, of Yaas's name in Farsi? Why does Yaas decide not to alter her mother's disastrous destiny? By tethering the story of Caspian Rain to its native Iranian roots, Nahai refuses her women the redemptive potential of exile; she withholds from Bahar and Yaas the mythic promise of American self-invention. Perhaps Nahai will adjust her gifted storyteller's eye - born of exile and filled with empathy - to consider the sprawling spectacle of Iranian-Jewish life in Los Angeles, which is in places comic, if still haunted by loss. She is, after all, that subculture's finest chronicler. Perhaps in her next novel Nahai will hover over the luxurious gardens of Brentwood, or fly through the benighted hills of Beverly Glen, conjuring ghosts. Lady in waiting They watch her and shake their heads. What is it about being poor, they wonder, that diminishes a person so entirely? The real tailor is an Armenian woman named Alice who has a two-month waiting list for new clients, and who has never been known to deliver a dress on time. She's sharp-tongued and dour, imperious with the rich, indignant with the less wealthy. She acts as if she were doing them all a favor - taking their money and making them wait three months for a dress - and her clients have bought into this wholeheartedly. They sit in her parlor from midday till evening, sipping Turkish coffee - made by a fourteen-year-old peasant girl Alice has bought from the girl's parents for the price of a bed and three square meals a day - exchanging diet recipes and the details of the latest scandal in town while they peek at each other's fabrics and devise ways to outdo everyone else in good taste and beauty. They measure their own and each other's social standing by the length of time Alice makes them wait before they are admitted into the atelier, and they'll talk about it that evening at the parties they will go to, create or ruin reputations by reporting on how a client was received by the Armenian. Alice will make Bahar wait all day. She knows who Bahar is because Mrs. Arbab has called to make the appointment for her - my son is marrying well below us but we need the dress to be up to standards, and I wouldn't dream of having it made by anyone but you, but really, I can't go there with her, I know it's customary, everyone does it, but spare me this agony, would you please, just let her come alone, or with one of her weird relatives. Bahar arrives early, her wedding lace folded neatly in a bag, her smile so bright and confident it puts Alice on alert that she's a person who needs to be reminded of her true station in life. She leaves Bahar in the waiting room - have a seat, I'll see if I can make time, you're the first to arrive, but I'm expecting other customers, they have priority - and disappears into the atelier. Other women arrive in groups of two and three. They've all heard about Omid's engagement, and so they sit across from Bahar, examine her openly and without pretense, even talk about her out loud with one another. They ask her pointed questions: Are you here alone? Didn't anyone want to come with you for your first fitting? Doesn't Mrs. Arbab ever take you anywhere? Bahar answers politely but with too much enthusiasm - indicating that she's glad to be here even if she has been slighted by her future mother-in-law, that she's prone and vulnerable because she doesn't know yet how to arm herself against the scrutiny and judgment of the society she intends to be a part of. Her weakness makes the women dislike her even more, gives Alice permission to keep her waiting all day. Every hour or so, Alice opens the door of her atelier and looks into the waiting room, exchanges greetings with new arrivals, then motions for one of the women to come inside for a fitting. She knows Bahar is a bride-to-be, and should therefore be given preferential treatment, but she ignores her anyway, closes the door on her and her sad little plastic bag without even bothering to indicate how much longer Bahar will have to wait. The other women see this but do not interfere. Some of them even feel sorry for Bahar, wish Alice would accord her more respect, but they're neither brave enough, nor caring enough, to risk alienating Alice by rising to the girl's defense. So they smoke More cigarettes, leaf through year-old issues of Vogue and talk about the incompetence of their maids, the cheekiness of their cooks, the habitual lateness of their chauffeurs. They watch Bahar from the corner of their eye and ask themselves how much longer she's going to sit there, pretending she doesn't know what's going on, she must be hungry, for God's sake, it's four o'clock in the afternoon and she hasn't had lunch, just tea that Alice's maid brings around on a tray every half hour or so and that Bahar drinks with too much sugar and too many dates - the stuff is fattening but she probably has no idea. They watch her and shake their heads. What is it about being poor, they wonder, that diminishes a person so entirely? That attracts tragedy? Invites loss? At five o'clock, one of the women finally takes Alice aside and tells her this isn't right, this poor girl has been patient enough, you may not owe her any respect, but you can't insult the person who sent her to you. Then Alice calls Bahar into her workshop. She has closed the door for every other one of her customers - to give them privacy as they undress - but with Bahar, she leaves it halfway open. "Take your clothes off," she says. "I need to see what I'm dealing with." Bahar puts her bag down on a table and looks at the open door. "Let's go," Alice urges. "I'm tired. I want to call it a day." Tentatively, Bahar takes off her skirt, then stands in place and looks at the door again. The women in the waiting room pretend they're busy talking to one another, but Bahar knows that they'll all look at her the minute she turns away. She asks Alice if she can close the door. Alice takes Bahar's arm and leads her to the mirror. "You think no one's seen a naked girl before?" she asks. Bahar takes off her shirt and climbs, in only her underwear, onto a platform in front of the full-length mirror. She stands there as Alice takes her measurements, and tries not to look in the mirror where she knows she will see the other women looking back at her. Alice's hands are cold and angry. They push and poke at Bahar, and if she reacts by pulling away, they come at her more aggressively. The women are watching. When she's done with the measurements, Alice takes the lace out of the bag and spreads it on a table. "Not bad," she says. "What do you want to do with it?" She picks it up and wraps it around Bahar's body, starts to pin it here and there so as to devise a style. One of the pins pricks Bahar's skin. She pulls away instinctively. "That hurts." Alice doesn't stop what she's doing. "Hold still!" she commands, but suddenly, Bahar is defiant. She steps off the platform so she's at eye level with Alice. "You're poking too hard," she says, "and you should close the door." Alice puts down her pincushion and stares at Bahar. She hasn't expected the girl to challenge her, certainly not before an audience of other customers, and so she can't let this go without setting the balance in her own favor again. "Get back on the platform," she says in a measured voice, but Bahar won't move. Her eyes are red and her lips have turned white with anger and she just stands there, looking afraid of Alice, and even more afraid of what she, herself, may do. "Get on the platform," Alice says again, "or go home." They glare at each other. Alice clutches the wedding lace in her fists. She wants to give Bahar time to contemplate the consequences of alienating her - of throwing a fit here, in front of all those women who will bear witness, that very evening in all the parties around Tehran, to the fact that Omid's new bride-to-be is a shrew with a temper. Slowly, she takes Bahar's arm and, digging her nails into her skin, shoves her back up on the platform. "Now hold still," she commands. "A girl like you should be grateful just to have been allowed in." In the mirror before her, Bahar sees a young woman, erect on a box in an airless room bathed in the sinking afternoon light. Around her, half-made gowns and naked mannequins lie on the backs of wooden chairs, on the arms of a blue velvet sofa, on the surface of an etched glass coffee table. Beyond them in the waiting room, a dozen women watch silently as she stands in surrender, arms stiff at her sides, face inundated by tears of humiliation and rage. Excerpt from Caspian Rain by Gina B. Nahai. Copyright © 2007. Permission granted by MacAdam/Cage Publishing.


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