The presence of absence

The painful secrets of a wealthy family of Persian Jews in early 20th-century Iran are the focus of a new novel.

Parnaz Foroutan (photo credit: DEBBIE FORMOSO)
Parnaz Foroutan
(photo credit: DEBBIE FORMOSO)
Spellbinding first-time novelist Parnaz Foroutan immediately plunges us deep inside the melancholy mind of Mahboubeh, an elderly Jewish Iranian exile now living alone in Los Angeles. Mahboubeh spends her lonely days sitting in her garden, but she could really be anywhere because her mind is hopelessly tangled up in her tumultuous childhood in Iran, where she grew up a motherless child.
This identity has permanently marred her with muted longings and simmering resentments and confusions that linger as she confronts her own death. She has been cruelly treated and lied to repeatedly by those closest to her about the horrific fate that befell her young mother while Mahboubeh was still an infant child, oblivious to all that surrounded her.
Mahboubeh grew up as part of a prosperous Jewish family in the Iranian town of Kermanshah decades before the shah fell and almost all of the Jews fled.
Jews had always been persecuted in Iran, as elsewhere, and thought of as a tainted lot. Still, her father, Ibrahim, and his older brother, Asher Malacouti, were prospering in their own family business.
Mahboubeh’s Aunt Rakhel, Asher’s wife, was barren, and the family was in great turmoil about this. Rakhel would play a big part in Mahboubeh’s mother’s death, but so would many of the others.
Women in her childhood village lived expecting little, and were often subjected to humiliations that were terrifying. This was a world that did not challenge male authority and one that insisted women remain hidden and submissive and obedient and fertile. A woman’s worth was measured by her ability to give her husband sons. Marriages were arranged when girls were very young and most partnerships lacked even the facade of any tenderness.
Mahboubeh remembers learning that after her mother died, her father stopped attending synagogue and spent his days mostly alone, immersed in the poetry of Rumi. He was not an attentive father, and was often distressed, and when Mahboubeh would pester him with questions about her mother, whom she longed to know more about, he would answer cryptically that she died from the complications of womanhood.
Foroutan’s writing is startlingly original and authentic in narrative voice and texture. The author spent her early childhood in Iran and now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two daughters.
She has revealed in interviews that the genesis for her book was based on countless stories she heard over the years from her extended family about her Aunt Rakhel, who was known to terrorize many of them with her secret manipulations and seemingly arbitrary harshness. She was a fierce matriarch.
Foroutan attempts to go beyond the toxic family legends that have been passed down about Rakhel and to actually try to imagine what Rakhel’s life was like for her as she was forced to watch her husband take a second wife in a desperate attempt to have children, expecting her to remain blind and silent while he spent his nights elsewhere.
We learn about Rakhel through Mahboubeh’s remembrances of her, and her growing suspicions about the role Rakhel played in her mother’s downfall.
Mahboubeh recalls returning from a college semester in Tehran and confronting her Aunt Rakhel about what had happened to her mother. Her aunt snapped at her and said bluntly, “I’ve told you a thousand times. Degh marg shod. She died from sorrow…. The kind that chokes you. The one that clenches at your throat…. All the anger and grief welling up inside you, and no voice to scream it out beneath the sky, so that you have to swallow it. Until it turns into a poison and eats your heart.”
Mahboubeh listens but knows there is more to know and that no one will tell her the truth. What really happened? What crime was committed? By whom? Why did her father not prevent it from happening? Why won’t anyone tell her? Mahboubeh wants some kind of closure, but it keeps eluding her.
Mahboubeh’s childhood was not all desolation. There were moments of relief from the grief that enveloped her. She clings to snippets of memories of going to school where she was recognized as a particularly bright little girl.
There was a brief arranged marriage with a surprisingly tender man who acquiesced to her wishes to become a teacher and make her own money, but the man died suddenly just a few years after their wedding.
And there were the bonds she witnessed between the women of the village that touched her deeply. Women who would visit other women just to “bring news, to share the joy or spread the shame, to help with an ailing mother, to mourn, to console, to counsel, to tell stories, to eavesdrop, to bring a talisman against miscarriages, a remedy to bring back a straying husband….”
There were celebrations, too. Particularly before weddings when huge feasts were prepared and children could gorge on delicacies usually denied them. And there was Iran’s lush beauty, its sycamore trees and exotic flowers, and fountains filled with huge bright orange goldfish where you could rinse your feet.
The beauty of Iran haunts Mahboubeh as she sits under Los Angeles’s desolate sky looking for answers that remain hidden from her even now.
Readers will not easily forget Mahboubeh, this motherless child whom Foroutan describes poetically as a woman forced to live her entire life with “a palpable sensation… the presence of an absence.” Nor will they forget Foroutan’s perceptive prose that is laced with a pained aliveness that cuts deep and penetrates.