My mother was wearing a thin black headscarf I’d only seen her wear to funerals. She’d ordered my older sisters to cover their hair too, but at age six, I was young enough to let my hair show, she said. As we drove away from the house, there was a group of young men trying to squeeze in through the gates. One of them was trying to scale the iron bars but couldn’t get a foothold. When we opened the gates to pass, the boys rained down on our car, calling us traitors, murderers, and spies while banging on the hood with determined fists. I just stared and wondered, what had we done?
I didn’t know if my sisters were awake and scared, but by the time our driver told us to lock the doors, I was terrified and felt as if the roof of the car and the windows were closing in on me. Seeing those hateful faces pressed up against that thin divide made my body go cold. I couldn’t breathe. I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t make a sound.
This was the first of many trips to the airport all eight of us made before dawn for two weeks in February 1979. I was usually so groggy from being woken up at such an early hour that I wasn’t sure what was happening. Was it all just a nightmare, I wondered? I didn’t understand why we were so desperate to leave home. I only knew that they had arrested my uncle Madgid, and after she held me close, my mother’s racing heart told me we were in danger too.
Mehrabad airport was always closed. Hundreds of people were camped out on the lawn and in the parking lots waiting for any plane to dare land in the midst of a bloody revolution. Sometimes we stayed all day and the driver would bring us sandwiches. Once it became clear that the airport would remain closed for the rest of the day, my father would ask the driver to take us back home, only for us to do it all over again the next morning.
The young men who’d attacked our car were clearly Khomeini supporters, but strangely enough, it wasn’t the Muslim clerics who had thrown my uncle in prison. The Shah, whom he’d loyally served for years, arrested him just as the rioting got out of control. It made no sense: My uncle was one of only a handful of people allowed to disagree with the king, and his own daughter was married to the queen’s nephew.
It was a confusing time, with Iran at a crossroads. The Shah had rounded up his highest-ranking officials and thrown them in prison to deflect the criticism of being too harsh, even violent, with dissidents. It was classic scapegoating, but soon it became clear that the Islamicists were going to push the Shah out—before he pardoned his prisoners.
When my parents found out that the Shah was planning to leave Iran and go into exile, they both agreed that we had no choice but to leave the country too. As soon as we heard that my uncle Madgid had escaped from prison, my parents began planning our escape from Iran. Technically, my father was a government employee too, but only a civil servant who worked for Social Security. With Khomeini in power, my mother told us, the Islamicists would kill my father, if only because of his connection to my uncle Madgid, the minister of development.
The trips to the airport were usually quiet, and I was always in and out of sleep as we piled into two cars. My mother, who never left the house unless her blond hair was curled and her eyes lined in black charcoal, wore large sunglasses to hide her bare face. Her hair was pulled back under the headscarf to reveal the scar on her cheek that she always concealed with a wisp of hair.
Even though she always dressed in high-end European designer clothing, Maman Shirin was the quintessential Iranian woman. She deliberately went the traditional route by marrying and having children right after high school, but my father helped untangle her from that unhappy first marriage. Despite her scandalous status as a divorcee, my father married her, and they began having children right away.
Maman Shirin’s family is of Turkish descent from the country of Azerbaijan, which explains why she’s so fair skinned compared to my swarthy Iranian father. Her family emigrated to Georgia, where her great-grandfather served as a general in the czar’s army. When the Bolshevik Revolution began in 1917, the Soviets began rounding up high-ranking officials, so my mother’s family fled to Iran’s Azerbaijan region.
My great-grandmother was just a little girl then, and her parents cut her hair and dressed her as a boy; as soon as refugees rushed the border, the Soviets would rape all the females from the old guard, including the children. When my family safely arrived in Iran, the Shah’s father was in power. He heard about my great-grandmother’s two military-trained brothers, so he sent them to fight in a tribal war where they were both killed instantly.
My mother, who seems to have revolution running through her veins, was born and raised in Tehran and always identified as Iranian, not Turkish or Georgian. She also worshipped all things American and European until she married my father. After finding herself in the midst of the Shah’s inner circles, she grew resentful of how quickly Iran was becoming Westernized, mainly because she felt that being a mother and wife were no longer enough. She was also not as worldly as the other women, and the only time she left the country was with her first husband, who kept her confined to their home in Switzerland.
Even though she was not religious, Maman Shirin often taunted my father by praising Khomeini after the tapes of his sermons began to circulate and attract followers. Not only was my father an atheist, but also his familial allegiance was to the Shah, whom Khomeini was determined to oust. Praising the enemy was Maman Shirin’s go-to button to push when the two of them would fight, but she wasn’t happy when the unthinkable revolution began to close in on her too.
The airport was finally open one morning, and all eight of us rushed to board the last direct Pan-Am flight from Iran to the United States. We had the usual amount of luggage that we took with us on our rare family vacations, so there was nothing to indicate that we were leaving forever. I didn’t know what to make of the strange fact that we were escaping.
When we stepped off the tarmac at Newark Airport, a recording of a woman’s voice looped overhead: “Please step away from the red carpet area.” I didn’t know English, but the music of those first words stayed with me, and I only deciphered the mysterious message years later.
My brother and three sisters already knew some English, which replaced French as the requisite second language in most prep schools before the Islamic Revolution. My mother, however, spoke no English, and my father only a little. Suddenly, we were all thrust into a country that spoke no Farsi. Thankfully, my mother’s sister, who had been living in New Jersey for decades, had arranged our visas and had a rental home ready for us.
It was winter, so it must’ve been especially cold when we arrived, but I have no recollection of the chill or much of anything at all. In fact, most of the following days and years of my childhood are much like a haunting dream that leaves few memories but lingering emotions. And I was afraid, mainly because I sensed that both of my parents were lost.
In December 1980, my world was shaken yet again when John Lennon was shot dead by his stalker. I wasn’t familiar with his music at the time, but I felt intense grief after watching the news, which introduced me to his songs about love and peace. I couldn’t understand why anyone would kill someone so pure and innocent. I’d only known that depth of sadness once before, when a group of thugs took my uncle away in the middle of the night and threw him in a jail cell. I couldn’t imagine that my uncle had ever done anything to deserve being locked up.
It was bizarre that anyone could hate my uncle, who was like a second father to me. Uncle Madgid and my father looked identical to one another and shared the same Roman profile and cleft chin. The only things that distinguished them were my uncle’s dark-rimmed glasses, his perpetual smile, and his dapper linen suits and ascots. My father always wore a serious expression and wool suits in varying shades of gray.
When they were children, uncle Madgid would always get into trouble, but my grandfather, a stern Muslim cleric, would beat my father instead. Uncle Madgid was the one with all the luck, the friends, and the love interests. Contrarily, my father was somber and socially awkward, especially with women.
Instead of being envious, my father was proud of his brother for being loved by all, especially the French diplomat who risked his own life by smuggling a bottle of hair dye and a fake passport to my uncle just before a carefully planned prison break.
In our new home in New Jersey, we celebrated the fact that my uncle had finally reunited with his wife and two daughters in Paris. We talked very little about the others who didn’t make it out of prison, but we knew that my uncle Madgid had been exceptionally lucky to escape the Islamicists at that final hour.
Ironically, my father’s name is Mohammad, but he and his six brothers were fiercely opposed to Islam, which was always encroaching on their shared attempts at establishing a secular—and eventually democratic—society in Iran. Even though my grandfather was a Muslim cleric, his sons came to see Islam as militant by nature after being educated in the West. Most of them worked for the Shah and couldn’t conceive of Islam as being a moderate religion. They refused to compromise with the clerics, who wanted more influence in government.
My father was once a man to whom others went for wisdom and guidance. It frightened me to watch him crumble in America. I remember him always struggling with the antenna on his black transistor radio, a special one that barely got any reception from the Farsi-speaking stations he relied on for the latest developments in Iran. I didn’t know exactly what he hoped to hear on the radio, but I knew he wanted to go back home—back to how it was before the revolution.
I became convinced that our entire family was marked for death in the U.S. after my cousin was killed. We were all watching The Brady Bunch when my mother rushed into the TV room downstairs and shut off the set.
“Ali Reza was murdered,” she said. “He was stabbed to death.”
I’d never seen my mother look so pale and unsteady. She, who only cried privately, fought back tears while my fifteen-year-old brother sobbed loudly. He’d been close with Ali Reza in Iran, whereas I didn’t really know my cousin. I wanted to cry too, but I was numb, and the tears refused to come. I felt awful for not being able to feel sad or display any grief, but the horror of it all only suffocated me.
Ali Reza had just begun his studies at Boston College while his parents remained in Iran. His murderer accosted him in the street and called him a hostage taker before a fight ensued and he was stabbed multiple times. In 1980, the Islamic Republic was still refusing to release the fifty-one American hostages they’d taken at the onset of the revolution. My cousin, who was anything but sympathetic to the clerics, was killed for their sins.
My father was the closest of kin, so he was called to identify the body. My brother begged to go with him, but my father went along with my mother’s refusal to allow a young boy to go on such a morbid trip.
Ali Reza’s murder made us all feel unsafe. Soon afterward, an obsession with death took hold of me. It seemed to be everywhere around us, and I wanted to know what it felt like to be dead. During the episodes of insomnia I began to battle nightly, I’d hold my breath for as long as I could and empty my mind, but I still had no idea what it was like to not exist. I also began having nightmares about my father shoveling dirt and grass in our new backyard. He was burying gold and piles of faceless dead people.
My mother began drinking whiskey regularly, and my father replenished her bottles of Johnny Walker Red weekly, but he never drank a sip himself. Meanwhile, he was practically catatonic after his return from Boston.
I silently grieved all the daggers life kept throwing at my family until my stomachaches grew unbearable. Finally, I complained about the pain to Maman Shirin, who began giving me some much-needed attention. She went with me to various doctors’ offices, which we often left with my mother understanding only half of what was said. When I finally saw a specialist, he attributed the pain to stress and said I had the beginnings of an ulcer.
After my cousin’s murder, my sisters began lying and saying that we were part French and my brother changed dramatically. When I was a baby, he was so loveable and playful that I’d allow only him to feed me after I refused my mother. As I got older, he taught me how to build and paint model airplanes and kick a soccer ball. But after Ali Reza’s murder, he became angry and tyrannical. He also got away with bullying and berating the rest of us.
He was the only boy in the family, and whenever he became belligerent with us girls, my mother would tell us to put up with it or it was our fault that he was irritable. My morbidly depressed father seemed unaware of the marked change in my brother and was too distracted to get involved in his children’s disputes.
Even though he was the most cherished of my siblings, I knew my brother wasn’t happy. He wasn’t particularly athletic, which seemed a requisite for a boy in our new country, and he had a mustache well before all the white boys in his classes saw their first pubic hair. He didn’t fit in at school and took it out on the rest of us.
This new version of my brother kicked the soccer ball into my stomach and laughed. This wasn’t the brother who’d gently coaxed me into eating. He also mocked the roundness of Arezou’s face and the elephantine size of Faranaz’s body. He especially enjoyed laughing at the fact that I was too thin and always had dark circles under my eyes. “You look like a malnourished Pakistani kid,” he’d say.
My mother was just as horrified and afraid of the future as my despondent father, but she expressed it through alcohol-fueled rage. She was especially furious with my father for his poor planning. “We should’ve left Iran sooner and not in such a rush,” she complained. She hated living like dahati, a peasant.
I didn’t notice much of a difference between our new home that displeased her so much and the one in Iran that she’d spent years making her own. When I later saw photographs of our home in Iran, it didn’t fit with my expectations. It was a respectable upper-middle-class brick house, which didn’t fit the propaganda about the opulence and decadence of the Shah’s close allies and associates.
My siblings and I were not shielded from my parents’ arguments about what little money my father had been able to withdraw before his assets were frozen. My mother had warned my father that our stay would be lengthy, not a few months or a couple of years at most, the way he’d estimated. She was furious that they’d left their life’s savings and their valuables behind. She wanted my father to sort things out right away: Where was the tuition for college going to come from? How were they going to get their money out of Iran?
Mostly, my father was dismissive of my mother—even intimidating. He never hit her, but even at five foot six, he towered over Maman Shirin while arguing. He also garnished his reasons for not listening to her with cruel remarks about how unimpressive her family was and how uneducated she was. She retaliated by defending her loved ones while tearing his to shreds.
Maman Shirin was born to a wealthy family, just like my father, so there was never a class difference between them. Theirs was more a war between East and West that only deepened in America. Nearly all of my father’s family members had gone to college in the West and had spent years living in Europe and the United States. A few of my mother’s relatives had too, but it was not quite the same requisite in her family.
“Your family is a bunch of murderers. That’s why your brother was in prison!” This was one of many insults she’d hurl at my father whenever he measured her against his strict Western standards. Of course, she was purposely triggering my father’s rage by referring to the allegations the Islamicists were making about cruel abductions and punishments conducted by the Shah’s secret police, the Savak. She wasn’t saying anything new. Everyone, even children, knew about the intimidating surveillance system and alleged torture tactics of the Savak. My sisters would play hide-and-seek, taking turns pretending to be Savak agents looking for dissidents to pummel. This game horrified my father, who would lecture us on how the rumors about bloody detentions were all a lie created to discredit the Shah.
When Maman Shirin took community college ESL classes, she worked hard but never was able to grasp the English language. Her attempts at legibly writing the alphabet were as feeble as any American’s first attempts at writing Farsi would be. She no longer had any wealth, she had to learn an entirely new language, and she had to start her sentences on the other side of the page. Everything was suddenly backwards in her life.
My father mocked my mother’s failings, but he was barely comfortable with English himself. He had a Swiss education and was fluent in French, so the alphabet wasn’t the problem. He lacked the confidence to speak, and when he did, he’d later mock himself for all the mistakes he’d made. He would then avoid social interactions that required him to speak English. He was hard on everyone, including himself.
My father reveled in the fact that I was doing exceptionally well in school, but my mother was indifferent if not resentful. She never once attended parents night, the one thing I wished for her to do. Sometimes she’d slam me for thinking I was better than she was because I was so smart, a thought that had not occurred to me when she first accused me of it. When we’d argue about the limited freedom she gave me to play with friends after school, she’d mock me for thinking I could do anything I wanted because of some silly grades.
There were no other new immigrants in my classes, so I was especially embarrassed when my mother would make grammar mistakes while trying to get to know my friends. I worried that my classmates would think that she was as stupid as my father said she was whenever he was angry. When I invited friends over after school, I’d tell my mother beforehand to leave us alone and not to talk too much. It didn’t occur to me that I was hurting her feelings.
I was not only embarrassed by my mother’s broken English, but I also hated how different she was from all the other New Jersey moms. She carried Celine handbags and always dressed elegantly in pleated skirts and heels, whereas the other moms wore T-shirts, jeans, and sneakers. She looked haughty when we were poor.
After losing everything they had, my parents incessantly hurt one another but succeeded most in hurting us children, whose welfare they often forgot whenever they battled. My mother liked to make us take sides. When pushed, I usually sided with my father who didn’t ask for any defense. This only made Maman Shirin more furious.
I thought my mother was maudlin and always seeking pity. She was so much more aggressive than my father when defending herself that I usually glossed over what he’d said to trigger her fury in the first place. I sensed that he was the weaker one, and I felt sorry for him.
Maman Shirin began demanding that my father abandon his pride and get a job, which made me think that she had only married him for money and prestige, not love. Instead of finding work, however, he stitched up holes in old socks instead of buying new ones, a habit that enraged my mother and made me feel guilty for ever asking for anything. Struck with financial problems he’d never anticipated, my father eschewed anything having to do with luxury, exactly what he’d once showered on my mother. Instead, he kept the lights dim and the house a bit too cold during winters, all to save on bills. He was spending without bringing anything in, he’d constantly remind us.
My father argued that if he got a job, there would be no one to take the kids to school and keep the refrigerator stocked because Maman Shirin was too inept to drive. The truth was that he cut coupons and wouldn’t let my mother interfere with the grocery shopping; he said she always chose products that were overpriced and designed to steal from shoppers. The real reason he didn’t try to find work was because he knew that he couldn’t get anything better than a minimum wage job despite having a PhD in law, which was irrelevant in another country.
Maman Shirin, like many Iranian women, didn’t drive, even though it was not forbidden in Iran. She never needed to get behind the wheel when she lived in Tehran because she always had a driver. Whenever she brought up the topic of getting her New Jersey driver’s license, my father prophesied death and disaster. Instead, he drove us to and from school every day because they both worried about bullies, kid snatchers, and the assassinations that the Islamic Republic was conducting abroad.
After giving up, a resentful Maman Shirin became a backseat driver to my nervous and perpetually lost father. Whenever he lost his way, my mother, who usually had no idea where we were either, would insist that he follow her directions. He did listen a few times, and we ended up even farther away from home. It got to the point that whenever Maman Shirin tried directing him, my father ignored her and drove at a terrifyingly fast speed. I was always in the backseat drowning in panic attacks and hyperventilating. My sisters would beg him to slow down, but he wouldn’t listen. Maman Shirin wouldn’t stop screaming.
Getting a divorce in Iran during the 1960s was no easy feat unless it was the husband demanding it. It was my father who had the will and courage to push the limits of the law and social norms for my mother. Maman Shirin separated from her first husband for reasons ranging from physical abuse to cheating. Whenever my parents fought, however, my father would tell us that her first husband left her because she was crazy. My mother would defend herself by setting the facts straight: “I left him. He wouldn’t even grant me the divorce. And you made it happen, just to ruin my life!” My mother regularly threatened to leave my father too, but she never did, mainly because she couldn’t be self-reliant.
When he wasn’t angry, my father admitted he’d always been in love with Maman Shirin, even while she was married to her first husband. This confession always sounded bizarre because I’d rarely see them kiss or be affectionate toward one another. He may have saved her from another man many years earlier, but in their new life, the only power he wielded was in belittling his beautiful wife.
Everyone who saw my mother commented on her stunning looks, even the boys in my classes. It irritated me that Maman Shirin was so aware that she was beautiful and took great lengths to showcase her physical charms whenever she could. She also took great pride in having Anglo features: very fair skin and a thin upturned nose. She used to call me gandomi, which means “the color of wheat,” and I knew early on that she and I were different.
Maman Shirin had turbulent relationships with all of her daughters, but her connection was especially strained with Nasrin, her firstborn, who was almost old enough to be my mother. After Maman Shirin divorced, she left Nasrin with my grandmother. At age sixteen, Nasrin ran off to live with her father and his new family in California, an act of betrayal, according to Maman Shirin. Her first husband had remarried an American woman by then, a very religious Christian who didn’t seem to mind being controlled by him at every turn.
At age eighteen, Nasrin married an alcoholic American who beat her whenever he came home drunk. She left him after crashing her car while trying to get away from yet another alcohol-induced rage. She was pregnant with his child during the accident and miscarried.
Nasrin returned briefly to Iran after the divorce but moved back to California before we fled, after a protester set off a bomb in her car outside the government building where my father had gotten her a job. I saw very little of Nasrin when I was a child, but she’d become something of a legend in my household. The rumors were that after she ran away from my mother to live in California, she dated Bob Seger and had famous musician friends like Stevie Nicks. Nasrin looked like a rockstar, too. She was tall for an Iranian woman at five foot nine. She was also very slender and had long golden brown hair that hung in untamed waves around her shoulders. Most of the time, Nasrin wanted little to do with Maman Shirin, but whenever they temporarily mended their ways, she’d call, asking, “May I speak with my mother?”
Unlike Nasrin, my other half-sister, Marjan, was very close with my mother and had nothing to do with her father, who didn’t even acknowledge she existed. My two half-sisters didn’t even look at all alike: Marjan was chubby and dark skinned, and she always looked angry. By 1986, everyone on my mother’s side had fled Iran, but when Marjan was stuck with nowhere to go, she joined us in New Jersey.
I grew close with Marjan, who got a part-time job at McDonald’s and began taking ESL courses at the community college. In Iran, she was a pimply teen who took me to anti-Shah protests in her dilapidated car and told me not to tell Maman Shirin what we’d done. I always kept my word because there was nothing frightening about the protests. These middle-class uprisings looked and sounded like a block party. Young people were dancing in the midst of gridlock. There was laugher everywhere, and people used their car horns like musical instruments.
In New Jersey, Marjan and I would settle down in front the television every nights and she’d tell me the latest developments with a boy in Iran who’d been drafted in the Iran-Iraq war. She still kept in touch with friends who weren’t able to leave the country.
Even though I liked having Marjan live with us in New Jersey, knowing that we had very little money and yet another mouth to feed gave me great anxiety. This often resulted in sharp stomach pains that I hid from my mother because I didn’t want to miss school.
I looked forward to my classes, which were a distraction from problems at home. Our neighborhood was filled with Italians and Jews, so I felt inconspicuous and pretended like my family was just like everyone else’s. People didn’t ask me about being Muslim, probably because I never claimed any religion, and my classmates were too young to know about Khomeini or the hostage crisis. Never once did my race come up in conversations, and from what my father had told me, I believed we were white like all of my classmates.
My biggest obstacle was that I was a mute. Even at home I rarely spoke, especially if anyone outside my immediate family was at the house. My mother told me that when I was a toddler, I wouldn’t speak, and she worried there was something wrong with me until I suddenly began talking in full sentences.
When I began kindergarten in New Jersey, I couldn’t speak in class, not even after soaking up enough English to express myself. It only grew worse as the years unfolded. Sometimes I refused to answer when called on. It wasn’t my lack of respect for authority but the fact that I would have panic attacks whenever I opened my mouth. When pushed to speak, my voice quivered, and I spoke so softly that teachers would often tell me they couldn’t hear me.
Most of my teachers assumed my lagging language skills were the problem, even though I was doing exceptionally well on tests. Regardless, the principal brought in an Iranian language teacher to work with me. After she reported that my comprehension and speaking skills were just fine, the school called in my father.
I was angry with myself for being yet another burden on him, but I couldn’t behave any differently. Even though I enjoyed most of my lessons, I wanted to be invisible when it came time for discussion. My inability to speak in front of the class only grew worse the more I tried to fight my anxiety. My panic attacks became even more severe after another tragedy in my family.
My uncle Madgid and his wife Monir were driving to a gathering of international diplomats in Belgium when their car spun out of control trying to dodge a tank that was mysteriously parked in the middle of the road. After they crashed, Monir died instantly. He survived his brush with death but had to have metal plates placed in his legs in order to walk again.
Soon afterwards, my father learned from his transistor radio that tens of thousands of his colleagues, who’d been imprisoned in Iran, were being executed. My father listened wide-eyed as friends delivered scripted admissions before they were murdered. A catatonic depression settled over him then and never lifted.
I couldn’t understand how people could be so cruel, even my own brother. He found a story I’d written about a little girl who runs away and goes into the woods and learns to live like the animals. He mocked me for days, reciting sentences I hadn’t thought were ridiculous. I didn’t write again for years, and even then, I always had that voice in the back of my head telling me I had no talent.
When he wasn’t taunting his sisters, my brother was plotting to regain our stolen wealth. If he wasn’t studying to get into the best college, he was playing tennis and listening to records. I wasn’t allowed to have much of an opinion whenever he granted me the privilege of listening to his music. He would play different songs and tell me everything he knew about the musicians. I was instructed to shush and listen, especially to his favorite parts, which he’d always alert me to by pointing to the stereo. I listened and said as little as possible to keep his favor, which I’d won by being the docile sister.
My brother insisted that our parents raise me differently from the others because I was excelling in school. As a reward for being bookish and submissive, I got piano and ballet lessons and the designer clothes all the other girls in school wore. Investments were made in my future, while my sisters got the bare minimum: Wrangler jeans and corduroys, a few flannels, winter coats, T-shirts, and cheap sneakers. I always hated when the second youngest, Faranaz, would jokingly tell me that my brother was in love with me and that was why I was treated like a princess.
Whereas I didn’t eat enough and was always underweight, Faranaz was overweight and ate my leftovers. She’d eat mainly to pacify my father who would get visibly upset at food being wasted. Faranaz was my father’s chubby and gap-toothed favorite, but my mother never paid her much attention. She seemed neither to love nor hate her, which probably explains why Faranaz never made eye contact with anyone.
I was closest with Faranaz out of all my sisters, and we looked the most alike, aside from her being as white as my mother. Growing up, she was afraid of many things, schoolwork and bugs being the most dreadful. I was Faranaz’s protector at night when she’d crawl into my bed after seeing or hearing an insect, especially if it was a spider. I also prevented Faranaz from being left back in school. After my father called her retarded for failing to understand the lessons he tried explaining, she gave up on school and learning altogether. Her teachers eventually placed her in remedial classes, but that didn’t scare her into being more motivated. She only grew more hopeless.
Even though she was three years older, I did all of her homework to ensure that she passed her classes. It was easy to cheat because I was already devouring books that were well beyond my reading level. I could pull off writing her book reports and essays.
Reading is all I did in my spare time because my father encouraged it and because it took me away from reality. He and I got library cards and went to the children’s section every Saturday morning and picked out a handful of books. I always chose novels, while my father chose dense history books. He had a preference for ousted queens, like Mary Queen of Scotts and Marie Antoinette. The theme of beheadings in these books only fed my morbid curiosity about death, which seemed to be all around us.
My sister Sayeh was also courting death. Over the course of two years, she’d gone from weighing more than two hundred pounds to less than a hundred. You could see the bones jutting through her skin, but she continued starving herself. Her shiny black hair fell out in clumps, and she was always freezing, even during scorching summer days. My parents tried everything they could to get her to eat, but no amount of urging worked. Moved to tears, my father resorted to hitting her and would threaten to hit her again if she didn’t eat, but she refused.
Sayeh was dying, and it was a slow and ugly suicide. She was sneaking laxatives, exercising obsessively, and oscillating between vomiting after meals and refusing food altogether. She was delicately thin and always wearing a sad smile she’d dim down to hide her teeth, which were losing their enamel and turning gray.
It didn’t take long for us to figure out how she’d lost such tremendous amounts of weight. We found out she was taking speed when she overdosed and was rushed from school to the emergency room to have her stomach pumped. She’d gotten the pills from the girl who lived across the way.
“It’s how she stays thin,” Sayeh explained to my parents. Our neighbor was a beautiful cheerleader with long legs and perfectly feathered locks of shiny blond hair. She was everything my sister was not, but she encouraged Sayeh to lose weight in order to become a color guard in the marching band.
Even though Sayeh was well behaved in school and tried hard with her studies, she simply didn’t have the aptitude and the peace of mind to learn. My parents resented her for doing poorly and for having an eating disorder, something that was unheard of in their culture.
When a year later, we moved from the rental to a mother-daughter house my father bought as an investment, Sayeh refused to sit with us at the dinner table. She was barely surviving on Brussels sprouts and cauliflower, which she cooked with heavy amounts of garlic, a scent that wafted to the upstairs kitchen from the kitchen below nearly every night. She also stopped speaking with everyone except Arezou, the middle child, who began joining her for dinner downstairs every night.
Arezou always wore a crooked smile that lingered somewhere between sadness and anger. She also always looked unkempt, her unbrushed hair knotted in tangles of curls. She wasn’t heavy, but she wanted to be rail-thin like Sayeh, a goal she never accomplished. My parents didn’t try to persuade either of them to join the rest of us at the family table when they pulled away. Arezou had been labeled a troublemaker for as long as I could remember, and in Iran, she was often sent to my grandmother’s for screaming and making my mother angry.
As she entered her teens, Arezou grew obsessively displeased with her looks. She hated that she was the only one of us who didn’t resemble our incredibly beautiful mother. She had the same hazel brown eyes and bony, pronounced nose as my father, and her moon-shaped face was most definitely passed down from his mother.
When she started junior high school, Arezou still dressed like a boy in jeans and flannels but she feathered her long brown hair and began wearing full makeup and smoking cigarettes, just like Maman Shirin. My mother was furious about her smoking at first, even though she always rewarded Arezou with sips of whiskey and puffs of cigarettes whenever she styled her hair.
Arezou often shoplifted things my parents denied her. Once, she got caught shoving eyeliner and lipstick in her back pocket and was arrested and charged. “It’ll be cleared from my record by the time I’m eighteen,” she said nonchalantly after she was found guilty in court.
By the time she was a freshman in high school, Arezou was failing nearly every class and getting suspended for making her teachers cry with insults often having to do with their dowdy appearance. My father was called in many times to discuss her outbursts and the fact that she was cutting most of her classes to smoke pot in the woods. When he reprimanded her, Arezou didn’t care that she was in trouble. She feared nothing and no one and was willing to endure punishment as long as she got to do whatever she wanted. Talking to her calmly and explaining that she needed an education did no good. Grounding her only caused her to sneak out or simply walk out. Hitting her only made her withdraw.
I secretly adored Arezou, who always styled my hair too. I had to hide my affection, however, because my mother always warned me that she and Sayeh were a bad influence. Maman Shirin was cold and cruel if you crossed her, so I stayed away.
My cousin introduced Arezou to blotter acid when she was fourteen. Less than a half hour after placing the tab of paper on her tongue, she began to look unlike herself. Her pupils became so dilated that her hazel eyes looked black. She talked nonstop in an incoherent manner that scared me. It sounded like she had brain damage, and I worried that it was permanent.
My American-born cousin was a year older than Arezou, who looked up to her. I was never clear on where they’d go or why Sayeh didn’t go with them, but they would come home reeking of alcohol. It was also clear that Arezou was spending time with boys because she’d come home with hickeys on her neck that no amount of makeup could hide.
“Kos Par-e,” my mother would call her after finding the hickeys she began to search for nightly. The insult implies that a girl’s virginity is no longer intact. Literally, it means one who has a torn vagina.
The sight of hickeys always sent Maman Shirin into such a rage that she’d vehemently order my father to punish Arezou with a beating. She usually had to first pick a fight with him to get him angry enough to do it, however. She’d blame Arezou’s behavior on my father, saying that his child wouldn’t obey her rules because he was always disrespectful to her. She’d then yell at him until he exploded in a terrifying rage that he’d finally direct at Arezou.
Arezou would always put up her arm in a ninety-degree angle as a barrier between herself and my father’s slaps and punches. It was the same arm I’d seen wrapped in a cast in a photograph of her when she was little. When I asked my mother how she’d broken it, she said she’d fallen off the couch; Arezou told me my brother had pushed her off that couch.
When Arezou stayed out all night, my father took his belt to her, which left welts on her arms and thighs before she ran off crying and trembling. I was not only painfully sad during these episodes, but I suffered panic attacks even though I wasn’t the one in harm’s way.
I was never beaten. The one time I was to be punished, my father pretended to spank me. It happened behind a closed door, and he struck a pillow in case my mother was listening from the other side. My parents had been fighting about money again, and I called my mother a slut for continually putting pressure on my father to get a job. I’d heard her throw around the same insult at all of us, so I decided to turn it on her to see what she’d do.
Even though he hadn’t touched me, I cried hysterically at the thought of my father hitting me. To calm me down, he whispered how much money we had and urged me not to worry. To an eleven-year-old, the figure he quoted sounded like a lot, but it really wasn’t. It was just a little more than what he’d soon begin paying for my brother’s college tuition.
When I entered junior high school, the teachers who’d had Arezou and Sayeh as students began treating me with hostility no matter how well I behaved or performed on exams. There were also rumors circulating among my classmates that my sisters—and possibly our entire family—practiced witchcraft. Suddenly I was the bad influence to avoid, and friends began to drift away.
When Arezou and Sayeh began to wear garish makeup and revealing clothes, I was embarrassed to admit they were my sisters. Faranaz had ignored Maman’s warnings to stay away from them, and all three of my sisters ended up in the emergency room because they drank far too much alcohol before a school dance. Arezou and Sayeh had to have their stomachs pumped, and although Faranaz’s blood alcohol level was not as high, she was forced to stay in a bed in the ER anyway.
Everyone in town knew about the incident, and my brother was furious with Sayeh and Arezou. He began calling them jendeh, prostitutes, even though they were both still virgins. He wasn’t physically aggressive with Sayeh, only Arezou, who was defiant. One time he lectured her on her waywardness with his tennis racket in hand, and when she talked back, she went down. Refusal to bow down to my brother was a line you crossed only if you wanted to be struck or get tormented about your physical and emotional weaknesses.
When my brother was accepted at Columbia University, my parents celebrated his admission to an Ivy League school as if it were the greatest news in the world. He didn’t qualify for student loans or grants, and I knew our entire savings would soon go toward his education. I was terrified, but Maman Shirin smelled of Chanel, even while my father began talking about having to sell our house to keep food on the table.