September 18, 2019

‘The Girl from the Garden’: A story of love and shame in Jewish Iran

In 1984, in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war, the writer Parnaz Foroutan left Iran with her family. She was only 6 years old, but she remembers how tense life had become.

“My early childhood, we would run down to the basement, with the lights off and the landlord’s wife screaming that we’re all going to die,” she recalled, laughing at the absurdity of the situation. “The next morning you just put on your outfit and go to first grade, and pass rubble where there used to be a building.”

Foroutan’s mother is Jewish and her father is Muslim. She was raised in a secular household, which made living in post-revolution Iran difficult.

“They were telling us that if our parents listened to unsanctioned radio stations, or if they drank wine, we should tell the teachers,” she said.

After the family packed their belongings and left Iran, they traveled in Europe for a year before settling in the mostly white upper-middle class enclave of Agoura Hills in the Conejo Valley, where there were very few Persian families. Her parents’ mixed-faith marriage alienated them from many relatives and also exposed Foroutan to institutional hatred on both sides.

“It was weird growing up in between these two cultures. On one end, I would listen to an aunt on my Jewish side saying all Muslims should be eradicated off the face of the Earth. And then on my dad’s side, he told me that as children they were told that Muslim boys were in danger of being kidnapped by Jews, because they wanted to use their blood for Passover bread,” she said.

Foroutan eventually converted to Baha’i, but she enjoyed growing up with both Jewish and Muslim traditions. At Shabbat dinners and festivals, she would hear stories about her home country from her mother’s relatives in Southern California. They would riff off of one another’s stories in a sort of communal storytelling.

“Somebody would say something, and someone else would say, ‘No, no, you’re forgetting this part!’ And the story would just build and build, and all of us would be sitting there, in the middle of it,” she recalled.

Many of the characters in her debut novel, “The Girl from the Garden” (Harper Collins, 2015), are based on actual family members and events, though as her relatives aged, their versions of stories began to conflict.

“The Girl from the Garden” focuses on a wealthy family of Jews in the Iranian town of Kermanshah in the early 20th century. Asher Malacouti is the head of the family and measures his own success on having a son. But his young wife, Rakhel, is unable to bear him a child, which makes Asher frustrated and angry. He lusts after his cousin’s wife, Kokab, and as soon as it’s announced that she’s divorcing her husband, Asher announces his intention to take Kokab as his second wife. 

In a time when a woman’s worth was measured by her ability to bear children, Rakhel despairs at her infertility and fears she’ll be sent away from the family. Meanwhile, Asher’s brother Ibrahim and his wife, Khorsheed, give birth to a son, making Rakhel even more despondent.

The story is recounted in fragments by the family’s sole surviving daughter, Mahboubeh, now an elderly woman living in Los Angeles. As she tends to her garden, memories of her old life fade in and out of her consciousness. She remembers Rakhel as a bitter old woman, cursing anyone who came within earshot. She remembers the pain and sorrow her family experienced and the women who suffered at the hands of their husbands. 

Foroutan sees the servitude of women as part of a larger system of oppression, stemming from the Russian and British occupations of Iran during the early part of the 20th century, to the fighting between Muslims and religious minorities, conflict between the rich and poor and between men and their wives and children, in what Foroutan called “trickle-down oppression.”

The Jews in the book also suffer at the hands of the Muslim majority. In one scene, Ibrahim accidentally bumps into a man on the street and is beaten within an inch of his life by a mob of Muslims, who call him “Jude najis,” an impure Jew. A mullah eventually saves him from the angry crowd.

Mahboubeh is based on Foroutan’s real-life maternal grandmother, and the other characters are also drawn from her actual relatives.
Rakhel, the author said, “is the central figure in my family history.”

Even so, Foroutan is careful not to call her novel a work of history. She compared writing the book to exhuming the bones of a dinosaur. “You’ve got the structure, but you don’t know what color it was, or what its flesh looked like, or if it had feathers or scales,” she said. “So you construct it. To give it flesh, you have to imagine things.”

After graduating with a degree in English, Foroutan wandered from job to job. She taught English to fifth-grade boys at a yeshiva in Los Angeles, saying, “It was the most difficult thing I have ever done.” She then worked as a film and TV writer in Hollywood for a year (“I was so sickened by the industry, I took all my savings and went to Iran”). She knew she was a writer but didn’t know what to write. She began doing performance poetry, found a jazz-punk band to back her up, and did underground performances where the band would improvise and she would shout poetry onstage. “It was very raw,” she said.

That was in Tehran, right before 9/11. When she watched the World Trade Center towers fall on TV, she decided it was time to return to the United States. 

“We were all thrown into an upheaval. All of a sudden the world took a weird, dark turn. I wanted to do something and didn’t know what it was,” she said.

Foroutan taught English in inner-city schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, focusing on social justice through literature. She taught a class on Muslims in the media and the Middle East, and another on plays of the 1950s and the idea of the American dream from a Marxist perspective. She also taught classics of the Western canon from a feminist perspective.

“The one thing that gave me hope were those students and talking to them about everything that was going on globally,” she said. “They’re somewhere between childhood and adulthood. It’s this really magical age. There’s a lot of hope and belief in the goodness of the world. It’s a nice place to hang out.”

In Foroutan’s debut novel, her characters are trapped by tradition and expectations. Perhaps it’s the ability to think critically about their world that makes her so attracted to working with teenagers, as they dream of a better world than the one they inherited.

Parnaz Foroutan will read from “The Girl from the Garden” on Tuesday, August 18 at 6:30 pm at Diesel at Brentwood Country Mart, 225 26th St., Santa Monica, and on Friday, August 21 at 7 pm at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles.