Vivian Fayez has read a novel about four generations of Iranian women and can’t help to reflect on the parallels with today’s post-revolutionary Egypt.
It was with the wake of the January Revolution that I started to hear the word “Iran” repeatedly mentioned. “Egypt is not Iran” political analysts incessantly repeated on numerous talk shows in answer to questions about the possibility of the Islamists overriding the revolution. Nowadays, Facebook is vibrant with comparisons between the current events in Egypt and those in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian revolution.
“Egypt is not Iran”. With that sentence at the back of my mind, I finally chose a title out of the hundreds of books stacked at that bookstore in Jordan last summer. I have to confess that I was also lured by its title and cover. The title is “The Good Daughter: my mother’s hidden life” and its cover shows a woman wearing a chador and holding her young daughter’s hand depicted from the back and hurrying away on a dusty road. Mother… daughter… hurrying away… dusty road… hidden life… chador… What a recipe! I couldn’t resist! I immediately related it with similar works and prepared myself for a novel of secrets, mystery, escape and the like.
Were my expectations met? Not quite.
The Good Daughter; my mother’s hidden life by Jasmin Darznik depicts four generations of Iranian women albeit at different lengths and in varying degrees. This fascinating story starts with a brief account of the writer’s great grandmother Pargol and concludes with another brief account of the writer’s own life between LA and New York. However, it portrays in vivid detail the life of the writer’s mother Lili and grandmother Kobra, covering a period of time from around the 1920s to the 1980s or 1990s. When Lili recounts her life story to her daughter in ten tapes, Jasmin Darznik decides to fascinate the readers with this rich memoir.
In this world of women, where men seem to be only visitors, women appear to be quite complacent. They are happy and satisfied with their lives behind the walls of their secluded homes. Their households and kitchens are their havens, only forsaking them for a weekly outing to the communal baths. If Lili studied in Europe to become a mid-wife and later re-married after her divorce, something unspoken of in those days to the extent that a divorcee was called a whore, it is not because she was in any way rebellious or dissatisfied with the status quo. Rather it is only because she was supported by her progressive yet distant father Sohrab and because she did well for herself. After all she is a “good daughter”.
The author has remarkably created, or recreated, the odors, colors, and tastes of Iranian households and their warm kitchens. Rice and stew with meat is always cooking, tea is always brewing, incense is constantly filling the air, herbs of all kinds are always being added to food and pomegranates are constantly being peeled and seeds plucked for family members and visitors alike.
Political events resonate at the background of this personal memoir. We get glimpses of the shah and his outlawing of the veil, Mossadegh nationalizing the country’s oil as well as the revolution. In all these events, the women in this memoir are mere recipients of news. Lili “was simply told that the chaos tearing through the country was nothing that concerned her, and so for her the coup of 1953 meant nothing so much as a complete retreat back into the house and to hunger and her grandmother’s ingenious strategies for appeasing it with gigantic pots of ab goosht”.
Is the content of the book then reflected in any way by the cover? Or does the cover and title merely echo earlier works of women and their daughters’ suffering in “the Orient”? Does it, perhaps, bring to mind Not without my Daughter or Princess? “Betrayal”, “love”, and “secret” are all words that have been used by different reviewers to spice up this recipe.
Although a part of Lili’s life, namely an earlier marriage and a forsaken daughter, is definitely kept a secret from her second daughter, the author of the memoir, the reader would be misled in reading it on the basis of it being a love story. The love that is clearly apparent in the book is family and maternal love. It is the strong bond that unites the women population in this society.
For an Egyptian reader at this specific moment in history, the book would certainly invoke similarities and resemblances. First published in 2011, the very year of the Egyptian Revolution, it would stimulate questions and fuel discussions. No one familiar with Egyptian society, traditions, and customs can miss the resemblance with those of Iran during the parallel time frame (it is interesting to note that Egyptian Princess Fawzia Fouad was Queen of Iran from 1939 to 1948 when she was married to Mohamad Reza Pahlavi).
The status of women, their confinement inside the home, denying them education, child marriage, accepting the first gentleman suitor, stigmatizing divorced women, the evil eye, celebrating the circumcision of boys, among many other things, are not unknown to Egyptians. This is not to mention the food, herbs, fruits, odors, colors and smells.
The alleys, family structures, and social habits bring to mind Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy and Hadith El-Sabah wal-Masaa (Morning and Evening Talk). The escape of many Iranian families from Iran in the aftermath of the revolution is as if history is repeating itself. It is a well known fact that Egyptian migration has increased significantly after the January Revolution.
“Egypt is not Iran”. I still hear those words repeated over and over again by political analysts in their attempt to prove that the rise of Islamists to power will not change Egyptian society to resemble that of Iran. To what extent is that statement true? I will leave that to the judgment of the reader.
Jasmin Darznik, The Good Daughter; My mother’s hidden life. London: Windmill Books. 2012
Vivian Fayez is an English Language instructor and freelance translator in Egypt. She is currently finishing a MA in Middle East Studies at the American University in Cairo.