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Of Lutis and Looters: History as the Sister of Fiction

Wednesday, August 19, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Parnaz Foroutan wrote about her childhood determination to learn English after seeing a girl who looked just like her on the cover of Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. Her novel The Girl from the Garden is partly based on her childhood and family history in Iran before moving to the United States, where she now resides.

Recently my aunt sent me an e-mail in response to an essay I had written about a supposedly villainous character from our family history. She told me that my description of M’amad Ali Ghehnel was interesting, but she didn’t think I should refer to him as a Luti, since historically and culturally, the Lutis were considered folk heroes, and Ghenel participated in the pogroms against the Jews of Kermanshah, where Muslim mobs broke into Jewish homes, raped women inside, and stole the property within.

The story goes that during the pogrom of 1908 in Kermanshah, M’amad Ali Ghehnel stood on the rooftop of the family estate and, while all the other houses of the Jews in that mahalleh, or quarter, were looted, he waited with his shotgun, yelling threats from the rooftop of our ancestral home to the mob below, protecting the house from their advances.

The elders of my family have guessed, over the years, that M’amad Ali Ghenel was waiting on the rooftop with the shotgun to mark the estate as his own territory, waiting for the crowds to subside before he pillaged the house for his own gain, but the Governor called for a cease to the looting and crimes before Ghehnel had a chance to descend from the rooftop and claim his goods. Theories aside, the fact remains that Ghenel stood on top of that roof, protecting the house and its inhabitants and, in the end, after the riots and chaos, he descended and left, quietly and empty-handed.

The books I read about this time and place in history fall into two categories: Jewish scholars who list their historical grievances, making little room for the exceptions, and Muslim scholars who ignore the atrocities or offer excuses in their stead. Hence, when it comes time for me to tell the story, the truth is something that I must forge between the two. The Jews of Iran were oppressed, beaten, raped, murdered, humiliated, and certain ulama did rile up the anti-Semitic sentiments of the uneducated masses as a means to achieve their own ends, but amidst all this institutional hatred, there must have been human beings, capable of love and understanding? Why did Ghenel defend that home? What relationships, undocumented and untold, existed between him and the human beings occupying that house so long ago?

Should we render history simply in terms of the black and white? The innocent sheep and the ravenous cruelties of wolves? Isn’t that more the stuff of fairy tales; isn’t the reality of human experience full of contradictions and exceptions?

History is the sister of fiction. The two are not so dissimilar. The scholars will also take facts and choose and shape and retell them to fit their narratives. What we know of this story is that M’amad Ali Ghehnel stood on the roof of our family estate, stood with his shotgun aimed, yelling threats to the advancing mob, and when dusk descended, he did not enter that home. And all explanations of his action must be constructed by the imagination, because neither he nor those he protected explained the why’s of this story. Who knows what resides in the hearts of men? Perhaps Ghenel was foiled by the Governor’s orders. Or, maybe, his reasons for not participating in the violence directed toward the Jews of that mahalleh were born of something higher than the laws and orders of other men.

Parnaz Foroutan was born in Iran and spent her early childhood there. Her novel The Girl from the Garden, for which she received PEN USA's Emerging Voices award, was inspired by her family history.

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Soon, I'll Know All the Words They Know

Monday, August 17, 2015 | Permalink

Parnaz Foroutan is the author of The Girl from the Garden, a novel of the Persian Jewish community in Los Angeles and its origins in Iran. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.

It was uncanny, her portrait in black and white on the cover of the book and my own school picture. The same smile, the same cheekbones, the same nose. The same black, thick hair, cut just above the shoulders and held back by a barrette. And dark eyes, like mine. The book had small black words crowded together, page after page, bleeding through the pages, endless. I whispered the words of the title, tested their weight in my mouth, “Anne… Frank… Diary…”

On the playground, I listened silently to the conversations, the laughter, the sounds of names being called and words being screamed. An entire universe of exchange about matters of whose turn it was to hit the ball, about the pulling of hair and the sharing of cookies. An entire universe of interaction through words that flew by too quickly and only left a moment of confused pictures behind.

“Maman, I am going to learn to speak English very well. I am going to learn three new words every day. Soon, I’ll know all the words they know.”

The lady who read to us had hair the color of rain clouds when the sun shined through them. She sat in a chair while we sat on the floor. She held lovely books and read the words slowly, her voice like the sound of fat raindrops on the leaves of the oak tree outside my bedroom window. Wild Things. She read and I saw monsters that hid in dark basements and wailed like air raid sirens in the night. After she finished reading, she gave us a few minutes to walk around the large room and look at the shelves of books that ran from wall to wall. I opened their covers and looked into those pages, searching for beds that turned into boats and bedroom floors that became tumultuous waves.

“I got you a present.” I loved her, even though she pulled me out of class and the other children taunted me as I walked past them. “It’s a book. It’s about this girl named Madeline. She’s the one with red ribbons in her hair.” She read the words to me, slowly. She defined them, slowly. Then, when the story ended and I wanted to hear it again, she’d read it once more. Years later, I found that book at the bottom of a box filled with letters and old dolls.

The book with the photograph of the dark-eyed girl sat on my desk for weeks and each afternoon, when the fourth grade teacher announced reading time, I picked it up and struggled past words until they became sentences, past those until they became paragraphs.

“She looks just like you,” Steven Bookbinder said it loud enough so that everyone at the table heard and rushed to look at the book in his hand. No one looked like me, except this girl in an old photograph on the cover of a book that the librarian insisted was too hard for me to read. I pulled the book from his hand, angry and ashamed. He had touched something that was mine. Not the object—that dog-eared copy that had circulated in the library of Brookside Elementary School year after year—but an entire world in a lonely attic that I shared with a girl named Anne.

It happened one day, just like that. The words on the page disappeared and I found myself hearing her voice, looking through that little window beside her. The words opened into a story, and I was there. And when that book ended, I opened another, and another. I was a German soldier on the front, a redheaded boy in love with a pony the color of a sunset, a poor man, a murderer hounded by my conscious, a prostitute. And to this day, still, when I need to find some redemption, some grace that raises me from the loneliness and isolation of being, I open a book, and wait for the words to invite me in.

Parnaz Foroutan was born in Iran and spent her early childhood there. Her novel The Girl from the Garden, for which she received PEN USA's Emerging Voices award, was inspired by her family history.

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