Maman is the Moris K. Niknam’s loving tribute to his Iranian Jewish mother.
Married at 13 years old, Maman and her husband, called Baba (Daddy), were desperately poor. When Baba couldn’t find work, they and their children slept in a room in a factory. By day they walked around in the street. Sometimes there was no food, literally, nothing to eat, and they all went to sleep hungry.
But still, Maman continued to have babies, lots of them, to everyone’s wild delight. Deeply religious, the little family believed that God, who had brought the Israelites across the Red Sea would never fail them. Eventually they were able to buy a house of their own, with a garden.
As the children grew up they began leaving home for graduate study in Israel or the United States. In Iran, a bloody revolution broke out when the Shah was deposed. A New Jersey woman who had been in Iran on a magazine assignment turned on her television one day after returning home and was horrified to see a Jewish man with whom she had had lunch in Teheran being publicly beheaded. But still Maman and Baba and their two smallest children made no effort to follow their older children out of the country: they so loved the Persia that Iran used to be — its buildings, culture, customs, language, and cuisine — that they refused to leave.
Eventually, however, the situation became too dire to ignore, and they joined their children in Israel. Once there, Maman developed a bad case of diabetes. So she had to undergo four hours of dialysis every other day. Her son Moris assumed the responsibility of keeping her company during this disagreeable treatment.
Having followed his Christian wife into conversion, Moris carried a New Testament and read it to her. Happily, he could reassure her that in death up in heaven she would be reunited with her little boy who had choked to death on watermelon seeds. He also told her that Jesus would hold her in his tender embrace.
When death came, Maman’s family was inconsolable, except for Moris. “She’s better up there,” he whispered to himself, while the rest of his family went to sleep without eating all day.
Niknam is perhaps a little too concerned with sparing his family any offense at his account of their experience, veiling their hardships in a loving haze that becomes syrupy sweet at times. That being said, this book provides useful insight into the Iranian Jewish community, which is often neglected in the global Jewish narrative.