Main Gate of Imam Riza, Mash­had, Iran, Pho­to­graph by Lui­gi Pesce, 1850s

The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art; gift of Charles K. and Irma B. Wilkin­son, 1977

My Iran­ian moth­er and I were on the sub­way when she noticed a group of bare-armed teens flaunt­ing their tat­tooed biceps. Jinko-lo-vin­s­ki!” she belt­ed out.

These teenagers looked at her blankly, cer­tain she was speak­ing a for­eign tongue. In fact, jinko-lo-vin­s­ki” was her best attempt at Juve­nile delin­quents!” Mom was con­vinced her scold­ing words would cause them shame and result in social reform. Thanks to her inde­ci­pher­able Eng­lish, there was no alter­ca­tion. They under­stood her as lit­tle as she under­stood them.

When Mom was lying flat on her back in a hos­pi­tal recov­ery room after heart surgery, a nurse cor­nered me in the hall­way. What’s meer-gah-zab’? Your mamma’s scream­ing it in my face: Meer-gah-zab!’ And she’s insist­ing on hav­ing a pri­vate room. I told her, Hon­ey, this isn’t a five-star hotel. You’re in an ICU!’”

Feign­ing igno­rance, I shook my head, pre­tend­ing that meer­gahz­ab was pure gib­ber­ish. The alter­na­tive would have been to give the nurse the Eng­lish trans­la­tion: TYRANT.”

It wasn’t just Mom’s words, but her entire world, that was often lost in trans­la­tion. Born in 1925 in Iran, Mom had lived as an under­ground Jew in the fanat­i­cal­ly reli­gious city of Mash­had, a Shi’ite strong­hold and pil­grim­age site with a long his­to­ry of maim­ing and mas­sacring infi­dels. Head bent as she breathed through a black chador and peered through its eye­slits, she slunk through alley­ways pass­ing as Mus­lim. My father also relied on duplic­i­ty in order to sur­vive, kneel­ing and bow­ing in pub­lic squares, recit­ing the Koran, and chant­i­ng namaz, while inward­ly pray­ing to HaShem, the God of Abra­ham, Isaac, and Jacob. Mom and Pop lived con­cealed, secre­tive lives, and were in con­stant fear of being outed.

Locat­ed in north­east Iran, close to the bor­ders of Turk­menistan and Afghanistan, Mash­had was a major oasis on the ancient Silk Road and grew into an impor­tant cen­ter of indus­try and trade. The Per­sian king Nad­er Shah brought the first Jew­ish fam­i­lies from the Iran­ian city of Qazvin to Mash­had in the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry. After his assas­si­na­tion in 1747, anti­semitism in Mash­had ran ram­pant, prepar­ing the ground for a mob attack on the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in 1839 that left hun­dreds wound­ed and dozens dead. Sur­vivors were giv­en a choice: con­vert to Islam or die. My par­ents, descen­dants of these sur­vivors, were obser­vant Jews who pre­tend­ed they had con­vert­ed. Fathers pro­tect­ed their daugh­ters from poten­tial Mus­lim suit­ors by mar­ry­ing them off with­in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty as soon as pos­si­ble. My father’s moth­er, at the ten­der age of nine, was mar­ried to my grand­fa­ther who was twen­ty years her senior, though they didn’t have rela­tions until she was twelve. My own moth­er was not yet four­teen when she was forced to mar­ry my thir­ty-four-year-old father.

It wasn’t just Mom’s words, but her entire world, that was often lost in trans­la­tion. Born in 1925 in Iran, Mom had lived as an under­ground Jew in the fanat­i­cal­ly reli­gious city of Mashhad.

In 1947, when my father immi­grat­ed with my moth­er and two old­er broth­ers to the Unit­ed States, he was hor­ri­fied by what he saw. Women in three-piece suits, head­ing for work, tight­ly pressed against men in crowd­ed sub­way cars; women pub­licly smok­ing cig­a­rettes and curs­ing with aban­don. Pop called this nation the wild west,” and when­ev­er he uttered the word free­dom,” it was voiced as a curse. Through his Per­sian lens, Amer­i­ca was a land of reck­less, ruth­less hea­thens that turned women into men, and ful­ly cham­pi­oned sex­u­al promiscuity.

As a child-trans­la­tor grow­ing up in Kew Gar­dens, Queens, I took my job seri­ous­ly. It was up to me, I told myself, to accom­pa­ny Mom as she gro­cery shopped and read her the ingre­di­ents on pack­aged foods. When­ev­er I was ill, it was up to me to trans­late into Far­si Dr. Horowitz’s direc­tives as to how my moth­er should nurse me back to health. And at the age of three, I decid­ed it was up to me to teach my moth­er to read, since she had nev­er been allowed to learn in Mashhad.

I also took it upon myself to try to alter my father’s think­ing, offer­ing him mea­sured and thought­ful rea­sons to embrace the out­side world, not fear it, as he did in Iran. The kitchen phone ring­ing, a knock on our front door, sent him into a wild pan­ic. I want­ed him to trust all that was for­eign, includ­ing me — his Jew­ish Amer­i­can daugh­ter raised in Queens.

I failed.

More than any­thing, I longed to be seen and known as Amer­i­can, with­out any trace of hen­na, scent of rose water, or sound of Far­si. But Pop’s dis­dain for and dis­trust of this new coun­try butted heads with the all-Amer­i­can girl I want­ed to be. How could I explain to school friends my father’s iron­clad belief that girls shouldn’t learn to read? How could I make his deep-seat­ed rev­er­ence for silence and his wish to ban speech intel­li­gi­ble to them? Pop would tell my friends I wasn’t home even when I was, slam­ming the door to the West­ern world and any­one who came from it. He even went on a ten-day, sui­ci­dal hunger strike when I was about to move into a Barnard Col­lege dorm.

Trans­lat­ing Eng­lish into Far­si left too much room for mis­un­der­stand­ing. Nuanced mean­ings dif­fered, lifestyle and social val­ues dif­fered, back­ground his­to­ry dif­fered. While chick­peas” was a word I could eas­i­ly trans­late into Far­si for Mom, there was so much that was untrans­lat­able. As my par­ents’ per­son­al inter­preter, I stood between two nations, unable to bridge East and West. And as a first gen­er­a­tion Amer­i­can, I couldn’t con­nect my New York City life and its lim­it­less options with the under­ground, cryp­to-Jew­ish life they had led in Mash­had. Liv­ing in trans­la­tion left me stand­ing in a no-man’s land. Among Ira­ni­ans, I felt like a fraud. In the com­pa­ny of non-Per­sian Amer­i­cans, cou­plets from Ferdowsi’s epic, Shah­nameh, and Rumi’s mys­ti­cal vers­es thrummed through me. Caught between two spar­ring spir­its, the ground beneath my feet kept shift­ing, throw­ing me off balance.

But over the years, this grey zone became my nat­ur­al state. One I began to value.

Esther Ami­ni is a writer, painter, and psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic psy­chother­a­pist in pri­vate prac­tice. Her short sto­ries have appeared in Elle, Lilith, Tablet, The Jew­ish Week, Barnard Mag­a­zine, TK University’s Inscape Lit­er­ary, and Prox­im­i­ty. She was named one of Aspen Words’ two best-emerg­ing mem­oirists and award­ed its Emerg­ing Writer Fel­low­ship in 2016 based on her mem­oir Con­cealed. Her pieces have been per­formed by Jew­ish Women’s The­atre in Los Ange­les and in Man­hat­tan and she was cho­sen by JWT as their Artist-in-Res­i­dence in 2019.