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.
- Joshua Fattal: Is History a Prison or a Home?
- Angella Nazarian:
Parnaz Foroutan is the author of The Girl from the Garden, which received the PEN Emerging Voices Award and was named one of Booklist’s “Top 10 First Novels” of 2015. Her memoir Home is a Stranger is about her journey back to Iran as a young woman two decades after her family fled the rise of the Islamic theocracy.