Writing a Memoir Awakens the Voice of Iran

Books were kept far from females, with the strong conviction that the less girls knew, the better wives they became

“Speech is the cause of all maladies,” my father warned in Farsi. “The best way to safeguard oneself is by not talking at all.”

From the first syllable to the very last page of my memoir, the written words felt like smuggled imports. You mustn’t tell, and if you do, you’ll be found hanging from a tree — my nonstop inner refrain. Not only was I defying Pop’s ban on speech, but I was now penning my family’s story for everyone to read.

Even though I was born and raised in New York City, I was parented by an ancient homeland. Within me dwelled over two thousand years of Persian Jewry. My parents — and prior to them my ancestors — had been forced to lead a duplicitous life in Mashhad: above ground, they pretended they were Muslim while in the secrecy of their homes they lived as devout Jews. On Friday mornings the men chanted from the Koran in public squares; at night they gathered in their darkened homes, donning kippahs, lighting Shabbat candles, and singing Hebrew hymns over braided challahs.

A history steeped in secrecy, trapped behind black chadors, fearful of being seen, threatened to choke my words before they escaped onto paper. Now, living in twenty-first-century Manhattan, I too had fallen under the spell of Iran’s strict prohibitions and violent assaults. The message being: You must not speak. You must not write. If you bare your soul it will be bludgeoned. I envisioned being lashed by steel chains, leaving behind a blood bath. My harsh superego and the Iranian city of Mashhad had joined forces and became one. Together they trumpeted the word: “Don’t.”

While recalling, writing, and rewriting, I lived with mounting discomfort tied to the terror of self-disclosure.

Anyone who writes a memoir must confront their internal shusher, urging them not to reveal. My silencer was different. In the world my father came from, books were kept far from females, with the strong conviction: the less girls knew, the better wives they became. America’s expectation that girls be educated was, according to Pop, matrimonially ruinous. On the other hand, my mother, an illiterate child-bride, firmly believed in defiance. Each stood their ground with ironclad temperaments and hidden frailties. My father often reminded me that his mother, at the tender age of nine, married his twenty-nine-year-old father, and later, when my father was thirty-four years old, he married my fourteen-year-old mother.

“Women don’t need books!” he decried.

I was the first female schooled and the first from both my patrilineal and matrilineal lines who could read and write. Did I, their American-born daughter, have the right to live above ground, show my face, speak my mind, or not? And what would happen if I expose my entire family and myself by writing a book?

Growing up, my grueling conundrum became: how to hold onto my Persian parents and my heritage while imbibing America and all of its possibilities. I thought back to those women who came before me: reduced to silence, never schooled, unable to read, unable to leave their stories behind. I thought back to Mashhad, the city that ensured they wouldn’t, which left me with only one alternative — to do what they couldn’t — to write.

One morning not long ago, I leapt out of bed from a sweaty nightmare. I had dreamt I was standing on an outdoor deck, in the dead of night, wearing a thin cotton gown. My left hand, fitfully shaking, was clutching a steel blade doused in blood, and from the other hung a smoking pistol recently fired. Police helicopters with white spotlights and wailing sirens lowered overhead, landing on the front lawn. It seemed I had just committed a heinous act and was about to be hauled off to jail.

Once fully awake, I turned and glanced at copious notes sitting on top of my desk, and recalled completing, just before nightfall, the last chapter of my memoir, “Concealed.”

My book is not about defaming family, disclosing infidelities, or character assassinations. So why did I suffer such a punishing dream? Is self-disclosure murderous, homicidal?

Throughout the five years spent writing this memoir, my prevailing thoughts were: I’m not a writer. I can’t write. I’ve spent the past four decades working as a psychotherapist. I’m not an author. Nevertheless, I doggedly continued, jotting down a theater of memories. While recalling, writing, and rewriting, I lived with mounting discomfort tied to the terror of self-disclosure. How much do I tell? I just can’t remember, don’t want to, do I have to, can’t find the right words, never could — maybe I shouldn’t. All memoirists battle self-disclosure, but my terror was exacerbated by the devastating fear of what would happen once I finally lift the Iranian chador and reveal my face.

I thought back to Mashhad, the city that ensured they wouldn’t, which left me with only one alternative — to do what they couldn’t — to write.

Writing this book meant living with perpetual conflict, and the only way to prevail was by making room for that gnawing, forbidding voice — letting it live in a lane of its own, undisturbed. I greeted it, and with a wagging finger, it tipped its hat back at me, each recognizing the other but never reconciling. Channeling my rebellious mother, siphoning her strength, I pushed through.

Recalling became an obsession as I raided pockets of memory and fervently examined each find. Reflection felt like a ball of yarn. When I pulled at a specific recollection, such as my head shaved at the age of three, other remembrances, attached to the same thread, unexpectedly surfaced. Every flash from the past led to another.

Could I resurrect my younger self? Could I unveil parts that were hidden? Could I salvage fragments of my past? I had to understand why I kept myself concealed and, in my own strange way, had also lived a duplicitous life.

The child I was and the adult I am today needed to find one another and unite. By plowing through a trough of memories, revealing myself through Concealed, they did.

A memoir is a time-defying preservation of self. Its moral function is to say the uncomfortable, unsavory truths, with the hope that readers will also feel less alone. Life flickers by and alongside our remains lie our stories. Aren’t there tales that shouldn’t be buried, must be told, even when the world we come from shouts: “Don’t.”?

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, Washburn University’s Inscape Literary Journal, 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 entitled: Concealed and was chosen by JWT as their Artist-in-Residence in 2019. Kirkus Reviews selected Concealed as one of the best books of 2020. Her pieces have been performed by Jewish Women’s Theatre in Los Angeles and in Manhattan.

She lives in New York City with her husband.

Concealed is her debut memoir.

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