Turns out, I have a natural handicap when it comes to eating like normal people. My daughter discovered this when she was in elementary school and forever engaged in a war of attrition over food.
These days it creeps up on me like an ache — the occasional pumpkin in a front yard, the synthetic cobwebs in trees, the subtle turn in the weather and, yes, there’s that feeling in the pit of my stomach, the hollowness of those dreams in which you’re lost in a white tunnel, with nowhere to go but forward, though you know that every step will take you farther away from home.
Why do they call themselves Persian? The first time someone asked me this was during a Harvest Day at my kids’ school. I had just been introduced to a blond, green-eyed American Jewish woman. I didn’t understand her question.
I was talking with a young woman last Sunday afternoon. She had called me because she read the column I wrote here last month, about Sinai Temple’s decision to perform same-sex weddings.
First, an apology. To the good men and women of the LGBT community at Sinai Temple and everywhere else in the world, on the subject of said temple’s recent announcement that it would henceforth perform same-sex marriage ceremonies, in reference to the mindless, intolerant and hurtful remarks of a few individuals as expressed in letters and e-mails and (it must have been a slow news day at The New York Times) the national press, about the issues of homosexuality, gay marriage and the proper role of rabbis in helping their congregation maintain the standards of decency to which we should all aspire: I’m sorry.
You don’t know what a bad person you are, or how bad your hair looks, until you’ve sat down with my religious relatives for a meal and tried to conduct a conversation.
I know what happened with those three women in Cleveland, how one man was able to imprison and torture them in the middle of a residential neighborhood for 10 years, even though he had grown children, brothers, cousins who visited the house for hours at a time. It’s not a pretty tale, but we’ve all heard it, although to a lesser degree, countless times before.
This may be just another useless explanation, the kind of futile attempt at finding meaning and logic that we all resort to in response to grief, but sometimes it seems life has it in for you in a very personal way.
In the category of: Too little knowledge can be a dangerous thing
You know you’re getting old when every meal starts and ends with an admonition about how food will kill you.
It gets dark early in winter, so by the time you start to walk home, you’re already dipping into twilight. Your breath is a ribbon of fog against the silver-blue glare of the atmosphere, and your legs are heavy in the wet snow boots splattered with the sludge that flies off the wheels of buses and trucks and cramped, orange taxis swerving in and out of traffic as you count the first street lights to come alive.
Years ago, I created a class, “Writer’s Marketplace,” dedicated to the business side of writing. It was inspired by all the I-wish-I’d-known-then-what-I-know-now moments in my own career, the realization that good writers often are clueless about how to sell their work, and that writing schools are often remiss in communicating the practical aspects of the profession to their students.
On Fridays, the children would line up, all glittery pink shoes and Ninja Turtle T-shirts, and hike up a steep driveway from the preschool yard to the temple sanctuary. They walked single file or in pairs, one teacher in the lead and another bringing up the rear, each holding one end of a rope. The kids, 3 and 4 years old, gripped the length of the rope with their little hands stained with watercolor paint and Play-Doh dye. You could hear them singing Shabbat songs as they walked, and later, as they poured into the aisles and climbed onto the chairs in the temple and tried to sit still for a whole 20 minutes. By noon, when parents went to take them home, they were spent and tousled, excited but worn out by the morning's exploits. In their backpacks, they carried small challahs they had baked for that evening's dinner.
There’s a country, I know, out in the sapphire glass heart of the universe, where every sick and ailing child has a likeness: One is of the flesh; the other, of light. One embodies what is; the other, what should have been.
I was sitting in the Starbucks in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D.C., listening to two men talk about a three-day hike through Israel’s Arava desert, when Bayaaz Khanoom appeared.
A painfully unappealing, unemployed woman in her late 30s with sumo wrestler thighs who wears 10-inch heels and a micro skirt to push around a pink stroller in which she carries her pair of Chihuahuas...
It’s true. Really. The Elizabeth Taylor. She of the many husbands and the showpiece jewels, the on-screen splendor and off-screen grit was, indeed, related to me by marriage. This isn’t a recent discovery; I’m not like my mother, who tends to unearth a long-lost or previously unknown cousin every time she steps out of the house. I’ve known about my relationship to Elizabeth Taylor since I was a young child in Iran, and I was reminded of it again recently during a book launch at USC.
There’s a concept in the Persian language – ghessmat – for which no exact equivalent exists in English. It refers to a person’s unrelenting, inescapable, for better or worse but either way, it was designed and executed specifically for you, destiny.
I was 21 years old, a first-year law student at USC, when I walked by a trailer parked on an empty lot off McCarthy Way on the downtown campus. It was late afternoon, and I was on my way home; I only noticed the trailer because it was such an anomaly among the red brick buildings surrounding it. The door was open, and I could hear voices inside, and I saw a young man with dark skin and a sparse, reddish beard standing amid a mess of paper on the floor.
What is it with people telling the truth all the time? I don’t mean under oath, or even in response to a question that has been posed to them...
In case you were too busy watching Congress make a fool of itself last month to have noticed, a parallel, no-less-wrenching debate was raging in the halls of Beverly Hills
We were exchanging “memorable aunt” stories, and my friend, who’s a trial attorney, had a clear lead over all the rest of us.
I once wrote a novel about an Iranian Jewish woman who grows wings and flies away from her husband’s home.
It’s four o’clock in the afternoon, and I’m walking down a busy sidewalk in an upscale neighborhood in Tehran. My mother and her friend have picked me up from school and driven me here without saying what we’re going to do or why we can’t stop at home first so I can change out of my uniform.
“This,” I thought, “is what the surface of Mars must look like.”
It all looks dauntingly familiar — the spectacle on the streets of Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt. People in the streets, buildings on fire, a wavering army, a vanishing police force. We saw this 32 years ago, in 1978 and early ’79. That time, it was the Shah who was being forced out. Like Mubarak, he had ruled for three decades, been a staunch ally of the United States, stymied the reach of the mullahs. Like Mubarak, he clung to too much power for too long, became a victim of his own hubris (or paranoia), woke up one day and found himself alone in the world.
Not long ago, I happened to be standing next to a guy at the Apple store in Century City. I was waiting by the register to pay for a new charger for my laptop; he was in line to buy the new iPhone. He looked like he was in his 60s and had had a few facelifts.
May I make a suggestion for a great Chanukah or Christmas gift? Or recommend a selection for your book club? Or offer a proposal for making time disappear during your next long and painful airline experience? “This Lovely Life,” by Vicki Forman. I read two-thirds of it during a fancy and fabulous dinner at the Beverly Hills Hotel two weeks ago, came home and finished it that night, read it again the next day, and now it’s on the nightstand next to my bed, where I keep reading passages from it.
Friday night at dinner, we were talking about a guy, a Muslim friend of my grandfather’s, who had — very literally — come back from the dead. He had been in Germany during World War II, safe from the Nazis because Iranian Muslims, unlike Iranian Jews, were considered part of the Aryan Nation. The Iranian government at the time had very close ties with Germany, and my grandfather’s friend was having a wonderful time in Hamburg, doing God knows what and drinking enough for three people, until he came down with a severe case of bleeding ulcers and had to be rushed into surgery. On the operating table, he lost too much blood and died.
David Scott Milton, 50-some years old, Jewish, is alone in a locked room with a young Nazi. They’re in the library of the Maximum Security Yard of the California Correctional Institution at Tehachapi. It’s night, and the prison is in lock-down. David and the Nazi had a standoff a few days earlier — the Nazi doesn’t like Jews and David doesn’t like people who push Jews around — but that time, they were surrounded by prisoners and guards, and so the Nazi had backed down. When the lock-down began, he knew David would be sent alone to the library. Somehow, he evaded the guards, got there before David, and waited. He knows it’ll be some time before anyone realizes he’s missing, and some more time before he’s f
It so happened, the other night at a dinner in Bel Air, that I found myself sitting next to the author Judith Krantz. I had met her only minutes before, introduced by a mutual friend who referred to her as Judy and said nothing about who she was and what she did. I thought she was truly elegant, glamorous in a tasteful way and remarkably pretty in her advanced age. She was talking about the years she had spent living in Paris with her husband, how she loves the scent of a book, the sound of its spine cracking the first time it’s opened. I noticed she wore a bracelet similar to mine, only hers had an inscription I couldn’t make out from a distance.
The bride, tall and beautiful, is half white, half African American. The groom, no less attractive than his new wife, is half Russian, half Iranian. His father is half Jewish, half Baha’i. There is a sister who is half Baha’i, half Muslim, one who’s all Jewish and one who’s undecided. There’s a brother who is half Baha’i, half Christian, a niece who thought she was Muslim, discovered she’s in fact Jewish and finally settled on Catholic. There are two nieces and a nephew who are one quarter Jewish Iranian, one quarter Baha’i Iranian, and two quarters Chinese of undetermined religious affiliation. And this is only the groom’s side of the family — 20 people, to be exact, among some 150 guests milling around at the reception on a gorgeous afternoon in a beautiful ranch just outside of Los Angeles.
Thursday morning, Adam woke up, took his medication and vanished. Just like that. A drop of water in the desert at high noon. A 34-year-old man with a round face and the temperament of a boy in his late teens, wearing a black jacket and pajama bottoms. One minute he’s standing in the middle of his mother’s kitchen in Stevenson Ranch in the Santa Clarita Valley; the next minute he’s nowhere.
I’ve been spending a lot of time at the Beverly Hills library. I go there almost every day, laptop in hand, impelled by the irrational idea that this is the only place in
the world where I can finish my new book. I also have an office with a great view and a house that’s empty and quiet all day where any normal person should be able to sit and work just fine, and yet, I have to get up and drive 15 minutes every morning to sit among dozens of strangers — some more strange than others — to find my focus.
A hundred years ago in Iran, my great-grandmother, Tavoos Khanum (later known as Mrs. Peacock), made history by becoming the first Jewish woman ever known to have left her husband. She had married him when she was 9 years old; he was two decades older.
Did you know that, if you’re a member of the United States armed forces, a war injury could be considered a self-inflicted wound? Say you’re serving a second term in Iraq, and you get shot at by the enemy, and you come back to the States in bits and pieces, and try to get on a plane, a Delta flight, say, from LAX, on Nov. 13, 2009. Say you’re under the impression, based upon some policy guidelines conveyed to you by an airline representative on the phone, that the airline makes special allowances for passengers with physical injuries, and so you get to the airport early and go to the Delta counter only to be told by the little man with the round, bald head that you are not, in fact, one of the injured.
Have you noticed how the people who work in luxury hotels never actually use the word “hotel” to refer to the place? They call it “The Property,” or “The Resort,” or sometimes even “The Estate,” which, I imagine, is supposed to describe something much grander, more awe-inspiring and worthy of one’s hard-earned money than a mere “hotel.”
Two things I learned on the first day of Rosh Hashanah this year: 1. An Iranian Jewish man in Los Angeles recently risked life and limb to save a complete stranger from dying inside a burning car, and 2. Another Iranian Jewish man in Los Angeles recently made enough money to buy and drive (as opposed to keeping them locked up in his garage, like Jay Leno does) a number of very expensive cars.
A few weeks ago, one of my students, Andrew McGregor, sent me an e-mail to ask if I would serve as a judge at a poetry slam he was staging in Los Angeles.
There is a rhythm to every nation’s history — a pattern that repeats over the centuries, that creates forward movement, pulls back, pushes ahead. So it is with Iran in modern times: about every two to three decades, major change — a war, a famine, the overthrow of a dynasty — occurs with unmistakable ramifications.
I swear I didn’t plan it this way. I know it fits just a little too well into my recent string of rants about our upside-down values and meaningless priorities, like a too-tidy resolution to a too-scripted reality TV show, but everything I’m about to tell you actually happened to me over the last three weeks, so bear with me just one more time, and I promise I’ll move on from the subject into something even more drastic and depressing next time.
It’s like Alice falling through the rabbit hole: step onto any university campus, and the world is bigger, more colorful, more full of chance and wonder than you thought possible. To be reminded of the beauty of youth, the innocence of the untested, the buoyancy and optimism of the untouched. It’s a transformative experience — humbling and hopeful, a reminder of life’s most sacred promise: that every mistake can be corrected, every disappointment can lead to joy, every generation’s failures can be mitigated by the triumphs of the next.
“So,” the man in the lilac vest asks me by way of greeting, “Are you making any money these days?”
In Los Angeles and New York and elsewhere in the West, families who had left Iran "for the summer," to"wait out the troubles" and "return in time for the kids to start school in September" realized there was no going back.
I wonder every time I go into and out of the office, what art is for? To capture the truth of a person or a thing? To tell that truth in unexpected ways to people who expect it least?
It's been 30 years since I left Iran, and I still know I'm going back some day, because I have to see that house again, to stand before the yard door and discover if it's indeed 12 feet high, or if I've imagined it so, to ring the doorbell and see if I can hear its chime echo up and down the street.
We have more synagogues and more freedom to use them here in Los Angeles than we did in Iran, but that doesn't mean we're any closer to fulfilling the true purpose of gathering in a house of worship.
I don't know what will become of the legacy of Iranian Jews outside of Iran, how history will judge us in the context of the opportunities we had and the extent to which we helped make the world a better place with what we were given.
Maybe all the layoffs and buyouts have cut just a little too deeply into the newsroom, or Mr. Zell is purposely dumbing down his newspaper in hopes of making it more profitable
Are we electing a candidate based on his or her ability to lead the country, or are we crowning a king who looks good in pictures and who is above criticism, examination and challenge?
I don't think Obama is a bigot or malicious. I think he's someone who's risen too high too fast, on the merit of some exceptional oratorical skills and some natural charm and charisma, at a time when this nation is hard-pressed to find a person in whom it can put its faith. I think he hasn't even had a chance to examine his own loyalties and politics enough to know where he has stood up to now and how he can reconcile his "base" -- the Louis Farrakhans and the Rev. Wrights of the world -- with his new, much wider constituency.
Last Thursday night at LACMA, I was treated to a reading of my own works by the very talented and beautiful actress Bahar Soumekh, and by UC Irvine professor Nasrin Rahimieh. Outside the Bing Theater, rain poured in sheets, and traffic on Wilshire was at a standstill because all the lights had been blown out by the wind and -- this being Los Angeles where even the mildest winter storm is dealt with like Armageddon -- I was rather astonished that anyone had shown up at all.
Do you write from memory? Someone always asks, and I become tongue-tied and uncertain, scrambling for the words, the ways to make believable what I know will sound bizarre -- a too-complicated response where all that is required is a simple "Yes" or "No" or "Sometimes; the rest is research."
I lived in Iran for only 13 years. I remember very little -- a handful of places, a couple of dozen friends and relatives. Yet, I've spent my entire career writing about the country and its people, and I've written it all -- this is the part that's difficult to explain -- from memory.
Reflections on cooking, life lessons and mothers and daughters.
t is true that Gunter Grass has brought much good into the world by his writings. It is also true that his late-in-life revelation calls into question or, depending on your point of view, entirely invalidates his right to the high moral ground he has for so long occupied. But in doing so, he has proven to those of us who have followed his life and career what he says he learned as a POW after the war: That no truth is ever entirely true, that what we revere today may become indefensible tomorrow, that the wisest path through life is to distrust certainty and instead to walk, in Grass' own words, "the long route, paved with doubts."
It's 8 p.m. on a Wednesday, and I'm at the studios of KIRN -- a Persian-language AM radio station on Barham Boulevard near Universal Studios. I'm a guest on a program called "Live From Hollywood."
The Shah of Iran symbolized, with his youth and his seemingly limitless future, the power and grandeur that, we believed, would one day be his -- he symbolized for us a life of possibilities, such as we hadn't known for centuries.
Somehow, this most blatant form of self-promotion, this venue that, until a couple of hours ago, had looked to me like a literary meat market, has suddenly reminded me of the reason I started writing in the first place: to tell a good story; a story about Jews; a story that in its own small way continues the tale of this people who have had to struggle, in every generation, to ensure that their story doesn't end.
I'm not feeding the homeless, or doing a beach cleanup, or raising money for Hadassah and ORT and the Israel Defense Forces. I'm here because my youngest son, who is 14 years old and in eighth grade, is playing goalie on a lacrosse team for his school.
When Eric R. Kandel says that this award means as much to him as the Nobel, a chuckle rises from the audience and quickly spills into applause. But Kandel isn't joking. "I've been asking myself," he says, "what the difference is between being here and being in Stockholm." Again, there's laughter from the audience.
I'm thinking of the Southern accent, the country-club attitude, the ship-captain husband, trying to figure out how any of that fits in with a story about a family from the Jewish ghetto of Esfahan. "She might have told me," I confess. "I didn't listen because it didn't make sense."
When I first started writing, I sat with Khanum for hours at a time, asking questions. I was 21 and on leave of absence from law school. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life, but I knew some stories from Iran, and had begun to write them. They were scattered pieces of people's lives, bits of conversations I had overheard through the years, rumors that had been whispered too many times and taken on a reality that may or may not have been deserved.
Salman Rushdie is at Disney Hall, addressing a near-capacity audience as part of the Music Center's 2006 Speaker Series. He has come this March 1 evening to talk about politics and art, truth and tyranny, free and forbidden speech. He has come, also, to promote his newest book.
My first inkling that something has gone tragically wrong is when I hand the parking attendant my valet ticket and see a wicked, knowing smile -- I know what you've been up to and trust me, you shouldn't have -- spread across her face. I try to smile back at her, but my cheeks are frozen stiff and my eyes feel as if they'll pop out of my head if I try to force the muscles. So I sit in the car and drive sufficiently away to escape the attendant's stare, then flip open the visor and check for signs of disaster: $350 and a trip to the dermatologist, a little vial of poison strong enough to paralyze a horse and here I am, looking exactly like before, except that smiling is out of the question.
In his introduction to Esther's Children," (Jewish Publication Society, $110) editor Houman Sarshar speaks of a time when, at 6 years old and about to start elementary school, he discovered his legacy as an Iranian Jew. Over breakfast in their apartment in Tehran, Houman's father, a top planning commissioner in the Shah's Iran, notices the Star of David pendant -- a recent gift from a grandmother -- hanging from his son's neck. He reaches over and slips the necklace under Houman's shirt.
"If anyone in school asks about your religion," he instructs his son, "lie. Tell them you're Muslim."
I'm 11-years-old, my world a patchwork of mixed identities and conflicting beliefs, my eyes searching for a horizon I cannot yet see but that I follow almost by instinct. It's August in New York -- a long and gray stretch of humidity and noise, people speaking to me in an accent I cannot understand, streets choked with traffic, shops overflowing with merchandise, buildings that block out the sun and cast permanent shadows upon the city. It's the first of many visits I'll make with my family to America, a small and tentative step along a journey that has begun long ago in my parents' hearts.
No need to explain why I'm late, I realize. It's an Iranian party. You're not expected to be on time -- just to stay late and socialize.
It is summer, a long time ago, and I am lying on a terrace overlooking an ancient garden full of rosebushes and fruit trees. The days have been so hot, the asphalt on the sidewalk melts under my feet if I dare step out of the house. At night, the temperature drops. My sisters and I take the hose to the yard and stand there as the day's heat rises out of the brick floor in a cloud of white steam. My mother spreads our bed on the terrace, and we crawl into it, hours before we can actually fall asleep. We thrash about in the cool sheets that smell of dust, summer and lavender bleach; listen to the music that drifts up from our grandmother's radio downstairs; eat fresh mulberries we have picked from the tree in our own yard.
So there's a fairy-tale wedding: a thousand guests in a flower-filled ballroom, a dozen violins playing Mozart, a grainy-voiced singer belting out an old Persian love song. The bride is 20 years old and ravishing, of course, but she's also blessed with charm and charisma, the kind of exuberance that turns heads and drags stares behind her. She's been breaking hearts since she was 14 years old and walked into a cousin's wedding in a frilly white dress and a wide lace headband. Now she dances on stage, next to the singer with the forlorn music, and the crystal beads on her wedding gown glow like fireflies in the dark.
I'm not usually at a loss for words, it is true, but something about a library, about speaking there during Women's History Month, strikes a nerve and resonates deeper than usual.
I have a picture of my daughter the first time she dressed up for Purim. She is 4 years old, her bangs too short as a result of a self-inflicted haircut, her face round and perfect as a green apple.