March 1, 2001
Here I am, Queen Esther's genuine descendant...
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. She is standing between her two brothers, an arm around each boy's neck, a mischievous spark in her eye. It's a Sunday in March, and we have spent the morning dressing her for the carnival at her school. I have gone through my own clothes looking for bits and pieces that may have costume potential, and she has waited patiently, watching me as I feign even the slightest idea what Queen Esther might have worn on a creaky Ferris wheel one breezy afternoon in Los Angeles.
"Did you know Queen Esther was Iranian?" my daughter asks as I pull out and then put away a series of tops and skirts, scarves and gloves and belts.
I nod absently, curse myself for not having done this earlier, given myself time to visit the costume store.
"Did you have Purim in Iran?"
Her brothers have come to the door and are also watching.
"We did," I say, though I have no memory of the holiday at all.
"Did you dress up as well?"
I wrap a leopard-skin scarf around her waist. It reaches the floor and looks like a long skirt.
"So what did you do?" her younger brother asks.
I look for another scarf that may match the skirt. I find something red, wrap it around my daughter's chest, then up around her neck. She sees herself in the mirror and smiles.
"What did you do for Purim?" my son asks again.
I think for a moment, then shake my head.
I find a gold headdress with hanging beads, left over from Halloween last year, and put it around my daughter's forehead. She is watching me expectantly; hoping I will expand on my answer, improve the picture I have just painted for her.
"So you didn't have Purim," she concludes after a minute.
"We did," I insist. "We just didn't do anything to celebrate it."
I worry I may be misrepresenting my entire culture by using my own family experience as a model, so I offer the usual caveat.
"I don't know what the other Jews did," I explain. "I think only kids in Jewish schools dressed up. Maybe they went to temple. Maybe they ate some special food."
Even as I speak, I can feel disappointment seep into the room.
Growing up, my children have been amazed at how unforgiving their parents' childhoods have been compared to their own: no television around the clock, no year-round amusement parks, school six days a week, homework all through the summer and only three flavors of ice cream instead of 31. To them, Iran has been the country of hostile rulers and unforgiving laws, a place their families fled from or which they willingly left behind, one they cannot safely visit. Learning about Purim for the first time, they have been thrilled to find mention of Iranian Jews anywhere in their Western history books, and they have rushed home to share the news with me.
"Did you know Purim took place in Persia? Did you know Persia is Iran? Did you know the Iranian queen and her minister uncle saved the Jews?"
Yet here I am, Queen Esther's genuine descendant, and my own childhood Purims have been less than memorable.
I sit my daughter down before the mirror, let my sons follow her and stand to watch me paint her face. I am trying hard to think up some bit of drama -- a memory, however faint, of this, our national Jewish holiday.
The truth is, my life in Iran is no longer a world I can return to easily. It is a place from which ordinary truth has slowly dripped away, leaving only the strongest, most formidable memories -- the ones with the brightest colors, the ones that evoked the greatest rage, the deepest sorrows, the most burning passions. My childhood now is populated only by larger-than-life characters who walk across my desk every morning and late at night, who follow me through the simple motions of everyday life and cast themselves into the pages of my novels, where they will fight bloody battles and fall in love with fairy tale kings and queens. They will suffer crushing blows, experience heady triumph, and they will do it all, I hope, before an audience that until now has been largely unaware of their existence.
No 24-hour television and no carnivals on Purim, I want to tell my children, but I grew up in a house that had a history of its own, in a time of constant change and uncertainty, in a world where every man and woman was deemed responsible for all their ancestors' acts. It was a more quiet place, to be sure. We felt vulnerable before nature and destiny and the whims of mere mortals, obligated to our parents and to their parents and to a society that often expected more than it delivered. We had a sense of duty but no sense of entitlement, an expectation of hard work and only a hope, not a promise, of a reward.
Only three flavors of ice cream and rolling blackouts every day, but when the lights went out, my mother would sit with us on the terrace overlooking the yard and tell us stories of her own childhood -- the first day she had turned on a faucet and seen water flow from the pipes, the time she had gone with her grandmother to sell rubies to a beautiful Muslim princess, the day she had worn an emerald-green dress to school and showed off her engagement ring to all her friends.
No natural sense of entitlement and no permission to speak without being spoken to first. None of the self-assurance, the optimism, the confident gait that I see in my own American-born children, and that comes, I think, from growing up free of doubt. But we had the empathy one learns from having experienced hardship, an adaptability that comes from having to adjust to new situations constantly.
The same doubt that took away so much of our confidence in ourselves and our future added layers to my way of thinking, forced me to look through the present and into the past and the future, gave me the inspiration to write.
I put purple shadow on my daughter's eyelids, paint her cheeks rosy-pink, her lips amber. When I am done, I stand back and admire the little creature in the grown-up costume. She looks like a real queen, I tell her -- pretty, glowing, perfect.
"Actually, Mom," my older son corrects, "she looks like Cleopatra."
He waits for his observation to sink in.
"Right title," he explains. "Wrong country."
It is better, I think, to grow up in a place without fear, without doubt and uncertainty and the terrible sense of being at the mercy of men instead of laws. Still sometimes I miss the sense of belonging to a land where every truth has a dozen layers, every person who comes to visit brings with them a hundred tales, and every child carries the weight of a thousand lives.
Gina Nahai is the author of "Cry of the Peacock" and "Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith." Her new novel, "Sunday's Silence" (Harcourt Brace), is due out in September.