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. We’ve parked the car — a gold Peugeot my mother likes because it’s smaller than the black Cadillac my father is so fond of — in the first open spot on the street, and now we’re rushing ahead, past stylish boutiques with French names and crammed kiosks selling English-language newspapers and American chewing gum, jewelry stores and beauty salons and a restaurant that boasts, in a 6-foot-tall color blowup, of a new marvel called “Banana Split.” The sun is out, and light bounces off glass storefronts and the windshields of cars, so that the street looks like a moving picture drawn with metallic paint in bright colors.
My mother is holding my hand and talking excitedly to her friend. She’s wearing a suit she has made herself from a pattern in a European magazine she subscribes to; the fabric is imported, and the store owner is a thief for charging such prices, but she likes it because it’s a Celine look-alike, and it took her two whole weeks to make. Her friend, still single at 25 and therefore well into old-maidenhood, wears red patent leather boots and a black miniskirt. She’s a pretty girl who passed over too many suitors while she still had them, and when she finally settled for one and got engaged, he broke it off a week before the wedding, on the day she picked up her gown from the seamstress and put it on to show her friends. Now, her prospects for a good marriage are next to nil; she’ll be lucky if she can find a widower with a few children — either that, or she’ll have to go live on a kibbutz in Israel.
I’m too short — I barely reach their chest level — to hear everything my mother and her friend are saying, but I can tell they’ve planned this outing carefully and that we’re on a schedule that should have us back home by dinnertime. Just before we reach the outside of a movie theater, my mother turns to me and says, in a voice she’s working hard to keep casual, that there’s no need to mention this afternoon to the grandparents.
The grandparents, I know, are the guardians of every family’s moral correctness and the arbiters of propriety in women’s behavior. They decide where the daughters, and daughters-in-law, and granddaughters, and daughters of friends, and friends of their daughters, can and cannot go, especially without a male chaperone. They disapprove of most public places, and they especially disdain movie theaters because they let in every kind of person, the most sophisticated and the least palatable — just pay the price of admission and you can be a petty thief or a drug addict, you can get in and sit ... for two hours ... in the dark ... next to someone’s cherished wife.
My mother is 25 years old and has three children, but as long as she lives in Iran, she’ll have to abide by the whims and wishes of two sets of parents — her own and her husband’s. When she’s not being a wife or a mother, she paints and sews and reads novels. She’s a talented artist and a whiz with numbers, but, like any other woman of her generation, she’d never be allowed to hold a real job or become financially independent. Her heroes, therefore, are women who, in one way or another, have escaped the limitations to which she and other Iranian women are confined. The heroes, in turn, are divided into two categories: “brave but unfortunate” and “blessed and beautiful.”
In the first category are my mother’s own grandmother, who left her philandering husband and became a successful broker of gems and antiques; her aunt, who ran away from home as a child and in time published a feminist magazine; Golda Meir; and Indira Gandhi. All pioneering, brilliant and steadfast, if not exactly fetching. In the second category are the shah’s second wife, Soraya; the first lady of Monaco, Grace Kelly; and, at the very top, where no other mortal has or will ever unseat her, the most beautiful woman in the world, she of the purple eyes and tapered waist, Elizabeth Taylor.
So it’s “Cleopatra” we’ve come to see, though it’s been a few years since the film was released and dubbed and first shown in Iran. I’ve never been allowed to see it, and I probably wouldn’t be today, either. I have a feeling I’m only here because the pickup time from school was too close to the 5 p.m. showing of the film. But then we get our tickets and walk into the foyer of the theater, and I realize this is nothing like any movie house I’ve been to before: The lobby is a cafe, with small round tables, narrow metal chairs, and waiters in white jackets serving Coke and iced coffee and ice cream in tall glasses. We sit at one of the tables and order our drinks, and my mother’s friend comments on how she would like a cigarette but can’t be seen smoking one in public — that’s all she needs to set in stone her completely undeserved reputation as a loose woman on the lookout to steal other people’s husbands. A few minutes later, an acquaintance of hers stops by our table. She has flaxen hair and dark eye makeup; she went to school with my mother’s friend, and now she’s telling her how sorry she is about the canceled nuptials and making a point of flashing her own wedding band. “Isn’t it ironic, we all thought you’d be the first married,” she says, and then they talk about Elizabeth Taylor and her multiple marriages — she’s on her fifth, the first with Richard Burton — and it’s only after the woman has left that I realize my mother’s friend is on the verge of tears, looking down at her drink and fighting hard to regain her composure.
What is it, I wonder, that makes it possible, even admirable, for one woman to divorce and remarry many times, while this other, left at the altar, is all but a social pariah? Later, I’ll sit through the movie without grasping anything of the story because I’m so busy trying to glean the special quality, the character trait or cosmic blessing, that places Elizabeth Taylor above the reach of the ordinary laws of nature — makes her more desirable, more loved, than any of the women in Category One and any, even, in Category Two. I decide it must be her beauty — those purple eyes — and I’ll carry this lesson with me for decades, through my own teenage years, my 20s and 30s, while I live in Iran and Europe and the United States, and it’s only at the end, when Elizabeth Taylor is in the last decade of her life, when she has put on weight and is ailing and awkward and – yes — unmarried, that I’ll finally believe that she, too, is human.
Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.