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Jewish Journal

What lies beneath

by Gina Nahai

January 8, 2014 | 2:55 pm

Gina Nahai

Gina Nahai

I don’t mean to alarm the global scientific community, but I feel I have an obligation, in these nascent days of 2014, to share a potentially disturbing finding I came upon at the end of last year.

Ladies and gentlemen: Einstein was wrong. 

At least one of his theories — the one about the definition of madness — is complete fallacy. I don’t know when he arrived at it, or what kind of green and gullible following he suckered into believing it or how he managed to pound it into the collective consciousness of the Western world, but I can tell you, my friends, Einstein did not know my mother.

Take, for example, the act of posing the same question to one person multiple times. Assuming you ask the same way, and that the respondent is truthful, forthcoming and not under duress, Einstein would tell you that, insignificant variations notwithstanding, you are going to get the same answer every time. Einstein would be wrong. 

All my life, I’ve asked my mother about her family. Specifically, I’ve asked about HER grandparents, Peacock of Esfahan and her lady-killing, tar-playing, rich-when-all-the-other-Jews-were-poor husband, Soleyman Khan. I knew he married her when she was 9 years old and he was somewhere in his 20s; that he had been flagrantly unfaithful to her; that she had borne four children and then divorced him. What happened after that is less evident. Time and again, I asked my mother the same two questions. For the first 40 years or so, she gave the same two answers. 

 

What did Peacock do after she left Soleyman Khan? 

She worked hard and became successful, raised her children, lived well past 100. 

 

What did Soleyman Khan do after Peacock left him? 

He lost all his money, got sick and died. 

 

Maybe it was the implausibility of arriving at such poetic justice in real life, the Hollywood ending of the ill-treated wife being rewarded for rebelling while her evil-doing husband gets his comeuppance. Or maybe it was the sparseness of the narrative. Maybe I just don’t have a life and try, instead, to live vicariously through dead people. Something, at any rate, prompted me to keep asking. 

Just as His Brilliance predicted, I always got the same result. 

Years went by. Every so often I’d meet a stranger who, my mother would casually announce, was related to us through Soleyman Khan. That was amusing, but it did not raise major alarm. Everyone, after all, was related to each other in the ghetto. Here and there, too, I’d catch my father uttering Soleyman Khan’s name in a story about a shooting by a jealous husband, a daily regimen of 12 raw eggs for breakfast meant to enhance virility, more than a few all-nighters of lamb kebob and arrack in the company of a harem-load of women. My father isn’t much of a raconteur; he’ll say two words where a thousand are needed. So I’d go back to my mother and ask: 

 

What else did Soleyman Khan do after Peacock left him? 

Wasted all his money, got sick and died. 

 

I realized some titillating details might be missing from the response to Question No. 2, but I told myself Einstein couldn’t be wrong, men were always sleeping around back then, it was so common, it’s not even worth mentioning, I should stop being paranoid, act more like a scientist. 

A few days before Christmas, we’re at my sister’s house for dinner. When I walk in, my mother is in the living room with my niece, watching a holiday-themed movie on Netflix. I sit down and say, “I’m so sick of all the Christmas stuff.” 

Apparently in response to this, or perhaps just inspired by the film, my mother says, “I have a cousin who’s a nun.” 

I’m sure I’ve misheard. 

“What do you mean?” I lean in to make sure I get it right. 

“I have a cousin who’s a nun,” she says without taking her eyes off the television screen. “She lives in a convent.” 

Fifty years of living with my mother, and this is the first I’ve heard of nuns and convents. 

“A real cousin?” 

“Yeah. She’s Soleyman Khan’s grandkid.” 

Oh. 

“How’s that possible?” 

Instead of clarifying, she chooses to complicate. 

“I have another cousin who’s a priest.” 

Where? Where are these cousins who’ve suddenly sprung out of the ether? 

“A Catholic priest?”

“Is there another kind?” She laughs. “He lives in Israel.” 

I stop to gather my thoughts. It proves to be a long and fruitless campaign.

“What did Soleyman Khan do after he divorced Peacock?” Like, in addition to getting sick and dying. Or losing all his money. 

“Did he marry a second time? Was his second wife Catholic?”  

“No,” she says, cool as a cucumber. “She was Muslim.” 

“You mean she was a ‘temporary wife’?” I ask. In Islam, every man can have three permanent wives and as many temporary ones as he wishes at one time. “Temporary” can mean anything from five minutes to 99 years. Where other men might have a mistress, a one-night stand or a date with a prostitute, Muslim men would have temporary wives. 

“No. That one was permanent.” 

That one? 

“You mean, there were temporary ones as well?” 

“Probably.” 

“So,” I summarize. “After Peacock divorced him, Soleyman Khan became poor, got sick and died, but not before marrying one permanent and who-knows-how-many temporary wives?” 

“No.” 

Where is Einstein where you need him?

“No, he didn’t take one permanent — albeit Muslim — wife and any number of temporary ones?” I ask. 

“He took two permanent wives.” 

Forget the suddenly debunked, got-sick-and-died narrative I’ve been force-fed up till now, or my admittedly pathetic fascination with the tales of ordinary people who lived and died in obscurity. In Soleyman’s time, a Jewish man found to have “relations” with a Muslim woman was summarily executed, the ghetto from which he hailed subjected to an invasion, his fellow Jews forced to convert to Islam as recompense for his sin. 

“How did he get away with marrying two Muslim women?” 

“Only one of them was Muslim,” my mother says. Then, lest I be tempted to believe in Einstein ever again, she adds, “The other was Christian.” 

Oh. Hence, the convent. 

“And you’ve always known this?” 

She raises her hands, palms up, to indicate the answer is obvious. 

“Of course.” 

Of course. 

“Why didn’t you say anything before?” 

Now, she’s laughing in earnest. 

“I don’t know. It didn’t come up.” 

“You mean, except for the first 500 times I asked?”

She looks at me with not a trace of guile. 

“What did you ask?” 

“What did Soleyman Khan do ...” 

Oh. That. Now, she’s really wondering if I’m dense. 

“I told you. He lost all his ...” 

OK. So. Importance is in the eye of the beholder. My mother probably thought the only part of Soleyman Khan’s fate that was newsworthy was the concluding chapter. This is a characteristically Eastern view, the philosophy behind that most lofty of all blessings, aah-gheh-bat beh kheyr beh-shi — may you end well. Marriage, divorce, wealth or poverty, surrender or conquest — all that’s trivia when compared to one’s aah-gheh-bat — ending. Einstein, being European and all, did not know this. He probably wasn’t aware that in some parts of the world, truth has many layers — some visible to the untrained eye and others, not. Otherwise, I have to believe, he, too, would keep asking.


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.

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