Academic journal article Chicago Review

Shirine: A Thousand and One Nights

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Shirine: A Thousand and One Nights

Article excerpt

Shirine's English has only a trace of an accent. What gives her away is an occasional hesitation, as if she is sifting through a pile of words until the right one appears. And her sentences have a peculiar rhythm; practically every sentence is punctuated with an exclamation: "I swear to God!" "I promise you!" Sometimes these expressions are pronounced with great emphasis, other times merely in passing, like a cough.

It's not surprising that her English is nearly natural. She was sent to school in England when she was thirteen, so that she could learn the language. Her father, an influential politician under the Shah, wanted her to grow up to be the Indira Gandhi of Iran. To do that, she needed to speak at least five languages fluently. Unfortunately, when it came to math she was hopeless, and that infuriated her father. He had no patience with her. He wanted her to do everything flawlessly, as he did. When she was young, she had to study calligraphy with a bamboo pen for two hours each week, so that her handwriting would be impeccable. Now she writes with an extraordinarily beautiful hand. She still feels that people will judge her by the marks she makes on a piece of paper.

In Teheran she played the piano with a Russian teacher, and she continued to study when she went to England. She loved to play the piano because it was something that belonged only to her, and because it was not useful. But forty years later, the piano playing is lost. When she thinks of the music of her childhood, she thinks of the setar, the reed flute, the tambourine, of a voice that is played like an instrument. When she hears that music, she weeps for hours. She's weeping over memories. She is also weeping from joy. The people sitting with her are always uncomfortable when she weeps. They think something must be the matter. They don't understand that sorrow is the companion of joy. Shirine is only mourning the loss of Eden, her exile.

She feels obliged to recite the stories of her life to others, to anticipate their doubts, to explain to them why she never fulfilled her father's expectations, although they wouldn't even think to ask. She tells the stories compulsively, but not in the way of women who are always exposing themselves and the things it would be better to keep hidden. None of these confessions is humiliating. The stories are strangely separate from her, as if they were legends, like the tragic story of King Khosrow's love for the Armenian princess Shirine. She is a story teller. That fate she can't escape. It's impossible to get her to start at the beginning of her life and relate it in one continuous thread to the present. It's a series of unresolved tales that overlap, shuttling back and forth in time. Certain details change: her grandmother had seven boys and two girls, or six boys and two girls. "My stories are all fabrications anyway," she says. "If you check with my father or mother or sister, you'll find that they have different versions of every story."

Recently, she dreamed about a waterfall. She was walking into the water, abandoning herself to its coolness, to the secret space behind it. Her grandmother caught hold of her skin and pulled her back. When she turned around, she saw her grandmother reaching into her breast and taking out a white dove. Shirine awoke in tears. She needed to know what lay beyond the waterfall. All day, she could think of nothing but the image of her grandmother holding the white dove, which upset her deeply, but she was unable to tell anyone about it. Finally, she couldn't stand it any longer, and she went to a spiritualist. She'd much rather consult a fortune teller than a therapist. The woman rambled on with vague predictions for the future. Shirine didn't pay much attention. Then at the end, almost as an afterthought, she added: "Your grandmother was the guiding light in your life. She is holding a white dove." Shirine remembers what she learned as a child, that the meaning of a woman's dream is the exact opposite of what it appears to be. …

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