“The Daughters”

Suzi Ehtesham-Zadeh

June 20, 2024 
The following is from Suzi Ehtesham-Zadeh's collection Zan. Ehtesham-Zadeh was born in Washington, D.C. to an Iranian father and an American mother. She moved to Iran at age 5 and grew up in Tehran under the Shah. She returned to the U.S. to attend Stanford University, and when the Islamic Revolution started brewing shortly after she graduated, she moved back to Iran and plopped herself down in it. She later received an MFA in Creative Writing from Boston University.

The daughters filled out their paperwork, renewed their passports, reserved their tickets, packed their suitcases, and flew halfway around the world to their parents’ apartment in northern Tehran.

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They were tourists in their own country. The parents noticed this in every conversation the daughters held in stilted Farsi, in their new gestures that seemed copied from an American television program, in every request they made to be driven to the bazaar or the chelow-kababi as if these normal features of everyday life in their country had become exotic to them.

They marveled over fresh fruit from their grandfather’s orchard, declaring it to be like no fruit they had ever tasted even though they had eaten fruit from these same trees throughout their childhoods.

They went on shopping expeditions and returned with mundane objects: souvenirs made for foreigners, clay vases and ordinary teapots and cheap factory-made tablecloths, packaging them with care and storing them lovingly in their suitcases as though they were precious treasures.

During the day they drove through the streets of Tehran, looking out the window at the neighborhood they had once lived in, at the corner baq’aali where they had once bought toys and candies and batteries, at the walls of the school they had once attended.

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They were surprised by the open sewers that lined the sides of the streets in Tehran, the jubes they had stepped over casually every day of their young lives. They were repelled to notice now, as if for the first time, that debris floated in the jubes and that the water in them was fetid.

They sounded out the signs on the streets and in the shop windows and the slogans painted on the walls in an effort to prove, perhaps to themselves most of all, that they had not become illiterate in their native language.

One afternoon when they were in town, the daughters were accosted by the Gasht-e-Ershad, the Morality Police who trolled the streets of the city in olive-colored Range Rovers looking for violations of the dress code. The officer who stopped them was a woman in a heavy black chador. She was a khahar, one of the “sisters” who were proud members of the brigade.

The khahar approached the younger daughter first. She thrust a gloved hand out from beneath her chador and extended her pointer finger toward the three-inch triangle between the knot of the daughter’s headscarf and the top button of her roopoosh, lightly touching the skin. “Sister, your chest is showing,” she said.

Next the khahar turned her attention toward the older daughter. Again she used her fingers, this time thrusting them toward her face and laying them on the faint lipstick the older daughter was wearing. In a voice trembling with anger, she told her, “That lipstick is martyr’s blood.”

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The younger sister tightened her headscarf and the older one lifted the back of her hand to her mouth and wiped her lips. They promised to be more respectful in the future, and the khahar let them go.

They told their mother about the incident as soon as they got home, erupting into giggles as they spoke. The mother had lived with the Gasht-e-Ershad for many years and had nothing but scorn for the group’s backward notions of feminine propriety. Still, it disturbed her to see her daughters ridiculing something that had become a fact of life in their country; something she herself had to contend with daily. She imagined her daughters telling their friends in California about the incident, all of them reacting to it with smugness and derision and glee.

Each night during their three-week visit, the daughters sat with their parents in the living room and drank araq, the alcohol their father bought illegally from Armenian men who brought it to the back door late at night disguised in opaque containers. Their mother, who had never taken a drink of araq in her life and worried about her husband’s intake of the vile substance, was shocked to see her daughters drinking. She was even more shocked when they declared araq to be the best drink they had ever imbibed even though it was distilled in filthy basements from unwashed raisins.

Their father was mostly a silent listener during their conversations, which were often about places or subjects he knew nothing about. Occasionally when his daughters reminisced about their childhood, he spoke up to adjust their memories. When the conversation turned to Iranian politics or history, his daughters looked at him with genuine interest and expectation on their faces. He supplied the information they asked for; information he sensed they wanted to store in their brains for later use. But even when they prodded him further, he did not hold forth the way he had done when they were younger.

During the day they took photographs, pulling out their cell phones every few minutes and snapping pictures. What were they photographing, the parents wondered? They could find no pattern in the subject matter of the photographs, no rhyme nor reason as to why their daughters would want to immortalize those particular scenes.

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They photographed the traffic. They photographed the storefronts, the bakeries, the fruit stands with their pyramids of cherries and quince and pomegranates, the piles of sabzi, the butcher shops with flies resting on the sides of beef.

They photographed the murals on the walls: the bearded “heroes” of the Islamic Revolution looking stern and defiant; the martyrs’ faces painted in surreal colors with their eyes looking heavenward; the lurid depictions of the carnage supposedly caused by “The Great Satan” called America and its evil minion, Israel.

They photographed the smog-stained sides of buildings and the road signs and the billboards. They photographed the carts that lined the streets, the cigarette vendors and watermelon vendors and the vendors of cheap plastic goods hawking their products in the scorching heat.

The photographs had been taken on their cell phones, but the daughters decided they wanted prints. When the photographs came back from the shop, the daughters sat in the living room with their parents and passed them around. For some reason the parents couldn’t understand, the photographs made their daughters chuckle. One of the photographs they found especially humorous depicted the storefront window of a clothing shop.

When her turn came to look at this picture, the mother wondered at first what was so amusing about it. She examined it more closely and saw that behind the window hung T-shirts with lettering in crooked, ungrammatical English. On the front of one T-shirt was a cartoon of a small, rosy-cheeked child wearing a big pink hat. Beneath the cartoon were the words AMERICAN GIRL. Another T-shirt had the words I AM IRANIAN LOVE MACHINE scrawled in white cursive letters inside a bright red heart. Emblazoned across the front of another T-shirt was the single word UNIVERSITY.

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More photos were passed around, and the merriment continued. But when one photograph reached the mother’s hands, she stood up and left the room. It was a photograph of a handwritten sign tacked to a wooden telephone pole. The sign advertised a kidney for sale.

Three weeks later, the daughters packed their suitcases with their new treasures and secured their cameras in their purses and donned their Islamic clothing in preparation for their flight back to the United States. The flight was scheduled to depart at 4:00 am, which meant that they had to leave home at 1:00 am. Afraid that they would be late, the parents didn’t even attempt to sleep. They were bleary-eyed during the drive to the airport, but their daughters were giddy, marveling at the volume of traffic in the city even at this ungodly hour, anticipating the moment when they finally boarded the plane and could free themselves of their hijabs, talking excitedly about what they would do as soon as they were “home.”

The parents embraced each of them at the security checkpoint and told them in trembling voices to be safe and to call often. As soon as their daughters vanished from sight, both parents shed quiet tears.

Their tears dried as they made the long drive back from the airport. Exchanging only a few words with one another, they turned the key in the apartment door, removed their shoes and sank their feet into the carpet, plugged in the samovar and prepared their tea, then sat and looked out the window at the grey sky above Tehran that was now streaked with the first rays of morning light.


From Zan by Suzi Ehtesham-Zadeh. Used with permission of the publisher, DZANC Books. Copyright © 2024 by Suzi Ehtesham-Zadeh. 

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