Art by Taravat Talepasand
The dog is a male, uncut as far as she can see. Whether he knows she is a female, whether in his eyes a human being must belong to one of two genders, corresponding to the two genders of dogs, and therefore whether he feels two kinds of satisfaction at once—the satisfaction of one beast dominating another beast, the satisfaction of a male dominating a female—she has no idea.
J. M. Coetzee, “The Dog”
“A sun hides in a single atom.
When that atom opens its mouth,
The sun springs forth in ambush!
The heavens and the earth crumble before it into atoms!
Why must the soul be confined in one body?
Pay heed, O Body! Wash your two hands of this soul.
Stop being the soul’s lodging.
How long can the sea survive within a waterskin?”
Rumi, The Masnavi
I was raised in America as an Iranian girl.
By which I mean I was appraised as a particle that absorbs and emits the light of others: in my case, my parents, my mother as well as my father. To them, I am the human embodiment of an electron, and, as such, I carry a negative charge. When I stopped serving my parents—when I refused to serve, when I lacked or lost the energy structure to take them in and scatter their frequencies—I was neglected. Neglect was not just a matter of convenience; it was necessary for their continuance. They had to seek other sources to carry their light or they’d be dimmed.
Quantum physics, the study of atomic relationships outside the realm of general relativity, insists that point of view—the moment of observation—affects and disturbs phenomena: Schrödinger’s cat is both alive and dead until we check on her.
As a living Iranian daughter, instead of being dead or alive, I am either ugly or a whore from my parents’ point of view. The ugly daughter is quiet and moral, useful as an extension of self, as a supportive limb. The daughter-whore is disobedient and shameful, but potentially also an ambitious and serviceable bride if she’s clever. Uglyhood and whoredom are unstable states dependent on the moment of observation: one can be both in the course of a day, but one can’t be both at the same time.
I developed this theory of my Iranian girl-/daughterhood—“girl” and “daughter” being the same word in Persian, dokhtar, an Indo-European cognate to “daughter”—from multiple, complex points of view: how I believe my parents view daughters; how Iranian culture, which I know through my parents and my studies of Persian language and literature, views women and daughters; how my mother views herself; how American patriarchy view daughters; how America views Iranians viewing daughters.
I like my quantum theory of Iranian girlhood.
I try to explain it to my mother at my parents’ house in San Francisco. I tell her Iranians raise women such that they’re reduced to the level of electron. (I don’t mention that she and my father raised me as daughter lest she think I’m blaming her for being queer.)
My mother stares at me as she has whenever I’ve been ill in my life, with pity and blame.
“You’re sick, poor thing,” she seems to say through the knit between her thin brows. “You can’t survive without us. You’re totally uncertain of who you are and what the world’s really like.”
I explain to her the bifurcation of zesht, “ugly,” and jendeh, “whore.”
She laughs. She likes it.
“Women see themselves how men see them,” my mother responds in Persian.
“Yes!” I say in English. “The male gaze.”
“Gays?” asks my mother.
“No.” I go back into Persian. “Some women believe they have less power, because that’s how men see them. Some women still unblinkingly assign power to men and thereby validate patriarchy.”
“Not me,” she says.
“Of course not you.”
“I was women’s lib when I was at Berkeley. Why are you talking about this? You’re not a woman, you’re a language teacher.”
“I know. I’m trying to talk about the situation in Iran now: about the women who are fighting back and insisting they have a choice. It takes so much.”
“Yes. Because we were taught that we’re less.”
My mother uses a different word for “less” from classical Persian that I’ve heard no other Iranian ever use in speech: kehtar. The opposite of mehtar, “superior,” the first syllable of which is cognate to the first syllable in the words “major,” “magnificent,” “maharaja.”
“But men,” my mother continues, “don’t have the shahāmat of women.” Shahāmat also strikes me as a funny word. A loan word from Arabic, it means “gallantry” or “noble-mindedness.” My dictionary translates it as “moral heroism.”
“You speak so royally on this subject,” I tell my mother in Persian with a smile.
She’s bored of this conversation.
“Well, I am a princess. Your father is the physicist. Go talk to him,” she says as she flicks a piece of lint off her shoulder and walks away.
She’s right: my father is the physicist, I’m the language instructor (though I prefer “interpreter”), and she is a liberated woman in that she was raised as a son/daughter hybrid by an absent, much older father and a furious teenage mother who saw womanhood as the source of all anguish. My mother is also a princess, although, at seventy-seven, she works as an optometrist in Menlo Park, California. Many California “Persians” claim Iranian royalty, but I have proof of my mother’s exceptionality. Her family tree arrived to me from Iran as a scroll in calligraphic paleography. It starts with two competing roots, not so unlike the two competing theories of general relativity and quantum theory that explain the universe’s existence: the ancient, mythological Persian root, which starts with the male-imaged human protoplast Kiumars, and the Islamic one, which starts with Adam and Eve. Then for Pahlavi dynasty loyalists and the authorities of the current Islamic Republic, my mother possesses a legitimate and lofty position: an inheritor of primeval Iranian kingship on the one hand, and a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammad on the other, and, farther down the Islamic line, a descendent of the Safavid Shah Ismail, the founder of the dynasty that united Iran in the sixteenth century from an inchoate patchwork of chiefdoms and made Shi’a Islam the state religion. Anyone with a stake in Iran’s leadership will open the Schrödinger box with my mother in it and find a hero wearing some sort of magical crown or veil.
One theory behind the “uncertainty” of quantum mechanics, the inability to predict accurately whether the cat is dead or alive, whether an electron will pass through the upper slit or the lower slit, is that a body’s identity is defined wholly by its relationship to another body. Everything, all reality, is a reflection of bodies. There can be no box containing a cat and a lethal agent without the cat and the lethal agent; the box is a reflection of its relationship to the cat and the agent. Reality is a set of mirrors.
The Speculum Principum, as “a mirror for princes” was called in Latin, was a genre of courtly literature intended to provoke self-examination. There are many mirrors for princes in classical Persian, the most famous in the West being Nezām al-Molk’s Siyāsatnāmeh (The Politics) from the twelfth century. (Ben Kingsley played Nezām al-Molk in the 2010 film Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.) The Persian mirrors for princes—unlike European ones, such as Machiavelli’s The Prince—stress that the ruler—in our case, the shah— must be an exemplar of justice. If he isn’t, then revolution is in order.
I revolted in my own ways. Maybe some will see themselves in me.
As the child of a physicist and a liberated optometrist princess, I’d like to hold up a mirror for sons who were raised imprecisely as another sex insofar as their parents, deliberately or unintentionally, refined them into that sex. And for daughters who were told they were both ugly and whorish. A description of what it’s like. A confirmation of reality.
My mirror is not an example of how to revolt, because I haven’t succeeded at that: I am writing these words in my parents’ house in San Francisco.
It may be helpful for me to note that my earliest memory of growing up in San Francisco is being a piss-angry boy mouse.
In my phallic phase, when I was three or four and our house was at capacity with refugee guests, one afternoon I ambushed my mother in the hallway and flashed her. I pulled my trousers and underpants down and gripped my difference. My penis felt cold and sandy against the thumb and forefinger. The ascending smell, however, was decidedly adult: salt, feces, hair grease, scents I knew from playing dog, when I’d run my nose along the thick worsted ridges of the beige refugee sofa.
I was scared, but the flash felt urgent. I had to do it. I wanted approval and acknowledgment of me and my difference, and I wanted ownership of it. My mother called me zesht, ugly, and immediately pushed me into the one room I never went in, my father’s office, a cold room awash with the odor of mothballs and Double Mint chewing gum.
I then urinated into my father’s brown plastic wastepaper bin.
Am I the only boy in the world who was taught to pee sitting down? My mother told me that’s what “gentle” men (daughters?) are supposed to do in private homes where there are no urinals. That way, you don’t spray, and the toilet seat is never up when you’re done. It still seems civilized to me.
At three or four, however, I wanted her to know I was capable of standing and peeing at home and that I could do so in a little wastepaper basket. I had seen the hefty, bushy pike beneath her belly button; I had seen my father’s hangdog manhood. I had neither and I wanted recognition. I wasn’t Mother nor Father, but something small.
I loved—and still love—the word “small.” I loved it even more once I could read, as its appearance suggests its meaning: the sma- gets overwhelmed by the twin towered l’s. My parents can’t pronounce it because Persian lacks initial consonant clusters. It comes out as es-smāl, which stands bigger than any native English pronunciation. In two syllables, the sma- of the boy I saw myself to be as didn’t feel protected by the two l’s my parents represented. My nickname at home was Mouse, mush, which is one syllable but feels mute and vulnerable. Small, I’d outgrow. A mouse, my mother would trap and catch and hide inside herself.
When my mother found the urine, bubbly like backwash, I feared she’d make me drink it. She called me “sick,” bimār, and “dirty,” kasif, and she sent me to the bath. Disease is always an Iranian girl’s fault. When I say “I have a little cold,” the reply is always “Why? What did you do [wrong]?”
I continued to piss into that brown plastic bin until my parents decided to replace it with a brand-new bin I was allowed to pick out and, they hoped, keep free of befoulment. The new trash bin would still stay pushed up against the side of my father’s steel desk, like the old one, but it would be mine.
I chose a taller, metal bin that looked exactly like a Pepsi can.
At the stationery store not far from my mother’s optical shop, on a shelf above the cashier counter, there was a row of tin garbage bins that looked like real soft drink cans. These cans had long mesmerized me, especially the Pepsi one. The red-and-white-and-blue Pepsi logo circle of the ’70s and ’80s was my first tangible friend, my personal tricolor, my supernational totem watching over me all over San Francisco. It was on the signage of every corner store and deli. Pepsi-Cola was also the first American soft drink to reach Iran. (Coca-Cola apparently conceded both San Francisco and Iran to Pepsi in the Cola Wars.) I loved hearing the story of my mother and uncle tasting Pepsi for the first time in Esfahan and convincing themselves they were drunk, and my mother loved telling it. Pepsi didn’t belong to Americans or Iranians, boys or girls.
The Pepsi bin was expensive, as I was told repeatedly, but I admit it was a bit of clever parenting, because I was then fully potty-trained. I never pissed in the Pepsi bin, but I also never pissed at home standing up. It was that early, when I was three or four, when my mother wrote me off as an expendable girl. I wasn’t completely written off as useless, because I still had a job to do: not mousing, but being her mirror—the small, dark imago of her abhorrence at her own body.
She disburdened her maternal duties to a rubbish bin that looked like a Pepsi can, and she noticed me only when I could serve as an extension of her fear, her hate, or the ugly ambidexterity of her late Pahlavi-era womanhood. Then she could breathe deeply at last, without the noxious scent of boy crotch and urine. Then she could go after her career and the business of her own serious liberation from her mother and father, for whom my own father often stood. Then she could be all the male and all the female energy in the house at the same time.
The Iranians of my youth were obsessed with bodily functions: fluids, sprouts, exuviations. My mother knew which Iranian friends’ daughters had had their first periods, which child had scabies, which suffered from dandruff. The other mothers knew the same about me. My mother’s friend Nilufar once asked my mother within earshot of me: “Danny’s voice hasn’t changed yet, but he’s started to grow hair down there, right?”
To say nothing of our disproportionate number of sweat glands. We sweat a lot, and we’re not ashamed of it. You may also hear that we don’t believe in deodorant. I wasn’t allowed to wear deodorant because it would give my mother and me breast cancer. When I finally snuck some in, when I was in the ninth grade, it was Tickle, a pink brand for ladies that looked like shampoo or body wash.
Until very recently, I used to think one reason Iranian women cover themselves so much isn’t because they’re excessively prone to sin, but because they’re afraid of having their persons leaving sweaty smudges behind.
Iranian women want absence to feel total, a vacancy, so that others can say what we all want to hear: “Your place is empty.”
Iranian boys are fearless in their bodies, as I was when I peed in the trash bin. Their mothers clean and worship them; their fathers teach them to be sexual. They go into the world cheeky. Porrū. Full-faced. They totter into the kitchen and say, Māmān, goshnam e. “Mommy, I’m hungry.” And Mommy prepares them a plate.
We girls are not “nice”—that’s a Western idea—but we have nice things. Girls are called pretty as children, even when we’re ugly, and of course we’re told to be good. (Most of) our fathers help with arithmetic, play soccer with us in dress shoes, and, on the odd occasion, draw us pictures. These pictures are unsettling. My father drew stick drawings of boys pissing off rooftops—another reason, perhaps, why peeing standing up feels naughty while seated control over it feels so powerful. In the drawings, the boys’ penises were n-dashes, and the stream of urine was marked by longer m-dashes.
By nine, we are repellent to our fathers. Our fathers give up. They no longer enter their daughters’ bedrooms, lest they spot a penny of blood on the bedclothes or glimpse apish hair pulling itself down our shins towards our ankles.
My father never played Iranian football with me in his dress shoes. Instead, he walked me, his catamite bride, down the San Francisco Peninsula to my piano instructor, from whose sexual abuse blood did stain my flowered, periwinkle Laura Ashley sheets. I didn’t have my own room until I was ten, just about the age we start to repel our fathers. Instead, I slept in one of the two walk-in closets in my parents’ bedroom. Literally in a closet. A quarter of my junior mattress jutted out, but there was enough of a margin on one side to fit my Fisher Price record player and a bookshelf made of two cinder blocks and plywood. When I got my own room, my father and his friend Parviz put up the wallpaper. It was a pattern of red stars against a white background, and it featured a single band of repeating rainbows, high up, about five inches below the ceiling. What’s odd is that my father picked out that wallpaper pattern. He never entered my room once I got it, though; some primigenial abandonment instinct impelled him to his frigid study at nights, where, because it was mighty or penile, the Pepsi bin was still reserved for me and my scrap paper, and I had to knock before entering.
To our mothers, we daughters aren’t pretty enough. We don’t work hard enough. When our mothers think about us, it is in fear that we’ll get pregnant, ābestan (from the Old Persian ā-puça-tanu, “holding the body of the son”)—with a baby or, in my case, with AIDS. We are their half-ugly, half whores, depending on when they observe us. We are half a person. So we’re anxious and half-faced, kamrū, a slightly harder word requiring a half-inhale that comes out a sigh.
When we are not acting, when we are inside, we are all anxiety and despair. In public, outside, our uncovered half-face is unreachable because we’re scared. We’re scared of how people perceive us. Scared of losing whatever control we have. Let us not forget that we’re also meant to marry and to hold the bodies of many sons and as many expendable, half-formed daughters as it takes to make our mothers proud of our son production. My parents love to tell me that whenever a girl is born in Iran, the meddlesome aunties and grannies cluck, beh omid-e khodā ba’adísh pesar basheh: “Hopefully, the next one will be a boy.”
It will be rape, not sex, that creates these children. We must be scared of that, too. Sex cannot be enjoyed in full marriage, as it’s only for the production of children. (A man can have unlimited temporary marriages and enjoy sex that way.) My great-grandmother, who married at nine, couldn’t have enjoyed it. Both of my grandmothers, one married at thirteen, the other at sixteen (already an old maid, married off to a widower forty years her senior) certainly didn’t enjoy sex. Conquest of our husbands’ and daughters’ souls is our return for the conquest of our mothers and grandmothers, for the conquest of our own deforming bodies, which we have to present outside, somehow, again tomorrow. We forget that we have already been seen.
Persian lacks the word “already.” Its meaning is inherent to the present perfect and past perfect tenses. (Even in English there’s no significant difference between “I have already eaten” and “I have eaten.”) Every time my mother observes me, it is the first time she has ever observed me, which is why I can be both ugly and a whore in the course of a single day. Everything I’ve ever done, I’ve ever said or looked like is forgotten. She never already knows me.
For Iranian girls, because “already” does not exist, it’s forever the unquiet night before the first day of school.
Let that, therefore, be the first law of princesshood as I experienced it: there is no unified theory of matter. You change as you’re observed. Your matter—your admixture of hair, teeth, skin, organs—is nothing whole, nothing free, nothing to be cherished by anybody.
Many decades passed before I figured out the principles of conduct to which my parents would like me to adhere. I still fail. In their house, I am the only one who gets hurt. That is because my disturbance, my hurt, is necessary for the consistency of their viewpoint.
Let that be the second law of princesshood: as the daughter struggles both to appease and to reject her parents, only her energy is wasted; all progress for the child increases entropy for her and only for her within the family system.
I do not know who my parents disturbed before I came along. For a time, it was the feds, but that’s another essay.
I was never in want for anything, but I was expected to be prepared. My mother modeled for me the duality that Iranian girls are meant to mimic and Iranian boys are meant to respect: be the lion at home but the hind at large. Care nothing, know nothing, about who your child is, girl or boy, or what your husband does for a living. If there turns out to be a gap between your views and your husband’s or, later, your son’s, then pay it no mind and maintain that lack of curiosity. If there is so much as a perceptible slit between your views and your daughter’s, tell her, remind her, that she is a negation.
Let that be the third law of princesshood: an Iranian girl has the same mass but opposite charge of an Iranian boy.
Iranian girls like me are not expected to succeed through displays of public mastery: advanced degrees and high-paying jobs and fame. Yes, there are exceptions. Congratulations on your dental degree. We succeed through cunning. We distrust male guardianship. For a long time, we didn’t wish to abandon male guardianship for some universal sisterhood or, worse, independence, but things at last are changing.
This may sound Eastern, but our Iranian iteration of sonhood and daughterhood comes from Western Civ, with only a touch of the acidulation that characterizes our food. This is very old “wisdom,” more ancient than the “tiger mother” scheme, which was a cynical capitalization of American racism. Persians appear in ancient Greek literature as well as in the Hebrew Bible; contemporary Iranians have culled wisdom from both sources and mixed it with our own. For example, the psalms enjoin us to place our trust in neither princes nor men—women are wholly excluded—but the Lord, the paternal godhead.
In Avestan, the Old Persian language of sacred Zoroastrian texts which, unlike New Persian, is highly gendered, druj, a feminine noun signifying “deceit, falsehood,” is the antonym to the neuter noun ashā, the highest virtue: “truth.” Truth is a neutered vision of the world, essentially unstable, for it’s neither male nor female. Lies and deceit are female business. The New Persian word for lie is dorugh, from druj. Both words are cognate to the Icelandic draugur, “ghost,” the German trügen, “to deceive,” and the English “dream”. Women must lie, my mother taught me, in order to be perceived, to be felt. Like Scheherazade, they have to fabricate stories in order to survive.
“I’m an Iranian girl!” is what Zahra, half Iranian/half Iraqi, fully whorish, though we didn’t know this then, exclaimed on Halloween when we were six or seven. We made fun of her of that. She must have been wearing some sort of national costume, but we’re a nation of nations, with, famously—Americans love this!— a king of kings, so was she dressed as a Kurd? In a turquoise vest? Or as a Baloch, with those ruched, vermillion sleeves? In a Gulf costume, something a young bride might wear, milky, like the mouth of the Tigris?
Then in sixth grade, when we were sitting on the floor at Haleh’s house, eating dinner on a king-sized bedsheet, because our parents made us eat on the floor like in the old country, Zahra said, “Azar went to I-ran.” As if she were talking about yesterday’s jog: I ran. Like the ’80s pop song by A Flock of Seagulls. All of us, the girls and the boys, in sincere outrage, stopped chewing in shock at Zahra’s pronunciation. We don’t betray each other, not like that. In plain sight, Zahra brazenly revealed herself to be a treasonous whore. We pronounce “Iran” correctly because we are as proud as we are virtuous.
Maybe because we made fun of her and thereby betrayed her in return, or maybe because she was only half Iranian, Zahra ran away. She and her mother hardly speak. My mother reminds me of this whenever we gossip, which is every time I talk to my mother. My mother pities her— delam misuzeh “my heart chafes”—because Zahra failed to be half-faced, but I adore Zahra. I think she’s a receptionist at a big corporation in San Jose, California, the first person you meet when you walk through the double doors. She’s already there.
“Are you boy or girl?” a waitress asked of me when I was thirteen, at a 1950s rock-around-the-clock diner turned Chinese restaurant, while I ate sweet and sour chicken with my best Iranian girlfriend Marjan. Marjan, whore, laughed. She was delighted. I pulled down the rim of my Janet Jackson Rhythm Nation 1814 baseball cap and pouted. I insisted we leave a penny tip.
All of us, Iranian boys and girls, are imperial. A nation of nations, with a king over kings, we conquer, undemocratically. At parties, we dance solo surrounded by other girls, and later, on the pavement when we walk alone to our cars, we pound our boot heels hard. We only dance with girls at parties; we don’t look up as we walk down the street. We are nervous around men until, in private, we conquer them. Then we’re brutal.
That’s what I do.
Are other Eastern, non-Iranian boys are raised as girls, as their mother’s mirrors? Do they pass as girls?
Have I ever passed as a man?
“Dude, are you a she-male?” a pizza delivery employee asked me once over the phone while I was in college.
Today I get “yes, ma’am” on the phone less, but sometimes when I’m nervous, my voice will toot high above its regular strangled sound.
It’s not a woman’s voice. It’s the growl of a child, a girl, lodged in my throat. Iranians have no sense of time. That’s why we’re always late, yes, but that’s also how we conquer: slowly (though loudly). Again, look at Scheherazade. She was pure whore; her name is the Arabicization of chehre-zādeh, literally “born of beautiful face.” But she was clever. She told stories. She conquered time. She manipulated the sultan totally, and she was never caught, never killed.
Looking in the mirror, we are not beautiful.
My mother often says that I inherited her hair, which is mesl-e kos-e boz: like a goat’s vagina. My mother is an expert on caprine gynecology. When I was fourteen or so, she told me that she’s seen my joojool get hard, seft, contumacious, through my trousers, and if I ever found I couldn’t control it, I should fuck a goat. Not a sheep (they buck) or a pig (they squeal), but a great nanny goat.
“A Persian’s heaven is easily made,” wrote Thomas Moore. (Moore the raffish Irish poet, not More the venerated author of Utopia.) “’Tis but black eyes and lemonade.”
Strangely, my eyes are darker than both my parents’: oil-black, no telling the pupils from the irises. They are two night-mirrors. In Scheherazade’s time, a wife or concubine’s boudoir was called shabestān, with the famous—stan suffix, as in Afghanistan or Pakistan: the land of night.
We are colorists and hairists, and if I could not, cannot, pass as a boy, I can (despite my eyes) pass as white. That’s luck, according to Mother. Zahra has never passed. Marjan has, but she has the distinctive carriage of an Iranian whore: urgent, marred, funerary— a pretty dress spread on a chain-link fence at a tag sale. You can tell she’s not Italian, as she wishes she were. Actually, she is now that she’s married to an Italian, a man she conquered in fine whorish form, first by first stalking him then by making herself indispensable to him.
“You don’t look Iranian,” Iranians and non-Iranians alike say to me as compliments.
Of course there are many, many accomplished Iranian women. My great-grandmother, the nine-year-old bride, is one. She was trained to give sanitary abortions by her physician husband, and she continued to provide them even after the authorities were notified. (Abortion was legal in Iran for a small window in the 1970s.)
To return to quantum theory: it emerged by rejecting classical science, rejecting the rational, the old, eventually obvious first principles of Newtonian mechanics. Let us make the fourth and final law in our mirror: there are many extraordinary Iranian women who aren’t unstable, who aren’t quarks, who are more than ugly, more than whorish, more than a dental or pharmaceutical or law degree. An Iranian woman went into space, defying general relativity. Every woman who’s risked and lost her life in Iran since September 16, 2022 is extraordinary.
My father often says the genius behind cola drinks, behind Pepsi, is that anywhere you go in the world, you know what it will taste like. In one of those universes, there is my perfect cognate, and I don’t disappoint. In one of those universes, there aren’t two superpositioned selves, there aren’t parent observers who assert ownership over my tired body, but two people who know how to see, how to speak.
In one of those universes, I am the same everywhere and always. Free from observation, free from mirrors, free from princes. Of that I think am certain.
Spring / Summer 2023
The Iran Issue
Daniel Rafinejad taught Persian language and literature at Harvard University before devoting himself to full-time writing and translating. His work has appeared in Nowruz Journal, Longreads, Encyclopaedia Iranica, The International Encyclopaedia for the Middle Ages, as well as in the anthologies Pearls of Persia: The Philosophical Poetry of Nasir Khusraw and My Shadow is My Skin: Writings from the Iranian Diaspora. In early 2020, Danny was a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
Taravat Talepasand is an artist, activist, and educator whose labor-intensive Interdisciplinary painting practice questions normative cultural behaviors within contemporary power imbalances. As an Iranian-American woman, Talepasand explores the cultural taboos that reflect on gender and political authority. Her approach to figuration reflects the cross-pollination, or lack thereof, in our Western Society.