Anne Stinson - October 2007
Turning a Deaf Ear on an Iraqi Woman's Despair
Caspian Rain, by Gina Nahai. MacAdam Cage, publishers. ISBN-13: 978-1-59692-251-8. 290 pages. $25.
Iran seems to be the focus of scrutiny these days, both for its audacity in developing nuclear power and twin iniquity of allegedly aiding and abetting Iraqi sectarian militias. The novel Caspian Rain, however, is concerned with domestic life set in a time when then-called Persia was defined as somewhere between the reign of the Shah and the present.
The story’s conflicts involve domestic policy, not international politics. Custom and Islamic law are the handcuffs that imprison women even when their husbands are sensitive, honorable men. The same boundaries prevent a haven for women married to brutes, and the book includes examples of both situations as well as others nuanced somewhere between the extremes.
The narrator of this tale of an extended family is the child, Yaas, the daughter of an Iraqi Jewish mother and an Islamic Iraqi father. At the time of their mixed marriage, the reader learns, the Shah had dampened the power of the mullahs and opened society to more tolerant western ways.
When the Shah became ill, the mullahs took advantage of the opportunity to overthrow his regime and exert their control again.
Yaas’s mother is named Bahar and she’s neither beautiful nor brilliant. She attracted the wealthy young suitor Omid by her high spirits and his immature rebellion against his parents. It was a match doomed to failure.
Omid’s parents give the newlyweds a house in a run-down part of the city and the young couple seem happy for a time. Bahar loves having enough money for flashy clothes, but her humble family background has not prepared her for appropriate manners or dress. Her new in-laws are rude and insulting to the bride and her family.
And her family is not a source of pride. Bahar’s oldest brother was killed at the age of 10 when his bicycle was hit by a car. Family members see his ghostly form on a bicycle many times, but never ask him into the house. Somehow, Yaas’s impression is that the family is hiding some shame about his death. Bahar has two older brothers; one fancies himself an opera singer, never works and hangs around cafes in the theater section of the city. The youngest brother decided early on that there was not much future in being poor and Jewish, so he converted to Islam and married a rich mullah’s daughter.
Bahar is the youngest of three sisters. The oldest is an old maid of nearly thirty who lives at home and bears the wrath of her parents for not finding a husband. The middle sister has a husband who may or may not be a real doctor - he barely made it into medical school, but her parents like having a son-in-law to call “doctor.” It’s unfortunate that he has a fearful temper and beats his wife until she’s almost unconscious in front of their two children.
“After every beating, he takes her onto the roof of their house and locks her up in a room with a broken window through which a hundred pigeons fly in and nest. It’s a drafty, frightening place - too cold in winter and dangerously hot in summer. He keeps his wife tied to a pole, has a padlock on the door and the key in his pocket,” Nahai writes. Twice a day he sends his children to the roof with food for their mother and after a few days, when the house is dirty and he misses her cooking, he sends for her parents. He gives them the key and sends them to the roof to bring her down. She’s mortified to have her children and her parents see her with matted hair from bird droppings and filthy clothes. Her parents are dismissed and she must clean the house and fix a meal before she’s allowed to bathe.
Bahar is delighted to escape such a dysfunctional family with her new husband, although it’s not a love match. Omid lives his own life out of the house and Bahar is lonely. The birth of a daughter provides her only company, and, as expected, both Omid and his parents are disgusted that she has not brought forth a son.
Yaas, the daughter, goes with her mother every Friday night for the ritual Jewish family dinner with the grandparents. She grows up as a lonely only child and when school starts, she feels alienated by her classmates because she has trouble learning. Her mother, Bahar, is infuriated when a teacher contacts her to complain that Yaas doesn’t pay attention to her lessons. Omid’s parents also insult mother and daughter for the child’s dullness.
Things only get worse as the years pass. In her solitude, Yaas finds diversion when an old couple returns from South America after years in hiding as former Nazis. Heretofore, her only spark of interest is watching on Friday nights for the Ghost Boy, her mother’s dead brother. He rides his bicycle to the grandparents’ house and parks outside to look in the windows.
Now Yaas can look out her own window to watch the old couple across the street. Their unmarried daughter has come with them and hangs out a sign offering tango lessons to the public.
The dance teacher never attracts a student, but she dresses in flamboyant costumes and plays tango music so loudly that it disturbs the neighborhood’s afternoon naps. Eventually, the old couple dies and the daughter takes in a ragtag trio of men as boarders, further scandalizing the street by having unmarried men in the same house with a young woman.
Poor Yaas. To make matters worse, her father has fallen madly in love with another woman and rarely comes home at all. The new mistress is quite beautiful and lives openly with a very rich man who travels and leaves her behind for months at a time. Their liaison is of long-standing and he provides her with a house or a suite in the best hotel in Tehran when his business takes him away.
Yaas’s mother is devastated at Omid’s infidelity and so are his parents, but he doesn’t seem to be able to end the affair. He makes an attempt to break it off and takes his wife and daughter on holiday to the Caspian Sea but abandons them shortly.
Yaas’s teachers demand a conference with both parents to discuss their daughter’s lack of progress. She must see a physician, they insist, to find the problem, since Yaas is obviously not stupid. Unwilling to accept the doctor’s declaration that Yaas is rapidly losing her hearing, they take her from doctor to doctor, always with the same diagnosis.
Hearing aids? Never! they declare. The family maid, having an affair herself with one of the bachelors across the street, beseeches him to find hearing aids for the poor child, whose parents have taken her out of school for the shame of being different.
Yaas, of course, is enchanted that she can hear all the sounds she has forgotten until, alas, the battery runs out and she sinks into silence again. To induce the bachelor to find her another hearing aid, she cuts off her red curls, knowing that the bachelor bribes keepers at the morgue to let him cut off the long hair of female corpses. His job is selling human hair to the local wigmaker.
Bahar is aghast at her daughter’s act, swearing that now all hope of finding her a husband is lost. Bahar is also more embittered that her sister, the one married to the doctor, has committed suicide in despair at the cruelty of her husband. To top it all off, Omid has left for America with his mistress, resigned to a life of sharing her with her older lover.
In a shocking incident, Yaas realizes that the phantom Ghost Boy is not a mirage. He’s been watching her, trying to tell her that he, too, was deaf and couldn’t hear the warning calls that a car was bearing down on him and his bicycle.
Does Yaas survive the house fire she sets to cleanse the curse of a family in denial? And does the glowing, golden rain falling into the Caspian signify a return of hope that things will be better?
As the narrator confides near the end of the book, “Did I tell you that in Farsi the word “despair” is spelled Yaas?” Depending on which “a” is accented, it can mean despair or the scent of jasmine.
Given the tenor of the novel, I doubt the jasmine connection.
If any female reader needs a cautionary tale, the moral of this story is clear. Don’t marry a Muslim and move with him to his native land.