When Pari Was A Bride
By Susan Sasson
She was twenty-one years old. Too old, she thought, to ever get married now. Quite sure she would languish forever in her parents’ home, waiting for a man to come and choose her. Very worried that 1953 would turn to 1954, and 1954 slink into 1955, and there she—Pari—would still be, living with her mother and father in their apartment in Tehran.
She had good reason to give up hope. Her older sister had married at sixteen, a younger one at eighteen. Her mother, Gohar. had stood under the chuppah, the marriage canopy, at seventeen, and was engaged for who-knows-how-long before that.
Pari had heard the story of her mother's marriage so often, it had become legend. It was the only story her mother told about her own life. All the other stories belonged to the men, who were out in the world, not at home, moving about, doing things, having adventures, making things happen. Gohar had told the story so often as they cooked the dinner together—adding bits of lamb to the lentil stew, exclaiming over the luxury of the meat— that Pari knew the story by heart.
How when Gohar was sixteen years old she was set to marry Davoud, a neighbor boy, now Pari’s father, someone Gohar had known her whole life. How the day before the wedding, Gohar had stood on the roof of her father’s house in Kermanshah hanging out that week’s wash. How she lost her footing and tumbled, like a bird with a broken wing, two stories to the ground. How bad luck caused her to land face down on the stony courtyard floor, smashing her chin up the side of her face. How she had to stay, recovering, in the British hospital outside Kermanshah, for months. How Davoud waited. How he waited! When Gohar returned home she discovered that someone— she always suspected her jealous unmarried sister— had stolen the rough linens she had embroidered with bright colors and birds and flowers for her trousseau, a round Sabbath cloth, curtains for wall alcoves, embroidered amulets to guard against the evil eye. How Gohar had to begin all over again. But even with those hardships and delays, even though Gohar’s smile had forever after turned up more on the right side of her face than the left, Pari mused, her mother was under the chuppah by age seventeen and bore her first daughter by eighteen.
When Pari turned eighteen in 1950, the family left the city of Kermanshah in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains, where they had lived for generations. Like so many others from the smaller towns and cities—not just Kermanshah, but Hamadan and Shiraz and Yazd— they followed the allure of new jobs and opportunities in the fast-growing capital. Pari’s father had opened a little shop where he resold medicines brought from France, hoping to flourish in modern Tehran. The family for the first time rented an apartment with indoor plumbing. But in Tehran they no longer lived near so many others like themselves, and they didn’t know families with boys for Pari to marry.
Pari tried to busy herself about the apartment, to help with a willing spirit. But her mother told her all day long to do this and do that, to clean the rice and cut the vegetables and wring out the clothes and hang them up to dry. As if Pari did not know well how to do it. As if she didn’t know as well as her own mother. When the family went out, each sister, older and younger, had a man beside her. But Pari still went accompanied by her parents. She couldn’t go anywhere by herself. As if she were still a child.
Oh how she wanted to get out of her mother’s house.
One day, Mrs. Shayani, an acquaintance of Pari’s mother, visited. Mrs. Shayani and Gohar sat in the front room and drank tea, ate fruit. They talked and nodded their heads and wagged their fingers. After some time, Gohar walked into the hall and called for Pari to come from the bedroom. Mrs. Shayani had a good look at the girl, at her thick, bushy black hair cropped just above her shoulders in the new fashion. At the girl’s unblinking, dark brown eyes shaded by thick eyebrows. At her round figure, ripe for children. At her clean hands and nails. At her clear complexion, without a blemish. Then she looked up, her gaze shifting from Pari back to the mother.
“I have a husband for you,” she said.
Now here he was. The potential husband, sitting— lounging, really— Pari thought with a silent giggle, in the wood-framed armchair in her family’s sitting room.
He remembers she wore a blue dress the day he went to her family’s apartment in Tehran to meet her. Blue, his favorite color! A particularly vibrant yet soothing shade that made the brown hues of her eyes and her olive skin shine like amber.
She remembers he was handsome and good-natured. Tall. His dark eyes hard to read, sometimes piercing, sometimes laughing. Also that he had a good job. An assistant in an electronics shop!
He remembers that she wasn’t done up, like so many girls in that city in those days. She didn’t wear any make-up. She had her hair down.
She remembers that he was polite. That he came to her home and greeted her parents, each in turn, then her brother, then herself.
“Salaam, I am Ardalan, how are you? Very pleased to meet you. I hope you are in good health,” he said to each of them, bobbing his head, kissing the men on each cheek, nodding with a slight bow to the women.
“Please, sit down,” Davoud said, ushering Ardalan into the room. Unlike his wife and daughter, Davoud was tall. Like them, a little round. His droopy eyelids made him look forever sleepy. He waved Ardalan to a chair.
Ardalan sat all the way back in the round, hard armchair next to the settee. He rested both his arms on the chair’s arms. Easy and comfortable, Pari thought, when she brought in the tray of tea and dried dates.
Gohar handed out the tea. The family sipped in silence. “So nice to meet you, Ardalan," Gohar said after a bit. "Mrs. Shayani spoke well of you. Tell us about yourself, your job, your family.”
He was the new apprentice to Mr. Shayani, he said. Working in Shayani’s shop in town, and very grateful for the opportunity.
“How long have you worked there?”
“Just over two months,” Ardalan said.
“What do you do for him?”
“Everything. Sell radios and tape recorders, old and new. Take orders. Stock shelves. Repair broken machines.” In particular, he liked to fix the radios, he said. “Turn them around like new. It is not an exaggeration. I can fix any radio. Any problem.” He bent over, picked up the glass of tea, and took a sip.
“The tea is wonderful, thank you,” he said, nodding to the mother while stealing a glance at Pari, smiling at her.
"May I ask what they pay you?” Gohar said, betraying no expression.
“Ah,” he said and smiled again, in part to be agreeable and in part to use up time. “They pay enough so that I can spare some coins each week for the beggar woman on the corner.”
Gohar took another sip of her tea and noted the color was good. Pari had made it well, nice and dark. She glanced at Davoud. His head was tilted down towards his lap. She couldn’t tell if he was sleeping.
“Would you like more tea?” she asked Ardalan.
“Oh, no, I’m fine, thank you,” he said. Gohar nodded towards the cups and to Pari, who stood up and took the glasses to the samovar in the kitchen, to refill and bring back.
“What is your father’s trade?” Gohar asked Ardalan.
“I never knew my father, may he rest in peace. He died when I was small. My family keeps his business in Sanandaj, Kurdistan. My four brothers operate the store there together.”
“And your mother, she is well?”
“Yes, quite well. Thank you. My mother is my life. I would give my eyes for her.”
“Where do you live now?”
He rented a room in the old Jewish quarter of Tehran, he said. He ate his dinners in the restaurant downstairs. (He was married to that restaurant back then, he later said.)
“And why have you come to Tehran?”
“Like everyone else, to make my fortune,” and Ardalan shifted his gaze to Davoud, who looked up, pursed his lips, and nodded.
All through the conversation, Ardalan looked at Gohar with steady eyes and answered her questions, but he shifted his gaze sometimes to Pari in her light blue dress. He seemed to wink. Did he wink? Pari wondered, and he smiled, he definitely smiled, she was sure she had not imagined that. As if he had already made up his mind, as if this interrogation were a little game. As if he were sure he would get through the mazes and traps and obstacles all mothers presented. As if Pari were not just the prize but also an accomplice. She liked that. She felt a tingle of excitement. At first, when he arrived, she had not known whether to be scared or intrigued by the intensity of his eyes. So dark, their expression could not be read. But his eyes softened when he focused on her, and she decided that was good, a man who could be tough and gentle at once. She hoped he would take her, because of that beguiling secret twinkle in his eye and because she might never have another chance. She smiled back.
Ardalan answered all the family questions with a smile. His grin went outwards almost to his ears, Pari noticed. His moustache turned up at the edges in an almost comic way. His beard twitched.
Gohar didn’t like his beard. She said this to Pari and Davoud after Ardalan had left, as mother and daughter cleared up the tea. In fact, Gohar said, handing a dish to Pari to dry, she wasn’t sure she liked the whole situation. “He is very provincial. His town, Sanandaj, is very provincial, much more so than Kermanshah, our old town. Kermanshah is a proper city. Part of the world, in the foothills of the mountain. Sanandaj is isolated, near the mountaintop. How would that man ever survive the tough business world of Tehran? The fast-paced, ever-changing bustle of the capital with all these different sorts of people?" She shook her head. “Without a penny to his name. All alone, his family many hundreds of miles away. And no father.” She sighed with the pity of it as she shook water from the dish.
“I also grew up without my father,” Davoud said, calling out from the next room where he still sat. “Remember when my father died and we were so very young? None of us had a penny to our name. Not your family, or mine.”
“True,” Gohar said, stepping to the doorway that divided them. “True. In those days, that was the norm. For everybody. Everybody lost family. Everybody struggled and barely got by. But times have changed.”
And so, when Ardalan came to visit the family a second time, and a third a few days later, and a few days after that, Gohar still did not serve any sweets, did not offer that sign of acceptance and encouragement from a bride's family. She sat, severe and silent, watching the two young people exchange shy glances, not asking any more questions.
But he came again, every other night for a week. There really was no getting rid of him. It was Davoud who asked Pari how she felt about the young man who came so often to visit. It was Davoud who told Gohar that Pari was happy to have him, and they should be, too. “He is a good man, I think,” Davoud said. “Good enough.”
So they invited Ardalan for dessert, for shirini khoran, and Gohar spent a day in the kitchen making rosewater candies and saffron cookies sprinkled with pistachios and zulubia, instructing Pari how to dribble the honeyed dough into hot oil and pull it out as the edges turned orange, before it burned. When Ardalan arrived that evening, Davoud ushered the couple to chairs, one next to the other, like a king and queen. Gohar offered the sweet feast on a large platter, heaped high.
“A sweet, sweet day,” Davoud said, “as we invite you to our family, if you so wish. May you be blessed with good health and prosperity.” Davoud smiled and kissed Ardalan on both cheeks. Pari’s brother, Nourala, smiled and kissed Ardalan, too. Ardalan thanked them and smiled, his grin broad, his dark eyes catching the light. Mr. Shayani, whom Ardalan had brought to stand in for his own too-far-away family, smiled. Pari smiled. Her sisters smiled. But Gohar still did not smile. She leaned over and cleared the tray, her gaze steady.
A week later, the family gathered again for the engagement. An engagement requires a gift of value. Most men bring jewelry, a gold necklace, a bracelet, maybe a pair of earrings. Ardalan brought a live turkey.
He brought the turkey in a cardboard box that had once held supplies at the store. Gohar peeked through a hole punched in the box for air, and saw the bird. She turned to her future son-in-law, smiled, and kissed him on both cheeks. Food for a week! She would love him forever. She left the bird in the small kitchen in the back— the box occupied almost half the floor space— until the shochet could give it a kosher slaughter, slit its neck, salt and soak it.
Pari pouted, standing alone in the hallway. Gohar pulled her into the kitchen, next to the turkey squawking in the box. The mother stood there, four feet ten inches tall, and stared at her daughter, who was just a little taller. Stared her straight in the eye. “Put a smile on your face,” Gohar told her daughter. “A turkey is much better than a bracelet. A bracelet is just a pretty thing. Not at all useful.”
The wedding was set for two weeks later.
Gohar bought Pari a few necessities for her new home and for her trousseau, bed linens and towels, a tablecloth or two. One day she splurged and bought a sewing machine.
“Did you make all the arrangements?” Pari asked Ardalan when he came to visit the next time. She thought that was the sort of question a bride might ask her fiancé, or a wife her husband. They were to enter a life together, make plans together. So wasn’t it proper to ask? Even though it was left to the man, who would pay, to make the arrangements, it seemed a natural topic.
Also, she could not think of what else to ask him. She had only known him for three weeks.
They sat together in the front room of Pari’s parents’ apartment. Ardalan sat in the curved wood-framed armchair, the tea cooling on the wood-and-glass table. Pari sat on the stiff settee that was covered in scratchy white fabric. Gohar sat next to her. A couple could never be alone, engaged or not, until they were married. If she and Ardalan went out together, Nourala, came along. If they were in the house, her mother sat with them or checked on them.
They had gone out to dinner once, and once to the movies with her brother, but Ardalan had arrived late to take her, very late, three hours after he had said, and Pari was tired, very tired, and had fallen asleep in the dark of the movie house. She had been a little annoyed, as much that she was tired as that he had not been on time. Ardalan explained that he’d been delayed at work. Since she had fallen asleep, she hadn’t seen any of the movie. So she couldn’t talk to him about the story or the actors, the scenery or the costumes. And now that they were engaged, she didn’t want to probe into his family, didn’t want to discover secrets that might make her doubt, or suggest she didn’t trust him. He was in business. He had a good job. And he would take her away from her parents’ home.
So Pari leaned back in the sofa and looked into Ardalan’s eyes and asked him about the wedding arrangements. She felt a brush on her arm, felt her mother squirm in the seat next to her, realized that her mother thought this question inappropriate and bold.
But why shouldn’t she be bold? Pari thought. Maybe her mother was too old-fashioned. After all, her mother had been born into a world where women still wore the veil. Her mother had kept her white chador, the one she had worn as a young woman on the streets of Kermanshah, had packed it and brought it with her to Tehran, still kept it in her drawer, twenty years after the mandatory unveiling. Pari and her sisters often laughed at their mother. As if she would ever need that chador again! But Gohar told them she had lived a long time, through many changes. She kept the chador for the same reason that she forever kept a small hamsa amulet on her bedroom wall. Just in case.
Pari had never owned or worn a chador. Like other young women, she wore short dresses just past the knee in the streets now. Sometimes sleeveless, even. With fitted tops and waists that showed off the figure. Just like in any European nation.
And Pari was educated! Her mother had grown up in a time before girls went to school. Had never learned to read and write. But she, Pari, had attended school for ten years, through the ninth grade. Why, she had more education than this husband-to-be of hers, this businessman, who had only studied through sixth grade. Times have changed, Pari thought. It is 1953 and women are free.
Plus, she was engaged to be married. No longer a child. So Pari ignored her mother’s discomfort and her mother’s slight kick to her shin. Ardalan smiled when Pari asked whether he had made the arrangements. His bushy moustache curved up at the ends and his eyes twinkled. He leaned forward in the chair towards Pari and her mother. Looked first at the mother and then at the daughter. “Of course. Of course,” he said. “Leave it to me.”
The day before her wedding Pari went to the baths, where the bandandaz removed the hair from her arms and legs with a string and thinned her eyebrows.
The day before his wedding, Ardalan shaved his beard. A clean face. A new start.
The evening of the wedding, Ardalan had to work late. It was April, spring, the weather good, no more snow, not much rain. People were out. The store got very busy. Customer after customer came in, the last one in no hurry to leave. When Ardalan finally closed up the shop, pulling down the metal grate over the door and locking it, his watch showed one hour after the wedding was to start.
He wore the same double-breasted blue suit he had worked in all day, his only suit. He didn’t have money for a new one. He also didn’t have money to hire proper servers for the wedding dinner.
As he closed up the shop, Ardalan saw Soleman the Shoeshiner sitting outside, and remembered that he had not yet hired a man to serve the tea at the wedding. Such a busy day! No time to make all the arrangements.
(“What do you mean?” Pari would say many years later, when the marriage had settled into routine. “No time? You had all week. Two weeks, really.” She would feel annoyed all over again, about his lateness and about the arrangements, even though she had never doubted he would come. “After work,” he had promised. After work he had come. “So the time was not exact,” he will answer her on that future day, his grey mustache pulled into a grin, recalling their wedding. “What does one hour or two or even three hours matter?”)
But back on that April day, the wedding day, an hour after it was to start, and before fetching the bride and her family from their home, Ardalan saw Soleman the Shoeshiner sitting in the street outside the store in his usual spot. The shoeshiner sat on the paved gray concrete sidewalk, huddled on the ground. Most people did not pay attention to Soleman. Once in a while, someone stopped and stood with dirty shoes before him, and Soleman crouched on his haunches and, with his dirty rag, wiped the shoes clean. Then, his nose almost touching the ground, he rubbed on polish that smelled like turpentine. For this seven-minute service he earned a few coins, which he received always with a polite nod. Then the shoeshiner would sit back again, on the dusty, urine- stained sidewalk, leaning against the store walls, between the gaps of the store windows, where the downward gutters on rainy days emptied a foot above the narrow sidewalk.
Ardalan bent down to Soleman and asked, “Do you want a job for tonight?” Soleman did. and he stood up, although he found it hard to stand straight after sitting and working stooped for so long. “Take this cloth and wipe your hands with it,” Ardalan said. He gave Soleman his handkerchief, but the polish stains and the turpentine smell would not rub off.
All that night in Ardalan’s tiny apartment, before the wedding and during the dinner the restaurant sent up for the guests—for Pari’s family and Ardalan’s mother from Kurdistan—Soleman served tea, with a towel over his shoulder and a dishcloth draped over the worst specks of shoe polish on his hands. His hair, uncut, straggled down his neck and a few long strands fell over his eyes, the ends tinged with shoe polish. All night long, tea tray in hand, he flipped his head back to fling back the hair that kept falling in his face. When he spilled tea, he wiped it up with the polish-stained palms of his hand.
But Soleman was delighted with his job. He practically danced through the small room as if he were the captain of a king’s banquet.
The belly dancer Ardalan had hired was so fat that her belly oozed out of her pink pantaloons and obscured her movements. She was so old that she danced with a limp.
Pari did not have a ring for Ardalan. After the sewing machine purchase, there wasn’t enough money left for a ring. But a sewing machine was much better. More useful. Plus, a man didn’t need a wedding ring, but Pari wanted him to have one, just like her. So for that day they borrowed Nourala’s ring. Nourala was built like Pari, round and stocky. His ring proved too big for Ardalan. Ardalan could fit two fingers inside it. He had to keep his hand upright all night so it did not fall off.
During dinner, Gonce, Ardalan’s mother, got up from her place at the table and came over to Pari. Small and weathered, with two long braids that hung down her back, she stood before Pari, and from the pocket of her long, formless dress pulled out a piece of gold cellophane. She licked it with her tongue and placed it on Pari’s forehead. “Gold,” she said, “I give you gold for your wedding.” Then she bent her head forward, bowing at each sentence, “May you and your husband always prosper,” she chanted. “May you find happiness in each other. May you have good health and bring forth many children.”
Pari felt her mother-in-law’s spit sting her forehead like a mosquito bite. As if the spot with the gold cellophane swelled threefold. She sat in her chair wearing her white gloves and her jaunty cap that held her lace veil, which fell down her back like long hair, and in the long white gown with the sweetheart neck, which she and her mother together had sewed on the sewing machine from a picture in a magazine. And she blushed.
She did not want to, but she blushed. In front of her new mother-in-law. In front of her parents. In front of her sisters and their husbands and her well-to-do brother. In front of her new husband. How embarrassed she was, and how embarrassed for Gonce. These country words. These country habits. In this modern city. In these modern times. Paper gold felt like child’s play. Like the poverty from the old days her parents had worked so hard to leave behind. She glanced at her mother and father and was amazed to see them smiling and happy, clapping and nodding their heads with each blessing that Gonce bestowed. She looked at her new husband, smiling, too. She blushed, and then felt ashamed of blushing.
This day was her past and her future together, she reminded herself. A marriage breaks with the past to build a new home, a new life. That is one reason why, under the chuppah, a groom breaks a glass at the end of the marriage ceremony. They had all come from similar roots, her family too, and her own mother still held old superstitions. But the future was hers. She had control of her future with this new start, with this good-natured man who sat next to her.
She had been annoyed with him for arriving late. She was annoyed with the shoeshiner. But she remembered that her own mother’s marriage had been postponed for many months, not just a few hours, had truly been in jeopardy. Her own mother’s situation had been much worse than Pari’s. And just one month ago, Pari herself had thought she would never have a husband or her own home.
She looked at this family, all of it, who wished her well, and turned to her new husband. Still red-faced and with the gold foil still stinging her forehead, her face softened and she forced herself to laugh. Because, after all, she had made sure that the future was hers.
A good friend had told Pari how a bride under the chuppah could gain the upper hand in the marriage. As she had dressed earlier in the day, Pari wasn’t sure she would have the courage.
But then Ardalan was late, and had brought the shoeshiner, and Pari felt sure she could have arranged it all better. As she had stood next to Ardalan, side by side with him, while the rabbi chanted the sheva brachot, the seven marriage blessings, while she and Ardalan shared the sacramental kiddush wine with all their family gathered in a tight circle around them, she had gained the courage. At the conclusion of the ceremony, as Ardalan raised his right foot to break the ceremonial glass, she hoisted the hem of her long white velvet gown, and lifted her foot, too. When he brought his foot down on the glass, she thumped hers down on top of his.
Copyright © Susan Sasson 2014
Susan Sasson is at work on a novel, inspired by the stories of her husband’s Mizrachi community. They share universal Jewish experiences and values, retaining a sense of humor and love of life despite hardship. Born in England and raised in California, the author holds an MFA in Creative Writing from St. Mary’s College of California, as well as public policy and English degrees from UC Berkeley and UCLA respectively. A companion piece to the story above appeared in jweekly.com.