LA novelist recalls life in her native Iran

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Parnaz Foroutan knows an Iran vastly different from the one-dimensional picture often painted on American TV screens. In “The Girl From the Garden,” her treatment of the complex relationship between the country’s Muslims and Jews is based on her lived experience: As the child of a Jewish Iranian mother and a Muslim Iranian father — she identifies as culturally Jewish and celebrates the holidays, but adopted the Baha’i faith as a young adult — she heard ugly stereotypes about both peoples.

“Essentially, both [groups] in Iran are raised from a very young age to be prejudiced against each other,” says Foroutan, a first-time novelist and winner of PEN USA’s Emerging Voices Award. “By Jewish law, I’m Jewish. By Muslim law, I’m Muslim. … I have a Jewish aunt who sits there and claims the only way we can have peace is if we eradicate all the Muslims off the planet. Dad told me growing up that he was told Jews kidnapped Muslim boys and used their blood to make [Passover] bread. … It was hard to hear that. I knew my dad wasn’t evil, and I knew my mom wasn’t evil.”

Parnaz Foroutan

In “The Girl From the Garden,” Foroutan draws on her family history to recreate the world of Iranian Jews in the early 1900s. The Los Angeles resident, who came to the United States in 1984 at age 7, sets the story of the prosperous Malacouti family against the tensions between their close-knit community and Iran’s Muslim majority, amid the social and political upheavals of the country’s Constitutional Revolution.

But the core of “The Girl From the Garden” is much less about large-canvas events and far more about intimacy. Foroutan shifts fluidly between the world of Mahboubeh, an elderly Iranian Jewish woman in contemporary L.A. whose present-day garden transports her back to the lush, walled paradise of the family home in Iran, as well as that of Mahboubeh’s aunt, Rakhel, the barren, neglected first wife of Asher Malacouti. “Most of my relatives,” Foroutan says, “come from a culture where if a woman couldn’t get pregnant, her husband took a second wife.”

Foroutan, who is married and the mother of daughters, ages 6 and 3, says, “The book sort of follows the timeline of my wanting a child and getting pregnant, and I had a really difficult pregnancy… So much of the characters’ experience focuses around motherhood and loss.”

Her sense of the “isolation of motherhood” mingled with stories handed down to her provide the germ of the novel. “There’s this story in my family that I heard growing up my whole life,” she says. “The elders would sit around and tell about ‘Dada,’ ” which means “older sister,” she says. “In their story, she’s like this evil, horrible, domineering matriarch of the home they grew up in. Nobody knew who she was as a young woman. The only thing they knew was that she couldn’t get pregnant.”

Foroutan’s novelist’s hands shaped this distant figure into Rakhel, a multilayered protagonist, at once a sensitive, inquisitive, impulsive teenager constrained by tradition and a humiliated bride whose destiny is tied to her ability to bear children.

In the book, Asher Malacouti becomes entranced with his cousin’s disgraced but beautiful wife and brings her into his home in hope of siring the son Rakhel cannot give him. That act is one of many strands that tie the novel’s characters together and lead to personal and collective loss.

Foroutan also incorporated another family story into her novel. “My great-grandfather was beaten by a mob of Muslim men, probably because his body touched a man in the street in passing,” she says. “The mob took him to a mullah, the religious leader, and that mullah saved his life. …When everyone left, he risked his own reputation, and maybe his own life, and took him home and saved him from the mob’s rage.”

Much of Foroutan’s book deals with how lives — particularly the lives of women — can be suffocatingly circumscribed, how a woman can be seen solely as a womb, and how it feels to be an outsider.

Most of her mother’s 400 relatives settled in the now-heavily Iranian Beverly Hills, but for some reason her parents chose the L.A. suburbs, where they were one of two Iranian families in town.

“Everyone was blond-haired and blue-eyed and Republican.” She looks back at herself as “a Semitic-looking kid with dark hair and dark skin and a relatively large nose,” who at first “didn’t speak a word of English.” Feeling completely at home in neither the United States nor Iran — where she returned for 11 months when she was in her 20s — she sees herself as an “orphan of all countries.”

Foroutan also notes that Iranians of all faiths in L.A. tend to describe themselves as “Persian.” “They’re trying to distance themselves from politics, almost hiding behind the word. It does things to the community when you’re ashamed to say who you are.”

She sees the contemporary Western world’s treatment of women’s bodies as not that different from that in Iran a century ago. “[In the Eastern world] there is a lot of oppression, but I don’t know how well we’re faring in the West,” she says. “So much of my worth, especially in L.A., is placed on my physical appearance, how sexy I am. … ‘Do I look young enough? Do I fit in?’ How is that different from being seen only as a womb? I’m reduced only to my sexual being…[Women] are not yet allowed to be fully human anywhere…I’m hoping some woman in Texas reads this and feels a connection to what she’s reading.”

Parnaz Foroutan will read from “The Girl From the Garden” (Ecco, 288 pages) at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug 20 at Mrs. Dalloway’s, 2904 College Avenue, Berkeley,, and at 6 p.m. Sept. 1 at Copperfield’s Books, Hopmunk Tavern, 230 Petaluma Ave., Sebastopol.