Chapter 43: No Need to Apologize
I had not heard from Somayeh Malekian for several years when in the spring of 2021 I got an email that began with an unnecessary apology.
“To be honest,” she began, “I have written several emails to you, and, of course they never reached you, because I have been writing them in my head. Not to bore you with unnecessary details, but I clearly remember a few of them as I wrote them on some special occasions.” And so on to the inevitable – “I am rambling a lot…”
Somayeh, really, it’s okay.
Writers apologize all the time. We apologize for delivering late, for exceeding the assigned length – sorry, I know you wanted 2500 words but I hope you’ll agree that it does need 5000 – and for having been out of touch. The first two merit an apology; the third does not.
Writers will vanish between assignments and often that is because they don’t have a story, or the story they thought had possibilities ended up going nowhere. But when they do surface – even after a long absence – it is because they feel, finally, they’re onto something.
When I get such notes I take a red pencil and slash out the apology to get to the good stuff. In this case, Somayeh had an idea rich with potential. Ideas that are preceded with an apology are often not fully formed which means the writer is asking, sheepishly, for help.
And that, I believe, is why God invented editors. To listen, react and, if there is indeed the seed of a story there, to encourage.
Her apology complete, Somayeh got to the heart of the matter. “And, this is what I am writing for. I am eager to talk to you about a book that an Iranian friend of mine and I have decided to write. This time I am dead serious.”
Somayeh is an Iranian journalist. In the spring of 2021, her situation in Tehran had become ever more untenable, given the harshness of the regime. She had moved to Turkey. But Iran beckoned, as it did for her writing partner – who, to ensure her safety, I will refer to by her pen name, Mahsa Afarideh. Their interest was not in the political story, nor in the economic or religious. It was their mothers.
Surely the most familiar journey stories are modeled on the one told by Homer in The Odyssey, of Telemachus' search for his father, Ulysses. Who is my parent? And by extension, who is my child?
Somayeh and Mahsa did not know what form their story would take. That does not matter, not in the early stages of a story when writers are still sorting out what they want to know. They knew only that they wanted to talk with mothers and daughters about one another. They wanted to start with their own mothers. I suggested, as is our practice at the Review, that they begin by sending me letters about those conversations.
We’d see where the story took them. Because stories, after all, have lives of their own.
So began their odyssey, one that took them back home, and back in time, to understand the relationships so formative in their own lives and the lives of the women they spoke with.
Their story is called Forgiveness and it appears in the new issue of The Delacorte Review. It takes the form of oral history, of mothers and daughters drawing on memories both good and troubling, to tell their stories in their own voices.
In a conversation that accompanies the story, Somayeh said of her own discovery: “There have been things that I never noticed before. There have been moments—that I would guess that something my mother was doing was out of jealousy. It was shocking because I would never expect my mother to be jealous of who I am or what I do or whatever I enjoy in life.
“But when I started to have these very, very long conversations, I could understand my mother better. I could understand where those feelings are coming from. I’m not saying that those feelings are not jealousy, I’m not saying that I was getting it totally wrong, but I can say that I understand my mother in those specific moments better now because I listened more thoroughly, more carefully, and I thought about it over and over, not just by a single observation. Not that I was totally naïve before, but writing about it, talking about it, kind of cleared my mind in some ways.”
That conversation with Somayeh and Mahsa appears in the print edition of the Review, which goes on sale next week. In the meantime, the story appears on our website as well as at ELLE.com whom we are delighted to be partnering with again.
Here is an excerpt. It is from Somayeh’s mother:
“I got married when I was 13. I had never seen my husband before we religiously became man and wife.
“I remember I had come back home from carpet weaving for the lunch break and was taking a short nap before leaving again. It was when my sister, Fatemeh, 15 years my senior, woke me up, saying “hey, you! Get up! Do you know it is all about you? We are marrying you off. We are going to send you out of the nest.“
“I remember the strange feeling in my stomach. I got up and quickly grabbed my chador and went to the carpet workshop. I told one of my mates there who was two or three years older than me. I told her what my sister had said. She soothed me saying this is what all of us had to do sooner or later.
“Two of my friends, Batoul and Zahra, from the carpet workshop, had gotten married before me. No matter how much the whole concept of marriage was shrouded in secrecy, it sounded like a duty to me. Everyone would do it, so I would accept it, too. It was up to my parents to decide. I was too shy to ask about any details like who the person is, or what I have to do. I had no one to ask. It was too much of a taboo for a girl to talk about.
“Once my friend Batoul got married, she stopped doing carpet weaving. After a few weeks, I missed her so much and asked my mom if there was a way to see her. Even if she was living like a few alleys from our house, I was not allowed to go there, I did not know why.
“When I told my other friend at the workshop that I had visited Batoul, she frowned at me with disgust. She asked if we have discussed what she does with her husband. She told me it was very inappropriate for a girl to visit a newly wedded woman.
“Then came the day that my in-laws to-be came to our home for the first time. They were served with tea and fruit and then the men of the family wrote the “marriage contract” and left. The contract would include what my mehrieh was, the amount of money that my husband had to pay me if he wanted to divorce me. I did not know about the amount either. No one asked me anything.
“A few days after the contract signing, we had the religious ceremony of getting married. I was extremely shy and could not look at his face. I would keep my face down not to look at him. I am sure he was the same. It was a strange feeling sitting beside a man whom I did not know at all. I did not raise my head even when I wanted to put the gift watch my mom had bought for him around his wrist. Of course I did not look at him either before or after he put a necklace around my neck.”
You can find the full story here.