In Concealed: Memoir of a Jewish-Iranian Daughter Caught Between the Chador and America, author Esther Amini takes a deep dive into her Jewish-Iranian roots to better understand her parents’ complicated, oppositional personalities and how their history influenced their behavior in America and their treatment and expectations of her.
Amini sought a way to accept parents who caused her to question not only her personal value, but also whether she should exercise her American freedoms or suppress the person she instinctively knew herself to be.
In the prologue, Amini introduces her father, Fatullah Nissan Aminoff, by relating a vivid memory from third grade. Amini’s school friend arrived for a playdate. “Estaire is not here!” her father announced to the friend, who stood with her eyes locked on Amini. Forcing the playmate to leave, Fatullah brushed past Amini, leaving her suffering in silent shame as she questioned whether she existed outside her own mind or was truly invisible.
Amini recalls wishing that her mother, Hana, had been home, believing that Hana would have shoved Fatullah aside, invited the friend in, and charmed her with homemade Persian pastries.
Amini closes the prologue by remarking: “By third-grade [sic], I was practicing shrinking, abiding by Pop’s rules to avoid his wrath. I ate little, spoke minimally, breathed soundlessly while my mother worked at becoming ever more visible, expanding to the point of bursting, no matter the consequence. I was the consequence.”
With this powerful scene, Amini throws open the door to her life in New York, the daughter of Jewish-Iranian immigrants who emigrated to America in 1946, escaping persecution in Mashad, Iran, one of the holiest Muslim cities. She illustrates her feelings about herself and toward her parents— embarrassment, shame, anger, confusion, love—so clearly and effectively that as I read, I became tearful, enraged, uncomfortable. Changed.
Amini described many of her memories so powerfully that I carry her stories and her pain, along with the effort it must have taken for her to seek understanding rather than distance, with me like they’re my own.
There’s Hana telling four-year-old Amini she would buy a doll Amini asked for at the store, then giving Amini an empty box, without explanation. This memory haunts Amini. Why would her mother do this? How could be so careless with Amini’s feelings?
One of Hana’s favorite stories to tell Amini can only be described as terrifying. With pride, Hana would relate how, at age four, she tried to drown her two-year-old half-brother, Solomon, whom she professed to adore, sitting on him as he thrashed and fought for air. When her stepmother heard the ruckus, she punished Solomon, not Hana. Even at age 70, Hana felt no remorse and applauded her stepmother’s response. Hana’s biological mother had abandoned her, dying during childbirth. She considered herself an orphan. Cheated. Owed.
Amini cannot accept that Hana really believed in her own entitlement to do whatever she wanted to whomever she wanted and receive total absolution and command unwavering devotion. But Hana’s pride in that story suggests she did.
Amini’s father, Fatullah, engaged in equally disturbing behavior. He screamed at her to stop reading, chided her for wanting an education. “Men marry beautiful women with smiling eyes, not shriveled eyes wedded to thoughts! Estaire, stop thinking. No man will marry you.” Describing his adoration for his own mother, a docile woman who was effectively muted by her husband’s demand for silence and submissiveness, Amini underscores that her father valued a closed mind and mouth as much as the Persian-Jewish suitors he presented her to for marriage. When Amini began attending Barnard, he refused to eat, dress, or go to work, creating an impossible choice: quit college or accept responsibility for his death.
Amini spent the better part of her life trying to be a dutiful Jewish-Iranian daughter while enjoying American freedom and opportunity. She struggled to relate to a father who forced her to hide herself in the same way he and her mother had been forced to hide as Jews in Mashad, and an outspoken mother who cursed her own lot—married off at age 14 to a man she despised—yet desired the same fate for Amini.
In her quest for understanding, Amini illuminates the oppressive, dangerous, and traumatic environment of Mashad, Iran for Persian Jews in the 1930s and 40s, yet so much of her parents’ behavior remains inexplicable. I did not finish Amini’s memoir satisfied that the struggles Amini’s parents faced fully explained them. Questions remain unanswered, among them the doll-less box, but readers will have to make peace with the unknowable. Amini seems to have.
Her commitment to finding a way to accept her parents’ values and expectations fills the white space between the words of her memoir. After being immersed for hours in Amini’s vivid recollections, readers may find themselves surprised, as I was, by her capacity for empathy.
Concealed: Memoir of a Jewish-Iranian Daughter Caught Between the Chador and America can be found here.
Natalie Metropulos is working concurrently on a middle-grade fiction chapter book and a nonfiction picture book series about wildlife photography. She holds a B.A. in English from the Pennsylvania State University and a JD from Duquesne University and is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University. Metropulos has been published (nee Natalie Rieland) in Kalliope, Research/Penn State Magazine, and Pitt Magazine.