FROM “AFGHAN SONGBIRD,” AN INTERVIEW WITH NILA WAHDATI BY ÉTIENNE BOUSTOULER, Parallaxe 84 (Winter 1974), p. 38
EB: Did you learn your French here?
NW: My mother taught me in Kabul when I was little. She spoke only French to me. We had lessons every day. It was very hard on me when she left Kabul.
EB: For France?
NW: Yes. My parents divorced in 1939 when I was ten. I was my father’s only child. Letting me go with her was out of the question. So I stayed, and she left for Paris to live with her sister, Agnes. My father tried to mitigate the loss for me by occupying me with a private tutor and riding lessons and art lessons. But nothing replaces a mother.
EB: What happened to her?
NW: Oh, she died. When the Nazis came to Paris. They didn’t kill her. They killed Agnes. My mother, she died of pneumonia. My father didn’t tell me until the Allies had liberated Paris, but by then I already knew. I just knew.
EB: That must have been difficult.
NW: It was devastating. I loved my mother. I had planned on living with her in France after the war.
EB: I assume that means your father and you didn’t get along.
NW: There were strains between us. We were quarreling. Quite a lot, which was a novelty for him. He wasn’t accustomed to being talked back to, certainly not by women. We had rows over what I wore, where I went, what I said, how I said it, who I said it to. I had turned bold and adventurous, and he even more ascetic and emotionally austere. We had become natural opponents.
She chuckles, and tightens the bandanna’s knot at the back of her head.
NW: And then I took to falling in love. Often, desperately, and, to my father’s horror, with the wrong sort. A housekeeper’s son once, another time a low-level civil servant who handled some business affairs for my father. Foolhardy, wayward passions, all of them doomed from the start. I arranged clandestine rendezvous and slipped away from home, and, of course, someone would inform my father that I’d been spotted on the streets somewhere. They would tell him that I was cavorting—they always put it like that—I was “cavorting.” Or else they would say I was “parading” myself. My father would have to send a search party to bring me back. He would lock me up. For days. He would say from the other side of the door, You humiliate me. Why do you humiliate me so? What will I do about you? And sometimes he answered that question with his belt, or a closed fist. He’d chase me around the room. I suppose he thought he could terrorize me into submission. I wrote a great deal at that time, long, scandalous poems dripping with adolescent passion. Rather melodramatic and histrionic as well, I fear. Caged birds and shackled lovers, that sort of thing. I am not proud of them.
I sense that false modesty is not her suit and therefore can assume only that this is her honest assessment of these early writings. If so, it is a brutally unforgiving one. Her poems from this period are stunning in fact, even in translation, especially considering her young age when she wrote them. They are moving, rich with imagery, emotion, insight, and telling grace. They speak beautifully of loneliness and uncontainable sorrow. They chronicle her disappointments, the crests and troughs of young love in all its radiance and promises and trappings. And there is often a sense of transcendent claustrophobia, of a shortening horizon, and always a sense of struggle against the tyranny of circumstance—often depicted as a never named sinister male figure who looms. A not so-opaque allusion to her father, one would gather. I tell her all this.
EB: And you break in these poems from the rhythm, rhyme, and meter that I understand to be integral to classic Farsi poetry. You make use of free-flowing imagery. You heighten random, mundane details. This was quite groundbreaking, I understand. Would it be fair to say that if you’d been born in a wealthier nation—say, Iran—that you would almost certainly be known now as a literary pioneer?
She smiles wryly.
EB: Still, I am quite struck by what you said earlier. That you weren’t proud of those poems. Are you pleased with any of your work?
NW: A thorny question, that one. I suppose I would answer in the affirmative, if only I could keep them apart from the creative process itself.
EB: You mean separate the end from the means.
NW: I see the creative process as a necessarily thievish undertaking. Dig beneath a beautiful piece of writing, Monsieur Boustouler, and you will find all manner of dishonor. Creating means vandalizing the lives of other people, turning them into unwilling and unwitting participants. You steal their desires, their dreams, pocket their flaws, their suffering. You take what does not belong to you. You do this knowingly.
EB: And you were very good at it.
NW: I did it not for the sake of some high and lofty notion about art but because I had no choice. The compulsion was far too powerful. If I did not surrender to it, I would have lost my mind. You ask if I am proud. I find it hard to flaunt something obtained through what I know to be morally questionable means. I leave the decision to tout or not to others.
She empties her glass of wine and refills it with what remains in the bottle.
NW: What I can tell you, however, is that no one was touting me in Kabul. No one in Kabul considered me a pioneer of anything but bad taste, debauchery, and immoral character. Not least of all, my father. He said my writings were the ramblings of a whore. He used that word precisely. He said I’d damaged his family name beyond repair. He said I had betrayed him. He kept asking why I found it so hard to be respectable.
EB: How did you respond?
NW: I told him I did not care for his notion of respectable. I told him I had no desire to slip the leash around my own neck.
EB: I suppose that only displeased him more.
I hesitate to say this next.
EB: But I do understand his anger.
She cocks an eyebrow.
EB: He was a patriarch, was he not? And you were a direct challenge to all he knew, all that he held dear. Arguing, in a way, through both your life and your writing, for new boundaries for women, for women to have a say in their own status, to arrive at legitimate selfhood. You were defying the monopoly that men like him had held for ages. You were saying what could not be said. You were conducting a small, one-woman revolution, one could say.
NW: And all this time, I thought I was writing about sex.
EB: But that’s part of it, isn’t it?
I flip through my notes and mention a few of the overtly erotic poems—“Thorns,” “But for the Waiting,” “The Pillow.” I also confess to her that they are not among my favorites. I remark that they lack nuance and ambiguity. They read as though they have been crafted with the sole aim of shocking and scandalizing. They strike me as polemical, as angry indictments of Afghan gender roles.
NW: Well, I was angry. I was angry about the attitude that I had to be protected from sex. That I had to be protected from my own body. Because I was a woman. And women, don’t you know, are emotionally, morally, and intellectually immature. They lack self-control, you see, they’re vulnerable to physical temptation. They’re hypersexual beings who must be restrained lest they jump into bed with every Ahmad and Mahmood.
EB: But—forgive me for saying this—you did just that, no?
NW: Only as a protest against that very notion.
She has a delightful laugh, full of mischief and cunning intelligence. She asks if I want lunch. She says her daughter has recently restocked her refrigerator and proceeds to make what turns out to be an excellent jambon fumé sandwich. She makes only one. For herself, she uncorks a new bottle of wine and lights another cigarette. She sits down.
NW: Do you agree, for the sake of this chat, that we should remain on good terms, Monsieur Boustouler?
I tell her I do.
NW: Then do me two favors. Eat your sandwich and quit looking at my glass.
Needless to say, this preemptively quells any impulse I may have had to ask about the drinking.
EB: What happened next?
NW: I fell ill in 1948, when I was nearly nineteen. It was serious, and I will leave it at that. My father took me to Delhi for treatment. He stayed with me for six weeks while doctors tended to me. I was told I could have died. Perhaps I should have. Dying can be quite the career move for a young poet. When we returned, I was frail and withdrawn. I couldn’t be bothered with writing. I had little interest in food or conversation or entertainment. I was averse to visitors. I just wanted to pull the curtains and sleep all day every day. Which was what I did mostly. Eventually, I got out of bed and slowly resumed my daily routines, by which I mean the stringent essentials a person must tend to in order to remain functional and nominally civil. But I felt diminished. Like I had left something vital of myself behind in India.
EB: Was your father concerned?
NW: Quite the contrary. He was encouraged. He thought that my encounter with mortality had shaken me out of my immaturity and waywardness. He didn’t understand that I felt lost. I’ve read, Monsieur Boustouler, that if an avalanche buries you and you’re lying there underneath all that snow, you can’t tell which way is up or down. You want to dig yourself out but pick the wrong way, and you dig yourself to your own demise. That was how I felt, disoriented, suspended in confusion, stripped of my compass. Unspeakably depressed as well. And, in that state, you are vulnerable. Which is likely why I said yes the following year, in 1949, when Suleiman Wahdati asked my father for my hand.
EB: You were twenty.
NW: He was not.
She offers me another sandwich, which I decline, and a cup of coffee, which I accept. As she sets water on to boil, she asks if I am married. I tell her I am not and that I doubt I ever will be. She looks at me over her shoulder, her gaze lingering, and grins.
NW: Ah. I can usually tell.
NW: Maybe it’s the concussion.
She points to the bandanna.
NW: This isn’t a fashion statement. I slipped and fell a couple of days ago, tore my forehead open. Still, I should have known. About you, I mean. In my experience, men who understand women as well as you seem to rarely want to have anything to do with them.
She gives me the coffee, lights a cigarette, and takes a seat.
NW: I have a theory about marriage, Monsieur Boustouler. And it’s that nearly always you will know within two weeks if it’s going to work. It’s astonishing how many people remain shackled for years, decades even, in a protracted and mutual state of self-delusion and false hope when in fact they had their answer in those first two weeks. Me, I didn’t even need that long. My husband was a decent man. But he was much too serious, aloof, and uninteresting. Also, he was in love with the chauffeur.
EB: Ah. That must have come as a shock.
NW: Well, it did thicken the proverbial plot.
She smiles a little sadly.
NW: I felt sorry for him, mostly. He could not have chosen a worse time or worse place to be born the way he was.
He died of a stroke when our daughter was six. At that point, I could have stayed in Kabul. I had the house and my husband’s wealth. There was a gardener and the aforementioned chauffeur. It would have been a comfortable life. But I packed our bags and moved us, Pari and me, to France.
EB: Which, as you indicated earlier, you did for her benefit.
NW: Everything I’ve done, Monsieur Boustouler, I’ve done for my daughter. Not that she understands, or appreciates, the full measure of what I’ve done for her. She can be breathtakingly thoughtless, my daughter. If she knew the life she would have had to endure, if not for me …
EB: Is your daughter a disappointment to you?
NW: Monsieur Boustouler, I’ve come to believe she’s my punishment.
One day in 1975, Pari comes home to her new apartment and finds a small package on her bed. It is a year after she fetched her mother from the emergency room and nine months since she left Julien. Pari is living now with a nursing student named Zahia, a young Algerian woman with curly brown hair and green eyes. She is a competent girl, with a cheerful, unfrazzled disposition, and they have lived together easily, though Zahia is now engaged to her boyfriend, Sami, and moving in with him at the end of the semester.
There is a folded sheet of paper next to the package. This came for you. I’m spending the night at Sami’s. See you tomorrow. Je t’embrasse. Zahia.
Pari rips the package open. Inside is a magazine and, clipped to it, another note, this one written in a familiar, almost femininely graceful script. This was sent to Nila and then to the couple who live in Collette’s old apartment and now it is forwarded to me. You should update your forwarding address. Read this at your own peril. Neither of us fares very well, I’m afraid. Julien.
Pari drops the journal on the bed and makes herself a spinach salad and some couscous. She changes into pajamas and eats by the TV, a small black-and-white rental. Absently, she watches images of airlifted South Vietnamese refugees arriving in Guam. She thinks of Collette, who had protested the American war in Vietnam in the streets. Collette, who had brought a wreath of dahlias and daisies to Maman’s memorial, who had held and kissed Pari, who had delivered a beautiful recitation of one of Maman’s poems at the podium.
Julien had not attended the services. He’d called and said, feebly, that he disliked memorials, he found them depressing.
Who doesn’t? Pari had said.
I think it’s best I stay clear.
Do as you like, Pari had said into the receiver, thinking, But it won’t absolve you, not coming. Any more than attending will absolve me. Of how reckless we were. How thoughtless. My God. Pari had hung up with him knowing that her fling with Julien had been the final push for Maman. She had hung up knowing that for the rest of her life it would slam into her at random moments, the guilt, the terrible remorse, catching her off guard, and that she would ache to the bones with it. She would wrestle with this, now and for all days to come. It would be the dripping faucet at the back of her mind.
She takes a bath after dinner and reviews some notes for an upcoming exam. She watches some more TV, cleans and dries the dishes, sweeps the kitchen floor. But it’s no use. She can’t distract herself. The journal sits on the bed, its calling to her like a lowfrequency hum.
Afterward, she puts a raincoat over her pajamas and goes for a walk down Boulevard de la Chapelle, a few blocks south of the apartment. The air is chilly, and raindrops slap the pavement and shopwindows, but the apartment cannot contain her restlessness right now. She needs the cold, the moist air, the open space.
When she was young, Pari remembers, she had been all questions. Do I have cousins in Kabul, Maman? Do I have aunts and uncles? And grandparents, do I have a grand-pére and a grand-maman? How come they never visit? Can we write them a letter? Please, can we visit them?
Most of her questions had revolved around her father. What was his favorite color, Maman? Tell me, Maman, was he a good swimmer? Did he know a lot of jokes? She remembers him chasing her once through a room. Rolling her around on a carpet, tickling her soles and belly. She remembers the smell of his lavender soap and the shine of his high forehead, his long fingers. His oval-shaped lapis cuff links, the crease of his suit pants. She can see the dust motes they had kicked up together off the carpet.
What Pari had always wanted from her mother was the glue to bond together her loose, disjointed scraps of memory, to turn them into some sort of cohesive narrative. But Maman never said much. She always withheld details of her life and of their life together in Kabul. She kept Pari at a remove from their shared past, and, eventually, Pari stopped asking.
And now it turns out that Maman had told this magazine writer, this Étienne Boustouler, more about herself and her life than she ever did her own daughter.
Or had she.
Pari read the piece three times back at the apartment. And she doesn’t know what to think, what to believe. So much of it rings false. Parts of it read like a parody. A lurid melodrama, of shackled beauties and doomed romances and pervasive oppression, all told in such breathless, high-spirited fashion.
Pari heads westbound, toward Pigalle, walking briskly, hands stuffed into the pockets of her raincoat. The sky is darkening rapidly, and the downpour lashing at her face is becoming heavier and more steady, rippling windows, smearing headlights. Pari has no memory of ever meeting the man, her grandfather, Maman’s father, has seen only the one photograph of him reading at his desk, but she doubts that he was the mustache-twirling villain Maman has made him out to be. Pari thinks she sees through this story. She has her own ideas. In her version, he is a man rightfully worried over the well-being of a deeply unhappy and self-destructive daughter who cannot help making shambles of her own life. He is a man who suffers humiliations and repeated assaults on his dignity and still stands by his daughter, takes her to India when she’s ill, stays with her for six weeks. And, on that subject, what really was wrong with Maman? What did they do to her in India? Pari wonders, thinking of the vertical pelvic scar—Pari had asked, and Zahia had told her that cesarian incisions were made horizontally.
And then what Maman told the interviewer about her husband, Pari’s father. Was it slander? Was it true that he’d loved Nabi, the chauffeur? And, if it was, why reveal such a thing now after all this time if not to confuse, humiliate, and perhaps inflict pain? And, if so, on whom?
As for herself, Pari is not surprised by the unflattering treatment Maman had reserved for her—not after Julien—nor is she surprised by Maman’s selective, sanitized account of her own mothering.
And yet …
Maman had been a gifted writer. Pari has read every word Maman had written in French and every poem she had translated from Farsi as well. The power and beauty of her writing was undeniable. But if the account Maman had given of her life in the interview was a lie, then where did the images of her work come from? Where was the wellspring for words that were honest and lovely and brutal and sad? Was she merely a gifted trickster? A magician, with a pen for a wand, able to move an audience by conjuring emotions she had never known herself? Was that even possible?
Pari does not know—she does not know. And that, perhaps, may have been Maman’s true intent, to shift the ground beneath Pari’s feet. To intentionally unsteady and upend her, to turn her into a stranger to herself, to heave the weight of doubt on her mind, on all Pari thought she knew of her life, to make her feel as lost as if she were wandering through a desert at night, surrounded by darkness and the unknown, the truth elusive, like a single tiny glint of light in the distance flickering on and off, forever moving, receding.
Perhaps, Pari thinks, this is Maman’s retribution. Not only for Julien but also for the disappointment that Pari has always been. Pari, who was maybe supposed to bring an end to all the drinking, the men, the years squandered making desperate lunges at happiness. All the dead ends pursued and abandoned. Each lash of disappointment leaving Maman more damaged, more derailed, and happiness more illusory. What was I, Maman? Pari thinks. What was I supposed to be, growing in your womb—assuming it was even in your womb that I was conceived? A seed of hope? A ticket purchased to ferry you from the dark? A patch for that hole you carried in your heart? If so, then I wasn’t enough. I wasn’t nearly enough. I was no balm to your pain, only another dead end, another burden, and you must have seen that early on. You must have realized it. But what could you do? You couldn’t go down to the pawnshop and sell me.
Perhaps this interview was Maman’s last laugh.
Pari steps beneath the awning of a brasserie to take refuge from the rain a few blocks west of the hospital where Zahia does part of her training. She lights a cigarette. She should call Collette, she thinks. They have spoken only once or twice since the memorial. When they were young, they used to chew mouthfuls of gum until their jaws ached, and they would sit before Maman’s dresser mirror and brush each other’s hair, pin it up. Pari spots an old woman across the street, wearing a plastic rain bonnet, laboring up the sidewalk trailed by a small tan terrier. Not for the first time, a little puff breaks rank from the collective fog of Pari’s memories and slowly takes the shape of a dog. Not a little toy like the old woman’s, but a big mean specimen, furry, dirty, with a severed tail and ears. Pari is unsure whether this, in fact, is a memory or the ghost of one or neither. She had asked Maman once if they had ever owned a dog in Kabul and Maman said, You know I don’t like dogs. They have no self-respect. You kick them and they still love you. It’s depressing.
Something else Maman said:
I don’t see me in you. I don’t know who you are.
Pari tosses her cigarette. She decides she will call Collette. Make plans to meet somewhere for tea. See how she is doing. Who she’s seeing. Go window-shopping like they used to.
See if her old friend is still up for that trip to Afghanistan.
Pari does meet Collette. They meet at a popular bar with a Moroccan design, violet drapes and orange pillows everywhere, curly-haired oud player on a small stage. Collette has not arrived alone. She has brought a young man with her. His name is Eric Lacombe. He teaches drama to seventh and eighth graders at a lycée in the 18th. He tells Pari he has met her before, a few years earlier, at a student protest against seal hunting. At first Pari cannot recall, and then she remembers that he was the one with whom Collette had been so angry over the low turnout, the one whose chest she’d knuckled. They sit on the ground, atop fluffy mango-colored cushions, and order drinks. Initially, Pari is under the impression that Collette and Eric are a couple, but Collette keeps praising Eric, and soon Pari understands he has been brought for her benefit. The discomfort that would normally overtake her in a situation like this is mirrored in—and mitigated by—Eric’s own considerable unease. Pari finds it amusing, and even endearing, the way he keeps blushing and shaking his head in apology and embarrassment. Over bread and black olive tapenades, Pari steals glances at him. He could not be called handsome. His hair is long and limp, tied with a rubber band at the base of his neck. He has small hands and pale skin. His nose is too narrow, his forehead too protruding, the chin nearly absent, but he has a bright-eyed grin and a habit of punctuating the end of each sentence with an expectant smile like a happy question mark. And though his face does not enthrall Pari as Julien’s had, it is a far kinder face and, as Pari will learn before long, an external ambassador for the attentiveness, the quiet forbearance, and the enduring decency that resides within Eric.
They marry on a chilly day in the spring of 1977, a few months after Jimmy Carter is sworn into office. Against his parents’ wishes, Eric insists on a small civil ceremony, no one present but the two of them and Collette as witness. He says a formal wedding is an extravagance they cannot afford. His father, who is a wealthy banker, offers to pay. Eric, after all, is their only child. He offers it as a gift, then as a loan. But Eric declines. And though he never says so, Pari knows it is to save her the awkwardness of a ceremony at which she would be alone, with no family to sit in the aisles, no one to give her away, no one to shed a happy tear on her behalf.
When she tells him of her plans to go to Afghanistan, he understands in a way that Pari believes Julien never would. And also in a way that she had never openly admitted to herself.
“You think you were adopted,” he says.
“Will you go with me?”
They decide they will travel that summer, when school is out for Eric and Pari can take a brief hiatus from her Ph.D. work. Eric registers them both for Farsi classes with a tutor he has found through the mother of one of his pupils. Pari often finds him on the couch wearing headphones, cassette player on his chest, his eyes shut in concentration as he mutters heavily accented Thank yous and Hellos and How are you?s in Farsi.
A few weeks before summer, just as Eric is looking into airfare and accommodations, Pari discovers she is pregnant.
“We could still go,” Eric says. “We should still go.”
It is Pari who decides against it. “It’s irresponsible,” she says. They are living in a studio with faulty heating, leaky plumbing, no air-conditioning, and an assortment of scavenged furniture.
“This is no place for a baby,” she says.
Eric takes on a side job teaching piano, which he had briefly entertained pursuing before he had set his sights on theater, and by the time Isabelle arrives—sweet, light-skinned Isabelle, with eyes the color of caramelized sugar—they have moved into a small two-bedroom apartment not far from Jardin du Luxembourg, this with financial assistance from Eric’s father, which they accept this time on the condition that it be a loan.
Pari takes three months off. She spends her days with Isabelle. She feels weightless around Isabelle. She feels a shining around herself whenever Isabelle turns her eyes to her. When Eric comes home from the lycée in the evening, the first thing he does is shed his coat and his briefcase at the door and then he drops on the couch and extends his arms and wiggles his fingers. “Give her to me, Pari. Give her to me.” As he bounces Isabelle on his chest, Pari fills him in on all the day’s tidbits—how much milk Isabelle took, how many naps, what they watched together on television, the enlivening games they played, the new noises she’s making. Eric never tires of hearing it.
They have postponed going to Afghanistan. The truth is, Pari no longer feels the piercing urge to search for answers and roots. Because of Eric and his steadying, comforting companionship. And because of Isabelle, who has solidified the ground beneath Pari’s feet—pocked as it still may be with gaps and blind spots, all the unanswered questions, all the things Maman would not relinquish. They are still there. Pari just doesn’t hunger for the answers like she used to.
And the old feeling she has always had—that there is an absence in her life of something or someone vital—has dulled. It still comes now and then, sometimes with power that catches her unawares, but less frequently than it used to. Pari has never been this content, has never felt this happily moored.
In 1981, when Isabelle is three, Pari, a few months pregnant with Alain, has to go to Munich for a conference. She will present a paper she has coauthored on the use of modular forms outside of number theory, specifically in topology and theoretical physics. The presentation is received well, and afterward Pari and a few other academics go out to a noisy bar for beer and pretzels and Weisswurst. She returns to the hotel room before midnight and goes to bed without changing or washing her face. The phone wakes her at 2:30 A.M. Eric, calling from Paris.
“It’s Isabelle,” he says. She has a fever. Her gums have suddenly swollen and turned red. They bleed profusely at the lightest touch. “I can hardly see her teeth. Pari. I don’t know what to do. I read somewhere that it could be …”
She wants him to stop. She wants to tell him to shut up, that she cannot bear to hear it, but she’s too late. She hears the words childhood leukemia, or maybe he says lymphoma, and what’s the difference anyway? Pari sits on the edge of the bed, sits there like a stone, head throbbing, skin drenched with sweat. She is furious with Eric for planting a thing as horrible as this in her mind in the middle of the night when she’s seven hundred kilometers away and helpless. She is furious with herself for her own stupidity. Opening herself up like this, voluntarily, to a lifetime of worry and anguish. It was madness. Sheer lunacy. A spectacularly foolish and baseless faith, against enormous odds, that a world you do not control will not take from you the one thing you cannot bear to lose. Faith that the world will not destroy you. I don’t have the heart for this. She actually says this under her breath. I don’t have the heart for this. At that moment, she cannot think of a more reckless, irrational thing than choosing to become a parent.
And part of her—God help me, she thinks, God forgive me for it—part of her is furious with Isabelle for doing this to her, for making her suffer like this.
“Eric. Eric! Ecoute moi. I’m going to call you back. I need to hang up now.”
She empties her purse on the bed, finds the small maroon notebook where she keeps phone numbers. She places a call to Lyon. Collette lives in Lyon now with her husband, Didier, where she has started a small travel agency. Didier is studying to be a doctor. It’s Didier who answers the phone.
“You do know I’m studying psychiatry, Pari, don’t you?” he says.
“I know. I know. I just thought …”
He asks some questions. Has Isabelle had any weight loss? Night sweats, unusual bruises, fatigue, chronic fevers?
In the end, he says Eric should take her to a doctor in the morning. But, if he recalls correctly from his general training back in medical school, it sounds to him like acute gingivostomatitis.
Pari clutches the receiver so hard, her wrist aches. “Please,” she says patiently, “Didier.”
“Ah, sorry. What I mean is, it sounds like the first manifestation of a cold sore.”
“A cold sore.”
Then he adds the happiest words Pari has ever heard in her life. “I think she’s going to be fine.”
Pari has met Didier only twice, once before and once after his wedding to Collette. But at that instant, she loves him truly. She tells him so, weeping into the phone. She tells him she loves him—several times—and he laughs and wishes her a good night. Pari calls Eric, who will take Isabelle in the morning to see Dr. Perrin. Afterward, her ears ringing, Pari lies in bed, looking at the streetlight streaming in through the dull-green wooden shutters. She thinks of the time she had to be hospitalized with pneumonia, when she was eight, Maman refusing to go home, insisting on sleeping in the chair next to her bed, and she feels a new, unexpected, belated kinship with her mother. She has missed her many times over the last few years. At her wedding, of course. At Isabelle’s birth. And at myriad random moments. But never more so than on this terrible and wondrous night in this hotel room in Munich.
Back in Paris the next day, she tells Eric they shouldn’t have any more children after Alain is born. It only raises the odds of heartbreak.
In 1985, when Isabelle is seven, Alain four, and little Thierry two, Pari accepts an offer to teach at a prominent university in Paris. She becomes subject, for a time, to the expected academic jostling and pettiness—not surprising, given that, at thirty-six, she is the youngest professor in the department and one of only two women. She weathers it in a way that she imagines Maman never could or would have. She does not flatter or butter up. She refrains from locking horns or filing complaints. She will always have her skeptics. But by the time the Berlin Wall comes down, so have the walls in her academic life, and she has slowly won over most of her colleagues with her sensible demeanor and disarming sociability. She makes friends in her department—and in others too—attends university events, fund-raisers, the occasional cocktail hour and dinner party. Eric goes with her to these soirees. As an ongoing private joke, he insists on wearing the same wool tie and corduroy blazer with elbow patches. He wanders around the crowded room, tasting hors d’oeuvres, sipping wine, looking jovially bewildered, and occasionally Pari has to swoop in and steal him away from a group of mathematicians before he opines on 3-manifolds and Diophantine approximations.
Inevitably, someone at these parties will ask Pari her views on the developments in Afghanistan. One evening, a slightly tipsy visiting professor named Chatelard asks Pari what she thinks will happen to Afghanistan when the Soviets leave. “Will your people find peace, Madame Professeur?”
“I wouldn’t know,” she says. “Practically speaking, I’m Afghan only in name.”
“Non mais, quande-même,” he says. “But, still, you must have some insight.”
She smiles, trying to keep at bay the inadequacy that always creeps in with these queries. “Just what I read in Le Monde. Like you.”
“But you grew up there, non?”
“I left when I was very little. Have you seen my husband? He’s the one with the elbow patches.”
What she says is true. She does follow the news, reads in the papers about the war, the West arming the Mujahideen, but Afghanistan has receded in her mind. She has plenty to keep her busy at home, which is now a pretty four-bedroom house in Guyancourt, about twenty kilometers from the center of Paris. They live on a small hill near a park with walking trails and ponds. Eric is writing plays now in addition to teaching. One of his plays, a lighthearted political farce, is going to be produced in the fall at a small theater near Hôtel de Ville in Paris, and he has already been commissioned to write another.
Isabelle has grown into a quiet but bright and thoughtful adolescent. She keeps a diary and reads a novel a week. She likes Sinéad O’Connor. She has long, beautiful fingers and takes cello lessons. In a few weeks, she will perform Tchaikovsky’s Chanson Triste at a recital. She was resistant at first to taking up the cello, and Pari had taken a few lessons with her as a show of solidarity. It proved both unnecessary and unfeasible. Unnecessary because Isabelle quickly latched onto the instrument of her own accord and unfeasible because the cello made Pari’s hands ache. For a year now, Pari has been waking in the morning with stiffness in her hands and wrists that won’t loosen up for half an hour, sometimes an hour. Eric has quit pressuring her to see a doctor and is now insisting. “You’re only forty-three, Pari,” he says. “This is not normal.” Pari has set up an appointment.
Alain, their middle child, has a sly roguish charm. He is obsessed with martial arts. He was born prematurely and is still small for a boy of eleven, but what he lacks in stature he more than makes up for with desire and gumption. His opponents are always fooled by his wispy frame and slim legs. They underestimate him. Pari and Eric have often lain in bed at night and marveled at his enormous will and ferocious energy. Pari worries about neither Isabelle nor Alain.
It is Thierry who concerns her. Thierry, who perhaps on some dark primordial level, senses that he was unexpected, unintended, uninvited. Thierry is prone to wounding silences and narrow looks, to fussing and fiddling whenever Pari asks something of him. He defies her for no other reason, it seems to Pari, than defiance itself. Some days, a cloud gathers over him. Pari can tell. She can almost see it. It gathers and swells until at last it splits open, spilling a torrent of cheek-quivering, foot-stomping rage that frightens Pari and leaves Eric to blink and smile miserably. Pari knows instinctively that Thierry will be for her, like the ache in her joints, a lifelong worry.
She wonders often what sort of grandmother Maman would have made. Especially with Thierry. Intuitively, Pari thinks Maman would have proved helpful with him. She might have seen something of herself in him—though not biologically, of course, Pari has been certain of that for some time. The children know of Maman. Isabelle, in particular, is curious. She has read many of her poems.
“I wish I’d met her,” she says.
“She sounds glamorous,” she says.
“I think we would have made good friends, she and I. Do you think? We would have read the same books. I would have played cello for her.”
“Well, she would have loved that,” Pari says. “That much I am sure of.”
Pari has not told the children about the suicide. They may learn one day, probably will. But they wouldn’t learn it from her. She will not plant the seed in their mind, that a parent is capable of abandoning her children, of saying to them You are not enough. For Pari, the children and Eric have always been enough. They always will be.
In the summer of 1994, Pari and Eric take the children to Majorca. It’s Collette who, through her now thriving travel agency, organizes the holiday for them. Collette and Didier meet up with them in Majorca, and they all stay together for two weeks in a beachfront rental house. Collette and Didier don’t have children, not by some biological misfortune but because they don’t want any. For Pari, the timing is good. Her rheumatoid is well controlled at the time. She takes a weekly dose of methotrexate, which she is tolerating well. Fortunately, she has not had to take any steroids of late and suffer the accompanying insomnia.
“Not to speak of the weight gain,” she tells Collette. “Knowing I’d have to get into a bathing suit in Spain?” She laughs. “Ah, vanity.”
They spend the days touring the island, driving up the northwest coast by the Serra de Tramuntana Mountains, stopping to stroll by the olive groves and into the pine forest. They eat porcella, and a wonderful sea bass dish called lubina, and an eggplant and zucchini stew called tumbet. Thierry refuses to eat any of it, and at every restaurant Pari has to ask the chef to make him a plate of spaghetti with plain tomato sauce, no meat, no cheese. At Isabelle’s request—she has recently discovered opera—one night they attend a production of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca. To survive the ordeal, Collette and Pari surreptitiously pass each other a silver flask of cheap vodka. By the middle of act two, they are sloshed, and can’t help giggling like schoolgirls at the histrionics of the actor playing Scarpia.
One day, Pari, Collette, Isabelle, and Thierry pack a lunch and go to the beach; Didier, Alain, and Eric had left in the morning for a hike along Sóller Bay. On the way to the beach, they visit a shop to buy Isabelle a bathing suit that has caught her eye. As they walk into the shop, Pari catches a glimpse of her reflection in the plate glass. Normally, especially of late, when she steps in front of a mirror an automatic mental process kicks into gear that prepares her to greet her older self. It buffers her, dulls the shock. But in the shopwindow, she has caught herself off guard, vulnerable to reality undistorted by self-delusion. She sees a middle-aged woman in a drab floppy blouse and a beach skirt that doesn’t conceal quite enough of the saggy folds of skin over her kneecaps. The sun picks out the gray in her hair. And despite the eyeliner, and the lipstick that defines her lips, she has a face now that a passerby’s gaze will engage and then bounce from, as it would a street sign or a mailbox number. The moment is brief, barely enough for a flutter of the pulse but long enough for her illusory self to catch up with the reality of the woman gazing back from the shopwindow. It is a little devastating. This is what aging is, she thinks as she follows Isabelle into the store, these random unkind moments that catch you when you least expect them.
Later, when they return from the beach to the rental house, they find that the men have already returned.
“Papa’s getting old,” Alain says.
From behind the bar, Eric, who is mixing a carafe of sangria, rolls his eyes and shrugs genially.
“I thought I’d have to carry you, Papa.”
“Give me one year. We’ll come back next year, and I’ll race you around the island, mon pote.”
They never do come back to Majorca. A week after they return to Paris, Eric has a heart attack. It happens while he is at work, speaking to a lighting stagehand. He survives it, but he will suffer two more over the course of the next three years, the last of which will prove fatal. And so at the age of forty-eight Pari finds herself, like Maman had, a widow.
One day, early in the spring of 2010, Pari receives a long-distance phone call. The call is not unexpected. Pari, in fact, has been preparing for it all morning. Prior to the call, Pari makes sure she has the apartment to herself. This means asking Isabelle to leave earlier than she customarily does. Isabelle and her husband, Albert, live just north of Île Saint-Denis, only a few blocks from Pari’s one-bedroom apartment. Isabelle comes to see Pari in the morning every other day, after she drops off her kids at school. She brings Pari a baguette, some fresh fruit. Pari is not yet bound to the wheelchair, an eventuality for which she has been preparing herself. Though her disease forced her into early retirement the year before, she is still fully capable of going to the market on her own, of taking a daily walk. It’s the hands—the ugly, twisted hands—that fail her most, hands that on bad days feel like they have shards of crystal rattling around the joints. Pari wears gloves, whenever she is out, to keep her hands warm, but mostly because she is ashamed of them, the knobby knuckles, the unsightly fingers with what her doctor calls swan neck deformity, the permanently flexed left pinkie.
Ah, vanity, she tells Collette.
This morning, Isabelle has brought her some figs, a few bars of soap, toothpaste, and a Tupperware containerful of chestnut soup. Albert is thinking of suggesting it as a new menu entry to the owners of the restaurant where he is the sous-chef. As she unloads the bags, Isabelle tells Pari of the new assignment she has landed. She writes musical scores for television shows now, commercials, and is hoping to write for film one day soon. She says she will begin scoring a miniseries that is shooting at the moment in Madrid.
“Will you be going there?” Pari asks. “To Madrid?”
“Non. The budget is too small. They won’t cover my travel cost.”
“That’s a pity. You could have stayed with Alain.”
“Oh, can you imagine, Maman? Poor Alain. He hardly has room to stretch his legs.”
Alain is a financial consultant. He lives in a tiny Madrid apartment with his wife, Ana, and their four children. He regularly e-mails Pari pictures and short video clips of the children.
Pari asks if Isabelle has heard from Thierry, and Isabelle says she has not. Thierry is in Africa, in the eastern part of Chad, where he works at a camp with refugees from Darfur. Pari knows this because Thierry is in sporadic touch with Isabelle. She is the only one he speaks to. This is how Pari knows the general outlines of her son’s life—for instance, that he spent some time in Vietnam. Or that he was married to a Vietnamese woman once, briefly, when he was twenty.
Isabelle sets a pot of water on to boil and fetches two cups from the cabinet.
“Not this morning, Isabelle. Actually, I need to ask you to leave.”
Isabelle gives her a wounded look, and Pari chides herself for not wording it better. Isabelle has always had a delicate nature.
“What I mean to say is, I’m expecting a call and I need some privacy.”
“A call? From who?”
“I’ll tell you later,” Pari says.
Isabelle crosses her arms and grins. “Have you found a lover, Maman?”
“A lover. Are you blind? Have you even looked at me recently?”
“There is not a thing wrong with you.”
“You need to go. I’ll explain later, I promise.”
“D’accord, d’accord.” Isabelle slings her purse over her shoulder, grabs her coat and keys. “But I’ll have you know I’m duly intrigued.”
The man who calls at 9:30 A.M. is named Markos Varvaris. He had contacted Pari through her Facebook account with this message, written in English: Are you the daughter of the poet Nila Wahdati? If so, I would like very much to speak with you about something that will be of interest to you. Pari had searched the web for his name and found that he was a plastic surgeon who worked for a nonprofit organization in Kabul. Now, on the phone, he greets her in Farsi, and continues to speak in Farsi until Pari has to interrupt him.
“Monsieur Varvaris, I’m sorry, but maybe we speak in English?”
“Ah, of course. My apologies. I assumed … Although, of course, it does make sense, you left when you were very young, didn’t you?”
“Yes, that is true.”
“I learned Farsi here myself. I would say I am more or less functional in it. I have lived here since 2002, since shortly after the Taliban left. Quite optimistic days, those. Yes, everybody ready for rebuilding and democracy and the like. Now it is a different story. Naturally, we are preparing for presidential elections, but it is a different story. I’m afraid it is.”
Pari listens patiently as Markos Varvaris makes protracted detours into the logistical challenge that are the elections in Afghanistan, which he says Karzai will win, and then on to the Taliban’s troubling forays into the north, the increasing Islamist infringement on news media, a side note or two on the overpopulation in Kabul, then on the cost of housing, lastly, before he circles back and says, “I have lived in this house now for a number of years. I understand you lived in this house too.”
“This was your parents’ house. That is what I am led to believe, in any case.”
“If I can ask, who is telling you this?”
“The landlord. His name is Nabi. It was Nabi, I should say. He is deceased now, sadly, as of recently. Do you remember him?”
The name conjures for Pari a handsome young face, sideburns, a wall of full dark hair combed back.
“Yes. Mostly, his name. He was a cook at our house. And a chauffeur as well.”
“He was both, yes. He had lived here, in this house, since 1947. Sixty-three years. It is a little unbelievable, no? But, as I said, he passed on. Last month. I was quite fond of him. Everyone was.”
“Nabi gave me a note,” Markos Varvaris says. “I was to read it only after his death. When he died, I had an Afghan colleague translate it into English. This note, it is more than a note. A letter, more accurately, and a remarkable one at that. Nabi says some things in it. I searched for you because some of it concerns you, and also because he directly asks in it that I find you and give you this letter. It took some searching, but we were able to locate you. Thanks to the web.” He lets out a short laugh.
There is a part of Pari that wants to hang up. Intuitively, she does not doubt that whatever revelation this old man—this person from her distant past—has scribbled on paper, halfway across the world, is true. She has known for a long time that she was lied to by Maman about her childhood. But even if the ground of her life was broken with a lie, what Pari has since planted in that ground stands as true and sturdy and unshakable as a giant oak. Eric, her children, her grandchildren, her career, Collette. So what is the use? After all this time, what is the use? Perhaps best to hang up.
But she doesn’t. Her pulse fluttering and her palms sweating, she says, “What … what does he say in his note, in this letter?”
“Well, for one thing, he claims he was your uncle.”
“Your stepuncle, to be precise. And there is more. He says many other things as well.”
“Monsieur Varvaris, do you have it? This note, this letter, or the translation? Do you have it with you?”
“Maybe you read it for me? Can you read it?”
“You mean now?”
“If you have the time. I can call you, to collect the charge.”
“No need, no. But are you sure?”
“Oui,” she says into the phone. “I’m sure, Monsieur Varvaris.”
He reads it to her. He reads her the whole thing. It takes a while. When he finishes, she thanks him and tells him she will be in touch soon.
After she hangs up, she sets the coffeemaker to brew a cup and moves to her window. From it, the familiar view presents itself to her—the narrow cobblestone path below, the pharmacy up the block, the falafel joint at the corner, the brasserie run by the Basque family.
Pari’s hands shake. A startling thing is happening to her. Something truly remarkable. The picture of it in her mind is of an ax striking soil and suddenly rich black oil bubbling up to the surface. This is what is happening to her, memories struck upon, rising up from the depths. She gazes out the window in the direction of the brasserie, but what she sees is not the skinny waiter beneath the awning, black apron tied at the waist and shaking a cloth over a table, but a little red wagon with a squeaky wheel bouncing along beneath a sky of unfurling clouds, rolling over ridges and down dried-up gullies, up and down ocher hills that loom and then fall away. She sees tangles of fruit trees standing in groves, the breeze catching their leaves, and rows of grapevines connecting little flat-roofed houses. She sees washing lines and women squatting by a stream, and the creaking ropes of a swing beneath a big tree, and a big dog, cowering from the taunts of village boys, and a hawk-nosed man digging a ditch, shirt plastered to his back with sweat, and a veiled woman bent over a cooking fire.
But something else too at the edge of it all, at the rim of her vision—and this is what draws her most—an elusive shadow. A figure. At once soft and hard. The softness of a hand holding hers. The hardness of knees where she’d once rested her cheek. She searches for his face, but it evades her, slips from her, each time she turns to it. Pari feels a hole opening up in her. There has been in her life, all her life, a great absence. Somehow, she has always known.
“Brother,” she says, unaware she is speaking. Unaware she is weeping.
A verse from a Farsi song suddenly tumbles to her tongue:
I know a sad little fairy
Who was blown away by the wind one night.
There is another, perhaps earlier, verse, she is sure of it, but that eludes her as well.
Pari sits. She has to. She doesn’t think she can stand at the moment. She waits for the coffee to brew and thinks that when it’s ready she is going to have a cup, and then perhaps a cigarette, and then she is going to go to the living room to call Collette in Lyon, see if her old friend can arrange her a trip to Kabul.
But for the moment Pari sits. She shuts her eyes, as the coffeemaker begins to gurgle, and she finds behind her eyelids hills that stand soft and a sky that stands high and blue, and the sun setting behind a windmill, and always, always, hazy strings of mountains that fall and fall away on the horizon.