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Hope, despair, and coming of age in patriarchal Iran

Persian Girls: A Memoir, By Nahid Rachlin, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 304, pp., $23.95

Nahid Rachlin's memoir, "Persian Girls," reads like a novel -- suspenseful, vivid, heartbreaking. Given away as an infant by her mother, Mohtaram, to her childless, widowed aunt, Maryam, Nahid spends her early years in Tehran, wrapped in a cocoon of love and piety. "During those years living with Maryam, my birth mother was just a shadow," she writes. "I saw her only once a year when she came to Tehran to visit relatives. She always stayed with Maryam but she paid no particular attention to me; there was no bond between us."

Her world changed abruptly in 1955 when, at age 9 -- then the age when Iranian girls could legally marry -- her father kidnapped her from school and took her back to her biological family in Ahvaz. There is nothing that she, or Maryam, can do about it. "In Iran fathers were given full control of their children, no matter the circumstance. There was no way to fight if he wanted me back."

Resentful and afraid, alone in a houseful of antagonistic older siblings whom she barely knows, Nahid eventually becomes close with her oldest sister, Pari, who helps her adjust to the chaos of clashing cultures that typified Iran in the 1950s. The confusing mix of traditional Muslim and modern Western values in the city of Ahvaz was mirrored at home, Nahid writes -- the family didn't pray, fast, or follow most traditional Muslim customs, yet her parents believed in arranged marriage and strict separation of the sexes, and other conservative norms -- making her transition from a quiet, modest, spiritual life with Maryam in Tehran all the more jarring and difficult.

Both Nahid and Pari refuse to accept the traditional roles that they are expected to fill in society. Obsessed with American movies, Pari dreams of being an actress. Nahid devours books that have been banned by government censors and dreams of being a writer. They watch, jealously, as their older brothers leave for college in the United States. They have romances that seem extremely tame but which, in their increasingly strict and limited world, are actually quite scandalous. They vow that they'll marry only for love, but when Pari's sweetheart is rejected repeatedly by her parents, she agrees to marry a rich, older man of their choosing, setting her life on a path full of despair and disappointment. They chafe under increased restrictions as Iran shifts away from Westernization.

The White Revolution, a time of persecution and oppression for most Iranians, affords Nahid her freedom: Her father, who doesn't believe in higher education for girls, allows her to go to the United States to attend college. At a time when opposition could be punished by imprisonment, torture, or even death, it's unclear whether he sent his rebellious daughter away for her safety or for his own.

The college she attends is really more of a finishing school, and Nahid finds that, in some ways, American ignorance is as oppressing as the male-dominated, rigidly religious society she left. In 1969, after four years of home economics, mandatory Christian chapel attendance, and kindly but callous comments from strangers, Nahid ignores her father's wish that she return to Iran to marry; instead, she moves to New York City to attend graduate school with nothing but a single suitcase and $755 to her name.

As Nahid establishes herself in America -- she is now the author of several books, a teacher at the New School University in New York City , and an associate fellow at Yale University -- life grows more difficult for the people she left behind in Iran. In "Persian Girls," she chronicles the choices she made and explores those made by her sisters, her mother, and her aunts, throwing the door to her family's home wide open and showing readers the hopes and dreams, desperation and disappointment these women experience as they come of age in patriarchal Iran.

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