If you were browsing on Amazon and came across this book, you would find that it does not have a description. By looking ‘inside’ the book, you find a blurb on the back cover, which simply reads: “Mother of all Evil is an intimate account of an Iranian girl growing up in Tehran during the moral fifties, the tumultuous sixties, and the greedy seventies, against a backdrop of history that has never been told before.” You are left wondering what the book is really about. It has no introduction, and so, without any context apart from the blurb, the narrative begins in the first person voice of a child: “I sat on the warm stairs and waited.” In short, a reader has to be determined to get this far. I was determined, for I had found out by word of mouth that this book was written by a Baha’i, about her upbringing in a Baha’i family in Iran, and that she is in fact the daughter of Dr Ali Morad Davoudi, the well-known and revered Baha’i philosopher, who was abducted by Muslim fundamentalists in 1979, shortly after the revolution, and never returned. The book was published in 2014 – see Amazon here.
I had some warning as to the nature of Zohreh’s story, but I was not prepared for what I found. The book is harrowing and extraordinary at the same time. It quickly became clear why the book’s description was missing and why the blurb was a collection of generalisations. It was because the book hides the secrets of family and societal abuse. Not to put too fine a point on it, Zohreh’s father was violent, autocratic and narcissistic. I was absolutely horrified by Zohreh’s accounts of the beatings she and her sister received from her father, as he wielded the infamous leather belt or wire coat hanger. The story is told in a close first-person narrative, in which Zohreh skillfully pulls the reader into her intimate direct experience of the world. Her world is colourful, playful, kaleidoscopic, radiant, verdant, cheeky, naughty. When she uses this language to describe the landscape and people of her family’s village in Azerbaijan, she creates a world of enchantment:
“The noise of the wind in the apple trees was absorbed by our thoughts like a sponge. Our bodies smelled of the sweet fields–paradise on earth. I sat on the veranda by Aghja’s feet, stared into space and was drawn into the calm silence around her while she sewed our sheet… Aghja made perfect stitches–like a sewing machine. She was tidy and methodical. Her life smelled of hot bread, integrity and duty.” (p9)
But when the same language is used to describe the beatings, the result is devastating. The following is the first beating scene Zohreh portrays. Because the narrative gives no dates, it is not clear exactly her age at this point, but she must have been under 10. The ‘reason’ for the beating is that she played with some playing cards, which her father associated with gambling. The intimacy of the narrative takes the reader into Zohreh’s inner world and strikes at you every moment of her terror.
“In the living room, he threw me down and pulled out his belt. I let out a shriek. A belt! Oh, Blessed Beauty! I desperately tried to cover my legs with my dress. The first blow came. It burned. I felt my skin rising. ‘One. Two. Three. Four.’ Another blow, ‘Ah, One. Two. Three. Four.’ … I counted the marks on the wall. The flowers on the carpet shone brilliant red and three-dimensional. I counted them. I got dizzy with their depth. I closed my eyelids. My thoughts flashed in darkness with extraordinary speed. The sting of the belt was the fire zone. ‘I must pass the fire zone.'” (pp36-37)
And that is not the worst of it. Her father threatens to cut off her hand, ordering a servant, a young boy, to get a knife from the kitchen. The boy stays, and he and Zohreh beg him not to do it, and the father relents. After this episode, Zohreh is beaten regularly all her life, but she does not take the reader into these sessions, except when the beatings, or other abuse, are the outcomes of significant events for her and her sister. The title of the book is one of the names her father calls her during one of these violent attacks.
The abuse at home is reinforced by the abuse of society. For example, I was appalled to learn of the open and relentless sexual abuse that women endured while walking in the street. Men, singly or in groups, walking behind Zohreh, or overtaking her, or seeing her nearby meant a possible attack. They would reach out and grab her breasts, buttocks and pretty much anywhere they could. And this would be accompanied by lecherous, insulting misogynistic speech. At one point, a group of girls from Zohreh’s school give a performance in a large stadium at a celebration for the Shah. After the performance, the girls had to walk to their places to sit down, but this had to be done in the dark because of the fireworks. Groups of men were ready and waiting. As the girls walked by them, the men jumped on them and tore at their dresses and, in one case, rendered a girl almost naked.
The terror the father inflicts on the family creates the backdrop to the family’s entire existence. He sees his ‘discipline’ as the way to create good Baha’is, but the way things turn out proves him wrong. As the story into adulthood unfolds, the trauma stored up from the abuse builds into explosive outcomes that shame the father irretrievably. Zohreh has her “running away episode”, where she elopes with a Muslim man. In this way, she does the unthinkable for Iranian and Baha’i society, but it is clear that she does it simply to get away. She cannot face returning home to the cruelty. Unfortunately, the Muslim man is a spoiled, rich guy who quickly tires of her, and divorces her. Then Zohreh’s father does one thing that impressed me, he takes Zohreh back, despite having determined to shun her, and tries to integrate her into the Baha’i community again, taking her to a meeting at which he gave a speech. He uses his significant influence to shore up her reputation. It does seem, at this point, that the father has had possible qualms about his behaviour. However, he laments to Baha’u’llah about how tragically things have turned out for him.
The final significant event in Zohreh’s life, prior to her permanent move to the US, is her marriage to a government minister. He is a billionaire. Zohreh is, by all accounts, extraordinarily beautiful and the minister is captivated by her. He pursues her for two years, regularly sending very expensive gifts to her home, before Zohreh finally relents under her mother’s constant nagging. The wedding is lavish beyond the far reaches of extravagant. Zohreh and the minister have climb a ladder to get to the top of the cake to cut it! An undertaking that no alcohol would be served is surreptitiously undermined as guests were acquiring alcohol off-venue and reappearing drunk. The father, upon realising this, demands the bar be closed or he would call off the reception. Afterwards, assembly members congratulate themselves that such a great wedding had been carried off without alcohol being served.
The minister was well aware that Zohreh disliked him, and agreed not to insist on his marital ‘rights’ until she was ready. But the wedding night turns out to be another, appalling abuse scene. Zohreh lives the high life for some time, travelling overseas, driving flash cars and doing as she pleases. But she eventually tires of it, divorces the minister, and travels with her sister to the US. Soon after, the revolution overtakes Iran, and Zohreh’s father is abducted and, presumably, murdered.