A Mirror Garden: A Memoir
by Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian and Zara Houshmand

Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. ISBN 978-0-307-26613-2.
Reviewed by Susan Andrus
Posted on 03/06/2008

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Creative Life; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus

A Mirror Garden: A Memoir dispels the media's worn-out image of Iran as only about enriched uranium. Authors Farmanfarmaian and Houshmand create an image of Iran that envelops a complex country. Telling the story of Farmanfarmaian's life, they weave together images like a distinctive Persian rug or tapestry, filled with all the bright colors and some very dark ones that exemplify Farmanfarmaian's long life.

Farmanfarmaian begins by showing herself lying on blankets looking at the ceiling where "lines of gold and black traced nightingales and roses on wooden panels of cobalt blue, the color of the night sky," while she listened to her grandmother tell stories. Always aware of color and light, she leads the reader through the ups and downs of life to her emergence as an artist in a land where women were supposed to be confined to the home, cooking and cleaning for their families and raising their children.

Farmanfarmaian grows up amid wealth inherited from her grandfather who traded along the Silk Road. Although she lived a privileged life, she still experienced pain and struggle with the loss of two sisters, one who died from tuberculosis and the other from appendicitis.

Always relating through an artist's eye, she renders even her grief beautifully. Visiting her sister, Iran, dying with tuberculosis, Farmanfarmaian and her nephew, Bahram (her chaperone), ride their bicycles on weekends to visit Iran, "pumping uphill all the way but still pleasant through the dappled shade of the sycamores watered by rushing streams on each side of the road...Listening to the river, invisible a hundred meters below in the ravine, the rushing sound echoed in the windy rustle of leaves." Her sensuous words carry the reader along throughout the memoir.

After Iran died, Farmanfarmaian's grief was boundless. "At Abdolabad that summer, I haunted the two special rocks where Iran and I had sat so often. I remembered the silky feel of her hair as I wove it in braids. I remembered the nights we had sat there, the moonlight casting shadows on the rocks and washing the plains below...I sat on the rocks and cried, my tears drying in the wind with a tiny chill almost as fast as their trails could run down my face."

Schooling for girls in Iran seemed to lack seriousness as Farmanfarmaian remembers childhood pranks where she and her friends often had to stand long hours on one foot facing the wall for punishment while trying not to giggle.

In spite of her privilege, Farmanfarmaian maintains a self-effacing attitude untouched by arrogance. Even though affluent, she addresses the needs of the less fortunate, readily acknowledging that "I knew I wasn't going to solve the world's problems." After graduation, she emigrated to New York with her fiancé, and her brother, Hassan. A difficult marriage did not prevent her from pursuing her artistic interests, although she soon found herself abandoned in New York with her daughter, Nima.

Eventually she divorced and moved back to Iran and married Abol Farmanfarmaian, an oil dealer and engineer who became her champion and the love of her life. Her love for her country, Iran, shows as she begins acquiring relics from the Persian past that had been neglected or were about to be destroyed. The disruption after the 1979 revolution that deposed the monarchy forced the Farmanfarmaians to return to New York. The new bureaucracy confiscated Farmanfarmaian's home and her art.

In New York Farmanfarmaian continued making the "installations" she learned to create while living in Iran, mirror mosaics with tiny slivers of cut glass and mirrors, and paintings behind glass. After the death of her beloved Abol, she moved back to Iran to reclaim her art. Now in her eighties, she continues her art.

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian was born in 1924. She now lives and works in New York.

Zara Houshmand is an Iranian American writer and theater artist. She lives in Austin, Texas.

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