A celebration of Persian voices and talent

Warp and Weft by Leila Mansouri


Warp and Weft

by Leila Mansouri
“But what about the smaller losses, the little frayings? The ones where Fereydoon loses a syllable? Or when I lose a part of my father’s voice I didn’t even realize I’d forgotten?”

Warp and Weft
by Leila Mansouri

When my father immigrated from Iran, he lost a syllable. Fereydoon, the wise and mythical king, unraveled into Freydoon.

Freydoon isn’t a name in Iran. It doesn’t have meaning. In Persian the sound of Fereydoon’s unwritten first vowel is taken for granted, so erasing it is impossible.

In English Freydoon is a name that looks neat but is in fact fraying. A frayed thing that makes an invisible absence out of what, in Iran, goes presumed.

I did not know any of this until after my father died. I was twenty-one then, and for years had heard aunties and uncles pronounce his name Fereydoon on our family visits to California.

But the difference between an accent and a missing syllable isn’t one I had a way to hear. Not when I grew up in Cincinnati, in a mixed family. Except for rare phone calls to my grandparents in Iran and rarer trips for those family visits, my father’s Persian was the only Persian I heard.

And my father was committed to his frayed name. I don’t recall him ever pronouncing it otherwise – unless he was at work, when Fereydoon got shorn all the way down to a boring, American “Fred.” Freydoon was how his name appeared on my school paperwork and on my U.S. birth certificate. That’s how he introduced himself to coaches and my friends’ parents. And that’s how I said his name to my aunt–his actual sister, not just an auntie–when I met her for the first time in Dubai, five years after he died.

We were in a mall, then, probably. Or maybe a hotel lobby. Or maybe this was the evening when Land Rovers drove us out to the desert, and we watched belly dancers from Eastern Europe as we ate hummus on Persian rugs.

The details aren’t important. Our family had chosen Dubai only because it was a neutral third country, where we could all get travel visas without hassle. The conversation isn’t important either. At least I don’t think it was. I don’t even remember why I said his name–usually to me he was just ‘Dad.’

But I do remember how my aunt flinched, the pain in her face mixing with confusion. It was just an instant, this flinch. Then all her warmth came back. I could have easily missed it, or told myself that what I’d seen I’d only imagined.

Maybe I did imagine it, in fact. Maybe the flinch came years later, with someone else, and I’ve rewritten my memories to add in the reaction I’ve now learned to assume.

I’m pretty sure, though, my aunt did flinch, and then she did what was needed to stop the fraying, ignoring my dropped syllable and moving on.

You have to act quickly if you want to save your fraying rug, Google warns. The longer you wait, the more it unravels. Let too much go too long, and nothing is salvageable.

Samira Yamin, Untitled (detail), 2010, gel transfer on wall
Untitled (detail) (2010) • gel transfer on wall © Samira Yamin

It’s easy to not notice a missing thing gone if the missing thing is small and quiet.

Especially in the United States, where so many absences are loud and vast, genocidal, even.

U.S. history is full of these disappearances. Of people stolen into slavery, of wars and diseases that erased communities whole.

And it’s also the history of how this history was made to seem otherwise, and how, in order to understand ourselves, we’ve had to find what has been ignored, suppressed, and forgotten. Entire fields devote themselves to mapping these absences and tracing shapes of old erasures. I should know. I’ve spent my professional life in one of them. I’m trained to read as much for what goes unwritten as what’s on the page–to find and weave back together threads that have been cut and unraveled.

But what about the smaller losses, the little frayings? The ones where Fereydoon loses a syllable? Or when I lose a part of my father’s voice I didn’t even realize I’d forgotten?

I discovered that absence when I came out of my kitchen one day and heard him gently chiding my dog for playing too roughly.

The cadence was so familiar it knocked the wind out of me. “I’m amused,” it said. “This is cute. But you are trying my patience, little dog, and if you don’t stop now you’ll be in trouble.”

Except it wasn’t my dead father speaking. It was my partner, who’s also Iranian American, telling my dog to settle down in a singsong I hadn’t heard since childhood. I can’t quote this singsong’s notes or even adequately describe them. The closest music American English has is the “ah ah ah” that a parent says to a naughty child. But the Persian melody is longer and more elaborate. It rises, then falls. And it’s not welded to a specific phrase. Instead, it weaves itself into whatever words the speaker happens to be saying.

Growing up, I’d never paid enough attention to realize this music was something familiar – it took my partner speaking it, decades later, for me to notice I hadn’t heard it in a while. And even if I had paid attention I wouldn’t have known what I was listening to. I’d have had no way to guess that that singsong wasn’t my father’s alone, that it was Iranian.

It’s hard to write about absences so intangible.

It’s much easier to find words when facts have heft and definition.

For example: The process of weaving a rug begins with warp strung tight on a loom. Then strands of weft are run over and under the warp, to make the rug’s foundation. Only once the next strand of weft is woven in can the rugmaker begin to knot a new row of short, wool threads into place. It’s these knots that make the colorful patterns in the rug’s pile. In traditional Persian rugs each knot is hand-tied. Each rug, knotted row by row, takes thousands of hours.

These kinds of facts make for a proper essay, one solid enough to form itself into sentences and paragraphs.

But I didn’t know any of them when I was a kid, playing on my family’s living room rug. When I assembled Legos or sent my stuffed animals on adventures or traced the curves of a pattern that to me looked like eye-comets, the rug was just a rug. Most of the time, I barely remembered it was Persian.

When I imagine my father’s name fraying, the scene goes like this:

My father arrives in the United States from a country the immigration officer has never heard of, and the sight of his transliterated name stumps the square-jawed, blue-eyed interrogator.

“Fairy-doon?” he asks in the accent of a 1950s news anchor.

My father nods.

“Poor kid,” he thinks.

My father is young, after all, a teenager sent by his family to learn English and go to college. When this fictional officer encounters him, Stonewall and the 1965 Immigration Act are still years away, and it’s barely half a decade since Brown v. Board has ruled segregated schools unconstitutional. The officer tries to imagine an American future for my father, to look ahead to the life this brown clueless foreign kid will have entering the original Mad Men era with a name that sounds like a slur for gay man.

And he can’t.

“Freydoon,” the officer intervenes. “Fred, for short.”

In one version of this scene, my father nods. In another, he protests. In a third, he doesn’t notice what the officer has written until much later, and by then it’s too late to fix.

The main constant is that in all these scenes the officer truly believes he’s done my father a favor.

The only other constant is that none of these scenes are true, or if they are it’s only by accident. My father never told me this part of his story. Each version I imagine for myself now is a made-up thread knotted around an empty space that I take for granted.

Samira Yamin, Scotoma, 2014, hand-cut photograph
Scotoma (2014) • hand-cut photograph © Samira Yamin

Sometimes I wonder that more hasn’t disappeared.

Growing up, I let my teachers call me “Lee-luh.” I hated the sound of it. To this day, it makes me think of squealing tires.

But “Lee-luh” was familiar, a name they’d heard before. It sounded American. It matched my American-born accent.

And there were only so many times I could correct them before my energy ran out. It became easier to live as “Lee-luh” than to dedicate myself to forever arguing with the pronunciation of teachers and hairdressers and coaches.

So when I say I “let” them call me “Lee-luh” what I mean is I gave up.

This kind of giving up–of giving in to small, stubborn erasures–is probably how the world got Barry Obama, Sandy Cortez, and Edward Said. It’s possible that someone actually sat Barack, and Alexandria Ocasio, and Wadie each down one day and told them to silence some of their syllables: “You’ll never make it, kid, unless you go American.”

But more likely these three had other battles to fight and constantly demanding corrections to the record wasn’t worth it. Sometimes it’s easier to go around whatever’s in the way, to weave past whoever doesn’t see and, more importantly, doesn’t want to see us.

Weaving, though, reshapes a space. When two strands of warp are strung on a loom, they shear the area between them from what remains outside. As rows of weft are added, that space gets bounded even further. Holes and gaps are created where before had been only openness.

And as we thread our way through and around what others don’t see, it’s easier than we realize to weave a pattern we don’t intend.

For years, when I met other young Iranian-American artists and writers and activists we’d introduce ourselves by explaining that we were not what was expected. “I’m not a typical Irooni,” we’d say, weaving and dodging, trying to preempt each other’s confusion and judgment. “I’m not Persian Persian.”

It took me too long to realize that we, the ones who assumed we were aberrant, were actually the rule, and the idealized stereotype we’d been imagining as normal was in fact the exception. We’d been so sure we knew the pattern that we hadn’t recognized the empty space. Instead, we’d convinced ourselves the absence was in us.

And when that happens things unravel.

Like with my father and his cousin.

Both came to the U.S. for college, the first two in our family to do so. But for decades the strands of their lives didn’t touch. Each avoided the other out of embarrassment, chastened by parents who kept demanding to know why their own son wouldn’t live up to the other cousin’s good example. Neither my father nor his cousin guessed the unspoken truth–that the stories each set of parents had shared with the rest of the family edited away their own son’s struggles and failures, leaving only facts that conformed to an empty fantasy of immigrant success. Instead, my father and his cousin each assumed that he was the lone disappointing exception, unwelcome in the other’s presence. So, they spent a lifetime apart, living in parallel, two strands of warp in a fraying carpet.

18th Century Carpet from Iran via Met Museum, Islamic Art Collection
18th Century Carpet attributed to Iran or Azerbaijan, via Met Museum, Islamic Art Collection

Is it better, then, to live with what’s mis-woven?

That’s what my family did with the Persian rug that got confiscated in Cincinnati customs. I was in high school then, and my father had heard Iranians were now bringing rugs back with no issues, so he tried it. But instead of coming home through JFK or LAX or Dulles, he booked a direct flight from Frankfurt. The Cincinnati agent had never processed someone from Iran before and seized everything on the spot. It took months and a lawyer to get it all back.

When my father at last unfurled this new rug in our living room, we all tried to focus on the mythical kings and hunting scenes knotted into it. These were what we’d been waiting so long to see, what my father had promised when he described the one-of-a-kind, not-at-all-traditional rug he’d haggled for. Instead, though, our eyes were drawn to the rug’s warped bottom edge. The rugmaker had pulled its weave too tight and my father hadn’t spotted it in the shop.

“Huh,” he said, surprised and disappointed.

Still, we kept the rug, and hung it on the wall, its images from the Shahnameh looming over us, its warp plainly visible. What else could we do? There was nowhere to send it back to, and no fixing it, either–no way to undo the damage without tearing the whole thing apart.

That’s the trouble, sometimes.

Just ask Barack and Alexandria Ocasio. They eventually reclaimed their lost syllables, but the more they entered American public life the more people started to argue that taking back the names their parents gave them was suspect. Sleuths spotted Barry and Sandy in old yearbooks and concluded they’d agreed to these shortened versions of their identities. Speaking the missing syllables now, some insisted, must be inauthentic, self-serving, a fraudulent performance.

In that sense, you could say I’m lucky. Because my written first name could pass as something pronounceably American, it never frayed on paper, and I never had to choose whether or not to publicly mend it.

But I still learned to weave myself around what this country silenced and misspoke. Not the way my father had but in parallel, two strands of weft navigating the same American warp.

The lessons began before I even had a first name, when I was still just “baby girl,” a hospital bracelet clamped around my wrist.

“Baby Girl Mansooki,” my bracelet read.

I was only hours old and already fraying.

It was the first of many misspellings. “Missouri” was the most common when I was a kid. “Mansowi” and “Mississippi” weren’t unheard of. Now, the misspellings are more subtle, less predictable, but they persist. In recent years, my name has been misspelled on insurance documents, by professional organizations, and on programs for public events. It was even misspelled on the faculty ID I was handed when I started at my current job. “Mansoui,” the ID read. None of the triple-checking I’d done as my name was entered into the system had prevented it.

It is a wonder, then, that on my birth certificate my father’s full name was spelled correctly, right from the beginning.

By which I mean it was spelled the same way as on his Ohio driver’s license and U.S. passport: “Freydoon Mansouri”

By which I mean his name was spelled wrong again, too.


Leila Mansouri

Leila Mansouri’s short stories have appeared in The Offing, Rowayat, Santa Monica Review, and elsewhere, and she’s published essays with The Believer, Los Angeles Review of Books, and The New Inquiry, among others. She’s at work on a novel, Half-Terrorist, and a short story collection on the fragmentary margins of the Iranian-American diaspora.

FEATURED IMAGE courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum (18th Century Carpet, Islamic Art Collection).