The only part of Zohreh’s being she had ever loved unconditionally was her body. She subjected it to scrutiny often, like she did the other dimensions of herself, and it alone passed muster. Whenever she studied herself in the full-length mirror on her closet door, she was filled with awe for the curves of her own hips, the angles of her shoulder blades, the contours of her lean back and legs. Her body was her constant companion—as faithful as a dog, as warm and sensual as a cat, and less demanding than either.
She felt entitled to this tiny shred of self-love at age twenty-six and at the height of her physical beauty and power. But at times when studied her body in the mirror, she was a divided self, like her mind was splitting off and hovering above to give her guilt. It was easy to love your body if you were raised in a traditional Baptist household, where female beauty was seen as godly. It was much tougher when you were born in Iran and raised in an affluent Iranian community in the heart of Atlanta. She knew this was screwed up and unjust, but there it was.
Like most Iranian women who had come of age during the Islamic Revolution, Zohreh’s mother had backward ideas about women’s bodies. On one hand, she regarded them as decorative items intended for the pleasure of others, and believed it was important to use them to attract attention. On the other, she believed that a woman’s body was not to be touched except by a single chosen man—and unless it was necessary for hygiene, it was never to be touched by the woman herself.
The movie Chicago came out when Zohreh was in middle school, and she quickly became a devotee of it. She found the glorification of husband-killers amusing, and it gratified the part of her that harbored anger against the boys who taunted her at school. But the film touched a deeper, more buried part of her psyche; a part she couldn’t pinpoint. She loved the costumes, the stockinged legs, the red lipstick, the sultry voices, the suggestive scenes, and the lurid images that these scenes conjured up in her mind. She especially loved the dancing. She bought a DVD of the film with money she stole from her mother’s purse and watched it over and over again until she knew every beat of the songs by heart and could mimic all of the dance moves. As she undulated her body to the smoky female voices, she fell almost into a trance. It was like being rocked in an embrace.
Chicago started her quest for other movies in the same vein, and she soon discovered Cabaret. She became so obsessed with this movie that at one point she convinced her mother to let her chop off her waist-length hair so she could look more like Liza Minnelli. Her arched eyebrows and high cheekbones bore no resemblance to Minnelli’s vaguely rodent-like features, but she examined herself in the mirror, pursing her lips and tossing her head in a pathetic attempt to mimic her favorite heroine. She plunged deeper and deeper into the performance underworld until she reached a point where the seamier, the sleazier, the more degenerate the performance was, the more wholeheartedly she embraced it.
Her mother didn’t know about any of this, of course.
When she moved away to UGA and was finally free from the scrutiny of her mother, Zohreh was sucked into the sordid world of college sex. As soon as the men she slept with tried to stake a claim in her, though, she felt trapped. Determined to reclaim herself, she moved to Atlanta after graduation and rented a small studio in Cabbagetown. A few days later, she waltzed into a tiny, smoke-filled bar in Atlanta called “Southern Exposure,” auditioned, and was hired as a performer.
During the day she was Zohreh Hakim, a biostatistician with a respectable job and a decent income—but at night she became Venus, a provocative burlesque dancer. She chose the stage name because it was the literal translation of her Persian name, but also because she liked the connotations: goddess of love and desire; ideal of female beauty; born from the foam of the sea; venerated by men and women alike. It was a fitting name for her secret alter-ego: her Ms. Hyde.
Shortly after Zohreh began dancing, her mother happened upon a Facebook post advertising an upcoming show at the club. A single click led directly to a photo of Zohreh stretched out on piece of satin, her cleavage accentuated by the camera angle, her lips slightly parted, her eyes glancing sleepily up at the camera from beneath heavily made-up lids. The caption read: “Come see VENUS, our dreamy new goddess, at Southern Exposure this Saturday night!”
When her horrified mother confronted her about the photo, Zohreh did some quick thinking. “It’s just a joke, Maman-joon. Some of my old college friends thought it was funny to post that about me. I’m so busy at work right now that I barely have time to notice what’s on my Facebook page.”
“Okay, azizam,” Maman said, her voice soft and maternal. “But please be more careful. And tell your friends that their jokes can get you in trouble.”
She chose the stage name because it was the literal translation of her Persian name, but also because she liked the connotations: goddess of love and desire; ideal of female beauty; born from the foam of the sea; venerated by men and women alike.
Maman’s acceptance of her flimsy explanation filled Zohreh with guilt, but she wasn’t about to give up her dancing. She couldn’t help herself—she simply loved it. She loved the women who performed; the woman-heaviness of it. She had read about Venus cults where statues of the goddess were ceremonially removed from the temple by virgins, taken to underground baths, undressed, bathed, and garlanded in myrtle. Being a burlesque dancer was like being part of this powerful cult. She believed in it, and she needed it. She would just have to be more careful from now on, and use every tactic at her disposal to keep her burlesque identity a secret from her mother, her father, and the entire Iranian community.
* * *
One Saturday morning as Zohreh drew the curtains aside to let in the early morning light, she had a vision for a stunning new burlesque number. It came to her when her eyes fell on an Iranian doll that sat on her bookshelf, pushing forward a memory that played in her mind with cinematic intensity.
It was summer, and Zohreh was in Iran with her mother to visit her grand- parents. The day was sweltering, as summer days in Tehran often are, and Maman and her mother Madar-jaan wanted to take Zohreh out for faloodeh, the cold rosewater and cornstarch confection she loved. Despite the heat, Maman and Madar-jaan had to dress in full hejab, but Zohreh was still young enough to go out uncovered. The warm breeze caressed her bare legs and blew through her long, dark hair as she walked down the sidewalk.
Just as they were nearing the faloodeh stand, Zohreh’s eyes fell on a doll in the window of one of the general stores that lined the streets of Tehran. The display in the window was cluttered and dusty, but she could see the doll peeking out from behind the jumble of waste baskets, tablecloths, notebooks, and other household items that seemed to have been thrown together haphazardly. She was made of cheap plastic and dressed in a glittery tribal costume of garish mismatched fabrics. Her crude, painted-on features were frozen in an unnatural stare—more of a grimace than a smile.
When Zohreh asked her mother if she could have the doll, Maman instantly refused.
“That is the ugliest doll I have ever seen, Zohreh! Why on earth would you want to have a doll like that when you can have all those beautiful dolls that they sell in the States?”
Zohreh looked at the doll and she knew with certainty that the doll was looking back at her—crying out to her.
“I thought you were too old to play with dolls,” her mother said.
Again Zohreh begged her mother to let her have the doll, and this time, thanks to Madar-jaan’s gentle prodding, she gave in.
Back at Zohreh’s grandparents’ house, she lifted the doll from her box, held her at arm’s length, and examined it. The more she stared at the doll’s rigid expression, the more she felt it softening, coming alive. The doll seemed to be pleading with her for release. Zohreh began to undress her.
She started with the outer skirt, which had an elasticized waistband and came off easily. Then she proceeded to the trousers the doll was wearing beneath her skirt, which were loose fitting and also came off with no difficulty. Underneath these garments, the doll’s plastic legs glistened on either side of a sexless trunk. It startled Zohreh to discover that her doll was not wearing underwear, and she resolved to get some for her as soon as she could.
Next she turned her attention to the upper part of the doll’s body, which was clothed in a shiny red blouse with gold stripes streaking through it, and a short, loose vest of green fabric. She removed the vest with a single movement of her fingers. But the blouse resisted: it was glued to the plastic and couldn’t be lifted from the doll’s body. Frustrated, she began to yank at the cloth until it gave way with a sudden sibilant sound.
She was not prepared for what she found. The doll had no breasts; no semblance of a woman at all. Her chest had been painted green to look like an undergarment of some kind, and there was just a vague bulge where her breasts should have been. Zohreh hastily closed up the fragments of the blouse and put the vest back on. Then she touched the headscarf the doll was wearing and discovered that it, too, was glued on. Fearing that her hair might also be nothing more than paint, she made no attempt to remove the doll’s headscarf. She did not want to face any more truths about her doll, so she put her back in her box. It was years before she removed the doll from its box again.
* * *
Zohreh’s sudden vision that Saturday morning filled her with a sense of purpose: her burlesque number would finally allow her, symbolically at least, to give the doll the freedom she deserved. When she stripped down to her own very real pudenda and breasts, the doll would finally possess these features, and they would spring to life before the audience.
From a trunk at the foot of her bed, Zohreh pulled out a tribal outfit she had bought on a trip to Iran a few years earlier—a gorgeous Qashqai costume with an intricately embroidered tunic, a billowing skirt, and a long flowing headscarf bordered in sequins. She slipped it on and looked at herself in the full-length mirror. The costume was a little tight, but she liked the contrast between the form-fitting tunic, which accentuated the contours of her breasts, and the full skirt and trousers, which gave a subtle hint of the shape of her hips and legs. She turned this way and that in the mirror, watching as the skirt swished around her calf muscles in a shimmering spiral. It looked and felt right.
She picked up the scarf and draped it around her body as she had learned to do in Iran, flinging the loose ends over her shoulders. This would make it easier to remove. She practiced draping it and removing it several times until she could do it gracefully. Next she practiced removing the skirt and the trousers. Both were elasticized as the doll’s had been, and she had no difficulty getting them off with a few gentle movements of her fingers and a slight swiveling of her hips.
The top was going to be trickier. She didn’t want to destroy her costume, but she could engineer the tunic with snaps going down the front so it could be removed wholesale with a single swift move. Beneath the costume she would wear sheer thigh-high stockings, a garter belt, and her favorite stilettos.
* * *
The act of preparing for a number was intensely personal for Zohreh. Putting on her costume and doing her makeup was a ritualistic act for her—a kind of sublimation and rebirth—and she needed to do it alone. She completed most of her preparations at home, and when she got to Southern Exposure she went backstage only for long enough to say a quick “hello,” change into her stilettos, and hang up the raincoat she was wearing over her costume. She entered the club and seated herself in a dark corner where she couldn’t be easily spotted. Sipping a whiskey-ginger, she watched the acts that came before hers as they grew progressively raunchier. By the time the name Venus was called, the audience was in a state of near frenzy, shouting out across the floor.
“Come on, sister!”
“Let’s see what you’ve got!”
“We love you, Venus!”
Zohreh gulped the last of her whiskey-ginger, stood up, and made her way onto the stage, the whoops and roars swelling behind her. But as soon as she stepped out of the darkness and into the orb of spotlight, the catcalls and wolf-whistles stopped, and silence fell as sharply as a machete. She was covered from head to toe in her Iranian tribal costume; only the tiny oval of her face showed. This was something that the audience at Southern Exposure had never seen before, and they weren’t quite sure how to react. She couldn’t see too well with the spotlight in her eyes, but she could sense squirming in the audience and heard a stifled gasp or two.
The first track on her compilation was Iranian music—not belly dance music, but classical Iranian music, deep and plaintive. She stood stock-still on stage for the first four measures, looking out ahead of her but avoiding eye contact with the audience. Then, as the music rose in pitch and volume, she began to move, at first only turning her head stiffly from side to side, and then gradually making mechanical, puppet-like movements as though she were being pulled on strings. When she had completed the awakening of her body, she moved downstage and began to remove her outer layer of clothing.
She began with the vest, removing it jerkily, still in puppet mode. Her movements became more fluid as she removed the trousers, lifting each leg and pointing each toe in turn. She took off the elasticized trousers slowly, swiveling her hips as she pulled them down inch by inch. Next she turned her back to the audience and slid her skirt down to the floor, lifting the tunic slightly to expose the bottom rim of her garter. Still wearing the tunic, she turned back toward the audience, reached up, and removed the headscarf, passing it across her arms and stroking her face with it as she did so. After she tossed it aside, she unfastened her hair and shook it loose until it cascaded down her back.
The music now changed to a playlist Zohreh had assembled of classic television jingles from the 1950’s. The compilation featured Angie Dickinson going into raptures over Mr. Clean, Dinah Shore singing “Nothing can beat ‘er/Life is completer/In a Chevy,” and other female vocalists expressing their passion for their furniture, cake mixes, and cleaning products. At intervals amidst the jingles, she had recorded male voice-overs from a video she had found on YouTube called “The top ten most sexist commercials of all time.” In voices saturated with testosterone, the men ridiculed their girlfriends’ driving, told their secretaries that their coffee was “murder,” and took their wives to task because their shirts weren’t white enough.
As this compilation played, Zohreh dusted imaginary furniture with a feather duster she had placed on the side of the stage. She swept it up and down over the contours of her body, brushed it over the open space above the neckline of the apron, and parted her legs to dust the space between her upper thighs. Six minutes into her number, the audience, usually screaming wildly by this point in a dance, was still mute. They remained mute when she leapt down from the stage and began to weave through the tables, swiveling her hips at exactly eye level. She ended the number back on stage again, where she picked up her headscarf and wrapped it demurely around her body, then crumpled to the floor.
Even with her head buried in her arms, she could sense the audience reacting as though they were emerging from hypnosis, offering a bit of polite applause above the murmuring and whispering. She lifted herself from the floor, took a bow, and dashed off the stage.
She couldn’t bear the thought of returning to her table inside the club; of anyone buying her a drink and making patronizing, clueless comments about her number. Avoiding eye contact with the audience, the bartenders, and her fellow dancers, she shot into the dressing room, grabbed her raincoat, and exited the club through the back door. It was past midnight, but the streets of downtown Atlanta were still lined with cars, their taillights winking on and off at each intersection. Zohreh found the traffic comforting, and by the time she turned onto I-75 she had calmed down.
Making her way north on the interstate, she thought back over tonight’s performance and the reaction to it. How many members of that audience, she wondered, would use her number to reinforce their belief that it sucked to be a Muslim woman? She detested Islam’s screwed up ideas of womanhood—but she detested this narrative even more. She wasn’t sure exactly what she had been trying to say with her number, but whatever it was had failed to penetrate those thick skulls.
As soon as she walked into her apartment she headed straight for the bathroom. What was she looking for when she examined herself in the mirror? The face that looked back at her was not the face of a performance artist—it was the face of a clown. She grabbed the gold bar of Dial and worked it through her hands under the faucet until it formed a rich lather, then lifted it to her face and began to scrub. She had forgotten to remove the false eyelashes, and one of them fell into the sink, sticking to the side of the bowl. It looked like a dead spider.
She picked up the scarf and draped it around her body as she had learned to do in Iran
She stripped free of her raincoat and discarded it on the bathroom floor, and when she looked back into the mirror she realized that the pasties were still on. She yanked them off, painfully, and tossed them into the wastebasket. She usually slept in the nude, but tonight she grabbed a tee-shirt from the hook on the inside of the bathroom door and pulled it over her head. She didn’t love her own body right now. She didn’t even want to remember it was there.
When she got in bed she turned her face to the wall and hugged her quilt to her chest. Closing her eyes, she breathed in the odor of her own sweat-drenched body, mixed together with the vague floral aroma of Madar-jaan, who had made the quilt for Zohreh years ago from remnants of old clothing. She conjured the face of her dead grandmother now, and remembered the family legend about how she had once removed her shoe in the middle of a street in Iran and used it to slap a mullah she thought was ogling her young daughter.
That daughter was Zohreh’s mother, who was now blithely sleeping in her house in America and had no idea who her own daughter was.