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Under usual circumstances those early summer days in the suburbs of Tehran would have been not only pleasant but quite delicious. Acres and acres of orchards, with rows of apple, peach, apricot, cherry, pear and plum trees, connected by gravel roads and streams of water pumped from the wells. Bountiful orchards that were connected like notes composing the most magnificent concerto, like organs shaping a whole human being, like individuals coming together in a tribe. The mesmerizing cheer of the flowing water declared life and growth among the fruit trees like blood running in the veins of a meditating guru. Celebrating an existence, however quiet and a growth, however gentle.
Dwindling population, abundance of nature and minimal pollution, the ingredients for most cherished getaways, made these suburbs lively in some seasons and peacefully quiet in most. During Spring, the area hosted picnics and family outings filled with games and good food. In Summer though, the tree branches opened their arms to climbing children who sought the glory of reaching the highest fruit. Walking on the footsteps of Eve, they would fall for the seduction of the forbidden fruit, the most unattainable pleasure. Nature was an invitation to them for stepping into the land of rules-that-had-to-be-broken. Young and old would nourish their bodies and their souls with the heavenly gift of nature.
Heaven was still on Earth those days. Children were safe running around without supervision. Water from the wells was drinkable and fruits on the trees didn't have to be rinsed thoroughly from the pesticides before the first bite. Life tasted fresh, just like the rush of the juice filling one’s mouth after each bite of that peach; just picked from the tree. Looking at the sky was full of hope. The afternoon fiesta was still a natural part of the day. Being alive was easy. Destruction was not anticipated in every breath.
Those particular years though, things were different. Circumstances were not usual. Those were years pregnant with immense change, deep fear and torturous anxiety. Years that signaled the end of an era. Years of war. The war between Iran and Iraq. Times of red sirens filling the air instead of shouts of laughter. When pastures sinfully and unwillingly camouflaged landmines and skies became the dirty canvas of flying missiles. Nothing about war was beautiful.
Often times, during the war, the attacks were just on the borders. Most of the heat the fight was happening in Northwest of Iran. But every other while Tehran, the Capital, would become a target too. And when Tehran was under attack of Russian and American long distance missiles, tension would rise up to the roof. One of those waves of attacks was during the Summer of 1982. Almost like the finale of a life-threatening firework, this one however did not announce a celebration.That Summer the attacks were so intense anyone who had the opportunity to leave Tehran, fled for the suburbs or safe cities. We were some of those fortunate ones, I guess.We left everything behind, hoping that they would still be there when and if we got back. It was during that summer that almost 18 of us including my mom, my siblings, nieces, nephews and in-laws, cramped in a bedroom-less hut with no running water in Shahriar suburbs, fleeing Tehran for our lives. An opportunity to experience those joyful orchards in a very different mode. Survival mode.
True. We were grateful we had a safer place. We had a choice, unlike many. Many people whose names filled the pages of unwritten obituary for over one million Iranians killed during the war.
The little structure on our property that we stayed at was not designed for overnight stay. It was just a room with a kitchenette built for an afternoon fiesta during hot summer day-visits to the orchards. It was certainly not designed to house almost 20 people for over a month. But it beat the alternative; the roar of missile explosions after the ear piercing red sirens. And then the torture of the silence after the attack that was shattered into pieces by helpless screams of ambulances and firetrucks. The alternative was taking the chance of our lives. Any hardship seemed easier.
Of course, food was scarce everywhere. It was even harder to find groceries in the suburbs since they were now over populated. We had to stand in lines for bread, dairy and meat. Basically for anything we couldn't harvest from the Earth. The air was so heavy with fear it was hard to breath even amongst the trees. Sadness was the mask covering all faces. Even children could feel the tension. Suddenly, during those years, picking fruit from the trees lost its joy and became a chore. Being together was no longer fun but an obligation. Tracing missiles in the sky became the new hobby. Guessing which areas have been destroyed in Tehran was our sad game of Clue. Wondering if our home, our friends and family were safe after each attack. Afternoon fiesta was filled with newscasts about war. Everyone would just sit around watching News on TV or listening to the radio if they were not busy providing necessaties. It sure was a different kind of life in the suburbs.
Women, all of us, had to wear hijab at all times. Since at any given time there were men around. Wether it was one of my brother-in-laws or a gardener, it was forbidden to uncover any part of our bodies , except face and hands. Most nights we even slept with the cover on our heads.
For the 13 year old me, this circus of doom was unbearable. I was not born to give in or give up. I was not wired to accept defeat or misery. I had come to this life to live with joy and spread joy. Even at that young age, I knew poisoning my mind and soul with news was not going to do me any good. Don't ask me how. I just knew. So, I was determined, truly focused on how to protect myself from trauma and make the best out of those days. I was determined to find ways to keep my sanity and health. Long walks in the orchards and getting lost in the web of fruit trees became a part of my everyday routine. Dreaming became my best friend. Imagining life without fear-secure and safe-was the best hideaway. Reading whatever novel I could find, saved many hours. And then, there was the Sun! The sun that melted my anxiety and fired up my resilient being. “Let’s make the best of this”. She mumbled in my ear.
Just like that a story was born. The story of this non-conforming 13 year old muslim girl during war who would climb up a ladder to the hot asphalt covered flat roof of the hut under missile attacks to sunbathe in her bikini away from the maddening crowd. Dreaming of somewhere, far far away, on a beach with a cold drink in her hand. She not only survived the missile attacks but with her resilience and determination got the best sun tan ever in the Summer of 1982 in the suburbs of Tehran in the Islamic Republic of Iran during the war. She set a very high bar for the power of choice, for herself, for everyone who knew her then and everyone who came to know her for the rest of her life. She devoured the forbidden fruit of Choice, Resilience, Awareness and Mindfulness with no hesitation. The bite that marked the beginning to a lifelong journey of never giving up, never giving in and never stopping to dream.
We all experience missiles in our lives one way or another. They may not be long range and explosive. They may appear just as a two by four wake up call. It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when. And a matter of, how we choose to respond to life when it sends us missiles.
After all, what was your wake up call? What did you do with it?