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As the eighth child born to a rather well off traditional family in Tehran during the hey days of Pahlavi Dynasty, I truly got to enjoy the fruits of my father’s entrepreneurship. Born to a muslim family and attending a Catholic school equipped me from early age with the privilege of “ curiosity”. Questioning everything was my safe zone. Never believing things just the way they appear enabled me to step out of the cultural and familial norms very early in life. Did the habit damage my trust? I would say so. What shattered my trust early in life though, and made impermanence the stage from which I acted my life story was revolution; both the one in my family and the one in the country.
Most often I ask myself how my childhood determined the course of my life. How did the turn of events made me choose to uproot myself? How would life be different today if the revolution hadn't completely turned my country upside down? You see, before revolution, I studied in an all English school. In fact I learned how to read and write English before I learned my mother tongue, Farsi. Love of reading took me to life stories not many kids my age even imagined. By the time I was ten I had not only read many classical novels, I had also travelled to more than 15 countries in three continents. Poetry was my safe heaven. What was an obligation to other kids, like memorizing and reciting Hafiz, Rumi, Khayyam and Sohrab, came naturally to me. I truly believe that novels, poetry and traveling set a very different foundation for my life not just by opening my horizons but also by showing me that there are many ways of seeing life and responding to it not just the way of my family or the social circle surrounding me. This was an invaluable lesson in resilience.
Anyhow, while I was growing up, before 1978, life felt like being delivered on a magic carpet from joy to laughter, from USA to Europe, from villas in the mountains to private pool parties. Where would I be in life if everything went on the same way? Well, it didn’t! In 1978 my whole world came tumbling down. The revolution in Iran followed by a forced war completely turned the pages of my life. It was truly like waking up to a nightmare. In a blink of an eye everything was lost. Everything. The holiday homes in north of Iran, the chauffeur, servants and the cook, private international school, books, music, TV, passports; yes, passports were gone. So was traveling. Traveling was now running away from the city during missile attacks. TV was nothing but mourning ceremonies for Shohada ( martyrs) or images of underage soldiers swimming in their own blood. Books were only Arabic prayer collections that you would recite and cry to beg God for his mercy. Music was only recitations of Quran or melancholy songs of separation from Haq ( God Nature) by male singers. Women were not allowed to sing any more. Nor were they allowed to dress the way they wanted. A black cover suddenly became their national outdoor garment. Universities and colleges shut down. Food became scarce and in some cases portioned. It was hard not to notice people standing in lines for bread and not to hear the sirens that made up the background noise of our lives. Changes were too drastic to be neglected. The choice was there, to fall apart or to be resilient.
Amidst all that social change, my family life was shaken as much as the country. My father, suddenly, decided to leave a 40 year marriage. He abruptly decided to move on and start a new life. While my outside world was loud and noisy by missiles, explosions and sirens, home was all of a sudden very quiet, very different. When I look back, 40 something years later, I still don't know how the ten year old me handled this chaos and survived it. I must have been either out of my body or really tough! I believe the tension and suspense of those days sparked in me the wish to fly away. Every breath, perhaps quite unconsciously, I was working on strengthening the wings that would take me beyond the borders. A dream was born. Continuously fed by the insecurity, suspense, lack of freedom and injustice. Awaiting maturity.
Those years of separation from all that was familiar to me, I submerged myself in reading. I would read any piece of English writing I could lay my hands on. Whether it was an obituary in an old newspaper wrapped around the meat from the butcher’s shop or a dusty paperback retrieved from the junk pile in a second hand bookstore. I started writing my journals in English and play in English. Soon I was dreaming in English in a household where hardly anyone spoke the language.
By the time I was eighteen colleges and Universities reopened after 7 years and so did Iran Language Institute. I had to fight my way for registering myself for English classes. Before I knew it my deep British accent was lost. And before I knew it, along with my B.Sc in Chemistry I was graduated from ILI with such flying colors that I was invited to teach there. A profession I never thought I was so cut out for.
Ten years went by, loving my job, loving the kids. Doing all I can to not only teach English but raise awareness. I drowned myself in work. It was numbing. It kept me going. Working and becoming the first independent woman in my family was just the beginning of living my life as a trailblazer.
By 2000 the war in Iran was over leaving behind a million dead bodies in Iran alone. A rather liberal president, Khatami, had brought many improvements to the society. Books were published in abundance. Music and theatre were flourishing. In fact I attended the first concert where a female sang on the stage after almost 20 years. Art was somehow celebrated again however conservatively. But I had grown way faster than my revolution & war stricken country. I despised limits and rules. Felt suffocated by religious laws. It was as if anything joyful, anything enlivening and fun, anything that a healthy youthful soul demanded was banned. Sometimes it felt like breathing was banned. And that’s why, despite my great job and the opportunities ahead of me when my cousin offered me petition to bring me to US there was not a trace of doubt in my response. “ Sure, I’d love to! Only if you'd have a good job lined out for me".
So, Valentine’s Day 2001, my Iranian passport was proudly stamped with an H1B visa to United States. The occasion was celebrated in McDonald’s in Ankara with the few Iranians who had travelled to Turkey, like myself, for appointments at the American Embassy. I will never forget, I called my mom from a phone booth, “ I got it,”. “what?!” She asked with a tremble in her voice that only a pained heart could hear. “ My American visa.” I mumbled. A pause as lingering as eternity. We both knew what this meant. I had signed in to the separation chapter of my life. The enormous hollow that had just caved in our hearts would never get any smaller. The number of times we could hug each other all of a sudden seemed invaluable. She murmured,” The bird flew off the cage,” and we both held that sacred space in silent tears.
The few months that followed seem blurry. Arranging for this big journey of my life seemed tougher than I had anticipated. Each inhale was a sorrowful, melancholy sense of gratitude for an exhale that facilitated cutting ties one by one; family, culture, history, memories. There was a voraciousness in the painful way of seeing everything. Seeing, taking in whole heartedly and letting go simultaneously. Looking at everything; faces of loved ones, the house I grew up in, the streets that held memories of joy and fear, the mountain range in north of Tehran that watched me grow up and spread it’s trails to my first footsteps of resilience and independence. Looking at everything and thinking,”When would be the next time I would see them?”. Days were long chains of goodbyes. I knew, life would never be same. I knew, I was risking it all. How often is it that we know and how often do we think we know?
April of 2001, after a 26 hour journey of suspense, I prodded into my ambiguous future with 3 suitcases and $3600 in my pocket, arriving at Hartsfield Jackson Airport. The details of getting ID and starting a job and establishing myself in a male dominant industry as a naive 32 year old is a book on its own. All in all, there was a lot to learn. From work itself to work ethics, from finding directions to a meeting to ordering food from a menu where everything seemed gibberish, from making friends to finding a doctor or a hairdresser, from shopping to putting gas in the car. One of my funniest memories that still makes me laugh at myself is from my first gas station experience. I did the first few things right: open the lid, put the credit card in and follow instructions. How hard can it be? Well, if in your country gas stations do not sell diesel along side regular, unleaded & super you are allowed a little confusion. I picked the nozzle and as hard as I tried, it would not fit in the hole! “Is something wrong with my car? Do I have to go to a special gas station?” Being too scared and intimidated, the latter seemed to be the best solution. I got back in the car and drove to another gas station. Gratefully the nozzle was the right size this time! It took me a very long time till I realized what was going on. How often do we over look the challenges of an unfamiliar realm? How often do we practice patience and compassion for someone dealing with one? How often do we break the boundaries and put ourselves into one of those trials?
The first few years were truly challenging. I missed my mom more than anything in the world but I couldn't leave the US since my visa was one entry. Besides, a fear shadowed my yearnings more and more every day and escalated with the 9-11 catastrophe. “What if I go and I can’t come back?” I had endless nightmares that paralyzed me from taking any action.
Besides my mother, I missed everyone. I missed the scent of Spring. I missed the togetherness. I missed the daily family drama. I missed having a cup of tea with a friend, someone I had a history with. I missed looking around and seeing familiar faces, familiar spaces, familiar sounds. I missed waking up to the sound of my mother making breakfast. I missed tilting my head backwards so that she could brush and braid my hair. I missed waking up about 3 am to the sound of Shajarian reciting Rabanna before the daily fast started in Ramazan. I truly missed hiking up the mountain range in north of Tehran early hours in the morning and witnessing sunrise at the peak in silence.
But there were certainly things I didn't miss that truly kept me going stronger every time I wanted to doubt my choice. I didn't miss covering up. It was hard to miss insecurity, injustice and lack of freedom. It was hard to miss the butterflies of fear fluttering in my stomach with the sight of the religious police. It was hard to miss the night spent in a local jail with the thought of suicide for picnicking with a couple of male friends. No way I would miss being stopped at the entrance of every building to have my nails checked for polish or my attire for not being“ the right color”. There are certainly things I have not and never will miss. I will never miss being a woman in Iran. But then again, how was being a woman in corporate America in construction industry treating me? Different? Yes. Better?!
After all, despite what I had imagined, life did not turn out to be all rainbows and butterflies after I left Iran. Proving myself at work was truly challenging. Corporate world and culture hit me hard on the face with no mercy. Kindness was not easily found. Grace seemed to be just a word you heard in church, wrapped in with your charity donation and dropped off on your way out. I thought I would come to a world where passion is alive, where joy is celebrated, where one’s human essence is respected. I had imagined a life exposed only on marketing materials. I learned the hard way, after many times of falling and getting back up, that people are people. There are kind, loving, graceful and selfless people with different colors and religions in this longitude & latitude as there are elsewhere. And there are, at the same token, people who lie, cheat, have addictions or are drowned in greed or self centered-ness just like anywhere else. There are all kinds of people everywhere.
Running away all of sudden lost its glory as a solution. The toughest challenge of immigration revealed itself: Stop running away and start dealing with yourself! What I learned reinforced my belief that life is what you make of it. I met immigrants who never stepped out of their circle of friends from their country of origin, immigrants who didn't indulge in any of the opportunities their new home offered and yet, they left their country for“ a better life ”. What constitutes a“ better life”? What do we really strive, seek and perhaps find( or not) that makes up for all the hardship of uprooting and disconnecting? What do we leave behind and what do we take with us?
When you choose to become an alien, far away from your homeland, these questions, and many more, lay a background for your everyday life. At least they did for me. Every breath became loaded with doubt, with a search for belonging, with a yearning for arriving. When I wanted to visit Iran after 13 years, I would say, “ I’m going home.” Two weeks later in Iran, I couldn't pack fast enough to “ come back home”. Fifteen years later the question still remains unanswered: “ Where IS home?”