I found yet another excuse to leave the classroom, quickly and quietly running up the stairs two at a time into the second floor landing, and holding my breath as my heart was pounding with excitement, I slowly pushed open the door to the auditorium, just enough for my small and skinny frame to pass through, and looking to make sure nobody would take notice of my unwarranted presence, I slipped into a corner below the stage, perched on a metal Arj chair, and watched the rehearsal in progress on the stage. Five or six beautiful young women, 10th and 11th graders, were rehearsing a classical Persian dance, breaking for corrections and changes, and resuming again. I loved that loud music coming through the stage loudspeakers. I loved the dark tight leggings and tops they were wearing. I loved the girls on the stage and how they moved to the beat of that music in unison, competently and attentively. Among them was a girl that was the most beautiful of the group, with a perfect complexion, beautiful eyes, and long dark blonde hair. So confident and together, she looked like none of the others; she looked somehow older and more mature than everyone else in that auditorium, in fact. She was sixteen or seventeen and she was gorgeous. She could also dance, and I wanted nothing more in the world than to be just like her.
We would ride the same bus from Istgah Hammam on the boarder of Tehran Pars and Tehran No, where our high school was located. She would get off at Istgah Masjed, and I would have to go on for many other stops before I could reach my home. I would watch her beautiful, perfect hair, which looked curled and managed all the time, looking nothing like my limp straight black mop. When she would get up to get off at her bus stop, there was such confidence in her shoulders and the way she carried her head. As she got off the bus, it wasn’t hard to see all the boys of her neighborhood lining up to receive her and follow her to her home if not by walking next to her, by watching her every step.
The last time I saw her on stage was at the year-end school celebration, for what she and her group had been rehearsing for many months. On this day she looked even more mature, as she was wearing make-up, some kind of eyeliner and a pale pink lipstick, and some of her hair was swept away from her face. I don’t remember now other than the dance, what else it was she was doing on that stage—some kind of poetry recitation with a subject such as “night and day,” or some such thing. I do remember knowing at that time that I won’t be seeing her much anymore, as I was being moved to a bigger girls’ school the following year, and I don’t remember now whether she was graduating that year or the next. The very last time I saw her was one day when I was returning home from the new school. She looked really grown-up to me now, waiting on the other side of the street at Istgah Masjed, with a beautiful mini dress, makeup and well-coiffed hair, as was customary for college-aged young women. I remember that though time had gone by, seeing her still made me so happy, validating her prominent position as “role model” in my life. I thought again on that day, “Yes, I’m going to be just like her when I grow up.”
I thought about her so many times during the years and decades since. Where was she and what was she doing? Did she fare better in life than I did? Did she find a man who deserved her, loved her, and made her happy? Did she have children? Did she go to college? What did she study? Why did I never have the courage when I was younger to have a conversation with her, asking her questions about her ambitions? I am not the same scrawny timid little kid anymore, and I can and I do walk up to anyone and start up a conversation. Why didn’t I know how to do that when I was a 7th and 8th grader? Then on some days, I would remember her and think to myself what if she got married to a rich man and chose a life as a homemaker and ceased to go on paths and routes which I would have preferred to follow? Wouldn’t that be ironic, I thought, having a life completely opposite to that of my first “role model’s!?” I reflected on how in the blissfully ignorant times of our childhood and youth in Iran, we somehow thought everyone will stay exactly where they were forever, easy to locate and to contact whenever we decided. Little did we know that shifts in our circumstances would be so vast and profound, that some days we wouldn’t know in which continent to start looking for someone we had lost.
On a Friday in May, I went to Radio Zamaneh’s website , as I frequently do. There was an interview with a scholar about women in Iranian history, a topic which I would normally devour upon spotting! I couldn’t believe it! There she was in the photograph, being interviewed as an expert on Islamic history and gender issues! My childhood idol, the one who inspired me to love to watch dance to this day, the one I would imitate in my bedroom mirror, trying to walk just like her, was standing behind a podium in the blurred photograph, looking poised and confident still, bespectacled and a little older, but beautiful just the same, and totally recognizable for me.
Her name is Professor Minoo Derayeh, currently of York University of Toronto, and formerly of McGill University. She is an author and a scholar, frequently traveling all over the world, delivering speeches and papers, as scholars do. She is famous and important, just as I had expected her to be, and she has gone far and wide, and I would have expected no less of her. After decades, that night in May, I finally found the courage with which to address her, this Professor Derayeh that she had become. She wrote back soon, saying:
“Thank you for the email. You cannot imagine how much you touched me. Hearing a voice from the most beautiful part of my past took me back to my dream land–Iran. I miss her a lot. You also made me laugh. I never knew I had a fan…”
She is married to another scholar, and has two beautiful grown children. Apart from her obvious credentials and renowned professional achievements, she sounds sweet and kind and warm. You can read and listen to that interview , and learn about her book here. When you go to look at her book description, you can also see what other scholars have had to say about her research and her book. It is impressive. I am immediately setting out to get to know this remarkable Iranian, now for more reasons than the respect I had for her as a child.
I end my true story with some advice for you. Since life changed for so many of us after the Iranian Revolution, moving us around and about to other parts of the world, creating one of the most educated and decent immigrant communities in the world, we have lost many friends and acquaintances, people who may have somehow been important to our identity, or who may have touched our lives and hearts somehow. Do go looking for them in whatever way you can, using the internet and any possible means you can employ. If and when you find even one of them, as I did, there might be a delightful and valuable find waiting for you. In Minoo Derayeh I found an Iranian woman who aside from her meaning to me, she would have made me proud to know about, even if I had never known her as “the girl with the moves.”