In the vicinity of Baharestan, the old Parliament, there used to be an elementary school that was a little gem of an establishment. Dabestan-e Farhad opened in 1958 in the building and grounds that had been home to Mirhadi family. Touran Mirhadi—or, as she is universally known, Touran Khanom—was the youngest daughter of the family and the principal of the school. Her old students, some now well into their fifties, still refer to themselves as Farhadi, and are perpetually in quest of establishing contact with each other and their old teachers. For those us living outside Iran, no trip to Tehran is complete without touching base with Touran Khanom.
Touran Mirhadi turned eighty this year—but don’t for a minute picture her as a retired educator living with fond old memories, happy to receive the kindness and gratitude of her students. She works round the clock managing major projects, is as sharp and unflappable as ever, and graciously fits seeing us into her very busy schedule. Whenever I see her, alone or in company of other Farhadis, I am struck with one thing: Touran Khanom doesn’t need us, we need her. Still.
I made an appointment to see her at the offices of the Children’s Book Council (Shora-ye Ketab-e Kudak www.cbc.ir), one of the oldest and most distinguished NGOs in Iran. CBC has been active since 1962 publishing books and initiating all kinds of projects for promoting a lively and literate children’s culture in Iran. My favorite part of the “Shora” (as the organization and the office is referred to) is the bulletin board. The variety of projects, events, programs, invitations, auditions, and other activities that are posted on it is impressive. My mother says someone ought to make a photo album of this bulletin board; it would be such a good guide to children’s culture in Tehran. Touran Khanom is one of the founding members of the Shora, and her largest project, the Encyclopedia for Young People, is a publication of this organization. Volumes 11 though 14 of the Encyclopedia are currently being worked on. Touran Khanom is full of ideas and talk about her work.
The day I visited her at the Shora two other old Farhad students were there, all of us on brief visits from the U.S. These two guys had not been my classmates but I had flickering and dusty recollections of both as little boys, gray goatees notwithstanding. As we sat around a conference table listening to Touran Khanom’s challenges and tribulations of editing a major encyclopedia, I could not help making a bet with myself that the encyclopedia, monumental as the project is, was not the reason for us being there. I sat there listening to our old principal, conscious of the ticking away of the short time we had with her, asking myself, What is it we want of her?
One of the first things I, for one, want of her is guidance on how to raise my son. I hang on her every word—even when I disagree with her I don’t flatter myself by disregarding her way of doing things. Being involved with my son’s school in the U.S., I am especially interested in her experience running a school where discipline and freedom coexisted so successfully. I am always trying to discern tips from her conversation. But, in her presence, it is not easy to divert Touran Khanom’s attention from what is foremost on her mind. On this day she talked a little about the absurdity of teaching according to children’s “developmental stages.” She considers much of current practices in schools applications of behavior modification techniques. She abhors any approach that leads to conformity and a herd mentality. “I am convinced that you have to look at and teach each child individually,” she says. But how do you practice this principle in running a school and in so many classrooms? “I have written about my own experience in the book about Farhad,” she politely declines making nutshell statements. She does not offer a theory. She has no magic formulas, no short-cut “strategies” to impart to eager listeners in one afternoon. Real pedagogy is far too subtle for that. She did not teach down to us when we were kids and she does not pontificate for us now. She listens to our concerns, asks questions, but offers no advice. In typical Touran Khanom fashion, she refers the solution back to us.
Having solutions referred back to us is something we well remember from our days at Farhad. In fact, a lot of things were referred back to us—maintaining order, for instance. Each classroom elected three “representatives” (namayandeh) each month who were responsible for a variety of things, from keeping the classroom tidy and airing it during recess, to giving the teacher a hand and aiding communication between teacher and students. Once a week each classroom was on duty on the playground, making sure the little ones were not trampled by rambunctious older kids and resolving disputes and conflicts. “The kids know best how to resolve things between themselves,” Touran Khanom always said. At the beginning of the year, along with a new lunch box and uniform, our mothers made us little white armbands with “Namayandeh” embroidered in red thread on it. Learning to be good representatives was simply part of our education. (I can’t help comparing that to what is now preposterously called “leadership training” for children.)
One of the Farhadis visiting that day remembered an incident from a day in third grade when he was namayandeh during lunch break. A bunch of younger kids had devised a game of khar-baazi, where they took turns riding each other like donkeys. The game was getting rowdier and more fun by the minute. Torn between his responsibility as namayandeh and the lure of the game, he finally gave in to temptation. He took off his armband, neatly folded and put it in his pocket, then joined the fun. He knew that he would be accountable later to Mohsen Khan (Touran Khanom’s husband and second in command) and suffer the consequences—and that was exactly the point. Taking responsibility for our choices is what Farhad School tried to teach.
As I listened to the reminiscing going on I was busily taking mental notes on discipline tips that I could adapt to present day schools—I have never known more seasoned authorities on the subject than Farhad staff. And yet even that was not what was foremost on my mind. I had recently read Touran Khanom’s biography of her mother and certain urgent thoughts had been awakened in me.
I have known Touran Khanom all my life. My mother is a friend and colleague of hers and we are related through her second marriage. The more you know about her life the more you are humbled by the strength of her character and principles. But I had little idea of the origins of this strength. Reading Touran Khanom’s book about her mother opened my eyes to a side of her life I had known very little about. It took me quite by surprise to trace so many of the most profound influences in my life to a woman I had never known.
Touran Khanom’s German mother, Greta Dietrich, married Fazlollah Mirhadi and left Europe for Iran with him in 1919. They had met during World War One at a farm where they had taken work in exchange for a place to sleep and food to eat. Mirhadi had left Iran to study in Germany in 1909, fresh from his participation in the constitutional revolution of 1906 and full of idealism and hope for the future. The young German woman, disappointed by what she called the “superficiality and sensationalism” of European youth, had been attracted by the “serious, thoughtful, and well-mannered” Iranian revolutionary. She herself had rejected her strict Catholic upbringing, rebelling against what she saw as the conformity and passivity it fostered. She recounted for her children an incident that left a major impression on her. After winning a medal for swimming across a river she received a slap in the face from her father for taking such risk. When she married her Muslim Iranian husband her family was mortified. “At least you could have married a protestant,” they said. But even they eventually were impressed by the idealism and hard work of the new son-in-law. At any rate, for Greta Iran was an adventure and an opportunity not just to live a bold and free life herself but to help build a whole new society, starting with her children and their friends. A sculptor by training, she told her five children that she gave up making sculptures “to make you.”
She decided that her children would grow up Iranian but also study Europe. During the school year the children went to Iranian schools and in the summers she taught them German. She supplemented her children’s Iranian education with other subjects: French, English, western music, art, literature…. Her passion for building and gardening (she designed their family houses and landscaped the gardens, including the building that later became Farhad School) created the environments for her children’s physical and intellectual growth. A strong athlete herself, she made sure any kid who came her way learned many sports. (My father remembered Touran as a young girl diving off the championship board at Manzariyeh swimming pool.) And through it all she taught the children to think about what they were learning. She listened, she asked questions, and she taught them to ask questions. Greta Dietrich’s education of her five children and their numerous friends, combining what she found best in two cultures, was the backbone of the education we received at Farhad.
The title of Touran Khanom’s first chapter describing her mother’s life in Iran is “Struggle Against Death.” Infant and child mortality was very high in Iran in the early twentieth century. Living with a sister-in-law out of whose 13 children only five had survived, Greta’s first struggle was to keep her children alive. “I vowed that none of my children would die,” she said.
But the shadow of death, and the destruction of two world wars, was never far from the Mirhadi family. The First World War had claimed the lives of eighteen young men in the Dietrich family. It was the devastation of that war that had brought the young German woman and her Iranian husband together in many ways. And though by the time of the Second World War the Mirhadi family was far from Europe, the war came to them.
When the Allied Forces occupied Iran in 1941 (the British in the South and the Russians in the north) Touran’s father was imprisoned for 13 months. The Allies banished the Germans working in Iran to Australia and sent most Iranians with personal or professional connections to Germans to internment camps. Mr. Mirhadi, a civil engineer, had worked with the Germans building the main railroad in Iran—the same railroad that was used by the Americans to provide Russian troops with supplies to defeat the Germans in Stalingrad, the single-track railroad that miraculously sustained mammoth American cargo. Greta rented out the Mirhadi house (Farhad School, later) to support the family while her husband was in prison. Touran’s older sister who was studying in Germany during the Second World War never quite recovered from the trauma of her experiences during the war, including the loss of her first child. When the war was over she and her Austrian artist husband who was released from POW camps in Russia moved to Hamedan which back then was a remote little ancient town. She drowned herself in her work as a physician while her husband sank into addiction, neglecting their children by Greta’s standards. Unable to bear it, the grandmother ended up adopting her five grandchildren and raising a second set of children. She never came to terms with the effects of the war on her daughter and son-in-law but when she visited Germany after the war she too did not recover from the shock. She said that she didn’t recognize her own people anymore. “Perhaps I have become too Iranian,” she said.
Two years after the end of the war, Touran Khanom’s youngest brother, Farhad, was killed in a traffic accident. Touran herself was studying in Paris at the time and upon hearing the news she resolved to do something in Farhad’s memory. “Great sorrow must be turned into great work,” was her consolation. It was the beginning of Touran’s own “struggle against death” and Farhad School was born of this struggle.
Farhad Mirhadi’s death was the first tragedy that cast a shadow on our school. The second was the execution of Touran Khanom’s first husband, Jafar Vakili, a communist major (sargord) in the army. Touran was left with their little boy. “Build a new life,” her mother advised her a year after Vakili’s death. “If you take on the role of a traditional woman you will not raise a good son and you will make nothing of your own life.” And so, with support from her mother and second husband, Mohsen Khomarloo, Touran Khanom started Farhad School.
The execution of Sargord Vakili was of course not talked about at Farhad; any perceived affiliation with the Tudeh Party was quite dangerous. But the school reflected the idealism of its founders while trying not to attract too much attention to itself. (Many of the children’s parents had socialist leanings.) The tuition was modest and sliding scale. There was no heavy-handed, top-down discipline. While Touran Khanom and Mohsen Khan carried great authority, all school staff (teachers, cooks, janitors, etc.) were treated with equal respect and recognition. Sargord Vakili, a heroic and revered figure, was simply a part of the school’s unspoken mythology and the ultimate embodiment of the school’s principle of taking responsibility for one’s choices. His son was our schoolmate and although he was not treated any differently, a certain mystique was attached to him too. It was impossible for the rest of us to wrap our minds around the idea of an executed father. The thought of having your father, guilty of no crime we could understand, murdered was unfathomable. The execution of Sargrd Vakili stood before us like a massive black rock that would not fit into the sunny picture of our childhood at Farhad. Yet there it was. And there was Touran Khanom with her kind second husband, her oldest son growing up a regular boy, and eventually, her new little children.
When I was in first grade another tragedy came crashing down. On a violently stormy night during a trip to the Caspian Sea, two cars holding Touran Khanom and many family members fell over a collapsed bridge into a flooded river and were washed to the sea. Four children and an adult died that night. One of the children was Touran and Mohsen’s little son, Kaveh. The other casualties were my father’s cousins and aunt so I heard full accounts of the horrors of that night. A strong swimmer, Touran Khanom was at some point pulling Kaveh and another little girl to safety when she was hit by a wave of debris from the bridge and lost her grip. Mohsen Khan’s brother, who blamed himself for arranging the trip, lost three of his children that night and became a virtual recluse after the accident. At school, I remember that Touran Khanom vanished for what seemed like a very long time. I remember people scrambling to maintain the regular functioning of the school. I remember Mohsen Khan dragging himself around with stooped shoulders and very heavy steps. And I remember the hushed school assembly on the day that Touran Khanom returned to us. She stood before us in her tall and composed figure and explained what had happened in her typical open and direct manner. I was electrified then and tremble now at the thought of how brave a mother must be to face so many children, her children’s friends, after losing her own child. I remember she mentioned Kaveh but I don’t remember what she said. I’m sure she tried to be reassuring. Many teachers and students were crying. What I best remember, however, is Touran Khanom’s voice. I can still hear it. It was filled with tears and the will to courage.
A couple of years ago Touran Khanom said that in her mind she still speaks to the four boys and men she last lost: Farhad, Jafar, Kaveh, and Mohsen who died from cancer shortly after the revolution. In the book about her mother she writes that true love is when someone inspires you to be a better person—and from what I gather from the rest of the book, it has everything to do with the struggle against death.
On the day of our visit to the Shora we—the three Farhadis, Touran Khanom, my mother, and another colleague—sat around the conference table as other colleagues dropped in with shoptalk or just greetings. But I was restless. Piaget, the “Botany” entry of the encyclopedia, and that afternoon’s performance of a children’s ensemble were all well and good but something else had brought us there. I wondered if she sensed the mute urgency of our being there.
I finally took a risk. “The book you wrote about your mother was very eye-opening for me,” I said, “but when will you write about yourself?” I know how much Touran Khanom does not like talking about herself but I had already started: “We want to know how you have felt living and working through all that has happened to you. We want to know how you did it.” My fellow Farhadis nodded vigorously and I was emboldened. I told her that during all these years that she has been observing us we have been observing her too and, frankly, she is a more interesting person than any of us. More than that, she mattered to us in a way that all her thousands of students could not matter to her. My old schoolmates joined in as I made my passionate, if a little incoherent, plea for her to tell us about herself. She looked at us touched and a little embarrassed but also a bit puzzled. Could she never have suspected that we saw in her more than just someone doing a good job educating us? Struggle against death is what we have now all faced in many ways but very few of us have done a good job at it.
When I visited Touran Khanom at her house a few days later I was even more incoherent. Before lapsing back into Shora business the first day, my mother had suggested that I articulate more clearly what I wanted Touran Khanom to write. But the more I tried to articulate the more I failed. I said that “we” (having the support of two other Farhadis at that point!) wanted to know what we could do now. “Do…?” Touran Khanom said a shade impatiently. “There is always lots of work to do.”
In the years since the revolution Touran Khanom lost her husband and her school. After the revolution all private schools were bought from their owners by the ministry of education for nominal fees. Many, especially the co-ed ones, were closed down. I believe Touran Khanom was given the option to stay on as principal of a re-engineered Farhad but she declined. She gave all her time to the Shora and the encyclopedia, to which her late husband donated his inheritance. The scarf on her head and the long loose clothing that she took up wearing are mere trivialities to her. The way she looks at the new religious culture, I imagine, is the way her mother looked at Iran back in early twentieth century: It is what it is and you do what you have to do. Personal, political, and historical tragedy are just ways of life.
Touran Khanom writes that in their youth she and her siblings and their friends (and later the next generation) had long discussions with their mother about politics. The young people were full of fury and criticism of the way things were in the country, but Greta would have none of that. “Don’t compare Iran with Europe,” she would say. “Compare what is now with what was before. Your fathers have done a great deal developing this country and instead of criticizing you must build on that work.” She herself rejoiced in the construction of every new road, tunnel, factory, school and hospital in the country and in every activity that promoted life and health and culture. She was right, of course.
Now, I see the seasoned Touran Khanom adopting an even more iron-willed version of her mother’s views. She is ready to recount for anyone all the good things that have happened in the country since the revolution. And she’s right too; it would be inexcusably ignorant to brush off the works of a nation for three decades, especially against such enormous domestic and international odds. And the cats that are let out of the bag by a revolution are never to be underestimated—mainly, the confidence of a nation in its ability to ultimately spit out what it doesn’t want. I understand. I also know that Touran’s powers for willing things into reality are quite out of the ordinary. And sometimes, I think, by its sheer strength the willpower obscures reality. “People come to talk to me about women’s rights but they get disappointed in me,” she says in her book. “I tell them Iranian women of merit do not suffer from lack of rights. To claim one’s rights one must first become worthy of having rights—and in this there is no difference between men and women.” Well, yes and no… I have no doubt that Touran Khanom would never look at a divorced woman who does not have a right to the custody of her children after the age of 7, as not being “worthy” of that right. I think in her battle against a death more devastating and all-encompassing than even the personal losses she has experienced, she is pushing the limits of her mother’s determination to see the good things. Or maybe I simply resist trading the young Touran I knew for a version of the middle-aged Greta.
At some point that day, I don’t know how, I managed to put to her a question that has been weighing on me. “All understood is all forgiven…?” I asked. In typical Touran Khanom fashion she took it in silence. But she did smile.
I gave up trying to convince her to write for us. For the rest of our visit I looked at old photographs while Touran Khanom and my mother talked about publishing children’s books. When the taxi driver rang the bell she accompanied us to the door. We walked through her lush garden with its old trees, blooming rose bushes, and unobtrusive landscaping. Her house, where she lives with her daughter and her family, is probably one of the last of the old villa-style houses. As she opened the gate she bent down to pick up one of the many flyers she receives every day from developers offering to buy her house. I looked with hostility at the ugly large towers going up all around her little beautiful oasis. She didn’t let me start. “Nothing wrong with building these huge apartment houses… it is a sign of the rise of the Iranian middle class,” she said. “That is not a bad thing.”
One of the publishers I talked to in Iran is a publisher of books for and about children. His “History of Children’s Litearture in Iran” (www.chlhistory.org), seven volumes so far, is a veritable treasure trove. A great admirer of Touran Khanom, he was in the process of organizing an event in early November, celebrating the “construct of childhood” in the last one hundred years in Iran, and the many educators, authors, and artists who have contributed to it. It was also to commemorate the 80th birthday of Touran Mirhadi with a film about her life. A large elaborate event was planned with over one thousand tickets presold. A great deal of organization had gone into the event and it was with enormous relief one week before the date that one of the organizers said: “Nothing left to do but order the flowers…” Two days before the event it was cancelled. The permit for the gathering was revoked. No explanation.
The day I talked to this publisher we were short of time and full of shoptalk. We hurriedly exchanged ideas about newsfeeds and RSS and he quickly went over the relative merits of different open source content management software for me. We talked about producing manuscripts that will have to wait for publication in the future. No problem; everyone’s sitting on unpublished works. There were lots of people dropping in and out of the room where we were talking—graphic artists, web designers, writers, translators. At one point, when we finally had the room to ourselves, he brought his head close to mine and conspiratorially whispered: “You won’t believe what I have here…,” he tapped a bulging portfolio. “Material,” he said, “for a book about Touran Khanom.”
We both smiled. And I thought, what do you know, maybe it is we who must write about Touran Mirhadi.
Sima Nahan thanks Shirin, Farid, and Ali for this article.