I am sure there is a problem that can hopefully be rectified, said my sixth grade teacher. While he was patting my back gently as the sign of support, he told me you should be able to take the final exams when we correct the mistake
After nearly fifty nine years of age, I still think about the boyhood memories and cherish them with an open heart. May be the weird and wonderful stories that happened in my life in a very distant past are reawakening my mind to the childhood era. Past memories appear like crystal clear drops of water providing me with interesting subjects to write about. They are like burning clean natural gas creating clear blue flames; they are like acid reflux at the middle of night keeping you awake and thinking.
A few months ago when I traveled to Iran and stayed for a few weeks, I visited my home town, the place where I left a long time ago. Because of mushrooming sprawl, I could hardly find my way and barely recognized the old streets. Especially, the outburst of population was evident everywhere.
Where did all these people come from?
A few weeks ago, I finished reading a book in which there was a story about an old Palestinian Muslim man named Abdullah Kadooreh. He is over 100 years old and has 240 sons, daughters, grandsons and grand daughters. One of my own relatives, who passed away a few years ago in Iran, was survived by seven sons, two daughters and nearly 45 grandsons and granddaughters. Quite the opposite, a typical old man in the western countries may have only one or two children and a few grand children. According to some projections, if the current growth rate of population in Muslim countries continues in the future, soon there are more Muslims in the world than are Christians, 30% Muslims and 25% Christians by the year 2025. What kind of conclusion you may place on this demographic trend is up to you, but to some observers it is a troubling concern.
Anyway, after walking on the streets of my home town for a while, with the help of an old friend who functioned as my tour guide, I was able to find my parents’ house, the house in which I was born and grew up. It was sold many years ago, so I had to negotiate with the new owner who finally gave us permission for a visit. Even though all sections of the house remained intact, my first impression was that they looked a lot smaller than what I had imagined in my mind. Even the width and the length of the alleys around our house were shorter. I thought to myself that living in the United States for so long has given me inflated expectations, the impression that everything must be big. The only good thing about this house, when we lived in it, was that it had natural immunity to theft and vandalism. As a result, it didn’t need any security apparatus to ward off the would-be burglars or even a solid entry door to discourage break-ins. Thieves come to steel money and other valuables. In our house there wasn’t even a trace of those. Finding a needle in a hay stack was easier that discovering anything worth steeling in our house. or any brick. It was completely built from mud bricks with no single brick in its structure. Our house always reinforced this feeling inside me that we were somehow fell out of favor but did not stop asking God for guidance and blessing everyday. If nature was fair with us, why our house was made out of mud and dirt, I used to otter to myself as a child (agar zamaneh ba ma adel bood, chera khane ma as khesht o kel bood)
Our house had two sections, one was the place where we lived in, the other section, which was closer to the entrance, was the place where we kept domesticated animas; caws, calves, and occasionally sheep, and a female donkey which functioned as our transportation machine. A red crowned rooster, who was the alarm clock for us and for our neighbor, and the hens were allowed to roam anywhere throughout the house. I vividly remember when the roof was soaked in rain water in hot summer days. The smell of mud was so exotically effervescent! It relieved us for a while from the odor of caw manure. The house had neither running water nor electricity. Finding things at night using kerosene fueled lantern was not much easy and uneventful. The basement of our house was the museum of completely useless antiquities. Older people in my days even saved their garbage hoping that someday they come in handy. The walls of our basement were the theatre of operation! for pests especially cock roaches, and its floor was the place where the chickens laid their eggs.
In cold winter nights, when the sub-zero wind slapped your face like the whipping of the modern morality enforcers! we all sat under the cozy and warm traditional korsi in what you can call our master bedroom. It was the bigger of the only two bedrooms rooms in our house. My father entertained us with his mind-grabbing stories which made it easier for us to endure the boredom of such nights. Almost all of his stories ended up in fatherly advices for us, the kids. Since I was the youngest child, tah taghari so to speak, I had the privilege of sitting on my father’s lap who used to sing songs for me which started with the phrase like this; you are so dear to my heart, my red flower. Such inspirational songs strengthened the sense of bonding and belonging for me. I listen to my father’s stories so inquiringly that often I woke up at the middle of the night thinking about the deprived life of Hassan kachal, the hero of most of his stories
I was born in that house. When? Nobody knows. For the uneducated people like my parents those days recording the exact date of their children’s birth was not important. I am not even sure to this day whether my conception was actually planned or had been the result of my father’s compliance with the advice of the residing mullah of our mosque who told his audience that nazdiki, an implied term for sex, with your wife on Thursday night is mostahab and is like killing one of the enemies of the imam’s family! I even don’t know whether my parents celebrated my birth. Frankly, I was perhaps viewed as an extra burden on their limited food supply and on their other resource. I don’t remember having a birthday party obviously because no one knew when exactly my birthday was. Even if they knew who cared. We believed luxury amenities like birthday party was only for upper class families not for us. Or, may be after raising six other children, my parents didn’t have enough stamina for the seventh. According to economics theory, the value of my existence was subject to the law of diminishing marginal utility; the more you have of something, the less valuable the additional unit becomes. I had no doubt that someone knew my exact birth date. Perhaps someone, like the mullah who recited azan and eghame in my left ear at my birth, must have recorded my birth date on the cover of holy Koran. However, no one in my own family was aware of that.
My parents were both formally illiterate, so were the other members of my family. People who worked at government offices, did not want to deal with the illiterate people or unwilling to listen to their needs and concerns. The official businesses of such citizens, therefore, must be taken care off through the middlemen, known as ghal chagh kon, liaison. Mr. Sar Khosh was the only such liaison operating in the area where we lived. After many years of my birth, my father finally had realized the need to get me an official identification document and the formal declaration my existence. In an attempt to help, Mr. Sar Khosh, who was perhaps a kind-heated man, intentionally understated the age of the male children in order to postpone the occasion when they were summoned to compulsory military service. As I learned later on, my father, following the instructions of Mr. Sar Khosh, agreed to understate my age when applying for birth certificate. This was not an unprecedented practice those days.
I was not therefore existed officially until my official birth certificate, shenasnameh, was issued and my existence was recorded, numbered, and sanctioned by the government. Frankly, there was no compelling reason for my father to obtain a birth certificate me. Even for elementary school registration, the semi-primitive school I attended up until sixth grade, no formal identification document was needed for enrollment. It seemed that it operated under an honor system, the verbal information given by a parent or guardian had been sufficient for enrollment. When I was up for graduation and required to take the state-sponsored final exams, my hidden secret was revealed; I was attending the school for many years without being legally old enough.
For the first time in my life I had the opportunity to pose for a picture at the front of a photographer’s camera. They needed my pictures to issue an entry permit for the final exams. The next day, I showed up at school with my black and white pictures and my not-so-accurate birth certificate in my school bag, and lots of enthusiasm in my heart. It didn’t take a long time for my excitement to turn into disappointment and my hope into despair. It was my teacher who informed me of the bad news, there was a big problem; I was not old enough to be legally eligible to take the final exams. My teacher, Mr. Irani, God bless his soul, told me in disbelief you are even younger than my grandson! How can you take the sixth grade exams? Taking the sixth grade graduation exams for me, an eight year old kid was of course against the law. He told me either there is a problem with your birth certificate or you must be an extraordinarily ingenious to be able to finish elementary school so young. Proving my ingenuity was difficult, therefore, he deduced that there must be a problem with my birth certificate not knowing that there was no mistake just a deliberate misrepresentation by my folks to do me a favor. I had no choice but to become a twelve year old kid at whatever expense, he said.
Neither my father nor Mr. Sar Khosh envisioned that I may go to school someday when they made a decision about my official age. All they were concerned with was to mine a legal loophole to delay my military service which was such a drag on the poorer Iranian families. My father could not even imagine in his dream that one day his son will attends school. Who would have thought, on those days, that the sons of the peasant would even go to elementary school let alone university? They were needed badly by the family to help with the extremely labor intensive farming activities.
I remember, during the weekends I had to go to my father’s farm to help him and his partners with the chores. Understandably, the kids were not assigned the technical jobs such as cutting vegetables. Those tasks should only be done by adults who feared that the kids may damage the roots of the vegetable plants if they are allowed to cut them. Our work was mainly peripheral and/or logistic such as washing the vegetables, bunching them, and preparing them for market. The physical pressures of washing vegetables, specially green onion, in cold stream water was almost unbearable. When you were done, you could hardly stand up straight.
Seeking no solution was like conceding the defeat. There is a substitute available for almost everything we need good. There should be, therefore, a workable substitute for my inaccurate official birth certificate as well. My teacher asked me that day curiously; do you have an older brother. Yes, I replied. His face suddenly blossomed. A solution suddenly struck his mind like a thunder storm. The only way to solve the problem was to swap my birth certificate with my brother’s, he suggested. This was a no-cost, no fault, solution without any headache and more importantly required no need for assistance of any government agency. It is better for a person to be a dog than to be in need of government services in Iran. I had no choice but to accept his suggestion accordingly to which I had to switched my birth certificate with the one belonged to my older brother. The only precaution my teacher urged me to take was that no one should find out about this covert tactical operation and the great identity swap should remain our secret. The uneasy decision for me was that I had to assume my brother’s name and use his other personal information after the exchange was done. The arrangement was made for me to become a new person. Fortunately, the school where I attended was like ancient maktabs. There was no record, no transcripts, and no portfolios. Everything was based on honor, or aural, system. Even though in my childish innocent mind, I was afraid and had a feeling that if I we go ahead with the identity switch plan, the law enforcement officials will raid our school and take the perpetrators of this crime to prison, not knowing that such practices were, if fact, so routine those days.
I had no qualm with my teacher’s suggestion. It sounded expedient and practical. Furthermore, that was the only way I could achieve my dream of graduating from elementary school and free myself from the mess I was unknowingly entangled into by adults. My teacher told me to come back to school the next day with my father and with my older brother’s birth certificate.
Next morning, my father dressed up, put up his dabit haj ali akbari’s tomboon which was like his formal pants, and accompanied me to school. He shook my teacher’s hand using both of his hands. This was a respectful way for ordinary people to shake hand with someone who was really important to them. Then, he put his right hand on his heart; he bowed and stood up near the wall. In other words, the poor man honored all the ceremonial codes of respects that are expected only from those at the bottom of the social scale.
It sounded like we were triumphant, we solved the problem that could have cost me successful completion of my sixth grade. I enrolled at my school again, this time under my brother’s name. I became a new person who was now older by a few years and more hopeful by a leap. From that day on, I attended the rest of the school year using my phony identity. I was my older brother who became unwillingly me. It seems that the substitute identification has served me quite well so far. I am not unhappy with the way things have turned out for me. I just want only to apologize to those whose life has been somehow screwed up by this mishmash. And, I wish to thank my older brother, a seasoned mechanic living in Iran, who had no choice but to relinquish his birth certificate to me so that I can continue with my education. To this day, I believe, he has not been able to explain to his kids why their father and their uncle both have the same name!