Through the Eyes of a Child

This blog started off being a letter to a friend and by the end, I felt that it had the qualities and values that I would also want to share with the rest of you.

You, the reader of my blog, and I may or may not have ever met before. My name may be a snapshot in the passage of your life at one point in time, but that is no longer the case. I may be someone you consider a close friend, yet know nothing about. Our lives are so different yet here I am expressing my deepest feelings and emotions to you, a stranger, and asking for your trust in cherishing my memories of life. I share with you my heart, my feelings, my experiences, and my hopes and dreams for my birthplace, Iran. You are a stranger yet I hold you to the the highest level of respect as a witness of my journey through life.

I am a 33 year old Iranian-American woman living in the suburbs of Chicago. My family (Mother, Father, and brother) came from Iran in September of 1986 and flew straight into Chicago O’Hare airport and have been residing here ever since.

I left Iran at the critical age of 10. The day after my 10th birthday we left Tehran and went to Sweden (where my paternal aunt lived), and after a few months we were able to obtain a Green Card and move the the United States. Although the difficulties and challenges we faced as immigrants in a strange country were endless, our lives were blessed in comparison to those who stayed back in Iran. Millions of other immigrants just like me know what the pain of coming into this country and leaving everything you know behind is like. We don’t have to talk about it. We can look into each other’s eyes and just see it and feel it. For those of us who came from Iran, it’s ironic to see what we went through here in a foreign land, and still refer to ourselves as the “lucky ones.”

When I came here I didn’t speak a word of English. I only knew the word for cheese and that’s where my knowledge of the English language ended at the time. In case you were wondering, it was the endless hours of PBS children’s programming that has helped me go from knowing one word to the lengthy blogs that I write for you today. Thank you, PBS.

In Iran, I grew up having to go to school every single day knowing my morning routine which included the burning of the the U.S. flag and walking all over it’s ashes while learning to chant the famous “Death to” slogans that were full of hatred toward the country that I now call home. “Marg bar America….Marg bar America….”

The words still haunt me to this day and the feeling of guilt for saying such slogans will never leave my mind. Did I really understand what I was saying at the age of 7-8 as I stood in line before going into my classroom? Did I realize the impact of it all? And if I did understand, would I have done the same?

The truth is no I did not. I had no clue what I was saying. To be very honest, I didn’t even know America was a real country because every time they said the word, they showed the image of Uncle Sam, so I thought America was a person who resembled the doll Uncle Sam. How sad…. Yet how powerful…. How many more children there must be to have felt the same way I did…..The numbers are impossible to count.

I was about 3 when the Iran-Iraq war started. And as a result, the only image of Iran that I had as a child was the sound of the sirens “Tavajoh Tavajoh…In sedayi keh mishenavid….” The words still haunt me when I hear any kind of sirens.

I remember the lights and the water being shut off and hearing the Iraqi military planes fly over our home in Tehran (My family is from Shemiran Tehran, specifically the Tajrish neighborhood) and drop bombs. Hearing the sirens and screams from a distance, and huddling under a blanket with my family in the dark, as I tried to imagine what a normal evening at home for a family of four may look like, was almost impossible to fathom.

I remember all the neighbors crowding into the streets every night and the sounds of “Allah-o-Akbar” and the restlessness and fearless families including mine, whose attitude was “agar mordim keh mordim. Bemirim rahat beshim.”….”If we died that’s fine. If we die we will at least be in peace.”

I remember my mother and grandmother having to wake up at 4 in the morning to go stand in long endless lines just to bring me and my brother a bottle of milk to drink, and some meat or chicken, which at that time was a novelty to consume, and only families with children received a coupon to obtain these items so that their children can grow to be strong. But for what reason? To grow up and be strong so they can go to war at the age of 12,13, &14 and be sacrificed on the minefields in the name of Allah?

I remember my maternal Uncle Saeed (God bless his soul) who would stay up all night out of love for his children and his nieces and nephews, using his God given talent of drawing and painting, and mimic a replica of the coupons with his old art supplies that he had kept from the better days in Iran, in order to multiply them and help us all have 2 bottles of milk instead of 1 for that given week.

I remember all the windows in our house shattering from the impact of the explosions so often, that my parents got tired of putting up new windows and towards the later months of our lives in Tehran, we had put up boards and nailed blankets to the places where windows should go. Our beautiful, lavish home was no longer so lavish.

I remember taking getaway trips to Shomal (The northern region of Iran by the Caspian sea) just to escape from reality and keep life as normal as possible a couple times a year. And during our 6 hour road trip through the beautiful, scenic mountains, we traveled to the Caspian Sea, just to be stopped every few miles and threatened, searched, interrogated, violated, and often times prosecuted for having music in our car.

As we approached these Military bases, my father would quickly take out the Moein cassette tape that we were listening to and say “ghayemesh kon. ghayemesh kon…. Jiketoon dar nayad.”….”Hide it, Hide it and don’t breath a word” … the rude, disgusting looking military men of the Islamic regime approached our car, the only thing I could do was start to cry and look away because their faces would give me nightmares as a child; anyone who has seen one of them close up, knows exactly what I am talking about. All I could think to myself was “Why is music illegal? What is so bad about it except that it makes me dance? Why can’t I dance? Why can’t I smile?”

Now you tell me, how normal is it for a child at the age of 5 or 6 to have these questions go through her head?

I remember getting to the North of Iran and having to separate from my mother by the sea because men and women were not allowed on the beach together. My parents would give me a buzz haircut which they liked to refer to as the “Googooshi” hair style, referring to the beautiful queen of music in Iran by the name of Googoosh, and trying to pass me off as a little boy so that I could go swimming without a chador wrapped round my body. There was an enormous black cloth that separated the waters between where men and women were allowed to go. The only thought that you could have when looking at this large black Veil was, how in the world did anyone put such a thing together. The size compared to a small village and was not connected to anything. Just the fact that such a unique piece of, what I like to refer to as “architecture”, was thought of and assembled, is a sight to go and see.

I remember sitting on the beach building sand castles with my brother and the Komiteh (the military guards) walking by and referring to me as a little boy, and that would enrage me. I wanted to get up and scream every time that I am NOT a little boy. I am a beautiful little girl who can’t wait to get my ears pierced. I can’t wait to stop having to climb the cherry tree in my front yard, to pick off the jointed cherry stems and put them around my ears and pretend like I am wearing long, dangling earings. I couldn’t wait to be able to grow my hair long and stop hearing the excuse from my father that my hair needs to stay “Googooshi” because this way I wouldn’t have to wear the hejab when I am outside the house (This way with short buzz cut hair, I could pass as a boy and no one would bother me about not wearing the hejab) and when I do have to wear it in school, long hair would cause irritation under the hejab.

I hated not being able to go swimming with my entire family and watching my mother go into the water with an ugly roosari (head scarf), mantoo (a rain coat), and pants. I wanted her to feel the water against her skin so bad. I wanted her to feel what it was like to swim free without having to worry about all the stuff she was wearing.

I remember being told not to accept tissue paper from strangers in the street because there was a story of a “Khahar zaynab” (a woman basij) who offered another woman who was wearing lipstick a tissue paper to wipe it off her lips (because it was un-Islamic to wear make-up), and the tissue had intentionally been dipped into a poisonous substance and as the woman with the lipstick wiped off her lips, that substance entered her body and she died.

Now looking at this story I think to myself, it’s amazing that no one said don’t wear lipstick anymore because of the consequences. They continued to wear the lipstick as they pleased, but learned to adjust in their society that did not approve of such a thing. That right there is human power of mind and expression. Lipstick had become the symbol of women’s expression of wanting their rights. A symbol of rebellion against the Islamic regime.

I remember my aunt wanting to have a wedding, but instead of conversations about the wedding planning and the romantic relationship of the bride and groom, as I had seen in my fairy tale book of Cinderella, the conversations completely revolved around how to have a wedding without experiencing a home invasion by the government officials, the Komiteh.

I remember some of my family members being detained because they attended a wedding , and the Komiteh raided the party and took everyone to the police station and put them all in jail. From there, they made them all sit in the prison cells with some sugar cubes that they had provided to them to use as a tool to rub off their nail polish from their finger nails (According to Iranian-Islamic clerics, nail polish was not considered Islamic and anyone wearing it was considered to be an opposer of Islam and a threat to the Islamic regime). They had stayed in the prison cells all night scrubbing every pigment of color off their finger nails and when all of their nails were covered with real blood and not the color red blood from the nail polish, they were released to be with their families only after signing a written oath that they would never again participate in a party. Yet, they were the lucky ones. They did not receive the “oh so famous” 80 lashes that others received for such threatening actions as having a wedding with men and women all in one room. To this day I cannot look at a sugar cube and not think of the purpose it has served behind bars in Iran.

I remember having to put up Khomeini’s dirty, nasty, hideous, disgusting, and scary picture in our home because my father worked for the Shahrdaryi of Tehran (Municipality of the city of Tehran), and they inspected homes often, and if they did not see such a disgusting image in your home, you were no longer allowed to work and you could have very well been labeled “Taghooti” (a term for those who are supporters of life prior to the Islamic Regime in Iran) and prisoned for it just like countless others had already been.

I remember having to wear a roopoosh (an Islamic raincoat) and a maghna’e (a form of hejab more restrictive then a head scarf) that choked my throat, with a full length pair of pants and a small itchy hat under the actual maghna’e, that served no purpose other than to irritate my forehead, every single day for school. I remember being angry that the only colors we were able to choose from for our school uniform could be one of the three….. black, dark navy blue, or gray, all of which to this day I despise. What was so illegal about the color pink or baby blue or pastel green?

I remember it being very hot and uncomfortable under the maghna’e in elementary school. One day I asked the teacher…”khanoom ejazeh”….if I could remove the maghna’e during class, just to be told that it is not an option. I would argue back and point out the obvious that we wear these because boys shouldn’t see our hair yet there are no boys in our school so why are we wearing it? The teacher’s response was that we are wearing it because we need to learn to get use to it as adults. Every proper woman must wear it. I could barely concentrate on what was being taught simply because my mind was very much wrapped around this subject matter of why I have to wear this ugly cloth around my head and have it choke my neck on such hot days.

I remember in elementary school, during the month of Ramadan, all the drinking fountains being shut off, and we were not allowed to eat or drink anything during the school hours. When we asked why, we were told that this is the most important month in Islam and we, even still in our developmental stages, need to learn to be deprived of food and water consumptions during this holy month. Eating and even drinking water during the daytime hours, is an act of sin and will land you in eternal hell. Once again I so badly awaited for that hell to arrive where I could drink water when I was thirsty. Imagine being in 2nd grade and having to concentrate in school while being hungry and thirsty….all in the name of Islam.

I remember at the age of 9, going to the park and wanting to play on the slide and swings and being confronted by a woman who told me that it is not proper for a girl my age to participate in such activities because of the nature of the physical activity, which children often do passionately with their legs and arms in the air.

I remember having to participate in the Namaz hour (what Muslims refer to as the daily prayer) where not only does everyone have to participate by force but also be told how to pray. The last I recall, there is no one way to call out to the lord and these people’s trivial and often amusing detailed rules about how to talk to God, caused me to not take it very seriously and giggle during these sessions so much that laughter became contagious to those around me, and I was often excused and called into the Principal’s office for not being a good little Muslim girl. I was then lectured and told that I will go to hell and all I could think to myself was “good. As long as you are not there and I don’t have to do this, I will go to hell.”

I remember being told that a little girl does not lick an ice cream cone. She eats ice cream from a bowl with a spoon the “proper” way. Little did I know at the time how dirty the minds were of the ones who came up with this rule, and how disgusting one must be to look at a child eating ice cream and think any thoughts outside of the content. Filthy isn’t it?

I remember Persian songs, poems, and paintings being very descriptive in nature on how they portrayed women as delicate, beautiful, yet strong creatures; “To mesleh goli, nazo khoshgeli…..” At the same time in real life, I noticed the hypocrisy that being a girl did not have as many privileges as being a boy did. Little girls had to go help their mothers in the kitchen while little boys were allowed to go play ball outside in the street and climb trees and no one would stop them. Little did I know at the time that was the least of a woman’s problem in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

I remember at the age of 7 wanting to play with my cousins who were the same age as I, who just happened to be boys; Arash, Sohrab, Babak… and I was told that I am no longer allowed to play with them because boys and girls do not play together in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

I remember constantly being told stories about how life was prior to the Mullahs in Iran and how beautifully dressed the people were in the latest fashion from France and Italy, and how little girls could wear princess dresses and their school uniforms were the white color of a bride’s dress; “Mesleh Aroos” (Just like a bride). The only thing that I could relate white to was the images of the soldiers in Kafan (A white cloth that is wrapped around the body of the deceased).

I remember going to a classmate’s birthday party and being told that earlier that same afternoon, they had found a child’s arm that had flown from miles away into the yard, after the last evening’s Iraqi bombings. The image haunted me for years.

I remember every time I was going to a friend’s birthday party I recalled the story I was told about one little girl’s birthday party where 20 children were invited, and a bomb had hit that specific neighborhood, and they had all died. I couldn’t help to think, “Now is this going to be the birthday party that I am going to die in?”

I ask you, how many elementary aged children do you know who have this question in mind when they go to a birthday party?

I remember that every day at 5 PM there was children’s programing “Barnameyeh Koodak” and I looked forward to watching my cartoons for that one hour more than anything else during my day.

Cartoons like: “Pesare Shoja”, “Gooril Angoori”, “Majarahayeh khanevadeyeh Dr. Ernest”, “Baner”, “Belle & Sebastian”, “Hach zanboore asal”, “Mosafereh Koochooloo”,….well you get the point…..I can go on and on with the list of my favorites for pages and pages but I am going to stop myself here before I get too excited about them all over again.

As you can imagine watching something on TV other than the images of soldiers dying and people in mosques, lashing at themselves with chains, brought great pleasure in life for me as it did for all other children of my era. Yet somehow the electricity would always go out right when the cartoons would start. Nothing upset me more than being deprived of watching my 5 PM Barnayeh Koodak, even if it was on a 15 inch black and white television set with static.

I remember being told that it’s not polite to take candy and chocolate that my aunt brought for me from Sweden to school when other children don’t have any. Was it because they didn’t have enough money to buy these child friendly snacks? You would imagine that being the case, however, in my particular school it was usually not the case. The truth was that the country was in a terrible depression and these kind of novelties were hard to obtain at best, and if you didn’t have family living in other countries to bring them to you, chances were that you didn’t get to eat them as a child during my generation. I remember a small box of Tic-tacs being a HUGE deal and the talk of the school when I had brought it in one day. The same thing was true of bananas….that’s a long story of its own.

I remember that even though we had a nice size home, we had to only stay and socialize in one room of the house and keep the rest of the home locked up during the winter months. When I would ask my parents why, they would tell me that there is a shortage of gas and it’s hard to keep the entire home warm and therefore we have to live more conservatively. This completely contradicted what I had been listening to adults talk about which was “Iran is a rich country because of it’s oil”. In my little mind I couldn’t put two and two together and understand how a country so rich in oil, is so poor that we cannot afford gas to keep a simple home warm. To this day I struggle with that one.

The memories of my first 9 years of life in Iran are endless and they have shaped who I am today.

Going through this turmoil, you would think that any child would be beyond excited to find out they are the lucky one who is going to leave it all behind and never experience it again and step into the country where Micky Mouse lives, yet the reality was the exact opposite. When I found out I was going to leave, my world fell apart. My friends, my family, my dolls, my toys, my story books and tapes, my beloved paternal grandmother, Maman Taji, whom I had spent every waking moment of my life with from childbirth….. HOW CAN I LEAVE? Everything I described to you above was part of my normal every day life and therefore I didn’t know any better, so I assumed that’s just the way life is. I didn’t want to leave for any amount of comfort. No comfort to me was worth leaving my loved ones behind. And of course the irony about all this is that to this day, I often refer to those years as the best years of my life simply because I was surrounded by family, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins. Here in the States I was deprived of such simple pleasures. It has been a lonely 23 years to say the least but at the end, I was still one of the lucky ones. How sad is that statement? You be the judge.

I am lucky because my memories of living in terror ended on June 17th of 1986 when I left Iran for good.

I am lucky because I am sitting here today in the comfort of my own home, being able to write and share my opinions, thoughts, and life experiences with you without living in the terror of thinking, when is my front door going to break open and I am going to be taken in for my 80 lashes. Or worse, execution just for the act of expression of thought.

I am lucky because I grew up in an environment that when someone forced me to do something that I did not agree with, I was able to scream “NO I DON’T WANT TO” and have the law on my side.

I am lucky because there is a glimpse of hope behind every challenge that I face in my life for a better future.

As an Adult I have struggled to fit into the Iranian community in more ways than one.

Iranian people who have migrated to the United States from Iran in the past decade, often see my love for that country and the passion for those traditions that I hold so dear, and confront me with derogatory remarks such as “To aslan az Iran chi midooni. Bikhod khodeto ghati nakon. Alaki vakhteto talaf nakon haftseen minichini keh chi”……Translation: ”What do you know about Iran anyways? Don’t act like you know that country. Why do you waste your time putting together the Haft-Seen every Norouz.”

These remarks have the meaning of “you are not really one of us and you can’t possibly relate to anything we have experienced and just because you celebrate the traditional holidays, does not make you a real Iranian”.

They are right. I can’t relate. I was always taught in school here to speak my mind and express my opinions. I was always taught that when I disagree with another view, to follow the examples of one of this country’s founding fathers Thomas Jefferson who said:

“When I hear another express an opinion which is not mine, I say to myself, he has the right to his opinion, as I to mine; why should I question it? His error does me no injury, and shall I become a Don Quizote, to bring all men by force of argument to one opinion? If a fact be misstated, it is probable he is gratified by a belief of it, and I have no right to deprive him of the gratification. If he wants information, he will ask for it and then I will give it in measured terms; but if he still believes his own story, and shows a desire to dispute the fact with me, I hear him and say nothing. It is his affair not mine, if he prefers error. I tolerate with the utmost latitude the right of others to differ from me in opinion without imputing to them criminality. I know too well the weakness and uncertainty of human reason to wonder as its different results.”

These are the powerful teachings of this great nation that have helped me grow as a person and stand here today and proudly call myself an Iranian-American and not just an Iranian alone. Yet why am I still viewed as an outsider by Americans? We’ll leave that discussion for later blogs.

I may not know much about Iran but what I do understand is what I am seeing, and that’s other human beings are suffering. When I hear them calling out for help and support from Iran, “Iraniyeh baa ghayrat Hemayat Hemayat” I REACT! I refuse to stay silent because I am not afraid of the consequences. What’s the difference between my life and Neda’s and Taraneh’s and Sohrab’s and Ashkan’s of Iran?

There isn’t a difference and I refuse to sit and do nothing. At the very least, I can try to relay their message of pain and suffering coming from inside of Iran, to the rest of America, and just maybe I can be bold enough to say, the rest of the world. Maybe that’s why I am here today? Maybe my story of suffering as an immigrant, and the pain and challenges in life that I had to endure here, were all to bring me to this point in time, where I can use my power of words and expression to help bridge the gaps between my two nations, past and present. I don’t know the answer to any of these questions today. I am currently in the process of searching and trying to figure out the answer myself but what I do know is that you, a reader of this particular posting, and I have this very critical yet delicate human quality in common, and that is to do all that we can to help people in need any way we know how, in Iran or elsewhere.

This is how you and I are connected and need to stay connected.

I recall a story in my childhood books in Iran about an old Chinese man who was dying, and on his death bed he called for his three sons to come to his side. He wanted to tell them a story. He asked them to each bring some branches and when they got there, without words, this old, dying father took one branch and broke it in half. Next he put two thin branches together and broke them both in half. He moved on to three, and the four, and then….as the number of branches multiplied, the harder it became for him to break them. This way he taught his sons that individually we are breakable but the more we stick together and stay united, the harder it is to break us and as our numbers increase, it is impossible to divide us. Haven’t we all heard this story as children? Have we not learned anything from it?

I hope that is not the case, and this time we are really all united towards our common goal and that is to see a free Iran outside of terror, discrimination, and theocracy. An Iran where no little girl can relate to my memories as a child.

Staying silent is also not an option at this time and it’s definitely the worst thing that we can do. Shame on those of us that are living with our eyes closed and going about our lives as if there is nothing going on.

Stay connected. Stay strong. Share what you feel and what you see and what you have experienced and continue to fight for those who have been silenced in the great nation of Iran.

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