Democracy Begins at Home

During the final proof reading of my novel, Sky of Red Poppies, I came across this passage, which made me stop and think.

“My sister crossed the room and I noticed a small book sticking out of her pocket. Intrigued, I pulled it out and read the title, The Little Black Fish.  “How cute,” I said.

“Give it back,” she shouted, but before she had a chance to take the book, Pedar rose from his chair and snatched it away.

“I’ll have none of that trash in my house!” He hurled the book at a wall and it landed open on the rug. All happiness was sucked out of the room.
Mitra took a step toward her book, but my father grabbed her arm.

“It’s my book,” she said.

“Not if I have anything to say about it. Where did you get that?”

Confused by his rage, I asked him, “Isn’t it a fairy tale?” 

“A fairy tale?” Pedar grunted, then pointed to the book as if the author himself was sitting there. “In his father’s grave!”

He let go of Mitra’s arm, but neither of them moved.

“That man was nothing but a damn communist. I don’t want any of you near a word he had to write.” He glared back and forth at Mitra and me and, raising his index finger, he added, “This, young ladies, is not a request. It’s an order.”

True that a novel is mostly fiction, but this scene, extracted from my distant memory, and was too familiar. At the time, I was not conscious of the patriarchic domain in which I was raised. How natural it had seemed that my father would be the decision-maker for the entire family. We lived under one roof, where only one voice was heard. His. And yet, we all loved him to death and, like a flock of sheep, let him be our shepherd.

For education, we entered a system where the principal had all the power and the voice heard in the classroom belonged to the teacher. And finally many of us grew up to be doctors, teachers and lawyers who occupied good positions and yet had to do as the boss said.

Freedom to my generation of Iranians meant the right to go to the movies, ride bikes around the neighborhood, maybe sneaky dates or go dancing. With a majority of human desires – not to mention thoughts – being taboo, we continued to live in the bubble that our parents had provided. Back then, few saw the injustice in such a system and even fewer fought for freedom. But they all faced the dark consequences of their liberalism. Never knowing the meaning of democracy, I joined the rest of the nation and looked the other way.

Years later, I moved across the globe where I had to adjust to an entirely new lifestyle. How unreal it seemed that my thoughts mattered here. I learned for the first time that one could actually vote for whomever they desired and that each vote really did count. How wonderful it was to grasp the true meaning of choice.
My first lesson of true democracy came from an old neighbor in the early 1970’s. I was trying to explain why I felt so homesick. “Back in my town people knew me, I knew them. They would say hello on the streets and I would run into friends here and there. Many people in town knew my family. But here I’m nobody!” To which my neighbor said, “Oh, Zoe, everybody is somebody!”

Everybody is somebody. Wow!

Still, it has taken years to un-educate myself, erase the wrong lessons and come to understand that, no matter who you are, your existence is significant in some way.

Democracy can only begin at home. How can a country be democratic if its nation does not understand the meaning of the word? As long as oppression rules, and if a nation’s voice is hushed, how could one dream of freedom? Even after all these years, all that is heard across the oceans is a cry of, “Where is the hero I’ve been praying for?” In a democracy, everyone is significant and yet no one is a hero.

Always in need of a leader, they raised us to be followers. We didn’t learn to make changes, weren’t encouraged to think and were forbidden to form discussion groups. All we ever wanted was a “father” to lead the way, to shelter us and in return make decisions, a provider of small allowances who’d be kind enough to allow us tiny pleasures.

Not only were we acceptant of such power, we were also capable of showering such a dictator respect, he becomes our hero and we went as far as loving him to death.

It is now dinnertime. My daughter enters the room. “So, where are we going for dinner?” she asks. We all vote. Two to three, the soup place wins. I really don’t like soup and am no fan of this place, but I’ve lost the vote and, well… it’s a democracy!

Zohreh Ghahremani is the author of Sky of Red Poppies, available now. U.S. book tour stops and information here.

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