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Cover Story

The education of Mahdiyeh
From bubblegum to Bahais

By J. Javid
November 2, 1998
The Iranian

A few weeks ago I was talking to my daughter Mahdiyeh on the phone. She lives with her mother in Tehran and I'm in Washington, DC. I said, "Mahdiyeh...?" and before I asked my question, she said, "Jaanam..." I paused for a moment.

She used an expression that's usually heard between adults. Generally the English equivalent would be, "Yes dear," or "Yes love." More often adults say it to children as a show of affection. Or when they grow up, children say it to their parents when their name is called out.

Mahdiyeh will turn 16 next month. And I guess she has grown quite a bit since I last saw her three years ago. Just recently she told me she had cut her hair.

- "How short?"

- "Very short."

- "How very short? Like Sinead O'Connor?"

- "Who's Sinead O'Connor? I barely have any hair left. I sort of look like Maddonna when she had short hair."

I have no problem with Mahdiyeh's new hairstyle (although I haven't actually seen it. She's promised to send me a photo). But I would have a problem if she decided to pierce any part of her body. Don't be surprised. Teenagers in Iran do pick up every popular American trend.

I think I've been a pretty liberal father, that is whenever I've had the chance to act as one, mostly over the phone or via email. But I had a habit of over doing it when I visited Tehran. I would try to teach her every basic thing in life, to make up for all the time I was absent.

I remember once driving on Enqelab Avenue toward Imam Hossein Square. Mahdiyeh -- who was around 11 at the time -- was chewing some bubblegum I had brought from America. When she was done with it, she rolled down the window and threw it out. I was incensed.

- "Khaanoom! Een cheh kaariyeh? Why do you think there are trash cans in this world?" I said, angrily.

Mahdiyeh looked hurt. She was hurt.

"You know," she snapped back, "All you do is say 'don't do this' and 'don't do that.' Is that the only thing fathers are supposed to do?"

I didn't say anything back, or if I did it wasn't anything meaningful. She had won that round, with a knockout. I knew I had been too harsh and I knew how much of a slob I am in my own private life. And being a part-time father, I had limited disciplinary rights, as far as she was concerned.

But even as a part-time father, I felt I had to tell her what was right and what was wrong. And there were some serious issues to deal with. How to dispose bubblegum is one thing, how to treat a Bahai is another.

One day Mahmoud, a friend of mine, invited me to his farm near Shahroud. When Mahdiyeh and I drove out there, it was still early in the morning and my friend, his mother and father, two local farmers and another man, Nader, were having breakfast in a small room in the guesthouse.

Nader was a tall, slim man with dark skin and a thin moustache. He had rented a portion of Mahmoud's farm to grow various vegetables, which he sold at the market in Shahroud. He started to talk about what a blessing the Islamic Republic had been for him.

"I used to work as a simple clerk at a sugar factory. Then the revolution happened and the factory was confiscated and I was expelled. Now I work for myself and everything is great," Nader said.

Everyone had a question mark on their face. We all wanted to know why Nader had been cut from his job. But no one dared to ask. Was he a so-called counter-revolutionary? It just wasn't a fun topic of discussion on a beautiful day out in the farm.

"Yes," Nader continued. "All the Bahais have been expelled from government jobs. But they have started their own businesses and they are doing better than ever. God bless the Islamic Republic!"

Mahmoud's mother almost choked on her noon panir. Feasting on fresh bread, cheese, butter, fried eggs, mint leaves and sweet hot tea came to a virtual halt. Eyes turned downward and jaw movement slowed to one chew per second.

Mahmoud and his parents are not fanatic Muslims. Still, Bahais are a sensitive issue. The average Iranian avoids them. Strict Muslims treat them with disdain. The official religious establishment considers the Bahai faith, which began in Iran less than 200 years ago, as heresy.

I didn't know how well Mahmoud and his parents knew Nader. Not very well, apparently, or they would probably not have rented their plot to him. If government farming agencies found out, Mahmoud could, at the very least, lose his subsidies.

Nader did not seem concerned.

"It feels so good to work for yourself," he said. "No one can tell you to grow watermelons or wheat. It's your farm and you grow what you want. God bless the Islamic Republic for freeing the Bahais from desk jobs and forcing them to work for themselves!"

"Well!" Mahmoud said, patting Nader on the back. "That was some breakfast. Now back to work."

"Yes!" Nader said, fully aware that people in the room needed a change of subject, and some fresh air. "We have a lot of work to do."

I followed Nader outside and Mahdiyeh tagged along. I told him I was a journalist living in the U.S. and curious about Bahais' lives in Iran.

"I feel secure," he said. "Iran is a good place. It's my homeland. I feel close to the people. I lived in Arizona with my son for a while. But Americans aren't very friendly."

Secure? I found it hard to understand his attachment to a country where he was treated as less than a human being. Some 200 Bahais have been executed simply for their religious beliefs since the 1979 revolution. Their marriages are not legal and their children are not allowed into universities. Often they are refused a passport. But they must pay taxes and complete two years of military service.

Nader enumerated mistreatments toward the Bahais without a hint of sadness. It was as if he had accepted them as a fact of life, or an unavoidable part of Bahai life. He was going to live his life and practice his religion in a land he calls home, no matter what.

When Nader left us, Mahdiyeh asked, "What's a Bahai?"

- "They have their own religion, but a lot of people don't like it."

- "Why?"

- "I don't know why exactly. I just know you shouldn't hate people for being different."

Mahdiyeh didn't say anything. Somehow, I felt good.

Copyright © 1997 Abadan Publishing Co. All Rights Reserved. May not be duplicated or distributed in any form