A green light to greatness.®

An Iranian woman of independence

By Nazy Sarboland and Amanda Griffith


“Welcome to sixth grade,” my teacher said. I looked all around for friends.

Then, in came the principal. He whispered to the instructor. Her eyes widened.

“Children, you must go home immediately. Iraqi soldiers are about to capture our city!” she shouted. Every child picked up her bag and hurried out. How could I know I wouldn’t return to school here in my city of Ahwaz for many years to come?

I ran. In my head, I thought, “A soldier could be at the next street to take me.” My eyes flicked to the left and right, stomach fluttering, unsure what to do next. Many children rushed home alongside me, all with wide staring eyes of terror.

Mother heard the news of the Iraqi attack from neighbors. She stood in the street with other parents, holding her chador under her chin, peering far into the distance, praying out loud for our safety. Parents around her yelled, “Hurry, hurry!”

As I scurried into our yard through the iron gate, the eucalyptus tree filled my nose with its healing scent, and the smell of turmeric chicken kabobs in sweet tomato sauce floated from the kitchen. I remember Mother prepared fresh warm food every day, one of my best memories. With her arm around me, I drifted toward that comforting fragrance.

“We’ll eat in the courtyard.” Mother pointed to the closet. “Mona and Nousha, please, bring the tablecloth and poshti, the seat backs, for everyone to sit and eat.” Persian rugs covered part of the front patio for relaxing or eating a meal.

“Children,” Mother said at dinner, “we can’t go in the streets. At night, we must turn all the lights off.” She covered the raised glass skylight at the far end of the upstairs courtyard with quilts, so light wouldn’t show through and glass wouldn’t shatter and tumble downstairs. A siren blared. Our little eyes flicked from parent to parent. If only they could reassure me, but my parents looked to each other and had no appetite. Then, Mother walked to the door and looked out into the street.

“Everyone is outside,” she came back and said. We crept out, uncertain, and lay down in the road by the wall. My heart pounded non-stop. A bomb might go off at any moment, I thought. The best way to be safe was to keep the city absolutely dark. Not even smoking was allowed.

In the house the next morning, Mother heated water in the semavar and prepared tea. She always demonstrated strong-mindedness and calm. Father walked to town and bought halim, made of beef and wheat, and fresh warm bread. All nine of us sat with neighbors in the street, sharing peace in the middle of chaos.

Unlike usual, my whole family slept in one room downstairs, Father remained on guard. I woke in darkness and saw him sitting up. He turned and looked at me. His eyes shone like rials, our Iranian coins, and his smile spread as wide as a goat’s horn. I smiled back, and then I heard a loud “wizzzz…. Boom!” Sleepy, I lay back down. The next day, Father told us he’d thought a bomb would hit our house. He said he had looked into my eyes thinking he saw me for the last time.

Now, a grown woman, I can’t understand how he kept such control over his emotions.

The next night, two female cousins and their children spent the night at our house. And in the morning, we would leave for Nier north near the Caspian Sea, where Mother was born. She owned a beautiful house in the middle of town. Every summer, she took us there to stay for three months to get away from heat and dust. Father, a bank supervisor and accountant for private investors, came for short visits.

When the dinner dishes and food were cleared, Mother ordered her four youngest to pack clothes. Father, my two older brothers, Mansour and Milad, and Mona my oldest sister, would stay behind to protect our house and fight alongside soldiers. In the morning, Uncle Navid, a truck driver, waited outside with his eighteen-wheeler. How excited I felt to sit in a truck cab on rugs with poshti, pretending I was going on a picnic! Mother joined my uncle in the cab to make sure he didn’t fall asleep. We stopped to rest and bought food like dates stuffed with feta cheese, halim (a popular stew), and water mixed with yoghurt.

Three days later, as we entered Nier, I admired the jewel-like emerald green grass and masses of trees and craggy rocks at the top of mountaintop after mountaintop. Every now and then, I spotted a winding stream splashing over polished stones, and beside the water, fluffy ferns and cream and purple flowers. We arrived at the familiar, simple country house that belonged to my mother.

When I was much older, she told me the story of how she came to own the house in Nier.

My grandfather, Khan, was sheriff or satrap of Nier 70 years ago. They called him Kat Khoda, and his governorship was passed down from the time of Alexander the Great. He owned and ruled the whole town, but when he was 30, he died of pneumonia.

Golzar, his wife and my grandmother, knew her children would go to her husband’s parents under the law. That night, she gathered her four little ones and her gold from the sale of her land, which totaled several thousand U.S. dollars, and traveled first to Tehran, and then, to avoid discovery, she boarded a bus for Ahwaz. At that time, it was a tiny, sandy, dirty place, where she could pay cash and live undisturbed with her precious children.

Grandmother leased a ten-bedroom house, with a pool in the center. She rented out seven rooms and used two for sleep and one as a grocery store, selling small goods such as milk and cheese. In this way she earned enough to live. How could she survive alone with no family? My mother inherited her steady, capable character.

The house in Nier, set on a hill, was of a different style from our brick home in Ahwaz, as it was made of natural boards, even for the ceiling. Shelves inset in the walls displayed local pottery, and huge windows provided a great view of the stunning mountain country. When cold crept in at night, we would sit inside the house around a korsi, a fire pit, with a table over the fire and with blankets hanging over the top to place legs under. We drank tea or ate a meal from this table and kept toasty warm.

All day with family and their friends I would scamper through forests of thick oaks, junipers, and cypresses or play soccer in the green, green meadow. I’d race across sparkling streams, daring flashes of lightning to hit me, often receiving a scolding from Mother at my late return. Sometimes, at our family’s house, we would weave rugs on enormous wood looms with bright crimson, slate, and snow-white threads.

Other times, we would join our cousins and their friends in a daylong hike through the Salaban Mountains to fill large sealed pitchers called kouzeh from the freshest, coldest spot in the river up at the top. The friendliness of the people together with the special beauty of this land, so close to Turkey, never bored me. But more importantly, I developed confidence in myself with so much freedom and responsibility.

I fit into school without any problems. The education system required the teacher to translate all her lessons from Turkish to Farsi. One memory I have of school is in handwriting class that first year when many of the students asked me to do their practice homework for them. When I arrived to take the test, my aching fingers couldn’t perform. I saw my grade. A D! They all made A’s, and when they found out my grade, they laughed and laughed. My entire body flushed red as saffron. From now on, I was determined to prove how smart I was to others and myself.

After two years, Mother became tired of not being in her home. She missed Father and decided to go back. She said, “If something happens to one of us, let it happen to all of us.”

The first thing I noticed about the house when we returned was the two-foot deep hole in our front yard, and my jaw dropped open. I saw gaping cracks in the walls, and all the windows were taped to stop them from splintering. I asked Father, “What happened?”

He laughed. “We thought the hole would protect us from bombs. We struck water, and it turned to muck.”

Two days after our return to the city, I set out to buy fresh bread. As I was returning home, the ground trembled. I froze and shrunk into the wall, clutching the bread against my chest. Would I die right now? A dark gray smoke hung over Ahwaz. Was my family hit? The shaking suddenly stopped. I drew in my breath and ran home. I saw Mother standing in the street looking everywhere for us. Then, my two brothers rushed in, screaming and crying, hardly able to breathe, blood all over their faces and clothes.

“Glass broke and flew around the fire extinguisher shop,” Mansour yelled.

“We saw a piece of a bomb cut off a woman’s head. She kept running,” Milad said sobbing, “until she hit the wall.” He collapsed on the floor, gasping. Their faces shocked me. Nothing could usually jolt my happy-go-lucky brothers.

“Go take a shower, boys,” Mother said, as always, strong and practical.

Soon after we came back home, Mother registered me for seventh grade. The school depressed me, so quiet, so empty, with only six students in my class. The city outside was filled with soldiers, and the next day I walked to school and watched them marching and training in their khaki uniforms, their faces serious and their bodies rigid.

I never became disappointed and discouraged about the war or school because I tried to enjoy the moment. The war lasted eight years, and during this time, we left the city many times to escape danger. The town remained dark and quiet, with electricity shortages for two to three hours daily. At night we couldn’t see to do homework or shower. The city rationed our food, stamping our card for meat, bread, rice, beans, and cheese. How did Mother manage to divide it so perfectly? Her ability to survive motivated me to rise above the war and its difficulties.

Father retired sooner than expected because of glaucoma. He almost lost the sight in his left eye. Retirement money would come to him monthly.

“Rezvan, I heard something in town,” Mother said when she came back from market the next day. She held my little brother’s hand tightly, and her eyes flashed.

“What is it?” Father asked.

“It is terrible news. All political activists are to be arrested soon.”

“Well, we knew this would happen some day.”

No discussion of moving away. No escape plan. Upstairs on the roof, Mother stashed all his forbidden books, the ones about his political beliefs.

“Bring the books back down, right now,” Father said, with passion. “The rain might ruin them.”

That night, I heard someone ring the gate bell at three in the morning. My father trudged downstairs and opened the door. He came back inside with another man whom we called pasdar, or government soldier. We all stood by the wall, our hair covered with chadors, silent and still like the desert. They arrested my father and tied his hands together. They also took his books, which we found out later were burned. With a tiny smile he looked at us and shrugged his shoulders.

“Goodbye. I will be back soon.”

Then, they shoved him into a jeep and drove off toward town. We had no idea where he was going or when he was coming back home. Father called our house a few months later. Mother told us he asked for Mona, my oldest married sister, to present herself to the government office and state her innocence.

I watched my sister make her escape, bringing nothing with her, wrapped up in her chador, at 6:00 that morning. Mona’s husband had left town soon after they were married and was waiting for her far away. After two more years hiding, they would fly to Germany, safe from arrest and discovery.

Mother took a taxi to the city to search for Father a few days each week for months. She told us one day a mob of women waited to find prisoners outside a government office. One pregnant woman sat, dabbing her nose, tears flowing down her cheeks. Mother crossed the plaza and wrapped her arm around the woman’s shoulders.

“Do not be so sad. Come to our house.”

The woman who was called Nina stayed with us for hours. I noticed her eyebrows were unusual because she didn’t thread them like most married women. I couldn’t wait to thread, shave and wear makeup. Mother wouldn’t permit me until marriage. Nina and Mother talked and talked in the hallway on the rug leaning against poshti and drinking cup after cup of tea. She became a regular visitor to our house. However, Mother’s days as hostess of refuge were about to come to an end.

Our lives changed when Father’s retirement checks stopped with no explanation.

Mother had been sewing for a hobby, but then she became a seamstress to support the family. In one of our bedrooms, she made a tailor’s office and sewed clothes for neighbors, friends and family. My sisters and I worked with her, connecting the buttons and ironing the finished clothing until 10:00 each night. Then, we would begin homework. After ten years, she became one of the best-known tailors in the state of Khozestan. If not for her bravery and motivation, who knew our destiny?

Oh, how I hated the sewing my mother loved! I would not do this for a job, ever! I wrote my goals one night in my room when I was 17 years old. “I will graduate from high school. I will pass my driver’s test.” These achievements were difficult, but would make me independent. “I will study for university. I will become a college professor, and before age 30, I will leave this country.”

I came to realize this would be harder than I could ever imagine. Because of my family’s political beliefs, I was blocked from jobs, but I yearned for the freedom of America. If my sister, Mona, could leave and start a new life in Germany, then I could go away, too. Everyone in Iran I knew dreamed of living in the U.S. I hid my journal and walked downstairs to the kitchen.

My sister Nousha came in the kitchen from a phone call. “You won’t believe this. Because it is the anniversary of the revolution, some activists will be released. Father is coming home tomorrow.” He’d been in prison only four years compared to the others who were locked up for several more.

When Mother came home from town and heard this, she cleaned the house like a sand storm, prepared lemon tarts and naan gerdooee (walnut cookies), and walked 30 minutes back to town for fresh bread. When Father burst through our door, I was upstairs sewing. I flew down the stairs, skipping every other one. The whole family hugged him at once, and we cried and cried and cried. Then, visitors streamed into our house, one after another.

One day, so pleased Father was home, I asked him to my school to meet my teachers. When we walked into the school’s entry hall, staff whispered to each other and their eyes darted from Father to me. They judged his principles saying nothing aloud to us. This mattered little to me. I turned away from their harsh expressions, still proud of my father. Those people’s attitudes did not change the man he was.

While reading at home a few months later, he lost the last of his vision and became blind, which took him through great misery and depression. Now, he couldn’t read or write, his favorite pastimes. He used to say, “If I’m not reading or writing, I might as well die.”

“Lili,” Father would call, “come here and read this poem to me.”

My younger sister, who would be working on what Mother assigned her that day, would leave her sewing upstairs, and climb down the stairs, sighing.

Later in the evening, “Nazy,” Father would yell, “rewrite this idea I have down on this paper. Hurry now, I have something else for you to do.” I would look at his document, and translate his messy, crooked scrawl, which he had written on top of other writing, no longer the beautiful penmanship he’d always had. But we were glad he was back, no matter how frustrating his demands were.

Most visitors to our house came to him; Nina’s brother was among them. That was when I saw Ali. At first, I wasn’t attracted to him, but I heard he was thinking about leaving the country to join his brothers in the USA. One time when I called Nina, Ali picked up the phone. My friend Delkash and I teased him for ten minutes. We didn’t tell him who we were, as it would have been embarrassing to my father.

“Are you going to the U.S.?” I asked.

“Who is this?”

I gave him a wrong name. After that, we talked on the rotary phone in the middle of the house from midnight on after sewing and homework. While everyone else slept, some nights the conversations lasted until 6:00 a.m. When Mohammad’s sister answered my call, I would slam the phone into the receiver, blushing and breathless. Mother wouldn’t have allowed it if she’d known. I kept it a secret, until one day…

Me: “If you find out who I am, I won’t be able to talk to you anymore.”

Ali: “Just between us, I promise. Tell me your name.”

My little sister, Lili, called, “Nazy!” I ended the phone call.

Ali called right back, and I picked up. Soon, he stopped by our house but said he was there to see Father. I hid in my room.

Mother called, “Bring some tea, Nazy.” I brought it, looked at Ali for a second, and then raced out of the room.

At first, I thought, “I just won’t talk to him anymore.”

But Ali called the house the next day. Mother answered, then put down the phone and said “Who is calling and hanging up?”

Then I knew to wait by the phone for his call. Ali was six years older than me and had a job, but I never asked what. I admired him because he wanted so much out of life. We became close.

Meanwhile, in my last year of high school, I realized I must take a test if I wanted to attend the government university. I stopped by the school to pick up a reference from one of my teachers. In the office the principal, who was standing behind the counter, approached me.

“Can I help you?”

“Yes, I want to ask one of my teachers to support me with a written letter of reference for university.”

“Don’t waste your time. You won’t get into a university.” Her eyes burned with disapproval.

I put her idea out of my head and studied as much as possible with no books and no tutors. Unfortunately, I failed. This didn’t bother me because I’d missed so much school and didn’t have enough time to prepare.

When my parents found out my score, Mother said, “Don’t waste any more time. You will get a license to become a seamstress.”

“I don’t like sewing,” I said.

“Then you always can teach.”

Father stood with her, so I would know he agreed. I looked at their faces of stone, but my determination for a college education didn’t change. Though it would seem I did what they wanted, I planned something different. Failing the government test didn’t mean I couldn’t go to a private school. I borrowed schoolbooks from neighbors and cousins. Every day for the next year, I would walk 30 minutes to sewing class in a woman’s home. Ali would drive some days to meet me halfway, and we would discuss what I was studying. He would say he missed me; I would ask if he could answer a question about my reading.

A few weeks later, Mother woke up in the middle of the night for some reason. She opened the door to my room.

“This poem I chose as a gift to you,” Ali was just saying.

“How is your sewing…Nazy, what are you doing?” Mother asked, her voice much louder and emotional.

“Ali and I are talking.”

“Why are you talking to him at 3:00 in the morning?”

“He’s coming next week to ask me to marry him,” I told Mother with fear.

“Okay, we’ll see if he comes.”

He never showed up, of course. For the whole week, I worried about what Mother would do when she realized he never was coming.

Then, Mother called me to meet her downstairs.

“I have argued with Nina on the phone. This is so disappointing.”

“What did you fight about?”

“I said to Nina, ‘Why were you a guest in my house so many times, and then you let your brother spend time with my daughter for no purpose? Ali wasted her time, and if he didn’t plan to marry Nazy, that was trickery and deceit.’”

“So what will we do now?”

“They aren’t allowed at my house.”

Ali and I continued our phone relationship even though Mother placed a lock on the rotary phone and hid the other phone. He looked for me in town each day and one day, he found me. He gave me a telephone and cord.

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to convince my parents to let me go to college,” I said.

“Just take the test first. Figure out how to get there later.” The strength in his words made me think I could always depend on him.

The day came for me to take the sewing qualification. I arrived breathless from the thirty-minute walk to the teacher’s house. I remember her house, beige and plain, stood next to a three-story brownstone. I entered the front room after passing through her yard. She pointed out a paper with directions that lay on the metal table. I avoided looking at her eyes because I never intended to use the sewing license to make money. Still, I felt a surge of excitement at taking a test that would show my intelligence. Squinting, I cut the pieces for the sleeves, collar, and body out of the pattern. Three hours later, I finished the entire exam.

“You passed the first time,” the teacher said, shaking my hand.

I knew most seamstress students didn’t succeed, initially. Though I didn’t care to be a tailor, knowing I could perform well made me feel smart.

I wouldn’t feel smart for long.

Hamid and his wife, Ali’s and my family’s friends, came to our house Friday that week.
 
“We were at Ali’s wedding yesterday. He married his cousin,” Hamid said, watching me for my reaction.

I tried to keep my face calm, but it was evident they knew about my relationship with Ali, and that bothered me. They stayed and took tea with Father. I watched as Mother spooned the loose tealeaves in the top of the semavar and poured in hot water. While eating baklava, I sat like the windless sea and wished it would be over. In my heart I decided to act like nothing was wrong. I smiled. I joked. I laughed.

Mother walked Hamid and his wife outside and closed the gate. When she returned to the kitchen, she said, “Nina made him marry his cousin.” Mother watched me with her fig-colored eyes full of sadness.

We put dishes away in the kitchen. My tears dripped onto a plate, and Mother reached out and touched my hair. What seemed like hours later, I crept upstairs to the patio and cried until exhausted. For four weeks, I found corners of the house daily to sob in silence.

Nina didn’t come to our house for weeks. But eventually, the women couldn’t give up their friendship in spite of what happened. Mother never held a grudge.

To escape the depression that took me over I focused on studying harder for the university. If successful, I would save enough money and then leave the country on my own before age 30. I studied from the same books I used to prepare for the Concour Test and also re-read my high school texts. At the same time, I taught several sewing classes a week to earn money and hid my plans from my parents. I called my sister, Nousha, who lived in town with her husband.

“I am taking the Azad University test May 11. Can you come with me?”

“Sure. What time is the test?”

“We need to leave at 5:00 a.m. The drive is two hours to Masjed Soleyman.”

“I’ll stay overnight with you.”

That night, I told my parents about the test on Saturday.

“You’re just wasting your time. You won’t pass,” Father said.

Inside I felt heartbroken. Why didn’t he encourage me? I felt abandoned, but I was thankful my sister supported me. Also, she had her in-laws’ family there. She could wait at their house while I tested, and we would stay over with them afterwards.

My sister and I rose earlier than ever before. Mother watched us leave, her face as dark as the morning. She said nothing. As our bus drove into the city on twisting, turning dirt roads, mountains full of bounding antelopes, swept up on either side of us. Higher and higher we climbed as the sun peeked over the mountaintops. We arrived at her father-in-law’s house, with many houses clustered close together. From one house, one could see the front yard of another over the fence.

The family of five came out to greet us and hugged my sister and me. In their house we ate bread and cheese. I left my bags, and then it was time to go. My sister and I took a taxi to the university. I could barely breathe. Would I pass? If I failed, my parents wouldn’t let me take it again, for sure. My sister drove back to her family in the taxi, and I shook with fear as I moved through the doorway.

I slumped down at an empty table. One hundred male and female applicants in rows were tense and ready to begin. My confidence increased each of the five hours of the test, and when I left, I felt strong. Because of the hours of timed writing and longhand question response, my hand and fingers cramped, and my mind swam with fatigue. But I did it, I said to myself.

I told no one how well I did, not my sister, not my parents, no one.

At home the next day, I said to my parents, “We were late to the test. I will have to take it the next time. We missed it.” My sister didn’t reveal the truth. This way, I could take the test again if I failed.

My cousin came a few days later to pick up Father and take him to the city of Andimeshk. She had invited several people to her house for a poetry reading, including a handsome young banker named Aby, with dark hair and an athletic body who my cousin introduced to my father for possible marriage to me.

Not too long after he met Father, he became my khastegar and wanted to come to see me. In Iran, having a khastegar, or a man looking a woman over for marriage, is something girls want. The estimate of a female’s beauty and worth goes up with more visits. I didn’t let it bother me, still having my plans for college. Aby arrived at our house one day, and I sat down with him alone for a cup of tea. He told me about his job and his plan for the future. I could feel that he was excited as if he already found his wife. But in my mind, I had no thought of marriage.

“You live with your mother?”

“Yes, and 12 other sisters and brothers. I am the oldest. At first, we’d live with them, but later on we could get our own house.” I couldn’t see myself living with his family of possibly 25 people.

The next day, my whole family went to Andimeshk to see Aby’s family. I sat politely in the corner. Mother said, “Walk around. Talk to his family. Get to know them.”

One of my sisters lived in Germany and my other, Nousha, was transferring to Sweden with her husband. Aby’s small city didn’t thrill me. He wouldn’t even let me go to the university and would want me to stay at home and live with his family. I kept all these thoughts to myself.

My family returned home the same day, including my father. Nousha and her two small children were staying with us since her husband had left for his new job in Sweden. When we came in the house, conversation about the marriage began.

I told Mother, “I’m not happy about this.”

Nousha stood up, angry. “Why are you making her marry this man? His family is poor, and he has nothing! I am unhappy in my marriage. Do you want Nazy to be unhappy, also?”

My mother jumped on her back, swatted her, and shouted. “It’s none of your business. Shut up! Get out of our house.”

Father of course supported Mother and yelled at Nousha also. She didn’t give up until Father became more upset. To drive her away, he took off his belt and began striking her. He missed mostly due to his blindness. He’d never hit any of us before. Nousha ran from the house with her children, all wearing their indoor sandals, hailed a taxi, and drove to the house of Mansour, my oldest brother.

My parents took me back to Aby’s city one more time. I was frightened and said nothing. However, I found out as people dropped hints, that Father had already agreed to the marriage and was planning the date and place of the wedding. The ring had already been selected. Then, I hid behind Mother, crying, and said, “No! No! No, I told you no!” Father kept talking to our cousins, uncles and aunts, making plans, on and on. I looked at Mother and shouted, “Why don’t you tell him I said, ‘No’?”

“Be quiet. Don’t complain. Don’t cry.”

I realized if they wouldn’t listen, they might make me go through with this marriage. Could I run away and hide? Even if I had to live in the street, I wouldn’t marry Aby. To marry him meant giving up my dreams of school and a career.

Aby came over to my cousin’s house the next week to see me again.

I told him, “I applied for Azad University.”

“I will let you go to school.”

“Listen, they’re making me marry you. If I’m not happy, I will leave. I won’t suffer.”

“Don’t worry. I still want to marry you.” The more I argued, the more he agreed to do for me. The more he agreed to, the less I believed him.

One month after I took the private university test, the results were finally released. I heard from neighbors and raced to town for the newspaper. The 30-minute distance felt like 30 hours. I couldn’t see straight and didn’t notice anyone around me. I just kept running, though it must’ve appeared unusual to people I passed. Women’s bodies are not supposed to bounce. After paying the man at the window of the news store, I scanned for several minutes with my finger, my breath coming in gasps. Then, I saw my name. I jumped up and down, screaming, “I passed. I passed.”

I hurried home and burst into the house, shouting, “Father, Mother, I passed the university test!”

“If you go to the university, you won’t marry Aby.”

“Father, I’m not marrying him.”

“We can’t afford to pay for Azad University. Sorry,” Father said.

I called my sister, Mona, a cosmetologist in Germany, because she sent my family money when needed. If she would pay, maybe Father would agree. I passed the phone to Father. My heart raced, and my mouth tasted persimmon dry. When he hung up, he glared at me, hung his head, and stomped out of the room. I called Mona, and she told me she had said to him, “Don’t push Nazy to marry Aby. If she doesn’t want to marry him, she doesn’t want to marry him. I will pay for whatever she needs.”

She agreed to pay 50,000 toman --just over $1,600 -- for my tuition, which would be deposited into Mother’s seamstress business account to pay for each semester. Back then, that was quite a bit of money. Seeing my parents’ frowning faces, I slipped out to another room, hardly able to hide my joy. I clapped my hands together softly and leaped around the room with the gigantic smile of a lifetime.

When Bahnam, my younger brother, dropped Mother and me off at the school for orientation, Mother said, “You’ll have to find a place to stay. You’re on your own.”

She probably thought I wouldn’t make it. My life was changing. I looked at all the students, the four story brick building, with the huge athletic complex, and I knew this was my dream. School was on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. When we arrived at the university, Mother said, “Where will you live?” I was 21 and for the first time going to live on my own away from family. Somehow, it had to work out.

I asked some students I saw, “Do you live here or come from a distance?”

One girl said, “We live two hours away in Dezful.”

“Do you have a place to stay?”

Another girl said, “We have a place ten minutes away.”

“Can you show us your rental space?” Mother asked.

They took us to a crowded neighborhood, higher on the mountain. Inside the house, I asked the woman who had rented to these four girls, “Do you have any other rooms to rent?”

“Yes, one room on the other side of the house.”

Mother and I returned to the university. I asked around and found three girls to room with me. How easily it all worked out! School started. Many students crammed on the bus headed to the same city. In the classrooms, the men sat in the first three rows with the women behind them. For the first time, I attended a co-ed school.

Studying English proved to be difficult as the teacher would speak no Farsi at all. Most students came from rich families and knew English from living in America or having private English tutors. The people in the town mixed up English words in their Farsi. They used words like “hospital,” “tomato” and “potato.” Before the revolution, some British had re-located there because of oil and gas industry contracts. The townspeople looked different with their blue eyes.

On the way into the school, girls funneled into one room, and the boys through another. A picture of dress requirements hung on the wall. A woman checked that everyone’s hajabs covered their hair and chins, that nails were clipped and polish free, no makeup, no tight clothing, no exposed skin other than hands and face, and no firearms or knives.

I spent eight to nine hours Saturday through Tuesday studying to keep up, for example translating Shakespeare text. The dictionary became my best friend. After class, on Wednesdays and Thursdays, I spent every waking moment reading my psychology, sociology, and religion texts, which luckily were written in Farsi, the easy work.

I tried every day to keep my father’s political beliefs a secret, so I wouldn’t be thrown out of school. In the back of my mind, I kept remembering the teacher at my high school saying, “You’ll never be allowed to teach.” What I was doing was risky, but at least I was learning English. That brought me closer to my dream of America.

Then, midyear, a woman came into my mother’s shop and said her brother, Mohsen, 40 years old and divorced, needed a Persian wife to come live with him in America. This sounded ridiculous, but I went to his sister’s house to meet him. Maybe I could test out my English on him.

Mohsen came up to me and said, “I want to marry you.”

“There is another girl on my street that would be better for you,” I replied.

At 22, I wouldn’t be the wife of a divorced man. I joked with my brother about the words he used like, “court.” I said, “Oh, court means a place where you get divorced.” We laughed, proud of our English. We said goodbye, but he sent his sister to our house the next day.

“Will Nazy continue seeing my brother?”

Mother said, “Yes.”

When the sister left, I shouted, “No way, Mother! I won’t marry him!”

“Just see him. This may be your chance to get out of here.”

Mohsen had been born in Masjed Soleyman where I went to the university. On my next school day, my brother drove me to class and Mohsen came with us on the two-hour trip. Mother probably arranged it. Mohsen wanted to update I.D. information after returning to the country. While we talked, I thought he was interesting and fairly nice looking. I had little experience with life; his attention flattered me. Maybe this was a perfect opportunity for me to escape.

Mohsen came and asked Father for permission.

“Leave my house, please. Who gave you permission to visit my daughter? Don’t you think you’re too old for her? You had fun all your young life in the U.S., and now you’re old, you’re coming to marry a woman 22 years old who has never married and has never even had a boyfriend.”

“If I have to come back and steal her, I will. I won’t give up,” Mohsen said.

Throughout my life, many Iranian friends and I discussed how in the U.S. a woman could be rich, pursue education, and have opportunities to choose whatever she wants. I didn’t want to wear chadors and mantos that covered my body. In America, no one would confront me and say, “Why are you wearing nail polish and showing your hair?”

During this time, Mohsen bought me jewelry and promised me a trip to visit my sister in Germany. In three weeks, an Imamah (Islamic priest) would perform a temporary wedding ceremony.

No one agreed with my decision except Mother. She wanted me to get out of the country and become strong and independent. Mohsen had a U.S. green card but must wait two years to become a U.S. citizen and then bring me back with him.

The wedding day arrived. We walked to Mohsen’s sister’s house. This was only a legal paper day, but my dress, a half fancy alternative, with its puffed white sleeves, and intricately black floral fabric, transformed the occasion into something half special and half upsetting. A nagging anxiety in my mind plagued me. Would this man really take me to the U.S.? Would life there be the opportunity I longed for? What would it be like living with a nine-year-old child from Mohsen’s previous marriage to a Mexican woman?

Father whispered in my ear as we entered the house, “It’s not too late. If you change your mind, I’ll send everyone away and take you home.”

My father, mother, oldest brother and his wife, my cousin’s wife, and Mohsen’s brother and sister attended. We entered the hall and then the living room of the house. The women sat on the Persian rug with poshti, lined up on one side and the men on the other. The Imamah read what seemed like 100 pages of wedding papers in Arabic, and most of it I didn’t understand. I really didn’t care.

With the last document completed, Father began weeping and shaking his head back and forth. He crossed the room and folded me in his arms. His tears were contagious, and my whole family cried with him. Father knew I was too naïve and didn’t understand what real life was all about. Mohsen beamed and shook one hand after another. He couldn’t stop laughing.

Now as my husband, he returned to America the next week. With some regret, I continued my education. Even though I was learning English, I found out my credits wouldn’t transfer to the U.S. Then, my father suffered a stroke at the end of my third year. He would never tell me his thoughts again.

“Mother,” I said one day when I was nursing him, “I will leave school and stay here with you and take care of Father.”

“That is fine, but don’t put your life on hold indefinitely.”

Still, as the time for Mohsen to come for me approached, I marched to his family’s house to say I couldn’t leave Iran until Mother didn’t have that burden. The excitement of seeing new people and places charmed me, but Father needed my help.

“Mohsen already bought a ticket,” his brother said.

His sister said, “Don’t do this to him. He waited two years already.”

Mohsen showered me with gifts, and I loved him for being so generous. I broke down under the pressure. A fairytale wedding materialized.

“I’m coming next week to take you to the U.S.,” he said on the phone.

I ran to the kitchen to tell my mother the news. “The time has arrived, and I am leaving.” She just smiled stiffly as if she was shocked. She must’ve felt she was about to lose me forever. She stopped cooking and held me close.

When Mohsen came to Iran, we flew to Dubai, a gorgeous place, to obtain approval at the embassy for my U.S. green card. Back in Ahwaz, Mohsen’s brother had rented a gymnasium with a band, dinner catered from restaurants, and 500 guests. None of my family would come except two cousins and few friends. I realized I didn’t have a wedding dress. Did I really want to go through with this plan?

At a store on the main street in Ahwaz, I immediately found one, white lace with tremendous sleeves and an enormous skirt. I didn’t even like the dress but took it anyway. Why didn’t I want a special ceremony? The wedding party whirred past me in a blur of confusion.

Two days later, Mohsen’s entire family and my mother, brother and younger sister came to say goodbye at the airport. With a heart full of indecision, I ducked into the hallway, where there was a pay phone, and called Ali to wish him well.

“Nazy, listen. Don’t leave,” he said. “I will divorce my wife and marry you.”

“It is way too late for that,” I said. But if I loved my husband, why did my blood pump through me like a flood?

We boarded the plane, and my husband held my hand across the seat. I looked into his mature dark face and then turned to the window. Goodbye Iran, I whispered. My new life was beginning, and I welcomed a world free of frustration and roadblocks.

Authors’ Note: The name of the primary author, the young woman who lived this story, has been changed. In addition, the specific nature of the political views that brought her father into conflict with the regime in Iran have been masked to protect her family.
 

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By Nazy Sarboland and Amanda Griffith
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