The Wind in My Hair: My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran
It was pitch-black. Actually, blacker than black, if such a thing is possible. A blackness that extended forever and pulsed like a living being that could reach out and swallow you whole. On this warm summer night, it seemed as if even the moon and the stars had abandoned me. I stared into the night and the darkness stared back. If you let your fear win, the darkness can devour you, I told myself. “Don’t be afraid,” I said quietly, over and over, like a mantra.
From behind me a faint sound of scraping and shuffling got louder and louder.
“Wait.…Wait for me,” my brother Ali whispered as he caught up with me. “I lost one of my slippers.” His voice trailed off. “Look, I’ve brought the lantern.”
I was tempted to say that I didn’t need it. But the dim glow was comforting. I reached back and grabbed the lantern from Ali and lifted it high above my head so that there was a globe of light around us. Though Ali was two years older than me, right now I was in charge, because he was afraid of the dark. We started walking. The end of the backyard was still about fifty yards away.
Ten minutes earlier, I was with the rest of my family—Mother and Father, my three brothers, and my sister—blissfully sleeping on the floor in the big room. Hard to believe but I was in the backyard because of Ali’s weak bladder. At thirteen, he’d started wetting his bed. “It’s just a phase,” I had overheard Mother explain to our father, or, as we called him, AghaJan, which means “dear sir” in Persian. AghaJan merely grunted, but I could see that he was troubled.
Sometimes Ali wet the bed in his sleep. Other times, he’d wake up in the middle of the night with a great urge to pee, but we didn’t have an indoor toilet, so he faced the long trek in the dark to the outhouse at the end of the backyard. He tried to steel himself to hang on till dawn, when there was enough light for him to feel brave. But no matter how much he tossed and turned, no matter how much he prayed to all the saints to give him endurance, he couldn’t hold on. Ali was too old to be scared of the dark, AghaJan used to say, without too much sympathy. I was never afraid of the dark, and you can imagine how humiliating it was for Ali to wake me up so that I could walk with him to the outhouse. He didn’t have to worry about waking our parents with his tossing and turning; AghaJan snored—the noise was like the sound of the tractor that he used to till the land.
“Wake up.…I need to go.…Wake up.…Wake up.…”
I shrugged and rolled over, but he wasn’t to be deterred.
“Get up.…I need to pee,” Ali said with greater urgency, shaking my shoulder.
“Okay…okay…I’m awake,” I said eventually.
A few weeks earlier, when he first started going through this phase, Ali was too embarrassed to wake me, and in the morning, there were the telltale signs. He’d rush outside as soon as he woke, but Mother discovered the wet stains when she rolled the bed up. She’d pretend that the wet patch and the stains were due to some household accident; often she blamed a leaking tea thermos, to save him from embarrassment.
“Someone must have knocked over the thermos,” she’d say loudly, with a smile.
“Who drinks tea in bed at night?” I’d ask mischievously. “Isn’t it strange how all the tea spills happen on his futon,” I’d say with a laugh.
Maybe he wanted to pay me back, because tonight Ali was determined to get me up.
“Please, I need to go,” he begged. “I’m getting desperate.”
“Okay…okay, just hurry up,” I mumbled as I rolled out of bed. “I am having a good dream and want to get back to it.”
In the backyard, even with a lantern in my hand, the distance to the outhouse looked pretty daunting. The warm air was dense with the summery whiff of crushed grass and a hint of burnt charcoal. Under the veranda, dozens of chickens were huddled, fast asleep. I wished I was back in my warm bed, but Ali’s eyes were fixed on the structure at the far end of the yard.
“Let’s go,” I said wearily. I wanted to get back to my beautiful dream.
We shuffled forward sleepily.
During the daylight hours, Ali was like other teenagers—fearless, boastful, and rebellious, part of a gang of boys who, when they tired of wrestling each other to the ground, took turns riding their rickety bicycles and then went for a swim in the Kolahrood (Kolah River). I used to think Ali was different. He read constantly, and he liked to recount stories in a colorful and dramatic style. But during the hot summer months I hardly saw him. From breakfast till dinner he was out and about, roaming the narrow dirt roads of our village. He’d come back dirty and stinking of sweat, his face red from hours of playing in the sun. Mother would drag him to the barn, where we kept our two cows, and would hose him down roughly with cold water before he was allowed inside the house. It was the same hose that she used to wash the cows.
Ali never took me with him no matter how much I begged him. I desperately wanted to run around the fields and ride a bicycle and jump in the river.
This was not possible, he said.
“No girls are allowed. The other boys would laugh at me.” He looked sheepish when he said this. “Be reasonable. Even if I wanted to, AghaJan wouldn’t allow it.”
“It’s not allowed.”
“It’s not permissible.”
“Girls can’t do that.”
I wasn’t asking for much, but every time I wanted to do something that the boys were already doing, I heard the same refrain. I was eleven and I was tired of hearing it: “You can’t do that.” Even now, the phrase “You can’t do that” is like waving a red rag at a bull. It gets my blood boiling.
AghaJan expected girls to stay indoors and out of sight. He wasn’t alone in his thinking. No other girls were allowed to run around and play outside the house. Boys had freedom and girls were kept indoors. It seemed so unfair.
“Go on inside. I’ll count to twenty and then I’m heading back,” I whispered to Ali as I yawned. “If we don’t hurry back I’ll forget my dream.”
“Don’t go,” Ali said meekly. He took the lantern and gingerly opened the door to the outhouse, a narrow stand-alone room, as if half expecting a mouse or a snake to dart out. It was not unusual to find a grass snake inside, but as they were not poisonous I didn’t mind them. Ali waved the lantern inside a few times before stepping in.
Inside, it was a typical Iranian-style toilet—basically a large hole in the ground. Even in the daytime, going to that toilet was a scary experience. I used to worry that one day I would fall in and sink deep into the fetid muck.
Once a year, AghaJan would spend half a day digging a hole twice his own height. Climbing out, he was always coated in sludge and grime. He’d cover the opening with wood and stone, leaving only a hole. Months later, when the hole was almost full, AghaJan would tie a scarf around his nose and mouth and spend a day emptying the foul-smelling contents to use later for fertilizer. The stench was stomach-churning.
Without the lantern, I was once again enveloped in darkness. The yips and howls of coyotes, the croaks of frogs, the strumming of beetles, the clicking of cicadas, and the ever-present rustling sounds from the undergrowth were like a symphony providing the background music of my early life. I once spent an afternoon sitting in the fields to record the chirps and clicks of insects. When I told Ali, he cracked up as if this was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. But some of his ideas were so outlandish that they made me laugh out loud. Like when he said he was going to be so rich he’d build himself a house with the toilet inside it.
“You mean a toilet right next to your bedroom?” This truly was the funniest thing I had ever heard. “You don’t mean you want a toilet inside the house? Next to where you eat?” I laughed so much that tears flowed down my cheeks.
I wasn’t afraid of the dark, but I was petrified of falling into that pit.
My mother used to say that the darkness is a monster, a shapeless black demon that feeds on your fear. If you are scared of it, then the shadow grows bigger and it will envelop you and swallow you whole.
“Open your eyes wide, as wide as possible,” she’d urge me when I was a young girl. “Stare into the darkness and the shadows will disappear. Never be afraid of the darkness, but stare it down.”
So, from early on, whenever I faced something scary, instead of running away or turning my back to it, I’d force my eyes wide-open and meet it head-on.
“Are you done yet? Still in there?” I kicked the door gently. I was getting tired of keeping my eyes wide-open and wanted to go back to bed.
Ali came out fidgeting with his trousers and handed me the lantern.
“Let’s go back now.” He sounded relieved. Once again, I led the way.
This was my chance to ask for a favor in return. I wanted to run around with the boys and learn how to ride a bicycle.
“In the morning, can you take me with you? It’s not fair that I’ve got to stay indoors while you get to run around.”
“I can’t. AghaJan won’t like it.”
“Then stay home and play with me. We can build a house together or…you can teach me to ride. AghaJan’s old bicycle is in the barn.”
“Okay. I promise,” he said breezily as we entered the house.
The next morning, after breakfast, Ali rushed out to meet his gang and left me behind by myself.
I’m the proud daughter of Ghomikola, the capital of the world. That’s how I introduced myself whenever someone asked about my origins. I’d wait a beat or two before breaking into a big grin to let them know that I was joking. Ghomikola is the capital of my world, but it’s not even a dot on a map of Iran. I was born and raised, like the rest of my family, in Ghomikola, a lush village in the province of Mazandaran, in northern Iran. I couldn’t imagine a better place anywhere else in the world. It was only after I became a teenager that I realized how tiny Ghomikola really was.
Mazandaranis, or Mazanis, as the people are affectionately called, are proud of their long history of independence, which predates Islam. We have our own dialect, Mazani or Tabari, and nothing gives me more pleasure, now that I live in the West, than to find a fellow Mazani and speak in my local tongue. The sandy beaches of the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest inland sea, form our northern borders. To the south, the rugged, snowcapped Alborz range and Mount Damavand, the highest peak in Iran, a sight known to all Iranian children, stretch to reach the sky. There may be as many as two hundred rivers, streams, and brooks in the province.
The region’s roots go back at least three thousand years, and it was only in the early twentieth century that major roads were constructed linking Mazandaran and the neighboring Gilan Province to the southern regions. These two provinces are known as the Shomal, meaning “the north” in Persian, and for most Iranians it’s the same as what the Riviera means to the French or what the Hamptons signify to New Yorkers. Thousands of Iranians flock to the mountains or the shores of the Caspian for vacation and to get away from the polluted air of Tehran.
In between the mountains and the sea, forests, orchards, and farmlands make the area one of the greenest spots in Iran. For me, this was as close to paradise as you could get. I guess that’s where my love of trees comes from. As a young girl, I used to sneak into our neighbor’s garden and climb their trees to pick pears and walnuts; in our garden we grew oranges and green plums and had a lone pomegranate tree. Climbing trees was one of my favorite pastimes, always going higher and higher, leaving my brothers and friends behind, much to the chagrin of my mother, who complained that clambering up trees was not for girls. But I couldn’t help it. Even today, whenever I see a fruit tree my first impulse is to scramble to the very top branches. I’ve climbed a plum tree outside the Vatican (it was a dark night) and inched my way up a pear tree in London in cowboy boots, as my husband, Kambiz, nervously kept watch on each occasion.
There is more to the north than just trees. Even in Iran, a land with three millennia of history, the Shomal is a magical place of legends. Mazandaran resisted the Arab invasion that brought Islam to Iran around the 640s and maintained a Zoroastrian majority for nearly five hundred years—thanks to its independent-minded population—until around the twelfth century.
In the Shahnameh, or Book of Kings, the Persian national epic poem, which describes Iran’s long pre-Islamic history, Mazandaran is an area mostly inhabited by Divs, or demons. In the book, Rostam, the legendary hero of Iran, brawny and powerful just like Hercules, has to make the arduous journey to the region to battle and kill the White Div, the biggest and meanest of the mythical monsters.
All the demons were gone by the time I was born.
About 100 families or so live in Ghomikola, and it hasn’t changed much over the years—it is a small and intimate place of 650 people where everyone knows everyone else and there are no secrets. When I was growing up, it seemed as if half the village was made up of my aunts, uncles, and cousins.
The unpaved lanes crisscrossing Ghomikola are narrow and filled with tall trees that have thick branches and provide cool shade in the summer. Houses have gabled roofs, typical of the north, and high walls to provide privacy. Historically, our village was made up of two neighborhoods—Upper Ghomikola, where the wealthier families lived, and the humbler Lower Ghomikola, where the rest of us lived, in unpretentious homes made out of clay and mud mixed with straw, and with unvarnished wooden pillars. Our house had a wooden terrace all the way around, with a courtyard in front and a backyard where my mother grew vegetables, in a garden set behind a brick wall. Like most families, we had a small barn in the courtyard, where we kept our cows.
Up until the 1960s, Ghomikola was owned by an absentee landlord and most folks were either sharecroppers or day laborers. In fact, in those days, most villagers were like serfs, working for the big landlord. Only a few had their own plot of land.
One sign of wealth and social mobility was the metal gate—if you had one, it meant you had money. Life was simple in the village, and whenever a family replaced their wooden gate with a metal one they handed out sweets and local delicacies—cooked broad beans dusted with a spice called golpar—as the men labored. The women would chant: “Let there be blessings on this house, / Let this gate be a token of better things to come.”
Until I became a teenager, we had a wooden gate. In fact, we were one of the last families to upgrade. I like to think it was because I kept badgering AghaJan to get a red gate, since that is my favorite color. But AghaJan remained firm in resisting the tide.
“I don’t have money to waste,” he’d say gruffly whenever I approached him on the topic. “Our door is good enough to keep the wolves at bay.”
There were hardly any stray dogs in Ghomikola, let alone wolves, but AghaJan used to say he worked too hard for his money to waste it on what he considered to be frivolous matters. Then, one day, I returned from middle school and saw a brand-new gate. It was blue.
“I paid for it, I get to pick the color,” AghaJan said.
Upper and Lower Ghomikola came together around the cemetery and the village’s two stores across from it. The grocery store, run by Mamadali Dekondar, sold everything from eggs, milk, and fruit to pencils, notepads, and shampoos. We grew our own food, including grains to bake bread, and the animals we kept gave us eggs and milk. We bartered with other families for the food we couldn’t produce ourselves. The other store was the village Cooperative, which had everything from bolts of cloth to color TVs and gas cookers.
I remember, one year, all everyone was talking about was the new technological marvel that the Coop was offering: a ceiling fan. We had one table fan, with its distinctive white blades that whirred mightily to fight off the humidity and heat of the summer. At night, as the humidity levels climbed higher and higher, my brothers and I would always squabble to see who got to sit closest to the fan. Now, a fan that was attached to the ceiling changed everything and offered a chance to end all our bickering. The whole family trooped off to the Coop one afternoon and gawked at the blades going around and around above our heads. AghaJan stared for a long time, watching them rotate, before declaring that the contraption was too dangerous—if the fan ever came loose the blades could decapitate the whole family.
“Imagine if it fell during the night. With one blow, it’d chop off our heads,” he said.
I don’t think safety was his main concern. As usual, we didn’t have enough money to afford such luxuries. We left the Coop empty-handed, but for weeks Ali and I would plead with Mother to take us back so we could stand under the fan and dream of owning it one day.
Money was always tight.
It’s fair to say that I grew up as far away from the country’s elites as possible. Both my grandfathers were poor sharecroppers who became destitute and died young. One fell ill and died, and the other was killed by a wild animal. I only learned their stories from my grandmothers. AghaJan’s father, Hassan, lost his job as a day laborer and had to beg for food to feed his family. He’d look for work, but at the end of the day, he’d be forced to knock on doors and collect leftovers such as pieces of stale bread and day-old rice. After a short illness, Hassan died, leaving a wife and three children. My father at age fourteen became the breadwinner of the family. He didn’t want to be a sharecropper, so to make money he became a street peddler and sold fruit and vegetables on street corners. AghaJan never forgot what it was like to be destitute. Whenever a beggar knocked on our door, AghaJan welcomed him with a warm smile and filled his basket with the same food that we ourselves ate. “Always be kind to the less fortunate,” AghaJan used to say.
I grew up with two wonderful storytellers, AghaJan’s mother, Naneh, and my own mother, Zarrin, which means “golden.” My mother never had any formal education, but she had the gift of poetry and composed poems and sonnets in the Mazani dialect about life in the village and working in the rice fields. She was famous in the village for her poems. She and Naneh spun stories that sent my imagination wandering off beyond the green fields and orchards surrounding our home.
I like to think we are all, to some degree, reflections of our parents and grandparents, and for this reason, I believe my penchant for writing and public advocacy is a gift from my mother. As for my stubborn nature and quick temper, well, that’s all on me.
From Naneh, I learned how to cope with hardship and to beware of the fickleness of fortune. Naneh had already moved in with us when I was born. Of course, Naneh wasn’t her real name, but it was what I called her as a toddler, and for me the name stuck. She was frail but tough in spirit. She had become a widow in her twenties, with three children to look after. I often wondered why she never remarried. A light had gone out in her heart.
“You live once, you marry once, and you die once. You go to your husband’s house in a white dress and leave in a white shroud,” she told me as her spindly hands held my arm. She had lost her eyesight by then and relied on me to guide her on her walks around the garden. “A good mother stays with her kids and raises them.”
That barb was aimed at my other grandmother, Beebee. Like Naneh, Beebee also came from a poor family. She married a sharecropper, who was allotted a small piece of land far in the wilderness in return for clearing the area of brush and weeds to make it suitable for farming. He was all alone when he was attacked and killed by a wild boar. Today, people brought up in the cities don’t really have an understanding of the abject poverty that existed in the Iranian countryside at the time.
The lesson for Beebee was that life was brutish and short. She was in her twenties but already had become a widow, with two small children, my mother, Zarrin, then only nine, and her brother, Hassan, who was four. Beebee wanted to remarry, but found no suitor willing to raise another man’s children. So Beebee abandoned her children to the care of her aunt and found a new husband. My mother’s childhood was anything but golden—even when her father was alive, they barely could make ends meet. But Zarrin’s life took a turn for the worse when her mother left her with her great-aunt Ameh Geda (“Pauper Auntie” in Persian). It was a nickname but there was truth to it—Ameh Geda lived in a decrepit shack, where everything was old and dirty. She sometimes went to Babol, the nearest city, to be a housecleaner, but more often she begged for food and money on the street.
Zarrin loved Ameh Geda as if she were her real mother, but she never forgave Beebee for abandoning her.
I often wonder about the choices I’d have made if I had found myself in my grandmothers’ shoes. Would I have sought my own happiness, or sacrificed myself for my kids? Beebee and Naneh were like the two angels said to sit on each person’s shoulders, the first urging me to take a chance and fly and the latter urging me to keep my feet on the ground.
When AghaJan was twenty-four, his family went to see Ameh Geda and asked for Zarrin’s hand. She was only fourteen and had no say in the matter. Her dowry was the tiny plot of land that her father had left her, and they got married. The land alone wasn’t large enough for them to grow rice or other crops to make a living, and both my parents had to find other ways to supplement their income. Having experienced a tough life, AghaJan was determined that all his children would receive an education and never go hungry at night.
Unlike the other men in the village, AghaJan was quite tall and had an athletic build, with strong, broad shoulders. Even now, in his seventies, he is in far better shape than his friends. That’s probably because he always had to work hard. He planted trees and grew rice, and sold eggs and chickens and geese on the streets of Babol. He is still an expert tree grafter, often called to graft orange and lemon trees.
When he was younger, AghaJan would tie a boxful of chickens and eggs to the back of his bicycle and pedal ten miles on dirt roads and back alleys to Babol. When it rained, the dirt roads turned to mud and were unusable. That didn’t deter AghaJan. He carried the bicycle, with the boxful of chickens still attached, on his shoulders along muddy roads until he reached the main highway, an asphalt road. Years later, he bought a moped to get around faster and sell more chickens and eggs.
For a long time, I associated AghaJan with the smell of chickens, sweat, and fertilizer. He had a fierce temper, and when he became angry, it was like a volcano exploding. But he was always sweet with my mother.
She had soft, cream-colored skin; gentle, plump hands; and kind, smiling eyes. She never applied any moisturizer or wore makeup, not even lipstick. Her piercing brown eyes could see right through me, especially when I was up to some mischief, which was quite often. My tricks and evasions never worked with her. She had long, light-brown hair, soft as silk, but we rarely saw it, as it was mostly covered up. Her head scarf was a part of her identity and she never took it off, not even for sleeping. I never thought that was unusual, since everyone in my family did the same.
Mother raised all of her children on her back. After each of us was a few weeks old, she’d wrap us in swaths of cloth, put us on her back, and head to our plot of land to work alongside AghaJan. In the village, everyone had to work. Mother wasn’t the type to sit back and relax; she was always up and about, never hesitating to roll up her trousers and get involved with rice planting and harvesting. She had her own vegetable patch, where she planted mint, basil, and parsley alongside tomatoes and cucumbers. She made regular treks to Babol to sell her herbs and vegetables in the market. We churned our own butter and made yogurt. Mother was great at making vats of tomato paste and pomegranate puree, both of which she used for cooking special dishes.
She almost always wore a flowery patterned tunic and baggy trousers, with a woolen cardigan and flowery head scarf. When she was going to Babol she put on a black chador, a large piece of cloth worn wrapped around the head and the body. It even covered the ankles, though it left the face exposed. It had no zippers or buttons or hooks. You gripped it tight with your hand under the chin.
She was twenty-eight when she had me, the last of her six children.
I was born at home on a hot September afternoon with just a village midwife and my sister Mina helping my mother to bring me into this world. Having a doctor come to our house cost almost the same as going to the hospital, and it was money that we didn’t have. All my brothers and sisters were born at home with the same midwife. I joined Mina and, along with Ali, two other brothers, Mohsen and Hamid. My other sister, Mehri, died when she was a year or so old.
I truly think the earliest years of my life were spent in paradise. My father was severe but kind, my mother cooked delicious meals and doted on me, and we all spoke Mazani. I ran around the yard, picked apples and pears for my mother, and sometimes tended our cows. I didn’t learn to speak Persian until I went to school.