In this episode, Mehrnoosh takes us to a village and a small town in the 1940s to 1960s. She recalls her journey from a traditional to a modern school, and then to Tehran, looking for work and dreaming of continuing her education, passing university entrance examination and then going to university in Isfahan, returning to Tehran for a job, and, finally, submitting to migration. Through her journey, we encounter Iran as a country where many women of Mehrnoosh’s generation who had grown up in closed religious homes slowly reject the veil and even the religion, and claim their independence from the dictates of family and tradition. In this Iran, the strong culture of book and magazine reading, even controversial magazines like Ferdowsi that covered both contemporary literature and current politics, extends to small towns too. Parallel to that, SAVAK (Shah’s intelligence service) spreads its shadow everywhere, and if it finds too many books in somebody’s house considers her/him a terrorist. From the dynamics of hijab to the formation of political thought, from the role of religion to the security atmosphere in universities, from social structures of feudalism to the White Revolution’s land reform and the establishment of a dependent industrial economy, from a village to the capital, Mehrnoosh’s experience and recollections offer a narrative of Iran’s social history, and much more. Because of her personal experience of losing her hearing in childhood, Mehrnoosh sheds light on aspects that not only have been left mute in our history, but also are rarely discussed in contemporary Iran. Let us listen to Mehrnoosh’s voice.
I have known Mehrnoosh (alias) since 1979. Only a few months after the 1979 Revolution, I had gone to Tehran from Shiraz to study in the School of Fine Arts, and I lived in a squatted dormitory. The universities in Tehran, as usual had accepted many students from other places but could accommodate only some of them in the existing facilities. The students who had no family in Tehran to stay with, only with difficulty could find a room even in the outskirts of the city far from the universities. Many landlords didn’t allow their tenants to house anybody extra, especially young students. My sister’s landlord threatened that if I were to stay with her, she would have to leave that house. Finding a place to live in Tehran for a single woman, even if she had a steady job, was near impossible.
The students’ protests would not get anywhere. In University of Tehran, students who were in need of accommodations staged a few sit-ins but they were threatened with expulsion and had to go back to classes. Out of necessity, therefore, and because the anti-class spirit of the revolutionary years was still dominant, many students who needed a place, girls and boys, took over unfinished buildings near their universities. In a Tehran where developers had squeezed low-income and even middle-class families for over a decade, nobody worried for the legal rights of the buildings’ owners who had left the country already with the escalation of the uprisings.
Eventually, the universities were forced to take over these buildings formally and turn them into dormitories. Forced by the Ministry of Higher Education, the University of Tehran authorities accepted responsibility for the building we had squatted. I had just moved to a new room with only one roommate from a large hall where over thirty girls slept on the floor and studied at night in the light of a naked bulb we had wired in from the street cables. Our new room would have been a kitchen in an apartment in the building’s original plan. Its walls were covered in blue tiles, and right over the head of my bed was a faucet, which, of course, had been closed. My roommate was from Mashhad. She had finished her bachelor degree in Isfahan University and had come to Tehran for graduate school. We were each given a folding bed with a thin mattress and a narrow metal wardrobe, more like a school locker. One afternoon in heavy rain I came back from the school to change into my rubber boots and grab my umbrella before going out again to see a play. But my boots weren’t there. That night my roommate returned with a friend. That friend was Mehrnoosh who was wearing my boots.
I was barely eighteen, and had grown up in a middle-class family. It seemed very strange to me that somebody would take something that was clearly mine without my permission. Mehrnoosh’s voice sounded strange to me. But her friendliness and laughter, and a small book of Hafiz poetry that was by my bed connected us. Listening to her read poem’s by Hafiz, made me aware, for the first time, of the limitations of my middle-class manners; and taught me the depth of what in Sufi tradition is called sincerity:
You are not less than particles, do not lower yourself, give love
So that you can ascend, dancing in the rays, to the sun’s intimate circle
My friendship with Mehrnoosh continued after the Islamic Cultural Revolution and the closure of the universities. At some point she helped me find a room in a house adjacent to where she had a room. In those years I insisted on staying independent from my family. It was hard to find a job in Tehran and life in wartime was expensive. Having a bachelor degree, Mehrnoosh was the only person in her circle of friends who had a steady job that paid relatively well. A small red tin box in her room, which was open to all, was the bank that I and quite likely many other young women who were close to Mehrnoosh borrowed from when we were in need. She had told me this about the box: “I usually leave money in this box. Whenever you need, come and take some. No need to tell me about it. Whenever you have money, you can put in it whatever amount you want.” That tin box was never empty. I never went hungry in that year. When I didn’t have money or there was no fuel to put in my heater, I would go to Mehrnoosh’s room and sleep under her mother’s hand-made comforter that draped over the heat-table warmed up by a reading lamp placed under it.
Almost forty years later, whenever I see her, Mehrnoosh still gives me a book or introduces me to a writer I must read. In these years, having seen my struggles as an artist, she has offered many times to become my patroness. Her offers give me courage. She hopes to go back to Iran after retirement and open a bookstore in her hometown. She has told me that when I can go back, I can go live with her in the mountains. We still read Hafiz together when we can. This poem from Shamloo’s version of Hafiz is for her:
The time is over when the enlightened walked in the fringes
Holding a thousand words in their throat and keeping their lips sealed
To the music of the harp, let us sing those stories
Whose keeping in hiding made our hearts boil
Being a woman in the turmoiled decades of the mid- to late-20th century in the ancient land of Iran was both difficult and sweet. It was difficult because the walls of tradition and religion went up high into the sky; and sweet because our mothers’ efforts, and their mothers’ efforts before theirs, had opened up cracks in the walls, and we could see a path.
Whether planned or by accident, the titles of Forough Farrokhzad’s books reflect the periods that Iranian women passed through:
The Wall, Revolt, Another Birth
Our mothers banged their heads against the walls so hard that the wall cracked. We revolted against the wall, and fought the traditions and the destiny. Today’s generation of women had another birth: It concurred the universities and won big scientific and cultural prizes.
Of course, the guardians of tradition and religion still try to block the way for women, but, as Hafiz says,
My heart, don’t be sorrowful on account of the envious and his invectives
Perhaps if you observe deeply, you will find your good arise out of his spite
I learned that I had to fight for every step forward. We all fought: At home, on the streets, in the society, to open our way. I was but a small particle amongst millions of Iranian women. That’s all.
My battle started when I decided to continue my education after it had been stopped in the second grade because I lost my hearing. All on my own, wearing a chador, I went to Baqcheban School (for the Deaf) and asked them to enroll me so that I could participate in the end of year examinations for completing elementary school along with other deaf students. Mrs. Baqcheban said, “Firstly, it’s only a month before the exams, and secondly, you already know how to read and write and how to sew; why would you want to go to school?” I insisted: “Because I want to know myself.” They let me sit in the sixth grade, but I only lasted one week because I did not know sign language and, additionally, found what they taught was below the level I had already studied on my own. So I continued studying at home and took the exam with hearing adults. Three month later I sat the examinations for the next grade, … and continued until I finished the university. It was difficult, but I felt the sweetness more.
Perhaps, however, I was not truthful to Mrs. Baqcheban because I do not know myself yet!
Our existence is a mystery, Hafiz
Learning of which needs myth and magic