Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Moving to the US (Part 1)

I moved to the US when I was 17 years old totally unprepared for what was waiting for me here. Life under the Islamic Republic of Iran was very difficult for us Baha’is, the largest religious minority in Iran. Baha’is were and still are persecuted by the Iranian government. Baha’i youth are banned from attending universities and colleges. If I had stayed in Iran, I would not be able to pursue my formal education. I will write more in the future about my life in Iran as a child and the circumstances under which I left Iran.

Growing up, I always thought that I would live in my own country, go to college there, get married and have kids there, grow old and die there. When our lives became difficult in Iran, it was my mother who initiated all the work needed for me to move to the US where my brother had moved to 10 years before. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to leave home. The thought of losing all that I was familiar with and was attached to was painful. It was with mixed emotions that I decided to leave Iran. During the time that we were trying to secure visas and such, I wished something would go wrong and prevent me from leaving Iran. I thought that I would probably have a better life in the US, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity if it became available to me. But if the decision was not mine and the circumstances prevented me from leaving, then I would not have a reason to blame myself for making a bad decision.

Not knowing English scared me the most. I knew as much English as kids here, in the States, typically, know Spanish. I knew the English grammar and had limited vocabulary, but I wasn’t conversational at all. In fact the language that I had started studying and liked was French. French sounded much more pleasant to my ears than English. So the summer of my sixteenth year of life, I went from getting ready for my senior year of high school to getting ready to move to the US. I remember when school started on September 21st, I watched my classmates go to school with longing. I so wanted to be with them and graduate from high school with them. I left Iran in early October. During the last couple of weeks before leaving, I looked at everything differently. In my own way, I said goodbye to my house, my belongings, my school, the streets of my hometown, the shops, the trees, the mountains, my bicycle, which was my constant companion, my books and so many other things. I would walk on the streets, look inside the shops that I used to go to and look at the familiar people who worked there thinking that I may never see them again. I went to my favorite bookstore and left it remembering all the excitement that I felt every time I would go there to buy a new book.

There were so many people to say goodbye to. When I went to say goodbye to a couple who were good friends of my family, the wife said, “Soheila, marry an Iranian when you want to get married, don’t marry an American.” Her husband said, “She is going to America, what are the chances of her marrying an Iranian.” I smiled and said nothing. Marriage was the last thing on my mind, and American men were this incredible unknown. How things have changed since then, I have married and divorced two American men. I have dated many American men, and American men are the only creatures on the planet that I know very well, in fact too well. There is, absolutely, no mystery to them for me anymore. During the last days my oldest sister, Zhaleh, who has always been like a mother to me, since she is 20 years older than me, kept giving me advise about different things. Finally one day when we were in the kitchen of her house without making eye contact with me after a long introduction she said, “Soheila, make sure you won’t end up pregnant when you are all on your own.” I was shocked to hear those words from her. I knew how difficult it was for her to say them. Our culture is very conservative, and certain things are understood but never talked about. I was surprised that she felt that she had to verbalize those thoughts. And, I also thought that it was not necessary for her to even worry about such a thing. I was a very serious, driven and goal oriented young girl. I wanted to do great things with my life. I thought I would never be so irresponsible, or so immoral. Having kids out of wedlock was definitely considered immoral based on my upbringing. I smiled at her and said, “Of course not”.

When I was packing my belongings, I put all the things I wanted to take with me in my suitcase. It was hard to decide what to put in a single suitcase. I had about 10 books that I wanted to bring with myself to the US. These were my favorite books. I often wrote my thoughts about the story or the subject matter in the margins of the books I read. That was another reason that I wanted to take those books. I wanted to be able to know in the future what my thoughts were as a teenager. When I was done packing, my mom looked inside my suitcase and said, “You can't take all these books. We have to put this Persian rug in your suitcase. You might have to sell it someday.” She proceeded to take all of my books out of the suitcase and then put the small Persian rug, which was about 2.5 feet by 3.5 feet, in my suitcase as I watched sadly. I still have that little Persian rug. It is on the floor of the guest room in my house. It has a great sentimental value to me now, and I do not want to part with it.

The night before I was going to leave home when no one was in the house, I sat on the floor of our family room, cried and prayed to God fervently. I begged him to take care of me and not ever leave me alone. I knew I was going to start a new life that would be full of challenges and unknowns. I have remembered that night from time to time. I have thought about that young girl with her unshakable faith and determination to do everything right in life and the naïve belief that it was possible.

I left Iran about 3 weeks after my seventeenth birthday. The day of my departure was a beautiful sunny day with the temperature about 80 degrees. In my mind's eye, I can still see the events of that day clearly. On that day, I said goodbye to my family, got on a bus with my parents, left my hometown of Hamedan and traveled 8 hours to Tehran, the capital. The next day, we flew out of Tehran. My parents were, also, coming to the US with me. They were planning on staying in the US for a couple of months and then return to Iran. They wanted to come to the US for medical treatment for my father who was not yet diagnosed with prostate cancer.

I remember the hustle and bustle of the airport on that October day. The airport was packed with people. Hurriedly, we went through the crowd trying not to miss our flight. Soon I was seated in a window seat flying over Tehran. After we took off, I looked out of the window at the city that was getting smaller and smaller until I no longer could see it.  As the city disappeared, I felt a deep sense of sadness.  I had left my home and was getting further and further away from it.  I remember wondering when I would see it again and hoping that it wouldn't be long. But I knew it would have to be a long time before I could go back home.  I had just left a country whose government's official mandate was to persecute my coreligionists.  Life for the Baha'is was going to be fraught with pain and calamity.  Little that I knew that being back home would remain a dream that may never be fulfilled. I have not been back to Iran since I left it when I was seventeen. The policies of its Islamic government have not changed.

In the last days, as I said goodbye to friends, there was one person whom it was difficult to say goodbye to. It was the boy who loved me. My departure was the most painful for him. For the first few years of my life in the US, he wrote to me, called me and always managed to find me. Finally, after about 4 years, I told him that we should end our communication, because I wouldn’t move back to Iran, and he couldn't leave Iran. I have heard from friends back home that still after all these years from time to time he seeks out people who may have some news about me. He still lives in my hometown and has a business. I have wondered if I could have found a good life partner in him, since that is something that has eluded me in life. I sometimes wonder what he looks like now, what his life is like, if he is married, if he has any children. I hope and pray that he is happy.

To Be Continued...

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Oh No, Please!

As I was reading an online publication last week, I saw the title, ‘Sarah Palin says “refudiate,” and creates a word controversy. What’s the big problem with refudiate?’ My first reaction was, “Oh my God, she doesn’t know that the word is repudiate and not refudiate. Refudiate is not a word.” I was shocked and somewhat disgusted. She had used the word in one of her tweets that thousands of people read. Again, I thought, “This woman is uneducated. The fact that she wrote refudiate and not repudiate indicates that she probably has not seen the word in the written form, which indicates that she doesn’t read.” Repudiate is not an obscure word. This woman tweets to thousands of people and doesn’t bother to do the most basic check in writing, the spell check. If she had checked the spelling of her writing, she would know that refudiate is not a word. I write a little blog that only a few people read and at the minimum, I check the spelling of the words I use. By the way, English is my second language, and I don’t aspire to run for the presidency of the United States.

In her response to the criticism that refudiate is not a word. She replied, “English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!” Yes, English is a live language. Words are created out of necessity. Some of the words created or used differently than what was originally intended are: email, google, input. We say, “I emailed you; I googled it; I inputed the data.” All these are new additions and new ways of using the English language. And, yes, Shakespeare coined new words, but his coining new words was not out of ignorance. He had characters in his plays that were supposed to be uneducated and used words incorrectly. There is a big difference here. Her response indicated that not only she is ignorant, but also she is insolent. If she had said, “I made a mistake and didn’t use the correct word.” I would think, “She is human, and she admitted to her mistake.”

When I first saw Sarah Palin introduced as John McCain’s running mate, I was hoping that she would be someone that I could come to respect and even admire. But during the months before the 2008 elections, I came to be disappointed by her lack of knowledge and simple and narrow views on issues. I remember when she was asked about what she read, I thought, “Name something, anything, Time, Newsweek, The New York Times...”. But she didn’t. Another thing that bothered me about her was her divisive way of talking in her speeches that were repeated over and over. She used phrases such as “good patriotic Americans” to refer to people who shared her political views, as though people who didn’t have the same views were unpatriotic. This sort of language only fuels hatred and judgment and is not constructive. Even her Tweet that had the non-word refudiate in it had a prejudiced tone. My issues with her have nothing to do with her politics, and they have to do with her person. It is obvious that she is not well informed. Her perception of things is limited and yet she is extremely ambitious. She didn’t even finish her first term as Alaska’s governor so that she could pursue her political goals.

America, today, is the greatest nation in the world. I have come to understand that this country has become what it is today, because of the vision and the foresight of the founding fathers and some enlightened early Americans. It is because of their insight that this country has such a strong foundation and a great system of laws. I have, also, read about the Women’s Suffrage in this country. The struggles of these amazing women who fought for their right to vote are no less than heroic. I have seen the rise of women CEOs, scientist and inventors in the recent history. I would love to see the first woman president in this county someday. I hope that she will be one that I can admire, respect and be proud of, someone with a great mind and intellect who is, also, educated. It is terribly jarring to hear the leader of the free world use words that are not in the English language. I’m still trying to digest president Bush’s use of the non-word “misunderestimated” in one of his interviews.