TitleDreaming in Iran is never easy

The boy who was leaving the shadow for the sunshine

5 Nov 2010

■ Shafagh Ashna
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It is hard to live in Iran and grow up and become mature, and achieve glory. From the moment you are born, when they say “azan” (1) in your ears, the same phrase is being repeated over and over again: “you cannot”. Life in Iran is like being a young sapling faced with the threat of an axe that is striking non-stop, so that its trunk is always knotted while growing up. You are fucked up to gain what you desire and often you do not achieve it. In the middle of the road, you can’t stand it anymore, the leaves of the tree of life turn yellow, they fall down and you become an acarpous tree staring at the sky.

It is almost impossible to go to a governmental organization or institute and ask a man or a woman working there if they like their career and to get a positive answer. It is impossible to look into their eyes and not see their regret. The head of the university inscription office desired to be a traveler but becoming a mother has changed her destiny. The supermarket salesman in the neighborhood wanted to continue his education but his father prevented him to do so. You meet a chief manager of a successful enterprise claiming he used to like to play the piano but in their small city music was haram (banned by religion). One guy was involved in political activity; the other one has gone bankrupt; the third one’s husband has prevented her from doing what she wants. There are thousands of these stories. You can find only very few people who confidently state: yes, I am interested in my career, I love my job.

Yes, this is a love story, a classical type of love story, not one of those new kind of love affairs that end very fast. You have to be in love and just take your hatchet with you, just as Farhad (2) did, and start striking at Mount Bisotoon. The blaze of love for your career should burn from the bottom of your heart. From the very beginning you should keep in mind that thousand and one obstacles and limits will appear along your way. You have to learn the ways to pass and most importantly the ways not to pass. You have to learn not to talk and think about some specific subjects, especially if you are a girl. And in the end, you just have to keep striking at Bisotoon, not think about Bisotoon and about the result, just keep on striking at Bisotoon with your hatchet and call for Shirin.

My story is the story of that young lover who is walking in the street and hanging around in the crowd. Whether he’s sitting at home and reading a book or going to university to protest, something is being repeated non-stop in his mind; one question is hesitantly being asked over and over again: can I do it?

It is incredible. In Iran you should always expect to face strange things.

It is incredible. In Iran you should always expect to face strange things. For instance, you get in a taxi and after a long chat with the driver you might be surprised by the amount of knowledge he has. You ask him about his education and he answers that he was a professor at university but has been fired so he had to start working as a taxi driver. You may travel to a distant village, and there you will meet a shepherd playing the flute for his sheep, and when talking to him you find out he is a professional in Iranian musical instruments and even had some performances in Tehran. But to earn his money for a living, he has to be a shepherd. These are not stories belonging to the past. I have witnessed them with my own eyes.

I never forget that when I was nine years old, I used to take the road passing by the bookshop when coming back from school, to say hello to the book seller and take a look at his books from the window. Having my school bag with me, I arrived in front of the bookshop. While looking at the books, something started burning inside my head, something started repeating itself in my mind and finally came out of my mouth: “I must write”. Ever since, I could not stop thinking about it. As soon as I arrived home, I opened my diary notebook at a blank page, wrote the date and then in capitals: STORY NUMBER 1. Naively I started writing about daily school events and full of excitement showed it to my mother and said: “I have written a story.” My mum also got excited or at least she pretended so and answered: “Really? Read it for me, I’m interested.” I read it out loud to my mother and she gave me a pat on the back and said: “That’s great, son, let’s keep doing it and we’ll see how it goes.” Until midnight I gloriously wrote four more of those so-called stories and waited for my father to come back. When he arrived home, the story took a turn. He told me that it was great that I write but it was nevertheless useless because I can’t earn money by writing short stories and it is better not to be a dreamer. That was the first punch I got as a nine-year-old boy. At night in my bed I was thinking: why can’t I write and why should I earn money and what is the problem with writing? But as I was a kind of rebel child, I soon decided not to listen to my father’s advice and become the greatest writer of the future.

Fourteen years later, I wish I never grew up old enough to understand the meaning of my father’s advice. In Iran, as people get older, each year their problems become ten times bigger, especially if they want to take risky decisions like marrying or having a career. At some time you have to finally face the facts and then you see you are so involved in the details of life that you have forgotten about your dreams. That was the reason I bought a calligraphy of a poem by Shamloo and put it on the wall in my room. The poem is about never-ending dreams and the desires of the poet that can’t be achieved because of the material and financial reasons and every stanza ends with this phrase ‘just if the blues of bread (i.e. material concerns) let me ‘.

Now I understand how difficult it can be to follow your dreams in real life. Social problems, political problems, limits and shortcoming: they all make you hold your breath and that is why when someone in living in the third world wants to pass all these obstacles, he should be a perfect character who has battled with faith in many dimensions, who has been injured and has ultimately overcome all problems.

I do not care if as a writer I cannot earn money. Losing your dreams in Iran means death, because reality has nothing to do with what is on your mind. Always when I read this phrase in a text about a famous poet or writer “since then he dedicated his life to writing” I jealously think: “will the day arrive when I can sit behind my desk and write just free from any concern?”

Hold fast to dreams,
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged brid
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Langston Hughes

(1) Farsi for ‘grow’
(2) referring to the classical love story Khosrow and Shirin, about the love of Sassanian king Khosrow II towards an Armenian princess, Shirin. It recounts the story of King Khosrow’s courtship of Princess Shirin, and the vanquishing of his love-rival, Farhad, by sending him on an exile to Bisotoon mountain with the impossible task of carving stairs out of the cliff rocks.

Tehran Review
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  1. lieve says:

    Wow. Even living in a very different part of the world and a very different culture than you, you have been able to touch my heart with this text. It is an enormous gift in life to have parents, teachers and a culture that make it possible to follow your dreams… Good luck with the writing, seems to me you are on the good road :o )

  2. S. Mostofi says:

    great article. I remember feeling this way when I lived in Iran, which was one of the main reasons I left. I do hope that things will change so that Iranians in Iran will have more of an opportunity to achieve their dreams.

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