The Element That Made and Maimed Me
by Sahar Hakim-Hashemi
Yes. It is true. I was born in Amrika. But, as my memory only traces back to age four, my first glimpses of life come from my childhood in Iran. I do, however, remember knowing as a child that I was somehow connected to the mysterious Amrika. My parents had obviously mentioned the fact, but I also sometimes threw around random Amrikayi words in my Farsi sentences and had several Amrikayi songs like "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" memorized by heart. These songs did not make sense to any child around me except for myself. To my surprise, I still remember some of the Amrikayi songs at the age of eighteen. The Amrikayi words, on the other hand, did not stay in me for long. The songs had melody and were soothing during downtime, but the single words became like torn up attire that I soon threw out to be able to create the right façade.
Every now and then we hear someone say, "You never know what you've got until you lose it." The saying usually applies to the loss of a situation, a person, or a way of living. Despite that, the only time I truly felt that phrase with all my soul was when I lost language. Yes--I lost language and then myself.
I lived in Farsi because Farsi was a culture, a place, a population, and a value system.
I grew up speaking, reading, and living in Farsi. It is important to mention that I did not live in Farsi simply because everyone around me communicated in Farsi. I lived in Farsi because Farsi was a culture, a place, a population, and a value system. To impress my elders, I referred to them in plural, not with you. To show my modesty, whenever someone commented on how pretty I was, I said cheshmatoon ghashang mibineh, which literally means your eyes see pretty. To assure my loyalty and dependability, I often said to a friend nokaretam, which literally translates as I'm your slave. To show my wisdom, maturity, and strength, I often simply had to respond with a Farsi silence. Most importantly, I used my exceptional ability to live in Farsi to get away with my rebellious, pioneering, and unusual character.
The first time I rebelled against the boys in our neighborhood in Iran reappears right in front of my eyes at this moment. The reason behind my act was instilled like stone inside me; I could not endure acting shy and weak as expected of girls in Iran. While boys could do almost anything they wanted, girls had to restrain themselves. Boys were free to play sports and street games, but it was taboo if a girl played the same games. Girls had to be girls, meaning they were supposed to act helpless compared to boys and avoid being rough. As a reflection of these standards, the boys in our neighborhood acted condescending towards us girls. They smirked and made fun of our inabilities. In the end, the girls accepted their lower status and just stood by the curb, watching the boys as they forcefully played various sports and games. This was a scene I especially abhorred. I abhorred it. If there was anyone among us girls who could deal with the boys, it had to be me, I thought.
One day when the older boys were choosing teams to play soccer, I walked up asking them to let us girls play as well. Now, you can imagine how much my courage must have shocked them. No girl had ever had the confidence to speak up to them like I did. Nonetheless, as I had anticipated, they laughed loudly and said,
"Are you kidding me? You are a girl! You don't know how to play soccer."
I confidently replied, "Yes, I do! Let me in your game, and I'll show you how well I can play."
They were surprised at my remark and had no choice but to let me play. During the game, since they never passed the ball to me, I stole the ball by interrupting a kick and scored a goal. They could not believe it as they shouted to each other,
"Oh! What is going on? This girl just scored a goal!"
After this occurrence, I knew things would be different for them; I had just earned their respect. By continuously facing their insults and put-downs, I was gradually able to make them see me as someone who was as strong and capable as they. Using my verbal confidence through Farsi, I had been able to differentiate myself from other girls.
This skill proved especially helpful in my next endeavor. Although I had always worn short hair, it had been long enough to cover my ears and allow others to tell that I was a girl. As I got closer to the age of nine, when Islam requires girls to begin wearing hejab1 and separating themselves even more from boys, I sensed a transformation in the girls around me. My closest girlfriends, who had always been by my side since the day I began to mix with the boys in our neighborhood, started to act shier than before and segregate themselves from boys. Most of them stopped mingling with boys and even coming outside to play street games. This frustrated me. For whatever reason, I was not driven to follow the path that all other girls seemed to naturally and contentedly follow. In fact, I despised the idea of such a path.
From this point, it became my dream to be a boy; I strived to accomplish this by shaving off and spiking my hair, wearing boys' clothing, being fearless, and assimilating myself into the male style of living.
To disassociate myself completely from this path, I chose to turn myself into a boy. Fortunately, my parents did not object. From this point, it became my dream to be a boy; I strived to accomplish this by shaving off and spiking my hair, wearing boys' clothing, being fearless, and assimilating myself into the male style of living. I religiously went outside every day and played various rough games with the boys, initially being the only girl. This behavior was completely unacceptable by Iranian and Islamic standards and thus got me into tremendous trouble. Shocked at my new appearance and actions, my girlfriends began to criticize me:
"Why would you ever cut your hair so short? I can even see your scalp! That is not how a girl is supposed to look! You look like a boy, but you are a girl."
I smiled and responded, "But look at how cool I can make my hair look now. I can make it more fashionable like the boys by putting gel on."
My reaction, the way I communicated to them in Farsi, gradually tamed them. I began to tell the girls stories about how I beat this or that boy in games, how the boys accepted me, and how much fun I was having by being a boy. While speaking, I purposely emphasized their weaknesses and pain as girls, something all Iranian girls are secretly sensitive about. Eventually, they got tamed to the point that one by one, they got haircuts like the boys and several of them joined me in street games with the boys outside.
One day, I decided to climb up the straight wall made up of bricks that separated our neighborhood from an uninhabited area. After successfully getting to the top, I could oversee our whole neighborhood and brought a lot of attention to myself as I tried to balance myself on the narrow wall to get to the end. All of a sudden, the witch woman in our neighborhood, who always kept an eye on everything and had already insulted my mother for raising such an ill-mannered girl, appeared below the wall. Her eyes widened as she saw me.
"Get down on the ground right now! You have gone way beyond your limits. It's time that I write a complaint to the mayor of this neighborhood about you! You are a shame! What kind of a girl climbs up a wall! That is not appropriate for you as a girl! Get down right NOW!"
After I climbed down, I went up to her, initially just quietly and politely listening to her to respect her as my elder. That was the Farsi silence. Then, in a fun-loving voice, I told her as I smiled, "But it is so much fun to climb the wall! You have no idea! I haven't done anything wrong, Mrs. Toolabi. I'm sorry if I have for some reason caused you any discomfort."
The power of the way I spoke to her was so immense that all she did was smile at me as she raised her eyebrows, as if to say, "Right... about that."
The power of the way I spoke to her was so immense that all she did was smile at me as she raised her eyebrows, as if to say, "Right... about that." She did not say anything to me after that incident. I was talented. My talent was living in Farsi. I could do whatever I wished and get away with actions that were viewed as unacceptable and obscene by the society because I knew exactly what I needed to say and how I needed to say it to justify and instill myself in the society and community around me. In the process, I was creating myself in Farsi. I was building a character who became stronger with every justification through Farsi, making it more and more difficult for others to shatter me.
Those who judged me had societal traditions and conventions behind them, but all I had was Farsi, because I did things that no one else would probably imagine doing. Now, what do you think would happen if a person like me, so immersed in the Farsi way of living and so deeply engaged in Farsi, was randomly picked off the face of the Earth and transferred to a foreign land where there is no longer any such thing as living in Farsi?
I was twelve years old when my parents received their visas to Amrika. Before moving to the mysterious land that I had only heard about, I was extremely excited. The summer we arrived, as I enjoyed the freedom and modernization of Amrika, I completely forgot about how life actually operated. During the first day of school in this new land, I truly felt like I was hit by the biggest mountain in existence. It felt as if I had been placed inside an action movie, where I did not play a character, but was just like a wall that hindered the role-playing of all the actual actors. Although I was interested in what the actors were doing and saying, I was just a wall with no brain. I was not alive in their movie world. I was just a wall. A pain.
For nine years in Iran, I had been strengthening my character to the point that no one dared to disrespect me. But when we arrived at school in Minnesota, my mother, who was fluent in English, translated everything for me since I did not speak or understand anything. In reality, there is no word that could describe my agony. Imagine going from being the protagonist in an action movie to being an annoying wall that everyone wanted to break down. And they could easily break me down. My mother left as I stepped inside my first class. I noticed right away that there were no seats left; however, I could not communicate this to anyone. After several minutes, a girl yelled out something at me that I did not understand. From the way she was throwing out her words, I can guess that she said something like, "Yo! Do you need a chair? Why are you standing there like a pig? There is a chair over there. Go grab it!"
I was not able to respond, so she got angry and made fun of me in her head. Her words were just odd sounds to me. I only had one sentence to say, "I du nut anderestand Engelish!"
Apparently I had spoken the sentence in such a low voice that she was not sure what I had just said, but figured that I was basically one dumb person who could not even get a chair for herself. She raised her eyebrows, shocked at how unfortunate I was as a person. Others in the classroom stared at me and laughed among themselves. She got up impatiently, took me to the chair and pointed at it, giving me a signal to sit down. I'm surprised that I did not cry at that moment. How could one endure such a bashing of one's soul?
I was a wall in every other class I went to during that day. I was a wall. I was soulless. I was a pain. And I knew exactly why. Farsi did not exist; living in Farsi was a dream in this setting.
After a while, I changed from being a wall to being a speaking doll. People played with me, threw me around, stepped on me and then left me. I was programmed to say only a few sentences. That is all. I was just a toy, only interesting for the first few minutes, but as soon as people got bored playing with me, they threw me away.
It took me months just to improve from being a wall to being a speaking doll. Now think of how long it took me to become human. Then, think of how long it took me to gain acceptance from the people of this country. As I was going through the journey of becoming a person for myself once again, I thought maybe I could just ignore my inability to speak English and portray myself as a certain character and wish that others would become impressed and respect me.
The character that matched my personality best was what Americans called a "tomboy." I had grown my hair long after a year and tied it on top and behind my head to make myself look like a rebellious samurai. My everyday attire consisted of Nike basketball shoes, saggy shorts or pants, and long T-shirts. The first day, thinking that my appearance would convey everything, I went to the basketball court during recess, hoping to join the group of boys who played hardcore basketball every day. Well, let me just say, it was a complete failure. Having a limited vocabulary and being unable to speak the right way, I had no choice but to mix myself among them as they were choosing teams. I thought back to the time I had approached the boys in Iran and how much they respected me, which suddenly gave me confidence. With this momentary surge of confidence, I said to one of the boys, "Can I pelay wit yu?"
This seemed to freak him out. He looked at me awkwardly as if I was a creep and did not even see me as worthy to respond to. He directed his attention back to the crowd and moved in closer, giving me a signal that I was not welcome there. I was only a speaking doll. Boys do not care about their speaking dolls when it's time for basketball.
This created a very deep wound inside me. Those boys never accepted me as a person, as who I knew I was, because what they saw was a speaking doll and I had no control over that. It took me about three years to gain complete fluency in the English language. Until then, I lived every day sorrowfully reiterating the following sentence: "I can't be myself without Farsi!"
Farsi had made me, had allowed me to turn myself into the protagonist in the action movie around me. But its absence had maimed me. That is the power of language.Endnote:
1. Hejab refers to the clothing that Muslim women traditionally have to wear to cover their bodies and heads for maintaining standards of modesty.