“But I’m not wearing a maghna’e,” I responded when Mrs. M asked if I want to go with her. ”It’s ok! Your scarf will do,” she said genuinely, but I pretended to worry about her (not for myself) ”I don’t want to get you in trouble.” “Naaah,” she stretched her answer with a mocking tone. I even thought she was laughing inside her head for how stupid I was for making monsters out of my own people and their system. “Schools have changed,” she added and grabbed her purse, walking out the door; A silent gesture for me to go along.
The ride took about fifteen minutes. Even though we were going across the street, the twists and turns of the freeway and their exists, made the ride longer. I had no idea where we were. I would have never been able to navigate my way if I were to go on my own. I remember Mrs. M’s house was in the middle of vegetable field. My mother used to take my brother and I to her house so we could run around and play with her children. “Do you remember our fields?” she read my mind, but didn’t wait for my answer. “After the freeway was built, we lost most of it, but Alhamdulellah the price of our house went up.”
We had reached and my silent meant “Alhamdulellah.”
Retired Mrs M. taught PE at a private middle school. I wasn’t surprise at the arrangements of her class at all. I had gone to a similar private school in mid 90s also. Since the government can only finance public schools, most private schools in Iran use an actual house or an apartment complex for the school building. Often with a small back yard, schools end up renting gyms for PE hours. Mrs. M whose house happened to be near the gym didn’t need to attend the school except twice a year to get her roster and to turn in the grades. She spoke about her unique situation in a such excitement that made one wonder working after retirement could be fun and something to look forward to.
The dead-end alley leading to the gym was narrow. She let me out the car first and parked close to the wall to leave some space for other cars. She looked around and said her girls are not there yet. “Let’s go to the office and rest for awhile.” A small cubical cement office with two big windows guarded by fences was located in the far end of the yard.
The yard looked brutally quiet: Just some yellow lines marking the basketball and volleyball courts, two cement ping-pong tables with metal nets and a row of water fountains, with a faucet dripping.
I knew this courtyard. Identical to rest of the gyms and school yards I’ve been to. Each PE hour, an identical courtyard held thirty plus girls all dressed up in a same school uniform, with heads covered up where sweat dried in their hair and their half-grown breasts soaked in sweat behind the blouses or bras. I looked at the basketball poles. One was completely missing a net and the other just had a torn net hanging from it. I could smell the body odor of all my classmates who were missing from the quiet basketball court. Sometimes the piercing smell of sweat and puberty was stronger on those who didn’t wear a t-shirt underneath their uniforms. You couldn’t blame them. It was the only way to cool your body down…One could do anything underneath the Hijab as long as her utter self was covered.
I looked up. Little windows were staring down the courtyard. Maybe hundreds. I knew the number was an exaggeration, but every thing seems multiplied when one is being watched. Windows from the neighboring all-girls high school on the right, and windows from the residential apartment complexes to the left, windows from buildings in the distance were looking straight down on me. I pulled my scarf closer, unintentionally. Those little eyes were the reason we had to sweat under the uniforms, I remembered, intentionally this time.
“Next time, we will come on Friday to play soccer,” Mrs. M. walking in front of me said, but corrected herself, “we have to make sure that it’s not a boys-only friday though.” the thought of playing the most favored sport in Iran was appealing at first, but quickly went back to the thought of windows again: Do Namahram windows look down on the yard–with awe and lust–when it fills up with energetic young girls ad when it is boys turn look away?
“Get out of the sun!” shouted Mrs. M.
I had not yet settled down on a black chair wrapped in its original packaging plastic that a woman walked in with a tray of fresh tea and candies. She welcomed me and put the tray on the only desk in the small office.
“A perfect Persian hospitality,” I thought, wondering how to get away from drinking the hot tea without being rude in that hot late spring day. The office walls were covered with flyers, announcements, a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini and Khameniei, and some Hadith about the benefit of sports. A young woman fully dressed in a black chador with a clip board on her lap was sitting across a student. Maybe “a teacher-to-be?” I remembered university students coming to our schools and interviewing us for their thesis or for their field work. I shifted in my chair to be able to hear them better. “How do you feel about yourself now?” I listened and I immediately changed my mind about her profession. “She must be a counselor,” I decided and drifted into memories of having such young professionals coming to my school. My classmates and I used to make up stories to make fun of them. Back then, counseling was a new phenomenon. Most schools even didn’t have a full time counselor. Once every two weeks, a psychology graduate student would come and use the make-shift prayer room to set up and office to meet with troubled students. She would end up standing in the door way and watch students mingling during the recess. Those of us who were gutsier than others, had the courage to mess with her. Once I led a team of five girls to write a letter. We said that “my” father wants to marry me to a 50-year-old man, he beats “my” mother and “I” want to marry my neighbor instead. We chose the code name, “red rose.” The desperate counselor who would post answers on the bulletin board. kept posting “Red Rose please stop by my office.”
The girl looked comfortable talking to the counselor in chador. In her laughter I saw our own laughter when the counselor kept refreshing the message on the board. Could she really help the fictional “me” if our story was real? I thought while looking at the consoler’s moving lips.
“My girls are here!” said Mrs. M taking me away from high school days. The tea was cold by now. I took a sip from the bitter tea and got up to leave. The counselor and her student didn’t even noticed me. “I am definitely participating in the games again next year to…” I listened till the conversation dissolved.
When I walked into a big arena that looked like a Futsal pitch/indoor volleyball court, almost all heads turned. The conversations stopped and everyone stared at me. I became conscious of my scarf again pulling it closer on my forehead. I think Mrs. M noticed it. She cheerfully ordered her class to get in lines for excercise. “This is my friend, Pah-reesa,” she said to a small group who were standing near by. I wished she would stop there but I knew there was more to come. “She’s from Em-reeca and has come to visit you today.” And to my–not–surprise, the crowd began to walk toward me. One after another, sometimes even at the same time I heard questions about my name, my age, my marital status, my state of residency of exclusively LA or NY, my favorite hollywood actor, and the field of my studies.
Parisa. “nice name.” “Oh, we have a Parisa too.” “Hello there, Parisa.”
Single. “cool,” “So is my brother,” Giggles. “And is my uncle.” Giggles.
25. “You look younger.” “No she doesn’t.” Giggles. “Shush.”
Massachusetts. “God forbid, Chus!?” Loud laughter. More giggles.
And then I said “Women’s studies.” I don’t know why I did so. I have been saying I studied English. It started as an old trick my father had suggested a long time ago to spare me fears and worries. I used it when he was around just to avoid any arguments, but after a while, I got used to it. Plus, it really was easier than trying to explain what the use of journalism and women’s studies in a culture that sends its children to the West to become doctors and engineers were.
“What is that?” ”What is there to study about women?” The first few questions were serious but then someone cracked a joke and everyone else followed. “Is it an art of finding a hus-baand?” “Nah, I think it means studying the female body.”
I had no way out of this now. I smiled, but my silence began to grew awkward. “For example, it’s about history of woman’s movement,” I desperately tried. ”Oh, Where do women move to?” Jokes followed. should I say it’s about empowering women? ”Hadn’t Iranian women already empowered themselves by taking up more than half of university seats and almost half of the work force?” That’s it! I had found the correct description in just a minute of being surrounded by some middle schooler who were probably more eager to know about Em-reeca than what women’s studies is. All of a sudden, a loud lasting whistle interrupted everybody’s fun, and my what (I thought) brilliant answer.
“I said get in lines for the exercise,” shouted Mrs. M hugging two badminton rackets and a ball on top of her clipboard. The crowd around me quickly dispersed. She called out two names and asked them to lead the exercise.
“Here,” she handed the rackets to me. “I called Sara to come and keep you company.” I had met Sara once before. She was the superintendent’s daughter. She used to play badminton for the national highschool team. She had actually made me promise to visit the gym to teach me some badminton tricks. Few minutes later, she walked in with a big beautiful smile.
“Yes I did.” “How are you? Your family?” We exchanged Persian pleasantries and walked to the far end of the pitch where she showed me how to distinguish the colored lines from one another. I just figured that for Badminton I should stay within the blue lines. Amidst the commotion and echoing sound of screams, talking and exercise, I struggled to listen to her and ask her questions about her school and her newly-found part time job.
Not long after, we started to play and somewhat useless struggled to carry a conversation in the sound-echoing pitch, a group of girls began to sing. When I paused our game to look over, I found a circle of clapping people around two students dancing in the middle. One girl was tapping on something I could not clearly recognize. Sara could tell I’m eager to join them and said “Ok, let’s go.”
“But, it’s the teacher!” I repeated in disbelief when I got loser and saw the PE teacher of the high school class who was tapping on her clip board while others sang, clapped and danced. A young woman, maybe in her late twenties, was feeling her students’ need to have fun. “We used to do things like that hiding from our teachers,” I said in awe and disbelief. But but Sara confirmed calmly, “times have changed.”
Few seconds later, I was clapping and moving my hip, forgetting my astonishment and remembering memories of my own high school years. One or two girls would guard the door while others sang and dance in class. We would occasionally get caught and punished too for our un-Islamic behaviors, but it was all worth of the adrenalin-rush and the excitement. It was our version of youth rebellion. however, what I was seeing, was clearly not “rebellion” for these girls.
On our way back, Mrs. M hoped I had a nice time. “Did you see how “gherti” the high school kids were while you were worried about your headscarf!” she mocked me and stared into the distance. Then, she told me about one of her students who ran around the basketball court without her Hijab. She had to blew into her whistle and shout at her. “Don’t you see all these windows facing the courtyard?” she had to remind her and ask her to wear her maghna’e. “Do you know what bothered me the most?” she asked me, but I didn’t have anything to say so she answered her own question, “That he father was an akhond.” ”To be the daughter of a Muslim clergyman and to run around the public gym courtyard without the head-covering” said Mrs. M is because of the “pressure.” It bothers her, she told me, to see how easy and quick Islamic values have disappeared from the generation she teaches.
These young girls talk back to their elders the way my generation did not dare. These girls have “boyfriends.” A disgraceful act my generation rarely dared to do. These girls have found a way to bridge the gap between their parents and their own values.
“That’s it.” I thought I found yet another brilliant answer, this time to Mrs. M’s concern and to my own puzzled mind. “That’s their rebellion.” I was ready to tell Mrs. M that her students’ behaviors are not entirely involuntarily and out of pressure, rather is their version of youth rebellion. But she pressed her palm on the steering-wheel, cursing a young man who cut her off on the motorcycle.
“bar pedaret..ahmagh…bi hameh…” my thoughts dissolved in the piercing sound of horn, Mrs. M’s curse upon his parents who should have taught him how to drive and my wondering what would have happened if the car had hit him.