Sunday, January 24, 2010

When Towers Speak…

Last night I returned home from a trip to Dubai.It was an unexpectedly lovely trip. I never thought I would actually like Dubai. I always thought of Dubai as a superficial place in which migrant workers live a seriously miserable life. Looking at photos from this so called Las Vegas of the Middle East, I never found all of those towers and lights impressive or fascinating. However, to my surprise during my trip to Dubai, I started to both like Dubai and to become curious about this emirate. During the ten days that I was there I made great new friends and spoke with many individuals and professionals. I still do not know what it is that makes me rather attracted to Dubai. All I know is that I enjoyed hearing people’s stories about Dubai and the reasons for which they have resided in this town. Looking at the towers in Dubai, I feel that they all have a story to tell. From the hardworking migrant workers who carefully planted their first bricks to the CEOs, lawyers, businessmen and businesswomen and employees who work in these towers, people have stories to tell about their life before Dubai, their time in Dubai and their plans after Dubai. Dubai seems to be a transitory place for most of its residents. What I loved the most about Dubai was these stories. Everybody that I would meet wanted to share with me their story and I would eagerly listen.

The only story that I did not get to hear was the story of migrant workers. I would go for a walk in the evening just so that I could see the buses that were full of South Asian migrant workers pass by. Many of them would run towards the bus as they seemed to be fearful of missing these buses that would take them to their collective homes in the suburbs of Dubai. As the busses would pass by me, I would look up at tip of the towers and hear the voices of many migrant workers getting echoed in my head. They all wanted to share their stories. They were talking all at once.I never got a chance to speak with them. But, I saw exhaustion and hope in their eyes. I think, in a way, these towers belong to them. If not the towers, at least the heart of these towers do. After all, migrant workers have spent hours, days, months and years to build these towers under difficult circumstances and with the hope of bringing money to their families back home. I am certain that one day the towers of Dubai will begin to speak and share those quietly forgotten stories that have remained unheard for some time with the world...

Friday, January 15, 2010

A Beautiful Angel in a Dark Prison

I go to sleep determined to dream about Mansoureh Shojaei. I resist all the nightmares of her in Evin Prison. Instead, I try to remember her beautiful smile…

Growing up, I did not really know her. But as I was reaching those tough teenage years, she somehow magically appeared in my life just in time to remind me of the excitement of adventures and of being courageous. I vividly remember the first time I met her. She was sitting in our apartment’s lounge when I walked in, looked at my mother and shyly said hello to our guest. “Hello, welcome!” I said. I was a moody teenager and was really not interested in meeting my parents’ guests. This time, I simply wanted some pocket money from my mother to go out which is why I walked into the lounge to say hello and ask for money. Mansoureh looked at me kindly. She looked like a nice lady, but I really just wanted to get the money, get a cab and go to Tootfarangi(Strawberry); a café in Tehran that was trendy for its time. Mansoureh looked at me and said, “Do you want a new friend or are you too busy with your own friends?” I gave her an annoyed—but polite—look and said, “sure!” Without any pause, she said, “Well, then, let’s hang out next weekend. Thoughts?” She was speaking with me like an adult and I liked her tone. She was probably the first family friend who did not pull my cheeks hard and who did not obnoxiously ask me, “What is your favorite subject in school?”. I responded to her invitation positively and she promised to pick me up on Friday to take me hiking.

Mansoureh became more than my friend. She became the aunt and an older friend that I never had. Her small family became almost like my own family. Mansoureh once criticized me for being a bit too spoiled or cautious and told me, “Go for whatever there is that you want, girl! Even if there is a huge wall on your way, get on the road and think about the wall when you hit it. The wall will have to surrender. It might get your head broken at first. But who cares? You will somehow go beyond that wall.” She used to make fun of Bamdad, her son, and I for being lazy and slow in hiking. She would say, “when I was your age…” As soon as she would say this, Bamdad and I would pretend that we were not tired and start walking faster.

About a year after the first time I met Mansoureh, my mother was imprisoned. During this time, Mansoureh’s embrace became one of my only refuges. Her embrace was one of the only places where I would feel safe to cry or to freely be a scared fifteen-year old who wanted her mother back. The rest of the time I had to show strength. But, in her arms I would melt into tears and worries of a teenager who was simply scared.

One day, a few months after my mother was released on bail from jail, I left Iran on very short notice. I called Mansoureh, asked to talk with Bamdad and said goodbye to Bamdad. We all knew what it meant. It meant that I was leaving Iran for good. It meant that I had to go. It meant that I was losing my home maybe for the better or the worse. Bamdad and I were and still are the masters of distracting ourselves from talking about things that bother us. So, that night, we only joked around about this and that and exchanged one funny and a rather stiff farewell. He was the last person that I called. Mansoureh said, “Joojoo, be strong. We love you. Don’t forget our days together. And don’t come back with an American accent.” Joojoo was the nickname Mansoureh and her husband had given me (it means something like a little chicken). Her voice was the last voice that I ever heard from the home to which I never returned.

Five years later, I returned to Iran to see my father who was under house arrest. He was kidnapped and disappeared only a few months after I left Iran for good. Now, the bitter and experienced twenty-year-old that I was, I had come to Iran to see my father who had suffered for long. I felt rather nervous to be back in Iran. After all, this was the same country that had tortured my father and had put my mother in exile. I loved being back, but felt betrayed at the same time. My fear would especially escalate when I had to go to question and answer sessions with some of the members of the intelligence service. We kept those a secret from my father. Going to those sessions, my only hope was to leave and go to Mansoureh’s apartment where I could release all of this stress.

Mansoureh and her family really made me fall in love with Iran once again. They helped me remember how much I loved Iran and my memories of this land.They made me realize that I still belonged to Iran even though, despite Mansoureh’s advice, I had returned to my lost home with an American accent. Somewhere in the depth of their smiles and their love, I could vividly see myself. I could see the self that I had lost in the difficult and detached years of immigration. Somewhere in the corner of their small apartment I could feel the warmth of home for which I had longed for many years. Before departing Iran, I curled up in Mansoureh’s embrace and like a little child I fell asleep for a few minutes. In her arms, I dreamed of the day that we will all be back in Tehran and live a beautiful and free life. She only patted me and kept saying, “Our Joojoo is leaving us again.”

Mansoureh who is a passionate educator and a women’s rights advocate is now sitting in a dark and small cell in Evin Prison. Mansoureh was arrested on December 28th, 2009. Her family did not know where she was for a few days until she finally made a very short phone call and told them she is in Evin Prison. Her family was not able to visit her until a few days ago when they were finally granted a twenty-minute visit from behind the glass at Evin Prison.

Mansoureh is ill. She is currently suffering from Urinary Tract Infection and is not given sufficient antibiotics while imprisoned. She also has severe migraine and has had at least one major migraine attack in prison.

I close my eyes and try to imagine her smile. I hear that even in prison, she tries to smile and to remain strong. However, I am worried for my amazing friend and aunt. I am worried for this loving and beautiful angel.She is too physically fragile to undergo all of this pressure. Mansoureh does not deserve any of this. She has done nothing wrong. She has only tried to educate women about their rights throughout Iran. She has only tried to tell them what she told me when we went hiking ten years ago. She has only tried to remind women to be strong, fearless and aware of their rights. I know Mansoureh is not the only innocent prisoner in Iran. Mansoureh and many other Mansourehs who are currently suffering in the dark prisons of Iran are being treated unjustly. They are the treasures of Iran. They are the fearless men and women of our land.

Free Mansoureh! Free all of those Mansourehs that you have so unjustly imprisoned.

I keep my tears to myself and wish Bamdad, her son, strength. Bamdad must see her mother happy and healthy. Until that day, we must not remain silent!

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