Editor’s note: This story is adapted from a chapter of a book-in-progress and translated into English by our writer. She lived in Iran during the war years and in this piece she describes her experience with racial prejudice at a high school in Tehran. The name of the school has been changed.
It was summer vacation in Iran and although the schools were closed, it was time to enroll for the following school year. My mom and I walked to one of the entrances of a military base near Tehran’s Mehrabad airport. The base was beautiful and as large as a town. It was built to house pilots and flight attendants and was guarded at its three entrances. Inside that zone was Orooj high school.
When we reached the entrance, a security guard looked at us strangely, as if he were wondering where these two Afghans came from, or thinking that we must have lost our way. Either cautious or stubborn, he did not let us through. He told us to go to the main checkpoint.
So, on that hot day, we walked and walked. Mom became very tired. She told me that my former high school, Shahid Tazkie, was just as good as Orooj. But Mom knew that if I really wanted something I was like a pregnant woman who wants to eat: I would not be satisfied until I got it. I had heard so much about this school and I wanted to go there because of its high standards, especially in English. Finally, we reached the entrance and, full of wonder and worry, I went inside to enroll.
On the first day of school, when the principal rang the bell, the school looked so big and my worries grew. I felt very awkward. Everybody pretended to be better than me. Right away, the pinches and whispers started. Girls talked about “poor Afghan workers” and laughed:
“Melika, how is that Afghan worker in your street doing?”
“Hey, buddy, he’s in love with you.” (Laughing). “I wanted to make a fool of him but he just asked for you!” (Laughing louder.)
“Stop laughing! You can’t even make a fool of an Afghan!”
I didn’t want to argue with these girls, so I pretended I was deaf and walked away.
Some of the other girls at the school were nice but they still bothered me with their questions.
“Hey Zainab, if I ask you a question, will you get upset?”
“No, go ahead.”
“Are you really Afghan? Please don’t get upset. It was just a question!”
“Yup, I am Afghan. Why would I get upset? It’s not a bad thing….”
“I’m sorry. But, you know, you are not like other Afghans. You talk like us, dress like us, you study—and moreover your lessons are good!”
I had these conversations throughout my two years of study at Hijab. I wanted to shout at these girls, to say Afghans are not the horrible trolls or absentminded people you imagine. Unfortunately, the Iranians encouraged these stories so that Afghans would remain the beasts, and would not move forward in life.
Such stories affected ordinary Iranian people too. For instance, if I were an Iranian-born baby, my parents might scold me for using Afghan words. They might blame me for playing with the “Afghan girl.” I might never see an Afghan doctor, teacher, or engineer but Afghan workers would be everywhere. As an Iranian child, no jokes would be funnier than those about Afghan personalities, language, or poverty. I would learn to point at Afghans, and sneer at them. Even at school, if a contagious disease broke out, Afghans would be blamed and would be asked to bring their health service cards. I would learn to detest Afghans, and be scared to death of them.
It was difficult to make my Iranian friends understand all of this, so whenever unkind words were spread about Afghans I just turned away.
After one year in Orooj, it was summer again. The schools closed for vacation but I continued my English-language studies through the summer. One day, I got off the bus and crossed the sky bridge to where the military zone and the school were located.
During the school year, I would go to school with my friends and was not questioned by the security guards and rarely asked for my school card. But that day, I was alone and wasn’t wearing my uniform. The soldiers on the afternoon shift didn’t know me, and just like that first day when Mom and I came to enroll, they looked at me strangely. Again, they seemed to be thinking, Why is an Afghan coming here?
My hands were shivering slightly and I said to myself: God! Grant that they don’t detain me again.
I hated being degraded because of my nationality. I pretended that I didn’t notice them. I wanted to show them my confidence, show them that I’d come here many times before. I walked so awkwardly and these thoughts crowded my mind. Suddenly:
“You, lady! Wait! I am calling you!” It was one of the guards. I kept walking, but it was hopeless. The guard’s footsteps approached and I had to stop.
“Did you mean me?” I asked.
“I called you a couple of times. Give me your card,” he ordered.
I gave him my school card but he said it was out of date because the school year was over, and that now I had to go back to the checkpoint.
“But I have a test. I will be late,” I said.
“I’m a soldier and it’s my responsibility not to let anyone enter without a card,” he replied.
I couldn’t do anything except go back to the checkpoint. There, the guards asked me questions and finally one of them asked if I was from Mashhad, a city in northeast Iran whose residents look like Afghans.
If I had said I was Afghan, they would not have let me through, so I said, “Yes, sir. Now can I go?”
“Yes,” he said and advised me to get a new card from my English class.
I could go to my class and I could get another card, but the guard’s questions, their strange looks, all the whispering, having no loyal friends with whom I could talk…. It all tired me. I’d had enough contempt and could not tolerate any more. I’d lost so many things because of this hatred: my self-confidence, my pride, my happiness, and my motivation. This was the last time I’d go to English class at Orooj. I would give up one of my greatest ambitions. I would go back to my old school where whoever heard my name would say:
“Zainab! The intelligent Afghan girl who was always first in the class? What are you doing back here?”
How could I even look at the principal, someone who had shown my report card to other students as an example? I felt so humiliated, like a failure, as I walked away from the guards that day. Two years had passed since I left my old school, and now my solitary heart was full of knots. I had a long walk home, but I didn’t mind. I could talk to my God.
Photo of school girls in Tehran by El-Len.