My father left Iran through the mountains to Istanbul. He had a bag on his shoulders and his grandmother’s copy of the Quran to prove his loyalty.
They paid a guide to get them through the mountains. They were to be given fake papers as soon as they passed the border into Turkey, but in Iran their only hope was to lay low and pray they didn’t come across any guards.
I can’t recall a single time that my father has told me about his journey through the mountains. I can’t remember how I learned of his voyage. It was just something that I picked up, some truth that I have always carried.
A friend from New York State was planning a post-graduation trip to Istanbul. She had a map of Asia laid out on her bed that we were both bent over to mark routes. “I’ve never actually looked at the Middle East,” she confessed to me. “We talk about these countries all the time, but we don’t know where they are and we don’t know how they situate next to each other.”
I smile to keep from rolling my eyes.
“I want to go backpacking while I’m there,” she said, tracing a finger down a set of mountains.
“That’s not cliche,” I say. She winces, and I feel both guilty and smug.
I have a theory about the wanderlust that tends to grip my Western friends. I think it comes in reaction to knowing that there is a secure home waiting for them when they come back. They imagine themselves on the edge of cliffs or holed up in a local restaurant, listening to people speak in foreign languages and taking in mountains they could never find back home. They think of the stories they will tell their friends and family when they come back. As if spaces open up to us just because we decide to exist in them.
I’ve lived in the same place my whole life. I’m still trying not to feel like a stranger in it.
If I had not grown up in Toronto’s Yonge and Finch neighborhood, I might not need to write this. When we moved here, my parents had no idea that the rest of “Tehranto” was coming with them. But it did—and their Canadian-born children were raised with Iranian grocery stores around the corner and Farsi classes after school. Enough of Iranian culture to understand our heritage, not enough to feel part of it.
Of course, my heavily Iranian neighborhood did not shield me from the Western culture that I was born in. My bedside books were Anne of Green Gables and Because of Winn-Dixie. I knew all the lines to Mean Girls. I had enough sense to know that I was not part of the Pretty White Girl club in my school, but not enough to know that I was never going to be.
Hiding your Iranian heritage is part of living in the diaspora. Second-generation Iranian Canadians like me have learned that if we cut our names in half—Bobak becomes Bob, Saman becomes Sam, Soraya becomes Sarah—then we can avoid a lot of the usual obstacles that come with being ethnic. Refusing to speak Farsi in public, or straightening your hair and waxing your eyebrows down to half their size are the next and natural steps to this camouflage.
If you do it right, your last names are the only clue to a non-Western heritage because they lead back to your parents.
“Sometimes,” my cousin told me. “It’s not about hiding that I’m Iranian. I want to forget it.”
The Iranians who came to Canada in the early ‘80s left Iran because they had to. Many have not been back since. They will never feel fully accepted in Canada, but they know that the Iran that they were born to no longer exists. It is hard to know what to pass on to their children. We are good children, the second-generation Iranian Canadians of Tehranto. If our parents want to forget their trauma, then we will do our best to forget it also.
“I don’t want this for you,” my father told me once after a parent-teacher interview. My English teacher thought there was potential. She liked how I wrote about the food we ate—she’d told my father—very descriptive, a lot to draw on. Most students don’t pay such close attention to things they see every day, she’d said.
“You need to have a living, dokhtaram,” my Baba said as we started walking home. “This isn’t a career.”
“I want to be a writer,” I said. The words tasted strange in my mouth. I hadn’t had the “talk” yet, but I knew that good Iranian daughters were trying to get into medical school, not trying to write their parent’s stories.
Baba sighed. “What would you even write about?”
When I didn’t answer, he put a hand on my shoulder and made eye-contact. “Azizam.” He was doing his best not to scare me. “What would you write about?” I didn’t answer.
Once an older Iranian couple stopped me on the street to ask for directions. Fresh from Iran, visiting family for a few months before going back, they liked that my Farsi accent had a Canadian undertone.
“These are the children of the children who came here,” the man told his wife sadly. A generation had been left deserted in the wake of political disaster. At the worst of it, the Iranian government was renting excavators to hang rows and rows of protestors. Most of them were too young for university. The lucky ones, like my father, escaped the country and scattered around the world.
At twenty-five, I am seven years older than my father was when he left Iran. I am currently living three blocks down from the house that I was born in. I walk past the same park where I spent my evenings after school; I go to a gym across from my old elementary school; I get my milk from the same convenience store my father would get his cigarettes from when I was growing up.
Tehranto is my inheritance.
Arash the Archer is a mythical hero, an ancient figure passed down through generations of oral tradition in Iran.
I was told this version:
When the occupiers came for Iran and overtook it, they taunted the Iranians by offering a challenge for someone to reclaim some of the territory.
“Shoot an arrow,” they told their captives. “And wherever the arrow lands, that area will be yours and we will leave it to you.”
They said it with some glee, knowing that no arrow could possibly reclaim the thousands of acres, valleys and mountains that they had stolen.
No one moved until Arash Kamangir came forward.
In some versions he had a golden arrow. I like to imagine it as a wooden stick with a thin blade attached at the end, something the occupiers would have laughed at. Arash climbed to the top of a mountain and readied his bow. Took aim. The arrow left his hand and sliced through the sky, over the mountain ranges and valleys. It sailed for days till it landed at the other end of Iran, into the bark of a walnut tree, reclaiming it for the Iranis again.
But when the occupiers left and the freed people went looking for him, he was nowhere to be found.
Arash became the arrow.
My father’s name is Arash.
I had a dream about my father on the trail.
He clings to the neck hair of a grey mule. His eyes are focused ahead on the curved path they walk on, knowing not to look down.
The mule shakes a little, and lets out a long whine. Baba reaches down and pats it gently on the nape. He whispers something in its ears, and the mule calms. “Be careful, Sarshar!” Someone screams behind them, “That dumb animal’s going to alert every border guard on this side of the mountain.”
The mule’s foot slips on a jagged rock, and it lets out another screech that echoes. Baba curses and quickly pats it again.
The asylum guide turns around and runs beside him. He presses a gun into Baba’s hand. “Next time it screeches like that—you shoot it. We don’t want to risk it. Not when we’re so close.”
Baba tucks the gun into his coat.
I ask my father over breakfast if he ever had trouble with the mules. He grumbles over a mug of coffee and waves me away sleepily. I break off a piece of barbari bread and spread paneer over it, wondering why I thought this time would be any different.
“The mules were the smart ones,” he says suddenly. His voice is heavy with sleep, and his eyes are unfocused. “They knew what they were doing. Those mountains are theirs. You needed to stay on the mule if you wanted to survive some of those cliffs. Some people got skittish and tried to walk . . . ”
He stops speaking, and doesn’t finish.
I picture my Baba at eighteen. I imagine a boy with my brother’s face—heavy eyebrows, baby-fat on his cheeks—and my disheveled curls. He leaves the country with a group of strange men, his family left behind.
Did you think you would come back soon, Baba?
Did you know your children would be strangers in your home country? Did you know a generation would be born on Canadian soil and would not know how to survive in Iran? No matter how much they want to.
The truth is I feel like a fraud.
I have no claim to what happened to my father, and the Iranians who fled like him. I wasn’t there. I didn’t live with the terror of capture so pronounced it justified leaving by foot through miles of mountain rock. I didn’t push down the questions that undoubtedly surface in the middle of the night, when it was hard to fall asleep on hard ground, of What happens next? And Where do we go now? I didn’t have to think about the loved ones left behind to find their own ways out of the country, and wonder every day if what I was going towards would even be worth it if they were not there to greet me at the end of it.
The father that raised me is not the boy who took that journey. The boy was consumed with his survival, and thoughts of a family and future children and their opinions were as abstract and far as the formation of the mountains he was climbing. When I am born, he has built a little life for himself in Toronto–in Tehranto–with my mother, and I have food on the table and a roof over my head, and I am a Canadian citizen who knows nothing about war and coups and mass executions—and even if he might resent that naivety, he protects it viciously.
Stay away, his silence tells me. I worked hard to keep you in the dark. You’re no different from your friends trying to venture into places they know nothing about. Let the past rest, and stop looking to it for answers to questions you have no right to ask.
And yet, I am taught to speak Farsi at home and to rely on my Irani neighborhood for community and support.
And yet, my father raised me on classic stories—Sohraub and Rastam, Scheherazade, the Sassanis—and I grow to think of their characters like distant relatives that I do not see but hear of their many adventures and life updates.
And yet, he tells me the story of Arash the Archer, who’s ending fills me with awe as much as it does grief, over and over again even though I know every word of it by heart.
In many ways, Baba did not keep his silence. And I can only do what I have seen him do—pass along stories of things he did not see and yet have shaped who he is. Pour my whole self into them.
I have had plenty of dreams of my father going through the mountains. Sometimes the Revolutionary Guards are on his trail, and I wake up covered in sweat. Sometimes he makes it to Istanbul, but is deported back to Iran at the border.
But I have only ever had one dream where I am with him.
My father and I walk side-by-side down a trail. The mountains around usare a marshy green, water hanging from every stem and leaf. My sneakers squish in the ground, but it’s not muddy. It’s a clean walk.
Baba pauses at the brink of a clif .
There are a series of small indents on the edge of the cliff . We move down them quickly, I even jump the last bit. There is a belly of a cave inside of the cliff . The cave is filled with fluorescent rocks, and a stream.
“We slept here one night,” he tells me. “When it gets dark, there are thousands of stars. We’ll see them soon.”
He sends me away to retrieve wood for a fire. I move quickly, and picture myself in my mind’s eye. The mountains are tall and lively—green, blue, flowers sprout sporadically and dragon flies surround them. The grass is long and wild beneath my feet. My father is here with me and we’re moving through the trail slowly. There’s nothing to run from. In my backpack there is a map, a journal, a camera. I’m documenting every day: every secret cave, every difficult trail. When we get back home, I can look at them anytime I need to remember, anytime I feel myself slipping.
And my father says that when we get home, he wants to read what I’ve been writing.
We Are More is an inclusive space for SWANA (Southwest Asian and North African) and SWANA diaspora writers to tell our stories, our way. Curated by Michelle Zamanian, this new column seeks to disrupt the media’s negative and stereotypical narratives by creating a consistent platform to be heard, outside of and beyond the waxing and waning interest of the news cycle. We’ll publish creative nonfiction, graphic essays, fiction, poetry, and interviews by SWANA writers on a wide variety of subject matter.