Friday, April 13, 2012
Roya lives in Mashad, a small town in northeastern Iran. She is sixteen years old and not at all concerned with the Shah’s secret police. On a rainy day in 1968, Roya is walking to school when a black car pulls up in front of the school and two men in black emerge. She sees them and runs into a bookstore across the street where she pretends to read while watching out the window. The shop owner tells her not to be afraid. She knows the SAVAK arrested two university students the previous week and wonders about a connection. The owner tells her they frighten him too, but she is not sure she can trust him. She recalls Pedar, her father, telling her never to discuss the SAVAK in public, especially with strangers because secret agents are everywhere. Roya runs to her class.
She is surprised that her teacher, Mr. Elmi, has not arrived yet. Because of constant defying the schools rules on dress code or curriculum, the students call him Jenab, meaning His Excellency. He enters somberly and writes on the board “I think, therefore I am.” He begins his lesson explaining there is a raw matter in each person known as the child that is impressionable, and flexible enough to be molded like clay. In the heat of the kiln called life, the clay hardens and suddenly we are the unchangeable adult. If an adult is dissatisfied with the outcome, he can take on a variety of colors to disguise his true identity, but deep down the hardened clay maintains its form. Roya is unconvinced, not able to believe she will ever be anything but a free spirit. Jenab tells the students to think about the metaphor when a voice from the back of the class asks “Isn’t thinking forbidden?” It is Shireen Payan, who wears a chador, a dark cloth that covers her head to toe, traditional garb of fundamental families in Mashad. Jenab asks Roya to take the attendance to the office and she hesitates out of fear of the men in black. As she walks to the office, she hears footsteps and hushed cries. The men in black are pulling a girl between them outside, while the vice-principal watches. Just as the girl is almost out the door she looks back and Roya recognizes her. Mrs. Saberi turns after they are gone to see Roya. She walks to her and grabs the attendance sheet from her hands and says, “You saw nothing. Not a thing! As far as any of you lot are concerned, that girl walked out of here of her own free will, and she was accompanied by her father. One single word about this and you’ll be next!” Roya returns to her classroom.
At recess, she learns the girl's name is Alieh. Roya walks home for lunch and notes the stark contrast between the two types of people in her town: the city folk and the devout Muslims, and how she is neither. She walks to the northern, more modern, part of Mashad, where she lives, away from the Shrine of Azan in the south. She arrives home and sees her aunt, and immediately feels more secure. Her aunt moved in years ago when her mother died because she had no children of her own and no plan to marry. Her sister, Mitra, is not yet home and she wishes she would get there soon in case Pedar has any questions about what happened today. She talks to her brother, Reza, and father in the living room when Mitra arrives home. Roya notices a little book in her pocket and pulls it out. It is called The Little Black Fish and she thinks it is cute until Mitra screams at her to give it back. Pedar jumps up and grabs the book exclaiming that it is not allowed in his house. They argue about the author. Pedar says he was a communist, and Mitra says the SAVAK killed him for no reason. Pedar claims he drowned in a river, but Mitra asks how someone would be swimming in winter in a frozen lake. She tells him the SAVAK came to take someone from her school today and he tells her his only concern is keeping them safe, not other people. Mitra begins to cry and lunch is served. Roya excuses herself to the garden and sits under a Mulberry tree to think about the whole situation.