In France, a teacher called Samuel Paty was beheaded by an 18-year-old refugee of Chechen origin, shouting Allah-o Akbar. The teacher’s sin for this Islamist was having shown satirical cartoons, some of them caricatures of the prophet Muhammad, during a history lesson about freedom of speech and freedom of conscience.
This tragedy has reminded me of my school days.
I went all the way through and graduated from the state’s elementary and secondary schools in Iran, before following a university curriculum in different European countries. During all these years, and on countless occasions, I had to adjust my frames of thinking with what might be called a cultural shock. Against all the odds, they were sources of amazement, and a strong desire to decipher cultural codes and learn more about the world I knew so little about.
At some length, in different contexts, I have sketched schooling in Chronicles from Iran. From the homely school yards of the 1970s, to the European campuses of the 1980s, the teachers had been at the side of the students as needed to overcome the difficulties, and especially, to help the Iranian students in the West to cope with the growing complications.
The trust and friendship of many cannot be forgotten. They were our lifeline after the Islamic Revolution cut us off from our country and our families. They listened to our silences and talked to us in silence. Kindness and trust are not exclusive to a religion, to a people or to a nation. They can be found everywhere, but can be expressed differently.
A School Built with Tears and Blood
Bibi Khanom was born in the early 1900s, seventh or eighth child to a good dozen brothers and sisters.
Illiterate, she was bestowed with a high acumen coupled with strong common sense. Courageous, she had stood up against religious superstition through words and deeds.
In her teens, she had a crush on a Zoroastrian, an ignominious affair for a family of Seyed and Haji. Her father sent her to a remote province to let things cool down till he found her a husband of quality: a Seyed, old and above all wealthy. A choice that made the episode of the Zoroastrian forgotten by all and brought back the reputation of the family in the eyes of self-righteous people.
The Seyed lived long enough to have a son with her. After his death, she was sitting on a considerable fortune. Widow, mother to a boy that kept wagging tongues at bay, and above all rich, Bibi Khanom gained prestige. Despite suitors queuing up, she never remarried. In the 1930s, she had the idea of building a school for girls, going against the mullahs and crafty bigots.
The fortune of Bibi Khanom prevented direct attacks on her person but the building material vanished and the builders were dissuaded from working for her. At last, the school was built thanks to a technique as old as mankind: buy your opponents, in this case the mullahs, by donations, either direct or indirect. The market of belief, based on supply and demand, is all too well known to religious capitalists; the mullahs wishing that the venture would cease, calmed down for a while.
When the school was built and open to all, a few daring parents sent their daughters to learn how to read and write. But then the prime problem was to find sufficiently educated she-teachers. The handful of book-smart women in town considered teaching girls of lower classes beneath them. When she hired male teachers, Bibi Khanom was confronted by a wave of fierce hostility from the mullahs and pusillanimous conservative parents. A teacher was knifed to death by a crank Islamist, later hanged by the expeditious military justice of Reza Shah.
In my heart, I am indebted to Reza Shah and all the Bibi Khanoms for making it possible for a female like me to study in Iran, some thirty to forty years later.
After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the assassin was rehabilitated and raised to the rank of martyr; a road in the provincial town in which Bibi Khanom lived is named after him. Bibi Khanom in a regime of Political Islam has been unworthy of being remembered, never mind celebrated. She was forgotten.
Immediately after the teacher’s assassination, for Bibi Khanom, curiously, things calmed down. Her opponents felt that they had gone too far and it was time to put out the fire before it returned against them. Women like her welcomed the heavy hand of Reza Shah against the religious obscurantism and for women’s emancipation. On the whole, women in towns were fiercer in their practice of Islam to the trappings of the mullahs than men. For many years to come, Bibi Khanom had to fight against the unfathomable stupidity of women as well as that of men.
From the start of the 20th century until the Second World War, in all of Iran, the scenarios on the theme of education in non-religious schools be it private or public, followed one another and were alike. The variations came from patrons, sometimes men, sometimes women who wanted to get things done. The Islamists often set fire to schools, terrorised teachers and menaced a tiny minority of progressive mullahs. Sometimes, things finished in bloody killings.
The common factor in the different episodes of struggles to educate youth and in particular girls was the backscratchers in large numbers who kept silent for the duration of the duel, waiting for the victor; be it the progressive or the retrogressive, it did not matter, as long as he had the upper hand and could crush the opponent. Then, they lauded his qualities.
Characters like Bibi Khanom are not exceptions in Iranian society. But what has been, and today is dearly needed, is a staunch support by those who embrace the same ideas. Over-enthusiastic for a start, they take flight into their dens at the earliest snag, hair standing on end, waiting unwearied to congratulate the victor profusely, never you mind his side.
For far too long, this cowardice is dry rot to our lives, personal, social and political. This innate spinelessness prevents confrontation of ideas and debates in public. This hypocrisy arouses meanness and stabbings in the back. It nips the bud of democracy and feeds tyrants.
A History Teacher Not to Forget
My Farsi literature and history teacher was a good man. In 1981 or 1982, the hangmen of the Islamic Revolution executed him, allegedly a criminal communist, a Toudahi.
And what if this was the case? I don’t give a damn about knowing if he was the son of a bitch, a communist or a capitalist; he was a good teacher who did his job honestly. He could move us by the simplicity and the preciseness of historical stories. He taught us to like history, all the histories. The teaching of history needs talent and he, a provincial teacher, had enough to spare. Besides the school imposed syllabus, he talked about Treblinka and Nazi cruelties in concentration camps. He liked Mahatma Gandhi.
My teacher was restrained in his school activities by the SAVAK, the Shah’s ruthless secret intelligence organisation. Their commands and injunctions were to prevent and punish the crime of lese-majesty everywhere including in schools. He knew when not to mess with them, not only to protect himself but also keep safe his pupils from their harm. When we flirted with censored subjects and crossed the red lines, he would gently silence the sixty-two rowdy and boisterous teenage girls by commencing the analysis of a difficult text.
For the mullahs and their clique, he was a renegade. They killed a fine teacher, a gentleman opening the gates for his students to discover for themselves the world beyond the fortress of ignorance.
Cursed be he who denies freedom of speech in the name of cleansing the race, religion or any other such assertion. Cursed be the barbarian obscurantism of our mullahs that drag our history in mud. Cursed be the coward and the hypocrite that let it happen.
Decades later, 21st Century
In 2006, visiting my home town, a third rate provincial borough, I headed towards my secondary school.
Today, the school books of the Islamic Republic underline that during the Shah’s reign: The way to the school of the youth was paved with sin and corruption: the clothing of women, pictures in magazines, posters from cinemas, music shops […]. The youth clubs […] were places for gambling, and for lechery. Liquor stores outnumbered bookshops.
I found the remnants of the scenery of decades ago: homes, a few stall sellers, a butcher, and a bookshop-stationers. At that time there were no sellers of liquor, no gambling saloons, no whorehouses. And today, there is neither happiness nor life …
The door of my high school had not changed. Still in a blue-grey colour, it was more rusted and worn out. A little girl, clothed from head to toe with a black chador à la mode Islamic, came out of the courtyard and closed the door behind her. Head down, she walked along the pavement avoiding male pedestrians. She had a submissive gait, perfectly adapted to the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Later, a former teacher in Farsi literature under the Shah, earning a living as the owner of a run-down bookshop in the Islamic Republic, said: [After the revolution] I stayed a bit at my job. Then, the schools were purged of teachers who weren’t in the Line of Khomeini. I scarpered to keep my head on my shoulders.
The mother of a teenager has this to say: In class, the teachers fill the kids heads with dung, and we parents have to clear this dung afterwards. If we can.
Once, in my home town, some dirty urchins in rags watched me going by. One shyly but bravely asked where I had come from. In no time, I had a little bunch of noisy, curious and lively kids calling me the old lady or the white-haired one. I was moved by this token of respect. A little girl of twelve or thirteen, rigged out in yards of grey-black and worn-out cloth firmly held the hand of a toddler. She listened very carefully. I asked her which class she was in. She shrugged: I don’t go to school. Can you read?
I can hear the Islamic Republic of Iran apologists expostulating: Today things are so different for females: they all go to school, and are educated; they vote…
Ask them when the freedom for a woman starts and when it ends. Ask them of their chances of their demands being heard in public. Ask them how many times their sisters, mother and daughters have been called whores and bitches because they objected to a preposterous stand by the mullahs or a grotesque religious declaration. At last, ask them about the education and protection given to Kurd, Balutch or Arab little girls growing up in the Iranian rural and semirural areas.
Step further and ask how the citizens – male and female – expand their horizons and broaden their knowledge outside the Islamic values taught at schools. Ask them about school syllabus, censorship and propaganda in textbooks. A confused roar or a muted embarrassment may follow.
In the Islamic Republic of Iran, the horizons are reduced, and the freedom of learning, the freedom of expression, are contained in a little patch surrounded by a fortification erected in the Dark Ages. Venturing outside the rampart ruins one’s life and can be fatal.
Salute to Slain Teachers, as long as we live they will be remembered.