Mother’s Day in Iran is different than in the United States: It’s mostly a religious occasion commemorating the birth of the prophet Muhammad’s daughter, and it falls on a different day than the American version. But it, too, is about appreciation, and every Mother’s Day my thoughts turn to a creased photo, taken around 1970, of a tall woman in black chador, striding down a Tehran street, clutching the hand of a 7-year-old boy. That boy is me, and the woman is my mother, taking me to a place she had never been allowed to go: school. On the sunny, breezy day when the picture was taken, my mother dressed me in a clean white shirt, long pants, and a jacket, and handed me a briefcase. I was the only student in my class who was dressed so neatly. She was 21 years old, and I was the oldest and first of her children to enter a school.
She had married my father, a simple taxi driver, at age 13, and gave birth to me at 15. The sight of a girl of her age with a baby in her arms drew stares; she was so young and small that people thought she might be carrying a doll. My first day of school was also her first day of school. In some of the cities outside of Tehran like the one where my mother grew up, it wasn’t common for girls to go to school, and after I was born, she had to devote herself to motherhood. So until she walked me through the doors and accompanied me to my desk before returning home, she had been inside a school only in dreams.
Now 67, she still tells me how she, as a young child, would go to a nearby school at a certain time in the afternoon and wait until the few girls who attended finished their games or their classes at the end of the day. She would ask them to let her carry their books toward home for them so she could feel like a student. It is easy to imagine her feeling when she was taking her own flesh and blood to school instead of carrying someone else's books away from it.
But according to a Persian tradition, when my mother was seven and other children were beginning school, her parents engaged a private tutor to teach her to read the Koran and the great Persian poets. She had such a passion for education that before she turned eight she managed to finish reading the whole Koran and the Divan of Hafez, one of the most difficult books of poetry in Persian literature. Her copy of Hafez was the first book I saw in life, and there are lines from it that remain my soul’s companion: “Love is a sea without a shore.” “Be kind and loving to friends and tolerant with enemies.” “Plant the tree of friendship to pick the fruit of your heart’s desire. Uproot the sapling of animosity which bears unending sufferings.” But my mother’s education never went further than her own studies.
Still, she is one of those people who build ladders out of the rubble of defeat. She transformed her plight into a love of knowledge and poured it into my soul. She shaped me into the vessel for her dreams. Unfortunately, after I received my high-school diploma and was ready for higher education, universities were closed in my country for a time following the 1979 revolution. But my mother had not only taken me down the road to my first class; she had set me on the road of my life.
Like her, I continued my education by myself. Over a period of more than two years, I would sit alone in a room and learn English from old newspapers, magazines, and any good literary books I could get my hands on from old bookstores or people who brought them back from other countries. Every morning, I would listen to a Voice of America program called “The Breakfast Show” on a cheap pocket radio, recording it on a cassette and replaying it several more times during the day. Its co-host, Phil Irwin, became one of my dearest teachers and friends, even if he didn’t know it. I memorized radio shows like his, poems, and sometimes even films.
Phil, along with the writers and journalists who carry the contents of human civilization to homes around the world, were the extensions of my mother carrying those schoolgirls’ books. Another was Henry David Thoreau, whose book Walden, about moving to the woods near Massachusetts’ Walden Pond to live in harmony with nature, I discovered through a few scattered sentences I read in dictionaries and heard on my pocket radio. The more I learned about Thoreau, and the other American Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson (a co-founder of The Atlantic Monthly), the more I came to believe that their literature came closer to Persian literature and poetry than any other.
Thoreau and Emerson, like Sa’di, Hafez, and Rumi, valued individuality and believed that the true path to a society’s excellence started from individuals. Thoreau said, “If we respected only what is inevitable and has a right to be, music and poetry would resound along the streets.” Their writings meet in a world full of music and poetry like this, where any sound can become music if the soul is ready to hear it. A legend about Rumi’s life anticipates Thoreau’s words. They say Rumi was passing through a marketplace when the noise of a goldsmith’s hammer sounded so harmonious to him that he began to dance. The goldsmith, encouraging this impressive display, kept hammering until the piece of gold he was working on turned to dust.
Eventually I decided to translate Walden into Persian, a project that took me 10 years and ultimately brought me to Walden Pond itself last summer. Two American scholars who had helped me with my translation via the Internet had brought me to deliver a talk at the Thoreau Institute, which protects the writer’s legacy and the Walden Woods where he wrote his masterpiece. When I found myself looking into the depths of the pond at dusk, then standing among distinguished American scholars the next day to deliver a talk on Thoreau, I thought of the truth of a quote from Emerson: “Men are what their mothers made them.”
In America I found a very generous and warm reception, and to my surprise I discovered that Iran’s 13th-century poet Rumi was a best-selling poet in the United States. I returned this year for a study tour, to deliver more talks on Thoreau, Rumi, and the other Persian poets. I found myself, a man who only graduated high school and taught himself English, lecturing to American scholars, writers, and university students. These Americans treated me as an equal, and gave me a diploma—something I never got from a university.
When I returned home my mother reminded me of the day she walked me to school. “I never thought I was taking you to an elementary school,” she said. “I thought I was taking you to one of the most important places in the world whose name I did not know.” She hung my new diploma on her wall. My new life has become in many ways a new life for her. And we walk on into my work.