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.