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Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 25.1 (2004) 138-147

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The Spoken Word

When Writing Comes at Sixty-four

Growing up, I never thought of Mama as nonliterate.1 Actually, her nonliteracy was the norm among the women (and many men) her age and older in Iranian villages, including Faradj Abad, where Mama was born during World War I. Many of my relatives, such as my older aunts and great cousins, and quite a few neighbors, also didn't know how to read and write. Mama was the eldest child in her family, and the only one who did not attend school.

In those days, school was not for everyone, and definitely not for the older girls living in the villages. Instead, the girls were supposed to take care of their younger siblings at home and to help their parents out on the farm once they reached age five or six. It was more important for them to learn skills such as weaving carpets, sewing, cooking, baking, or horseback riding, if they could afford to stay home. Girls who were born into poor households sometimes worked as servants and maids for wealthy families. At age seventy-eight, Mama proudly recalled that she wove one carpet in a month, carried home water from the well three times a day, and was a skilled horseback rider before she was ten. She was a "Kalantar" girl. Mama used the wordKalantar (head of precinct, in Persian) to mean brave and strong.2 By learning these skills Mama and other girls in her village also prepared themselves for married life. While still living in their parents' houses, they prepared a dowry. Thus, schooling was generally considered a luxury.

In Mama's time, birth certificates were not being issued, at least not in the villages. Few people would get a birth certificate before they were adults. In fact, when it was time for Mama to get hers, no one could remember the specifics of her birthday, so she never knew the exact day she was born, though she had been told it was sometime in the middle of the summer during the war. In those days, poor couples might even claim that their young girls were ten years older than they actually were, so they would marry and leave home early. Even wealthy families didn't quite see any value in educating daughters. Why would [End Page 138] a girl need education or a birth certificate, anyway? After all, they thought, she was just going to grow up to be a wife, after being a daughter. Mama was fifteen when she fell in love with and married Papa, who was fourteen.

Mama's nonliteracy was natural to me until I was about eight or nine, a couple of years after I had started going to school—an opportunity I had due to the changing times and because I lived in a large city. I became more conscious of Mama's nonliteracy also when I met my then-best-friend Ashkhen's literate parents for the first time: Mr.Sograt, who used to be a teacher, and his wife, Mrs.Satenik, who had been a student of his. I respected the father, but there was nothing unusual about his literacy. My father, too, was literate. However, I admired her mother, then a woman in her thirties, for her ability to read and write. She appeared much more self-assured and assertive than Mama, and I considered her quite sophisticated. But I never wanted Mama to change because she was perfect as she was.

It has been said that fairy tales teach children moral values, gradually introducing them to the real world. It has also been said that stories should teach children about bitterness, meanness, and the ugly side of human nature to prepare them for the harshness of real life. Mama could not read Western classics to me, such as Cinderella, Snow White, or The Little Prince, but she did tell me stories about her own experiences, her hard times...