I was a first grader in Tehran when my teacher told my mother I talk too much in class. I was in the second grade when I stopped talking altogether, when every small giggle with my female classmates instilled guilt and worry, when the eventual whispers became not just a disturbance, but a crime. Silence and obedience were the basis of acquiring a good grade; silence and obedience were signs of respect and knowledge. I don’t know how boys were taught, but we small women were always hushed. We wrote in silence, laughed in silence, smiled in silence and only during recess did we hear our voices. Even running after each other over an innocent game of tag was forbidden. I remember falling on the hard asphalt during recess as the girls chased after me. I stood up with my nose bleeding and met the eyes of the school administrator, who reprimanded me for running, scolded me for breaking rules. It was those moments in which pain became numbing; I lived most of my elementary education with shame and fear.
Silence was a thing I grew up with. I was about 10 and my mother and I got into an argument, the cause of our dispute I don’t recall but her silence in the moments following my rude retort, the deafening quietness that seemed to last an eternity, I will never forget. She finally said, “I don’t speak to rude girls,” after my quiet but hopeful iterations of “Maman.” I found my white board and wrote, “I am sorry” with a black marker. I succumbed to my fear of rejection and showed her the board. She eventually began to speak again; I had my mother back.
I did hear my mother sing though, often, in her melancholy, alto voice in the privacy of our living room. In the afternoons as I played with my toys, she sang of lost love with her head buried in embroidery, her other secret talent.
I didn’t know then that the literal truth is forbidden in Iranian song and poetry, and that every feeling is told in metaphors. Censorship runs deep: every flower reference, every season and every element in nature is synonymous with broken hearts and broken loves. Society teaches an Iranian to build a strong imagination; my mother’s led her to believe, as she cooked in our Tehran kitchen, that she would be a free woman in America one day. She knew her American dream before I even knew we weren’t allowed to dream.
Today I break silence everyday. I sing in front of strangers, family and friends. I write and speak in an attempt to break the habit of accepting all I was forbidden to do growing up. I sing to free my censored soul, for my mother who wanted to be a singer but was forbidden. I break silence in an attempt to awaken banned dreams and emerging dreams.