This is the second installment of a series of “Athenian Stories” from Gazmend Kapllani as a complement to our Greek issue this month. In these short dispatches, Kapllani documents the experience of immigrants living in Athens, one of the most diverse cities in southern Europe. Links are available at the bottom of the page to Kapllani’s other Athenian stories featured this month. —Editors
I was born in Tehran seventeen years ago. My name is Rozina. It’s an ancient Persian name and the Islamists didn’t like it. After the Islamic revolution they outlawed Persian names and made people take Islamic ones. My father bribed the bureaucrats with an expensive camera so that I could keep the name Rozina. If you bribe people, the laws of Allah become a little more flexible. My father was a very well-known photographer in Tehran. I can’t remember the first time he went to prison, I was only four months old. At that time my father was giving photography lessons at the Ministry of the Interior and discovered the file of a girl who had been murdered and disappeared by the Iranian secret services. He told the girl’s family the truth. They arrested and tortured him. I was a year and a half old when he was released.
From an early age I learned that the world is divided into boys and girls. And that girls are worth much less than boys, because that’s what the Koran says. That’s what they taught us in school, too. We went to a separate school, which had no contact with the school where the boys went. Our teachers told us that we would go to hell if we played with boys. That even just looking at a boy was a great sin. That women who didn’t wear a chador or who let their hair peek out from it even two centimeters would not only go to hell but would be punished by having Allah hold them hanging by the hair for all of eternity. I was scared and asked my parents if all that was true and they told me our teachers were lying to us.
As we grew up, we girls tried to imagine what might be going on in the boys’ school. My girlfriends and I would ask: íWhy are we worth less than boys? What do boys have that we don’t?ë Most of the girls in my class had a boyfriend, even just someone to talk to, so as to banish our curiosity. We would meet in secret, behind the houses, in deserted roads, usually at dusk, so the police wouldn’t see us, because if they caught us with boys they would humiliate us and expel us from school.
My great passion was bicycling, but that was the exclusive privilege of the boys. I asked my parents if it was a sin for me to ride a bicycle with the boys and they told me it wasn’t. But they cut my hair like a boy’s so that the police and the Islamists wouldn’t know I was a girl. The other girls weren’t that lucky, their parents wouldn’t let them. That’s why the boys all wanted to be friends with me.
We girls secretly brought sports papers with us to class. It was our own forbidden Koran. It was also the best way for us to talk about boys. We were crazy about soccer. We would look at the photographs of the soccer players and dream of having husbands like that when we grew up. I was the only girl who had ever gone to a match, since women weren’t allowed. My father once dressed me as a boy and took me with him. My girlfriends admired me and were jealous, for them it was the dream of a lifetime…
I remember very well the second time they arrested and jailed my father. All night long my mother and I burned his books so the security police wouldn’t find them. For me, the time my father spent in jail was a true hell. We couldn’t go to see him, we couldn’t talk to him. I was twelve years old and was being trailed by the security police. They would break into the house whenever they felt like it and turn the whole place upside down. They weren’t looking for anything in particular, they just wanted to scare and humiliate us. They would take my mother down to the police station and she would come back with bruises on her face and body. One time she came home with broken teeth, her face and knees all scratched. She looked like a walking corpse. That day she had gone to the jail and begged the guards to let her see my father. Two guys on a motorcycle grabbed her by the chador and dragged her for fifty meters. It was a miracle they didn’t strangle her.
It was two and a half years before I saw my father again. I didn’t recognize him. Before he went to prison he didn’t have a single white hair, and when he came out there wasn’t a black one left. He had aged a lot, and very suddenly. One night he called me over to him and told me we had to leave Iran, because our lives were in danger. I agreed. I wanted to take some of my dolls with me, but my mother wouldn’t let me. All I took was a bag with some clothes. We traveled hidden in a truck, and then they told us to get out and walk. It was very cold, in the mountains. My father said that whatever happened I couldn’t shout because then we’d all be dead. I remember another truck picking us up. Then we arrived at a dirty hut in Pakistan where we stayed for five weeks. The smuggler came and told us to get ready because we were leaving for Turkey. My parents had sold everything and had borrowed a lot of money to pay him. He didn’t talk a lot and was very serious, he spoke lots of languages and had houses everywhere, knew people everywhere. That’s why no one ever stopped us. We took a plane to Istanbul. Then another plane to Holland. When we got there we asked for asylum. They treated us very well in the beginning. They gave us a house and tried to teach us Dutch. I learned the language very quickly. Then everything changed really fast, I don’t know how. They told us, íYou have to leave for Greece.ë It was the spring of 2004 and I think they got rid of 26,000 refugees, they told us the Dutch didn’t want any more foreigners, and Muslims in particular. All we had time to do was get a suitcase ready with clothes. They told us that in Greece we would have everything that we had there, but that was a lie.
My first experience with Athens was in the detention center at Eleftherios Venizelos Airport. There were no beds and I slept on my coat. They only gave one meal a day. After three weeks the police told us to leave but didn’t know where we should go. We had no place to sleep. For two months we slept on the benches in the Field of Mars. I got depressed and lost eleven kilos, I used to faint all the time in the street and passersby would take me to the emergency room. One day a family of Persians who had come to Greece before us came up to us. They had no place to put us but they brought us food every day. Then they took us to an organization run by the church, then to another, and that’s how we found a place to live. Then we got the pink papers that meant we were applying for asylum. Sometimes I dream that they send us back to Iran and the Islamists behead me, like the murdered girl whose file my father discovered. I wake up at night terrified, covered in sweat.
I like Athens and I’ve made some Greek friends. I’m learning Greek and I want to go to the university. The government here doesn’t care, but the people are very friendly.
What’s my opinion of Islam? My parents say that Islam has become a religion of hatred and stupefaction. That none of this has anything to do with the Islam they used to know.
What are my dreams? To put down roots somewhere because I’m tired of being sent away from everyplace I go. I want to achieve that, I have to. And I want to see the little girls in Iran riding their bicycles with the boys, without being scared of going to hell. I may be young, but my life has taught me that the most important things in life are the insignificant, everyday desires.
The accounts in this series were originally featured, in Greek, in Ta Nea and the Athens Voice and on Gazmend Kapllani’s blog at http://gazikapllani.blogspot.com/
Links to other posts in this series: