Living in the Shadow of Iran: I Just Learned My Grandmother's Name

I’m at a weird place in history, as are many of my female peers; I am the first woman in my line who has such a dramatically free reign over her destiny and her place in the world.
Publish date:
December 6, 2012
grandmothers, family history, Iran

I didn't know my grandmothers' names until today -- a piece of my puzzle I oddly hadn’t thought to find until now. I’ve known for a while that my paternal one had simply been referred to as "Khanum Joon.”

"Khanum" means "lady,” and it’s a term of respect. "Joon” is a term of endearment. Khanum Joon is not a name. It became my grandmother's title at some point, bestowed upon a matriarch who had 12 children, 11 of whom made it to adulthood.

I never met my grandmothers. My parents permanently moved from Iran to the U.S. in the 1980s, where I was born. My grandfathers both died before I came into this world. My grandmothers' names were something I was probably told but now can’t remember, a "salam azizam" shouted through a crackling phone line when I was 10 and too ashamed to answer back in Farsi.

I believe narrative is a naturally occurring thing, not something that reality is forced into, and that we exist within narratives. But trying to see your place within your narrative isn’t easy when almost all of your family history -– say, hundreds of years -- took place on a piece of land you’ve only spent a few weeks upon.

Interviews with those here can only get you so far -– “Wait, what year were you born again? “Well, it depends. Are you looking at my birth certificate or my passport?” You can’t even tell me how old you are? Do you know how frustrating this is for a journalist?

So when I recently tried filling in some holes in my story, I asked about my grandmother:

"When did she marry my grandfather?"

The response, "He married her." She was maybe 9, 10 years old, a child taken to an 18-year-old husband. I sort of already knew this, but its retelling reminds me it’s real, not passport-versus-birth certificate-birthdate-real.

I predict I’ll later conjure up the image of this girl with eyes like mine and have a good cry about it. I know it was "the time” and how things were back then. But her heart probably didn't know that, and that pain doesn’t just go away. It lives with you.

Your body, your spirit changes as it acquiesces to a world not yet ready for you. And eventually, when a child grows within your womb, it is your changed self helping to grow that child. And down it goes through the line. To your daughters, granddaughters and great granddaughters. To me.

My grandmother’s story has likely been running for generations. It’s running through my veins. I’m at a weird place in history, as are many of my female peers: I am the first woman in my line who has such a dramatically free reign over her destiny and her place in the world, the first to truly stand on my own two feet; to be encouraged to fulfill her calling; to have choices; to be able to build a true partnership and grow in love; to grow, lovingly, on her own; to shape her story.

At the very least, I’m certainly the first to tell jokes on stages and interview congressmen and not think twice about laughing loudly while walking down the street. Nice Persian ladies don’t laugh loudly. But my loud laugh is genetic. How could these women have quieted themselves for so long and not suffocated in the process?

Living an unprecedented life within your history isn’t a simple thing to do. It's intimidating. It’s messy and complicated, and frustrating because it’s messy and complicated.

Of course I’d prefer the freedom I have to the alternative -- and I’m extremely grateful to have such freedom –- but sometimes I feel the weight of the past, of the cellular memory that has stubbornly learned to cope with a life beyond one's control.

Now when I feel uncertain or that I'm on shaky ground, I’ll think of Khanum Joon's real name (or as close to “real” as I could get), Bibijan. I'll pray to her. I'll ask her for help to remember that I can navigate such stunning, uncharted territory.

Not because I’m the first woman in my line capable of doing so. I’m just the first who gets to.