I opened up the old boxes to start the ritual. It was time to dive into the past to see the hundreds of photographs capturing my childhood. Me feeling small standing in front of a towering redwood or me running after a golden retriever at the beach—these were glimpses into the nature I loved as a California kid. The stacks of photos showed other common themes: my mother’s flawless ability to match our outfits so we twinned into the vibe of Annie Hall, the family gatherings where I was the youngest among my cousins, and the valued presence of my grandparents who had left their homeland of Iran without a word of English to see their grandchildren grow up in the U.S.
As we age, our memories become foggy, but these photos allow me to live these moments over and over again. My father created these stacks with his flawless composition, his use of the rule of thirds, and his experimental framing of shots. Each time, I go through his photo collection, it informs my own photography style. His vintage Nikon 35mm camera sits next to the photo boxes in Santa Clarita, California, where I grew up. He remains so attached to the idea of hard-copy photographs he has even printed out my recent selfies to give the photo stacks a modern update. My father gave me a gift I carry closely: an eye.
My impulse is to photograph my surroundings. The prospect of capturing a photographic moment among the ordinary scenes we see every day is something I live for—an element of finding magic in the mundane. For example, I recently photographed the random appearance of abandoned ‘OC’ DVDs in the middle of a park and a pedestrian fighting the city heat with a neon umbrella. There is a story behind these moments. I’m consumed by capturing these unique scenes that may otherwise go unnoticed if I’m not hyper-aware.
I often go on photo adventures throughout New York City’s boroughs. The Lower East Side has become a new infatuation as it’s easy to find NYC’s signature grittiness through the street art coloring the cityscapes. I suddenly become an observer in a city greater than 8 million people on a search to find the moments worthy of a DSLR click. This year, I launched the Instagram account, Afzal’s Planet, so that I could share my work publicly.
My father and I live nearly 3,000 miles apart, but we can speak in the language of photography. My version of the hard stacks he created is to text him the photos I take digitally. I want him to see what life in New York City is like. Every time I go back home and look at those stacks of photos sitting back in Santa Clarita, I’m in awe of my father’s creative eye and thankful that he’s inspired it in me.
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An elderly woman walks slowly towards the schoolyard. A silk scarf covers her silvery hair and frames her kind-eyed, olive-skinned face. She waits attentively for her eight-year-old granddaughter to finish the school day so that she can walk her home.
I recall this memory vividly mostly because I felt embarrassed by the way the other children stared at the headscarf wrapped around Majoon’s hair as we walked home under the California sunshine. The scarf symbolized an overt difference in the predominantly Caucasian and Christian community of Valencia. The fight to assimilate as an Iranian into American culture was an ongoing battle throughout my childhood, but it doesn’t change the fact that I’m now ashamed I ever felt this way about my grandmother.
Majoon translates to “mother dear” in Farsi, and for much of my time growing up, I didn’t know that my grandmother’s real name was Batool, which means renouncing the material world and devoting one’s life to religion. Growing up, I would watch her pray and chant in Arabic. She would sit at the dining room table after cooking flawless saffron rice, and she would always look so contemplative as she peered off into the distance. Was she thinking about how she was in a foreign land far from her home country of Iran and unable to speak English? Or was she thinking of her childhood and how she was forced to stop school after sixth grade?
As an adult, I understand more than ever the sacrifices my grandmother made for our family. She would fight adamantly for every one of her seven children to be top students in school and pushed them to attain higher education in the West during the height of Iran’s brain drain in the 70s (“Brain drain” in the historical context of Iran refers to the mass exodus of highly skilled individuals that attained higher education abroad in Western countries during the reign of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. These individuals did not return to Iran, and this cycle has continued into the present day). Her own path to education had been prohibited by her conservative and religious father, who said she couldn’t go to school after Reza Shah banned women’s wearing of the headscarf due to modernization measures in 1936. Having lost her right to pursue an education as a woman, she would make it her mission for my mother and her siblings to study abroad.
They say we all become our mothers. My mother inherited the same fire from my grandmother for me to attain top grades, and she pushed me to attend journalism grad school at NYU. “Sara, you have to make it,” she said, adding that she and my father didn’t become established in creative fields, so it was up to me to succeed for all of us. Everyone strives for their own definition of success. For me, it had the heavy weight of the American Dream attached to it.
I wonder what my grandmother would think today of her many grandchildren dispersed across the U.S. Living in New York City for the last four years has revealed a collective culture of “fighting to make it,” where the young and talented flock here with ambition like a never ending wildfire. My matriarch figures led me to this city full of creative energy from the Patti Smith generation and a pulse so inspiring and cutthroat that nothing else compares. The question “Will I make it?” leads me in my career aspirations and continues to drive my independent journey, no matter how far away I am from my family.
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All the children sit around the table as their grandmother prepares the traditional Iranian feast. The pickled sour vegetable garnish known as torshi is placed alongside the steaming saffron rice with green beans and beef. The youngest girl finishes everything on her plate except the green mush. “Sara, eat your torshi!” the grandmother commands.
As a child, I never really liked torshi. It looked like a dark green compote with the occasional carrot and tasted too sour and vinegary. As a twenty something woman, torshi became less about questionable veggie spread, and more about the word torshideh–literally meaning soured, but used to describe an unmarried woman whose clock is ticking into her 30s. Think of it as the Iranian term for “spinster.”
The term torshideh haunted most Iranian women who suffered through tremendous marriage pressure from their families. My parents pushed me less in that department, a positive side effect from their divorce. Still, I was not immune to the term. My older male cousins threw the jabs as soon as I was in my early 20s. “Sara, you don’t want to become torshideh now. Learn how to cook Iranian food so you can be a good wife. Oh, and go pour us some tea.”
The pressure to get married is overt for all young Iranian men and women, but the taboo is especially faced by unmarried women, as the word torshideh demonstrates. Yet, while women are encouraged to marry young, divorce is still frowned upon. In Iran, women are not legally permitted to attain a divorce as Sharia law gives men the sole right. In the U.S., about 40 to 50 percent of marriages ended in divorce, and in Iran, about 20 percent of marriages result in divorce. Of course these stats don’t imply that marriages in Iran work better than in the US, it just means it’s harder for women to get out of them.
Luckily, my parents were far from traditional. They left Iran during the tumultuous political years that would soon tip into the chaos of the 1978-1979 Islamic Revolution, and they were determined to build a new life in America. My mom, Nahid, was raised by Muslim parents who disapproved of her living with my dad, Ali, without being married. So the two students studying art and film at UT Austin decided to tie the knot spontaneously with no planned wedding ceremony. They got hitched wearing faded Wrangler jeans at the courthouse in Austin, Texas. On their wedding day, instead of a traditional ring, Ali gave Nahid a set of multicolored plastic bands that was later passed down to me. The retro pink, red, blue, and white rings once all worn on my mother’s ring finger sit inside of a small jewelry box I still have today. The rings may have lasted, but the marriage didn’t.
My parents’ unorthodox marriage and eventual divorce has given me a complicated relationship with the Iranian way of looking at marriage. Like most children of a failed union, I can’t think about marriage without thinking about divorce. The truth is I’d rather be labeled torshideh like expired milk than get married for the wrong reasons, and I think this is a modern concept that is not accepted by an older generation of Iranians. Arranged marriages are still common in Iran, but at the same time, there has been a strong shift towards dating around and marrying at an older age, much like in the U.S. These contradictions between the modern and traditional are very apparent in Iran, a country where about 60 percent of its 80 million people are younger than the age of 30. The emergence of this youth population has been linked to the loss of young men fighting during the eight year war with Iraq in the 1980s, and also the government’s encouragement of larger families during the beginning of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Living in the U.S. makes it easier to avoid the anxiety of being called torshideh. Surrounded by powerful women who look at marriage as an option and not a compulsion has empowered me to feel confident in my own hesitation. It’s more of a “if it happens, it happens” with no impulse to dream up a wedding day fantasy. I’m most thankful that my parents have not adhered to the norm and pressured me to marry “a nice Iranian boy,” but that doesn’t mean the rest of my family is as lax. The last time I went to Iran my grandmother, who loves to arrange marriages, said, “If you come back again, I will find you a husband.” I haven’t been back since.
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A 5-year-old with an Anna Karina-esque bob prances into her mother’s nude drawing class in Santa Monica, California. With the focus of a cat, a jet-black-haired woman with striking olive skin and pouty lips sets up her easel and starts to sketch a voluptuous female model. She hears a child’s whisper and turns: “Sara, you can’t talk.” The young girl decides to eat the diced apples in the Ziploc bag to distract herself from this boring adult world, full of silence and spectacle.
If I wasn’t at art class tagging along with my single mom, I was at art parties or gallery openings where I was the only kid in attendance. Having a constant foot in the adult world was uncomfortable and challenging at times. My mother would say it was good for me because it would allow me to communicate and get along with people of all ages. Later on, I realized she was right—especially since talking to adults was somewhat alien for most of my high school friends. Their voices would trail off awkwardly around teachers. They were more accustomed to their sibling bubble, which was a club I longed to be a part of.
At home, there was no kiddie table. No bunk beds. No playing “tea party” underwater in the pool as kids and then as adults like in the show “Transparent,” which portrays a complicated yet tight bond between three siblings. For an only child, it is hard to fathom the unbreakable bond between siblings and the relationships they form. The closest experience came with my older cousins, who called me out for my “only child” behaviors like cradling my possessions and not sharing my food.
They taught me to avoid falling into the stereotypes associated with only children, such as being spoiled, selfish, gullible, or sheltered. I promised myself I would make it my life mission to get out of the only child box.
At times, my relationship with my mother took on an almost sisterly quality, which helped the mission. We were close—maybe too close. My slender mom, who shopped in the juniors department, was practically the same clothing size as me in high school, and we would fight over our clothes just like sisters. While my friends loved listening to Britney Spears and NSYNC, she had us hooked on Björk and David Bowie. She got “cool mom” points, especially for the premature sex talk she gave me and the fact that she bought my older cousin her first female reproductive health book (which was later passed down to me). She also helped me navigate my relationships with boys. If I couldn’t have siblings, I was going to ask and tell her whatever I wanted—well, that is, until she went into mom mode.
She was half cool-mom, half caring micro-manager telling me to get straights A’s to land into a top college, eat dark green leafy greens for more iron, not sleep over at my friend’s house, and hold off on shaving my legs too early. I was a child of divorce, and she was the parent who supported me through the most angsty “finding myself” years of my life. We fought like sisters throughout it all. Now I realize that if having a very close relationship with my mom is the result of not having siblings, then perhaps things aren’t so bad in the only child box.
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Iranian women avoid body hair like the plague. The norm is to commit to hairlessness, which is ironic for a population predominantly blessed with thick, dark hair. Women who embrace the natural hair on their bodies are deemed unattractive, nonconformist and unsophisticated. When I was growing up in southern California, I felt like it was other women telling me my body hair was unacceptable—from an elementary school bully making fun of my unshaven legs in gym class to my female cousins encouraging me to shave at a young age. But during a visit to Iran when I was 25, I was shocked when my cousin Mohammad shamed me for having hair on my arms. “Ew. That’s manly. You should get that taken care of.”
After feeling this repeated pressure to get waxed, I went to a beauty salon located in a swanky area of northern Tehran. The all-female salon was crowded with blonde dye jobs, hairless tattooed eyebrows, freshly waxed arms and full faces of makeup. These women looked like they were channeling Marilyn Monroe, not the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is just one of the many examples of the contradictions in Iran, where Islamic law establishes female modesty as a fundamental value and deems lack of proper hair and body covering illegal. Due to these restrictions, Iranian women tend to pamper their faces excessively since they are their most visible attribute when wearing a headscarf, or roosari. I observed this beauty standard not just in Iran’s capital city Tehran, but in other cities and towns across the country as well.
My undyed hair, natural eyebrows and little makeup made me feel like an outsider in Iran, but they also drove my curiosity about the beauty obsession ingrained in Iranian society. Were women trying to attract husbands? (Arranged marriages are common.) Were they maintaining a standard that was enforced by patriarchal society? Were women actively but aimlessly involved in a beauty contest with each other? Many young women live idly at home with their families post-graduation, if marriage, education or work opportunities abroad fail. Jobs in Iran are competitive, especially due to the high rate of unemployment.
Whatever their motivation, women in Iran, in the diaspora and across the globe spend exorbitant amounts of money on hair removal throughout their lives. I find this preposterous. Hair removal shouldn’t have the same financial weight as student-loan debt, especially when it comes with irritated skin and ingrown hairs. In the most practical sense, women should do what is most comfortable for them and have the choice to do as they please with their body hair without the societal cloud of beauty standards.
In search of a deeper answer, I went to a laser clinic in downtown Tehran. I was struck by the diversity of the women sitting in the waiting room. These women were young and old, religious and nonreligious, coming from different socioeconomic backgrounds. They were all investing months into laser sessions to eventually become hairless. As I chatted with other women about the pain of the procedure, I began to understand that these women-only spaces provided a pastime for women that went beyond vanity—a form of socialization and bonding in a patriarchal society very much divided between public and private space. I’ve realized that this type of bonding had a truly subversive power, offering women a special community that no man could begin to understand.
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