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My Dream of Stars
From Daughter of Iran to Space Pioneer
By Anousheh Ansari, Homer Hickam
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2010 Anousheh Ansari and Homer Hickam
All rights reserved.
An Iranian Girl
Growing Up Iranian
The music stopped playing and was replaced by an announcement. "All systems ready—initiating countdown. Deseyit (ten), Devyit (nine), Vocem (eight) ..." I can't believe I am here. Is this really happening? Am I really soon going to be floating in the weightlessness of space? Is this real? Or am I in the dream I had as a little girl in Iran? So much has happened since I left there as a teenager, so many wonderful and happy things, and so many tragic things, too. But no matter. The rocket beneath me is stirring alive, just as my mind is alive with the dreams and memories of that Iranian girl whose blood courses with the history of an ancient land ...
* * *
On a beautiful starry night, in a small hospital in the city of Mashhad in the country of Iran, my life began as the first child to a loving family. I am now Anousheh Raissyan Ansari, a citizen of the United States of America, whose blood courses with the glory and traditions of ancient Persia and modern Iran. Raissyan is the surname of my father, and Ansari that of my husband. Anousheh is Persian for "eternal." I like to think my name reflects the hopes and dreams of my parents for my future.
My Iranian roots go back for as long as anyone can know such things. I was born in 1966 in the Iranian holy city of Mashhad, a metropolis of parks and mosques nestled in the valley of the Nashaf River. All I have of it now are my memories. When I glimpsed the old city from space, a perspective too high to allow much detail, Mashhad appeared quiet and peaceful, and I hope it is. In ancient times, Mashhad was the home of great mathematicians, astronomers, and scientists. Perhaps I am so attracted to the cosmos because I was born in this city of science. I often think of its people, just as I think of my parents and the happiness they experienced when they lived there.
My mother is Fakhri Shahidi, the fourth child among six brothers and sisters. The Shahidi family is known for its long line of Mashhad holy men and for its charity. To help feed the poor, several times a year the Shahidis held an elaborate prayer ceremony called sofreh (which literally means "tablecloth"). On sofreh days, the delicious aroma of cooking food emanated from giant copper pots atop a bonfire in my grandparents' yard, signaling to everyone that a feast for all who were hungry was being prepared. Sometimes, as many as a thousand people came to be fed, the food set out on white sheets on the floors of the many rooms of the old Shahidi house.
I was four years old when I attended my first Shahidi sofreh. My mother and I were greeted by my grandmother, a short, solid woman with thin legs showing from beneath her white chador, the long robe worn by traditional Muslim women. After a word to her daughter, she took me by my hand to show me something she thought I would like. "Look there, Anousheh," she said, and I followed her pointing finger with big, curious eyes to the wall where huge green and black tapestries hung like giant flags. On them were scenes of battles and messages I could not yet read. "Those are words from our holy book, the Koran," Grandmother Shahidi explained. "Those men were knights, the descendants of our prophet, Mohammed. They sacrificed their lives for us in the old battles."
Even then, I had a reputation for asking lots of questions, but before I could think of one, I was distracted by some cookies on a tray. I made a grab for one, but my grandmother snatched my hand away, saying, "No, Anousheh, it is wrong to eat from the sofreh until after the prayer. Even if no one sees you, God will know." She then dispatched me with, "I believe your mother is looking for you."
I sprinted from the room and called for my mom, finding her in the courtyard with some other women. I went to her, hung onto her hand, and told her I was hungry. As a child, all my relatives knew that when I got something in my head, it was almost impossible to distract me. Mom cut short her conversation with the women and led me to one of the rooms. She told me to sit down beside her. "No fidgeting," she said. "We will be eating soon. Do you hear me, Anousheh?"
I heard her well enough and, though I had great difficulty doing it, I forced myself to sit quietly. After a few minutes, I grew bored and began playing with Mom's chador, clutching a corner of it and pulling it over my head to pretend I was a great explorer in a cave. Mom uncovered me and ordered me to start behaving like a lady. It wasn't the first time I'd heard this admonition. From what I could gather, any fun activity like running or climbing a tree was not for ladies. Boring stuff, like playing with dolls or kitchen toys, was all a lady was allowed to do. I kept telling myself if I had been a boy, life would have been so much more fun!
Throughout the rest of the day, I peppered Mom with questions about the sofreh. Most of all, I wanted to know why were my grandparents feeding all those people? Mom explained that people who are blessed with abundance have a duty to help those who are less fortunate. As good Muslims, my grandparents had a duty to share their blessings with those in need. I liked that answer and was proud of my grandparents. I have never forgotten their example, either. Everything I have, I worked very hard to attain, but I still recognize the need to give back in every way I can.
That night in bed, still excited by all I had learned at the sofreh, I eagerly looked forward to the next day when I could ask more questions of my weary mother. How do birds fly, Mom? Why don't we have wings? Why do stars twinkle? Why are my eyes brown? Why do trees die in the winter? Why is the snow white? Why are you looking at me like that? I was happy when I thought up questions and happier still when Mom provided me with answers—although perhaps there is some doubt as to whether this made her as happy as her precocious child.
My mother was petite, with flowing ebony hair and dark, sweet eyes. As a young man, my father was handsome, strong, and solid, with a square chin and piercing eyes. People called my parents the Romeo and Juliet of Mashhad. But just as trouble found the original Romeo and Juliet, so it would find this loving young couple—terrible trouble that would devastate our family.
Although he is Papa to me, my father's true name is Houshang Raissyan, the eldest of three children in a proud family of prosperous merchants. Before the troubles came to us and long before I was born, Grandfather Raissyan—I called him my Buhbuh—was the son of a very rich man. As befitted his status, my tall and handsome grandfather always wore the latest Western fashions. My Grandmother Raissyan, whom I called my Maman, told me stories of how he strutted in the bazaar, carrying a marvelous cane with a little light on the end that turned on and off each time he tapped it on the ground. Only fifteen at the time of their arranged marriage, Maman was an innocent young woman who had no idea what marriage meant. When she moved into her new house as a married woman, she carried with her a trunk full of dolls to play with.
Soon after their marriage, Buhbuh's father, in a stray remark to the wrong person, insulted the Reza Shah, and the vengeful dictator took everything from the Raissyan family. To make ends meet, Buhbuh became a veterinarian, ironically for the shah's government, journeying to remote villages to vaccinate livestock and educating villagers about the techniques of modern animal husbandry. Suddenly finding herself married to an ordinary government worker and with a baby on the way, Maman grew up quickly.
Though I loved them both, I confess I worshiped my Buhbuh. He made up riddles and was delighted when I quickly solved them. "You are a smart girl, Anousheh," he would tell me. I wanted to be even smarter, just for him.
During the first four years of my life, my parents and I lived in a comfortable little house in Mashhad with a lovely garden and a large balcony with a wall of brightly colored tiles with the image of a swan. Both sets of grandparents lived nearby. I was very happy and everyone doted on me. Perhaps I was even a little spoiled. Contented child that I was, I could not imagine any of the terrible problems coming our way.
* * *
Most of the nights when I looked down from space, I saw vast thunderstorms. I knew it must be unpleasant for those experiencing the storms on the ground, but from hundreds of miles above, the storms were a glorious and magnificent light show. One night, as I was listening to Johann Pachelbel's Canon in D Major on my iPod, it looked as if someone was orchestrating the lightning in perfect coordination with the majestic music. At first I was enchanted, but then I realized I was watching the tumult from a peaceful platform far overhead, much as God must watch our travails on Earth from above. So often as a child, I envied Him this view and wished for the ability to soar above the heartbreak that struck my family like bolts of lightning and peals of thunder.
* * *
When the shahs ruled, compulsory military service was required for all young Iranian men. After Papa served, mostly in the capital city of Tehran, he came back to Mashhad and began working in a print shop. The work was not very interesting to him, so one day he came home and surprised my mother with the announcement that we were moving to Tehran. His plan was to continue his education so that he could get a better job and build a better future. Though Mom was fearful of such a radical move, her love for Papa was so great that she went along without much argument. Within a few weeks, Papa left for Tehran and Mom and I packed to follow him. Although I was not quite sure why we were moving, it soon became clear that the life I had known in Mashhad was over.
To understand what became of us when we moved to Tehran, it is necessary to understand the political climate of Iran in 1970. At the time, the country was ruled by Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the son of the man who destroyed my great-grandfather. Many people in Iranian politics considered the shah a puppet of Western powers, particularly the United States and Great Britain. Other Iranians saw him as a steady ruler who kept the country stable and prosperous.
The shah was a cosmopolitan man and reform-minded. He supported what came to be known as the White Revolution, which extended voting rights to women and gave parliamentary representation to farmers and workers. He also campaigned against illiteracy and ruled that secular education institutions were a higher priority than religious schools. Although these reforms were popular with most Iranians, the shah's increased funding for secular education infuriated many Iranian religious leaders. Other groups hated the shah for their own reasons. The shah was so fearful of these enemies that he ruled the country with an iron fist, which, of course, earned him even more enemies. Like most Iranians, my parents and grandparents were apolitical and just wanted to be left alone to work hard and enjoy life.
We moved into an apartment in Tehran and my father enrolled at the university, working odd jobs when he had free time. At first, I missed Mashhad, but eventually I came to love Tehran with all its bustle and excitement. Then, to my delight, my Buhbuh and Maman, unable to bear our absence, came to live with us. Buhbuh quickly found a good job as an accountant for a Caterpillar agricultural equipment dealership owned by one of his old friends. For a while, it seemed we had traded the happiness of living in Mashhad for a new happiness in Tehran.
Also living in our crowded apartment was my uncle Shahram and a housekeeper who had worked for the Raissyan family for decades. She was mute, so we used a special sign language to "talk" to her. Although the housekeeper doted on me, she did not get along with my grandmother. There is a Persian saying: When there are two cooks, the soup is either salty or bland. Now, counting my mom, there was a third cook and they had daily arguments about household management. I learned a lot about forming and defending a position from observing these three opinionated women!
I was five when my sister Atousa was born. Though I loved her instantly, my love was not enough to protect her from the unhappiness that was about to engulf my family like a dark, swollen river. Soon after Atousa's birth, my father came home and declared, "I'm going to America." The tone in his voice was clearly meant to stop debate, but that is impossible in an Iranian family. After persistent questioning from my grandparents, Papa said the idea had come from Mom's brother, who had immigrated to the United States.
"It's the land of opportunity," my father said, quoting his brother-in-law, "and anybody can be rich there." My mother reluctantly agreed and, after a while, my grandparents gave in, too. Papa's plan was to carry Iranian handicrafts and rugs with him and establish a business to sell them. To purchase these goods, we sold everything that was not an absolute necessity. Papa stuffed his bags with the merchandise and promised to send for us when he was settled.
Papa was gone for nearly a year, and during that time I heard little from him except for occasional letters and photographs. His letters mentioned only that he had successfully sold his wares but for very little profit and now he was trying to figure out what to do next. When he returned for a brief visit, he and Mom argued constantly. Mom was clearly miserable when he went back to the States, which in turn made me miserable. To make myself feel better, and also because I loved her so much, I played with my baby sister and held her in my arms as if she were a fragile porcelain figurine. She made me smile even though I was sad.
The next time my father returned, he stayed at a hotel, which seemed very strange to me. Soon Mom, her eyes red from crying, gave me the news. She said, "Your father wants a divorce," and I felt as if my whole world was crumbling. My heart pounded and it was difficult to breathe. Seeing my distress, Mom took me in her arms. "You are a big girl, Anousheh," she told me. "Now you must be very brave for your sister."
Even with Papa gone, my grandparents insisted Mom, Atousa, and I stay with them. This was wonderful since I loved my Bubbuh and Maman so much. One of the really sweet things they did for me was to let me sleep on their balcony, where jasmine, orange, and lemon trees grew in large pots. During the summer, it was also a fragrant, cool escape from the noisy city. Buhbuh fitted a net over my little foldout cot to protect me from mosquitoes, but I always pushed it back because I wanted to see the stars. When they came out, twinkling above the snow-covered peak of Mount Damavand, I would lie there on my cot and let my mind wander, pretending I was up in space. The night sky was not only a playground for my mind, it was also a refuge where I could hide amongst the stars, away from all the sadness in my life.
Perhaps my love of the stars was also inspired by my favorite book, The Little Prince. The book is about a pilot whose plane crashes in the desert. The pilot meets a little boy, a prince, from a distant planet. When the prince begins to talk about how beautiful his planet is, the pilot is entranced. Most people who read the book identify with the pilot, but I identified with the lonely prince who missed his home planet. One part in the book I particularly liked was when the little prince traveled to a planet occupied by a businessman who claimed ownership of all the stars.
"What do you do with them?" the little prince asked, and the businessman answered, "Nothing. I own them."
The reason the prince told the story was because he wanted everyone to know the businessman was wrong. He didn't own the stars at all because he didn't know what they were for. Even as a child, I thought I knew. The stars were a place of escape where nothing was sad and everything was beautiful.
But neither the stars over Mount Damavand or the stories of The Little Prince could keep the realities of life away. My mother soon learned that the reason my father wanted a divorce was because he had fallen in love with another woman. Over the next several months, every time he came to visit there was yelling and fighting. Even our mute housekeeper pitched in with bellicose gesticulations. Just wanting it to stop, I fled to the bedroom I shared with my mom and my sister. To this day, if anyone raises their voice, I get nervous and do my best to calm things down. Some say my ability to calm others is my strongest attribute in a meeting. It is a skill I learned the hard way.
In the end, Papa got his divorce and remarried quickly. For many weeks afterward, while I read in the living room, I heard my mother weeping in our bedroom.
I felt like weeping, too. I loved my dad and missed him a lot. When he was around he was good to me and always encouraged me to do well in school. A few months after the divorce, my mom decided she didn't want to stay with my grandparents anymore. Since they were Papa's parents, it was a constant reminder of her failed marriage. Even though it was hard to afford a separate place, she got a second job and eventually found her own tiny apartment close to my grandparents. Our new home was on top of a bank and had only two rooms. There was no kitchen; just a sink, refrigerator, and a small stove, all wedged beneath a stairwell. The larger of the two rooms served as the living and dining room. We slept in the smaller room, all in the same bed. I didn't mind the close quarters, but missed my Buhbuh and Maman and the cool, fragrant balcony where I slept with the stars. In our new apartment, there were no stars, only a noisy portable air-conditioning unit to help us sleep during hot summer nights. Every night, as we lay in bed, Mom held us in her arms. Sometimes, I would touch her cheek and find it wet with tears, and then I would silently weep myself.
Excerpted from My Dream of Stars by Anousheh Ansari, Homer Hickam. Copyright © 2010 Anousheh Ansari and Homer Hickam. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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