I was barely 18 when I found myself sitting in the airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, petrified that despite my false Turkish papers, I would be discovered, and returned to Iran to face execution. My forged Turkish passport had brought me to the airport in Saudi, but I spoke not a word of Turkish. I sat in the huge terminal in Riyadh, hungry, thirsty and terrified.
I had finally boarded the Montreal-bound Air Italia flight after three abortive efforts but fate had me in its thrall. One of the airhostesses was Turkish: I was terrified that she would realize that the thin girl masquerading as Turkish could speak not a word of her language, and then inform the captain of the ruse.
At age 13, my passion for social justice led me to defend a Baha’i schoolmate from a bully with Hezbollah connections. While I was surprised that my defence of a friend resulted in my suspension from school, I never dreamed that a spontaneous, spirited comment would lead to my flight.
I am a proud Shirazi woman, and my family can trace our roots back 2,500 years, back to the Babylonian exile. But in the late 1970s, when I was only 13, I joined university students as they protested for freedom: I desperately wanted to read books banned by the shah. I craved freedom as a bird craves flight, but after over a year hiding from Hezbollah, my mother made me realize that to find a life for myself, I first had to court death.
During my time in the desert, I experienced events that made me believe strongly in my faith. My flight was provoked by my defence of a Baha’i friend but it was a Muslim woman who informed my mother that I was blacklisted and a Pakistani border guard who saved me from the smugglers who were swindling me, and ensured that I did not die in the desert.
I had been told that the desert crossing would consist of a short walk and a five-hour journey by car. It turned out to be a forced march of 20 hours across the Kavir-e-Loot desert, and hours of terror as a dozen or more Afghani extremists passed inches away, on the other side of a small sand dune on their journey to join Hezbollah in Iran. They cried out, “Allahu akhbar!” God is great! I was 17, heartbroken at leaving my mother and home. I hope to never again experience the depth of despair that I knew that night as I lay, pressed into the sand beside the smugglers.
But if my desire for freedom and justice had led me into the desert, it was the contrast between the depth of my despair and the sight of the stars so far away that inspired me to this very day. I knew that my distant ancestors had crossed another desert under those same stars and I felt that if I fell down, I would just have to get back up. That philosophy helped me persevere through uneasy days in Pakistan, that terrible flight to Riyadh and further, into my life in Montreal.
I had to leave Iran because I wanted the taste of freedom on my lips, because a life lived in fear is not a life at all, and because only freedom allows the human being to carve out a life of meaning. I knew then and know now that my message of hope, faith and perseverance is important and compelling.
We are all sisters and brothers under our skin. Whether we cover our heads or whether our hair is loose, we are all God’s children and fate’s playthings.
Dr. Sima Goel is the author of Fleeing the Hijab: A Jewish Woman’s Escape from Iran.