By Marina Nemat
When I was about 15 years old, my older brother Alik, who had immigrated to Toronto, wrote to me about Yonge Street. Back then I lived in Tehran, Iran, where I was born. He told me that Yonge Street was about 1,900 kilometres long, the longest street in the world. I was always an avid reader, and as I tried to picture it in my mind, I saw the Yellow Brick Road leading to the Emerald City in Wizard of Oz.
When I was 16, I was arrested by the Revolutionary Guard for speaking up against the government of Iran. I spent two years, two months and 12 days as a political prisoner in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. When I was released, I realized that my country had become a big prison. I needed out.
On August 28, 1991, the day I arrived in Canada with my husband and toddler son, I wore my nicest dress. My mother had made it. It was burgundy, and I had even bought new shoes to go with it. I wanted to blend in with the crowd. I wanted to look Canadian. I believed that the people who lived in a wealthy country like Canada had to be very fashionable. As we made our way through Pearson Airport in Toronto, I was surprised to see that most women were wearing blue jeans or khaki pants. But it didn’t matter. One should be well dressed when beginning a new life.
The first time I took my son Michael to a park in Canada, it was drizzling, but we went anyway. Before coming to Canada, we had lived in Hungary for 10 months, where people sometimes called me ‘gypsy’ and swore at me on the bus or at the park. I didn’t take it personally. I had nothing against the Roma people, but I was not Roma. I had dark eyes and long dark hair, and I guessed that Hungarians had never seen an Iranian before. They had lived in a very closed society for many years – we had arrived there right after the fall of Communism.
I put Michael in a swing and pushed him as hard as I could. He laughed in delight: “Higher! Higher!” There was no one else there, but soon a man with a girl about Michael’s age joined us. I guessed the man was the girl’s grandfather. Michael got off the swing and went to the slide, and the man put the little girl in a swing. Unlike me, the man seemed very much at ease. He and the child blended with the background and were a part of Planet Canada, clearly not at all aware of its strangeness. Their every step told me that they knew what they were doing, when my every move was full of doubt and insecurity.
The rain had become heavier. The sky was the colour of a storm, an impatient shade of gray.
“Do you need a ride?” the man asked me.
I shook my head no and mumbled “thank you.”
“Cookies! I want cookies!” Michael said. He had had his very first chocolate chip cookie the day before, and we had no more left. I knew that there was a convenience store around the corner, but I had not bought anything in Canada yet, as we were still staying at my brother’s house.
“Cookies! Please, please!” Michael begged, and I scooped him up in my arms and ran toward the store, as the rain drew puddles on the sidewalk. “Rain, rain, go away, come again another day,” I sang. I was teaching Michael English and he loved nursery rhymes.
They had so many different types of cookies at the store that it took me a while to find the right kind. I felt dizzy. The abundance astonished me. I prayed that Michael wouldn’t want to try them all. Wide-eyed, he stared at the colourful, overflowing shelves. My eyes filled with tears, as I put the package in front of the cashier, a young blonde woman. I couldn’t believe that I had become emotional buying cookies. I gave her a 20-dollar bill. She had no idea how treacherous my life had been and how long I had waited to get here.
“What a cute little boy,” she said, as she handed me my change. “Nice shoes! Where did you get them?”
Michael was in my arms, wearing a pair of multicoloured suede shoes I had bought in Hungary.
“In Europe,” I said.
“I guessed so. They don’t make them so nice here.”
I had gone to the park, now I was at the store, and no one had sworn at me. I had not been beaten up or arrested – or both – for not wearing a hijab or for any other reason. Michael and I skipped all the way home, singing nursery rhymes. I knew that our life in Canada would not be a fairy tale. Fairy tales entail a certain kind of innocence that I had lost at 16 and, since then, I had not believed in ‘happily ever after.’ But here, we could hope and work hard for a better life.
As it turned out, the first apartment we rented in Canada happened to be on Yonge Street. I will never forget the very first time I stood at the pedestrian crossing at the intersection of Yonge Street and Baif Boulevard. It was late September or early October and the sun still had a little bit of warmth. Michael was clinging to my hand, waiting, as impatiently as I, for the helpful little white man to appear and signal that it was safe to cross the street to go to the grocery store. Even though my house had not fallen on a wicked witch and a good witch had not given me ruby slippers, I was like Dorothy at the beginning of her journey. The difference was that I knew that the wizard, no matter how powerful he was, could not take me back home. My home didn’t want me any longer. But, nevertheless, I had a journey ahead of me and had to discover a way to belong in Emerald City.
Marina Nemat on her latest book After Tehran on Allan Gregg In Conversation, TVO