I was very young when I realized that being a boy had many benefits — especially in Iran. If I were a boy, I thought, I could have my mother’s love at all times. I could get people to respect me and maybe even fear me. I could play soccer anytime I wanted, and when I grew up, I could have many wives. As a girl, however, I would have no freedom and would have to get married in order to leave my house. If I were bad, I might be stoned to death. If I were good, I’d belong to some man and never be my own person. So I started to dress like a boy. My brother didn’t mind sharing his clothes and friends with me, and I played outside and pretended I was one of them. None of the kids seems bothered with that, so eventually I believed I was a boy.
I was just turning seven when the revolution started to happen. Thousands of people came out daily to show their dissatisfaction with the Shah and his regime. They said they wanted democracy. My mother was frightened by the madness she saw in the streets of Tehran and the loud Allaho Akbar chants coming from the rooftops. Each night she cried, and in the mornings, I often heard her moaning, “What a horrible time for a single mother to be raising kids all alone!” Even though she was engaged to a new man, she still cried about my father having left us.
Tehran was a scary place in those days, and people made sure they got home before the sun went down. Snipers were everywhere, and it was never clear when or where the shots would come from. One day, though, my mother forgot to get bread for our evening meal. It was well after dark, and my stepfather didn’t seem sincere when he mumbled something about volunteering to run over to the baker’s shop.
“I’ll go, Mommy,” my brother offered.
I was proud of my brother for being brave, but my mother scooped him up with a gesture that showed she wasn’t going to let him leave.
“Let me go, Mommy,” I offered. “I run really fast.”
My grandmother sat up in her chair with a panicked look on her face. Everyone was waiting to see what would happen next.
“She can’t go if I can’t,” my brother objected.
“Okay, you can go,” my mother said to me at last.
I opened the door and felt the night air on me. Behind me, I heard my mother say to my brother, “I could never bear to lose you.”
For a moment I felt confused about whether I wanted to be inside or outside, but I persisted. If being a boy meant being my mother’s favorite, I would be even more of a boy than my brother. I would be the kind of boy who was bulletproof, fast as lightning, and resolute in his mission to return with bread. That was the very first day the boy in me was born.
Running through the dark and hearing the crackling sounds of gunfire from nearby rooftops, I made two lefts until I found myself in a wide empty street. The air felt thinner than usual. I felt something damp and cold between my legs. I had peed myself. When I made my final turn and got to the nanvaii (baker’s shop) he was closing for the night.
“Boy, what on earth are you doing out on the street?” the baker yelled. I was pleased that my short haircut had fooled him. The delightful smell of baked bread made me feel safe. The tanoor oven in the wall had no fire coming out of it. I realized I’d forgotten to bring money. I pointed desperately at the few loaves still on his shelf.
“It’s all cold,” he said. “Take whatever you want and get out of here quick.”
I scooped up a few barbari loaves and ran proudly through the night, a soldier returning victorious from battle. When I reached home, arms full of cold bread, I noticed the glint in my mother’s eyes. She seemed proud.