When I was a young girl, they called me maymoon-e konjkav, the Persian version of Curious George, because my favorite question was: Why?
Not much has changed.
My curiosity wasn’t always well received, however. At school, it got me whipped and suspended. As a young girl in Iran, I wanted to know why everything was the way it was. Why could men have two wives, but women couldn’t have two husbands? Why could my father divorce my mother, but she couldn’t divorce him? Why were we forced to pray in Arabic but not in Persian, our native tongue? Questions like that would get me ten lashes from my fifth-grade teacher, Ms. Rushanas, who spent recess hours combing the mulberry trees in our schoolyard for suitable branches to whip the palms of our hands. The more she hit me or called me “monkey”, the more I fantasized about being one.
In high school, I was called “mischievous” because I would not obey teachers unless I understood why and what the intention behind their demands was. Once I was suspended for saying I didn’t believe in Hell. My religion teacher was explaining to us one day how women who showed their hair to men outside their family would be hung by it in the afterlife. “They’d be dangled over a gigantic fire by their locks until their scalps would peel off, which is when they’d fall into the fire. Their sinful bodies would burn to ashes, just like the coals of the kebab-seller, outside the school, roasting his meat.” The thought of Hell made me hungry, not scared.
When I came to America as a teenager, I thought I had left all that oppression behind, but after a few years, I ended up stuck in nine-to-five jobs, pretending the little authority my bosses gave me was enough to keep me happy, but secretly returning, in my daydreams, to visions of being a monkey, free, swinging from branch to branch through the trees. Today, I feel lucky that my work requires me to be inquisitive and find out why people do the things they do, but I still often feel that human community is a place of fear, a place where you have to be quiet and follow rules in order to be given a home.
This past month, I traveled to Costa Rica, where I hiked in Manuel Antonio National Park in the Osa Peninsula, which is renowned for its diversity of wildlife including my favorite species: monkeys. In the park, I was told to watch out for a band of capuchins who were known to be very intelligent, curious about humans, and very mischievous. That sounded wonderful to me, and I hoped I would run into them. At the end of a trail leading down to a beautiful beach, I came across twenty of them, grooming each other, taking naps on each other’s laps, and in one case, having loud sex. I decided I was going to sit still on the jungle floor and see if they’d notice me. They did. One by one, they came over: one touched my arm; another tried to intimidate me by shaking a branch just over my head; one sat down right in front of me and looked me in the eye. I was delighted.
The monkeys, I soon realized, were interested to see whether I had any food in my knapsack. One got the latch open, looked inside, and then gave a disappointed look to his peers. Well, I thought, maybe they aren’t as different from humans as I’d hoped. It’s true that monkeys have their desires, needs, and pressures, just as we do, but they do have something else I hope I never lose: a playfulness, a simplicity, a glint of imagination in their eyes, a sense of adventure, and above all, a curiosity that to me is the basis of freedom.