“My idea of good company, Mr Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.”
“You are mistaken,” said he gently, “that is not good company; that is the best.”
Many people have imaginary childhood friends, at least so romantic Western novels and movies tell us, but I had an imaginary childhood student. Her name was Hormat Asai, a dreadful name, which sounds as ugly and ridiculous in its native Persian as it must in English. For poor Hormat was a dunce. Her spelling was dreadful, and I enjoyed many hours going through her dictations (written by myself) with a strong red pen. I loved giving her disgracefully low marks, since such marks held a horrid fascination for my real-life friends and I, study-snobs that we were even then. Best of all was exchanging long messages with her long-suffering, equally imaginary mother. Hormat’s father was away fighting in the Iran-Iraq war, and this was the reason for her low grades, or so her mother claimed. I believed her innate low intelligence was to blame- and I did not attempt to hide this from the poor woman.
I never really expected to do anything else but go into academia. My parents were both academics, but they became so as expressions of rebellion, a prestigious way to leap out of the class they had been born into: my mother, from respectable religious traditional upper-class bazaaris (merchants) who believed that girls should marry early and marry well; my father, from barely-literate peasantry. What a pleasant marriage indeed, but that, fortunately for the sake of my own nerves, is a story for another day. I was raised with the notion that nothing is important but “dars“, a three-letter word commonly used in Arabic and Persian, encompassing studies, schooling, education. For “dars”, one makes the greatest sacrifices, one gives up anything. A life without “dars” is not a life worth living. And growing up in that tempestuous household, travelling between Iran and Britain throughout my childhood and adolescence as my parents struggled to get their PhDs from solid British universities, through revolutions, wars, spiraling currency exchanges, evil bureaucracies, imprisoned family members, well, I thought so too. Dars. For I am not a rebel. I have no class shame, I am not out to prove anything or anybody right or wrong. I would naturally follow their footsteps into academia. The subject hardly mattered.
I was lucky enough to faint twice in some mandatory and rather horrible first-aid courses in middle school, and had to be carried out- these dramatic incidents caused my parents to rapidly shelve their dream of my becoming a doctor, and reassess my academic future: an engineer. Engineering comes second after medicine in social prestige; in terms of income, perhaps even higher. Only dunces, like Hormat, went for humanities and social sciences. I disliked maths and physics, and knew I would be intensely miserable as an engineering student. I liked reading fiction, and I thought nothing could be more enjoyable than spending my life reading books of English literature. But I have a pleasing, accommodating personality, I was no match for my strong-willed and passionate parents. So I struck a deal with them: I would study something to do with engineering for my bachelor’s degree, and then I would be free to study whatever I wanted. They agreed.
After four very long years studying mathematics and computer science, during which I was every bit as miserable as I knew I would be, I leapt joyfully into Tehran University’s Master’s program in English Literature, and thus started the halcyon days of my life as a student. I lapped up Renaissance drama, inhaled modern America literature, got high on Yeats’s poetry. I graduated with the highest grades of my class, and began duly chasing PhD applications and admissions from various universities in Australia and Canada.
However, a random job ad in one of Tehran’s few English-language newspapers led me to my greatest act of rebellion yet: deciding to work for the United Nations’ agency for refugees in Iran instead of immediately going on for my PhD.
My parents acted as though becoming an international civil servant, receiving a monthly salary equal to MPs (UN staff-members were paid in dollars, as opposed to the worthless national Iranian currency, and their salaries were scaled amongst the highest in the country, a fact which smoothed the way for my later immigration to Canada), and providing service to refugees was something akin to prostitution, of the dirty, street sort, not even the high-end escort kind, and I was always amazed whenever I overheard them bragging about me to their colleagues.
But I said I was no match for them. And refugee fieldwork is harsh, it takes toll of your mental and personal life. We – certain of my colleagues and myself- developed an unhealthy messianic attitude, though how could we not, as we were acutely aware that any mistake or misstep, any instance of not trying hard enough could very quickly result in a devastating impact to real live vulnerable angry people standing outside our office doors. A few weeks ago I was sitting in one of the numerous fancy coffeeshops of Tehran with one of those colleagues, and we shook our heads at our former twenty-something selves –“What were we trying to do- save the fucking world?” “Like, we felt as if all the refugees would curl up and die if we didn’t fucking kill ourselves every day!” “So are there less refugees in Iran now? So the UN agency stopped working and shut down after we left?” No, there aren’t, and no, it didn’t.
I took a course in refugee studies at York University, Toronto, a couple of years before I finally decided to immigrate to Canada, while still a UN staff-member, and there, sitting in the cool wide halls of Osgoode Hall, I thrilled to the sound of the lecturer’s voice, talking about rights, obligations, and refugee protection regimes. A “star” academic blasted the UN system, and I felt the joy of blasphemy. I remember so clearly, thinking this is where I should be. My parents are right. I belong here. I need to get out of the UN. A few months later, somebody told somebody else that Halifax is a beautiful city, and if she is applying to Canadian universities, then she absolutely must try for Dalhousie. I did.
And so, I arrived here. By then, I had long lost my interest in Eng. Lit. I wanted to understand why some people, so many people, led such devastated lives. I had to try and make sense of what I had seen and heard, those long years working with refugees. I studied refugees, I wrote refugees, I taught refugees. I merely succeeded in taking my first-hand local knowledge of misery and injustice and expanding it globally. Suffering, cruelty, misery and deprivation on an international scale. There is no sense to be made.
Now, I am more humble: I am merely trying to lead a non-boring life, while making some survival money. Like Miss Anne Elliot, Jane Austen’s heroine, I want good company and clever conversation, and where more certain than university to find both? The offer of a place in a PhD program in a fairly interesting subject – one which I know vaguely something but really nothing about – was challenging and timely, coming at a time when the project I was employed as a coordinator was grinding to a halt. That project, which was funded by SSHRC to generate and disseminate knowledge on immigration and cultural diversity in a regional context, had kept my foot in university hallways, and my academic connections alive. It had also a sparked an interest in connecting theoretical knowledge to practical policy-making, and the ethnographic entity of “Nova Scotia” and its problems. The SOSA PhD program offered more of this.
So, I am here because I responded to a suggestion, made at a time when I was wondering, out loud and within earshot of people I knew were well-connected, “what should I do next year- maybe apply for a PhD?” The program promises to keep me amused and my life on track for the next few years. It keeps me in Halifax, a city which I have grown to, well, not love, exactly, but to appreciate it for what it has to offer my children and I. I know and like my proposed supervisor. I know her academic work, and I respect it and admire it immensely. I know and like Dalhousie, and I love (and missed) the flexibility and freedom of the academic life. I have really no reason not to do what she suggested I should do. Studying the mobility of healthcare professionals in Nova Scotia is definitely less sexy than global refugee issues and evil governments, but it could prove to be more useful and less injurious to my tranquility and peace of mind. Anyway, I am sure I can sex it up by adding lashings of discussions on social injustices and inequalities to my own dissertation. And my parents are delighted. I am finally back on the road I should have been years ago, the same road, but a different point.
Austen, Jane,1775-1817. Persuasion : an annotated edition. edited by Robert Morrison. Cambridge, Mass. : Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011. p. 150.