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Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Facebook of the 1960s

 The year-end picture at Sister's Academy (2nd grade)

                 It is almost the end of the school year; one more week and school will be over.  Next year, school will start in a new location on the outskirts of Tehran where a brand new building has been erected for the Convent. I am a sixth-grader in an all-girls school run by nuns.  My classroom is on the second floor of an old mansion converted into a combined school, convent, and boarding house – about a dozen girls live here as boarders.  On the grounds there is a chapel with all the elements of a Catholic church: An altar with a domed ceiling painted in blue with white clouds, a statue of Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus, candles, rows of pews. The pews are set on expensive Persian rugs, and I and the other students kneel on them for morning prayers before going to our classrooms and starting the day.  I am a devoted 12-year-old, and take the sacraments very seriously.

                The bell rings. I gather my books but I am hesitant to run out of the classroom as the others do.  My books held over my chest, I ease my way to the staircase and stop. I peep from above and see Sister Alfonse standing at the foot of the stairs in her black uniform with starched white collar and black veil, watching the girls descend.  Sister Alfonse is the head sister of the convent, just below Mother Superior. After 50 years, I still see this scene in my mind’s eye, like a movie.  The staircase is crowded with girls in dark blue uniforms. I am standing at the top of the stairs trying to figure out how to avoid coming face to face with Sister Alfonse.  Most of the students are from the upper grades and are engaged in conversations. Nobody notices me.  After staring for a few seconds at Sister Alfonse from above and deliberating, I manage to hide behind the other girls and sneak out.  My heart thumping I reach the last step. Sister Alfonse calls "Catherine, viens ici!" (Catherine, come here!) My feet freeze and my knees buckle under me. It is as if I am in a dream; I want to move but I am unable to do so…

               My unfortunate encounter with sister Alfonse was due to my over active imagination that has often gotten me in trouble. Here is the story: Long before Mark Zuckerberg revolutionized social interactions and brought us Facebook, there was another kind of book in Tehran where I was growing up that connected friends. We called it “Daftareh Khaterat” in Farsi (“Book of Memories”). It was a notebook that on each page contained a question like:  “What is your favorite movie or actor?” “What is your favorite food?” Innocent questions like these mingled with not so innocent ones related to boys, like: ”Is there a ‘He’ in your life?” and “where did you meet him?” Such questions would well be considered scandalous for a sixth-grader in Iran in the 1960s, and even more so in a Catholic school setting. The notebook was circulated among friends, and they would write down their names and answer the questions on each page, then pass it on to others who would add their answers. By reading every girl’s comments you would become acquainted with all.

                 I am not sure exactly when I became aware of the existence of such a notebook, maybe at the beginning of sixth grade. As adventurous or maybe creative as I was, I decided to start my own  “Book of Memories.”  To buy a notebook, I went to the best stationery store in Tehran, Nastaran, on avenue Naderi.  It was a store of around 1000 square feet filled with paper goods, greeting cards, wrapping papers, calendars and any paraphernalia pertaining to writing or drawing, like to-die-for fountain pens, or “stylos” as we called them. The merchandise was mostly imported from United States or Europe. It was a high-end store run by two Jewish brothers in their forties who were very stern ­and engaged in no small talk or pleasantries. Their attitude was very foreign to me, because Iranian culture is based on taarof. (The word “taarof” has no equivalent in English. It implies showing politeness or delivering a compliment, though it may not be sincere.) Entering the store was like entering an academy. I had to be very careful not to make a wrong move and become the target of their scolds, but I was still crazy about the store. I guess their stone-faced glances meant they didn't like kids wandering through their store without surveillance. Perhaps they feared I might damage or steal something. I say so, because whenever I went with my mother, they were welcoming. Today if I close my eyes I can still smell the store’s aroma of paper goods; it was like the scent encountered in an old library.  
                 I bought a special hard cover notebook from Nastaran and started my Book of Memories.  I copied titles and questions from another book that I had borrowed from a friend. In our household there was no shortage of magazines; all my uncles and my father subscribed to Time, Newsweek, Life and National Geographic, and they swapped the magazines among themselves.  I cut pictures from these to go with the notebook titles and pasted them to corresponding pages.“Voilà!” I had my Memories Book.  First, I passed it to friends in the upper grades and then to my own classmates. A friend with an older sister who could draw very well, proposed that her sister draw a picture in my notebook and I said, “Why not.” She drew a man and a woman kissing each other with few hearts around them in the background. 
                   Later, I loaned the book to Amalia, a classmate who was a close friend. Amalia had an older brother who caught her working on the book. Being a protective brother, he got mad at her for having such a corrupting influence like me as a friend. He took the book to the principal’s office.  You may very well imagine what happened next.  I was called to the office.  Mother Superior, Sister Alfonse and the principal of the school, a petite Iranian woman – Khanoom Akbar – all sat at the table with somber faces and interrogated me. They showed me the book and the picture of the man and the woman kissing.  To make the story short, they asked me to bring my mother to school. I am not sure why they didn’t call our home directly.  Perhaps at that time it was not common calling home since not every home had a telephone.

                  There are things that I can remember as clearly as that scene on the staircase, but then there are things that I cannot recall.  Lost to my memory is the way I managed to escape punishment for this crime. Neither do I recall how I dealt with the awkward circumstances in which I had put myself. Did I bring my mom to school? It has faded from my memory. All I remember is that I told my parents that I no longer wanted to go back to that school because it was moving far from our home and I didn’t want to be sitting in a bus for two hours each day – an hour going to school, an hour coming home.  I told them, “By the time I get home I will have no energy to study.” They bought my argument, because the load of homework we had was notorious in Iran. We had to toil hours to finish our homework – especially in a school that taught four different languages: Farsi, French, English and Armenian.

                 My dire situation could have had a more dramatic ending but thank God it didn’t. I was lucky.  It was the end of the school year, and the convent was in the process of relocating to a new site.  The nuns were desperately seeking more students for their new establishment, and they didn’t want to lose a student by dwelling on such an incident.  Otherwise, who knows? I would have ended up with an indelible mark on my forehead for being expelled from school.  I asked my mother about this escapade, but she couldn’t recall it at all. Neither does my friend Lylla, with whom I am still in touch.  Most likely it was not as serious as I felt it to be at the time. 

               The incident was a tipping point in my life. I changed schools.  I went from the Sister’s Academy of Institut Mariam to Mariamyan, the Armenian all girls high school. My relations with the sisters that I had spent the most important formative years of my life was dampened.  I didn’t have the heart to go back and visit old friends nor the school that had shaped me and given me a good sense of religion, taught me French and ingrained in me a love for France and French culture. Today, I am no longer the religious girl that I was but still, every night when I go to bed, I close my eyes and say the little prayer I learned as a little girl kneeling on the pews at the chapel. I still love French language and culture and regret in my ongoing Memory Book the premature end to my French studies. 


  1. Hi Kathya,

    I also attended this school in late 40 early 50. I knew soeur Alphonse and Modeste very well. Your blog brought me lots of memories,.

    Annette my daughter did graduate from Maryamian, but at the new location in Davoudieh.

    Annette lives in Orange County, Ca., whereas I am in Montreal Canada,.


    Lucie. ( Loulou)

    1. Hi Lulu, thanks for your comment. I'm thrilled to hear a comment from you. I wish we could be friends on facebook.