How To Build An Intellectual

For one young immigrant, growing up Iranian in New York City meant raising herself.

Hedia Anvar | Slice | Spring/Summer 2018 | 16 minutes (3,161 words)

On the day I constructed an intellectual from scratch, my mother, all high heels and tailored skirt, would’ve taken me to the supermarket with her. I wanted badly to go but hadn’t jumped to get ready, so she left while I was still in my underwear playing in the dirt.

We lived on the second floor of a two-story old-style complex in the Shemiran quarter of Tehran. My mother’s relatives occupied the unit below. We all shared the yard where I played. Their helpers, village women in colorful head wraps, used the yard to scrub clothes and pluck chicken feathers.

In the Tehran of 1970s, women in micro-minis walked alongside those wearing full hijab. If there was a cultural difference between a modern Iranian woman and a European one, it wasn’t exemplified by my mother with her crêpe de Chine style and mysterious — at least to preschooler me — social pursuits. The important click-clacking of her heels meant she had places to be. I wanted to be at those places with her, even the supermarket where I got to ride among the food in the cart, swinging happy feet toward her midsection.

I cherished my mother’s tummy even when her silk blouses covered it. Her stomach was the color of rice pudding. It was my father who dubbed her special complexion “rice.” Her eyes were green like ocean depths and a little dangerous, but her stomach was generous. She told me and my baby brother that we had come out of it and allowed us to knead it like dough for as long as we wanted.

The day she took off for the supermarket and left me in the yard, her voice reverberated down the stairway along with her fading steps. She was speaking to one of my uncles, and there was that word: intellectual. She pronounced it the French way, where “in” becomes “an.” In my language of Persian, “an” meant “shit.” So an an-te-lek-too-el sounded to me like something especially unpleasant.

Our yard had hard, damp soil, and between two trees yogurt drained in animal hide hanging like a hammock. I gathered twigs and clumps of earth. Then I yanked out handfuls of weed grass and found a sharp rock. I would finally figure out what an “intellectual” was because I was going to make one. I took all my soil, grass, and twigs to mash together with the rock. I kept crushing and grinding until I was left with a hairy, lumpy mass of misshapen brown, and I thought, There.

            That is an intellectual.

At almost 6 years old, I was used to being told I took after my father’s side of the family. My mother called them “artistic” and “intellectual” with enough contempt to bring substance to antelektooel before I ever constructed one out of grass and dirt.

A few years later, at the start of fourth grade, we moved to New York. Within a day of our arrival, a gust of wind in Midtown blew my mother’s skirt up in the air, but I missed it. I only caught a homeless man with a glossy face smiling and announcing, “I saw your panties.”

The four of us — my parents, my brother, and me — were waiting to cross an avenue overrun by fat checker cabs. A girl of 9, I was young enough that crossing the street brought me apprehension, but old enough for my parents to know better than to hold my hand, because who wanted to deal with the fury of an embarrassed kid? So I missed seeing my mother’s white hippie skirt, a remnant of the decade’s style, twirl above her head in a slow-motion dance — at least that’s how I would imagine it later.

She cocked her head brazenly at the homeless man, and with a Persian accent tinged with British, snickered, “Good for you.”

We were barely landed in the New York City of late-1970s crime and decrepitude, a point not lost on me, so I marveled at my mother, who was all of four-foot-eleven. My good-natured father was amused, as though both parties, his wife and the bum, were charming. My 5-year-old brother looked indignant and probably would’ve given up toys for good if it could have made that homeless man unsee his mother’s underwear.

We were heading to our hotel. The asphalt was very dark, and the lane lines bright white, which heightened the surreal quality of the city for me. We had taken leave of our country because my father, a theatrical director, had received a four-year grant to finish his doctorate at New York University — a happy accident removing us from Iran just before the fundamentalist regime took over.

New York, the greatest city in the world, had something set-like about it, not dissimilar to the sets in my father’s old productions. The buildings themselves were the unmistakable backdrops to the black-and-white Hollywood films I had watched throughout childhood in Tehran.

We slept in a gigantic king-size bed in our hotel room, the four of us in a row, jetlag waking us at four in the morning for several days. The hour was lonely and dark, so we took to turning on the TV and watching Tom and Jerry cartoons. My parents were grateful for the antics of the adorable mouse and foiled cat set to an excellent orchestra, while my brother and I didn’t want our sleep regulated because the pre-dawn ritual was an uncommon instance of solidarity for our family. My father would leave and bring back deli-hot bagels soaked with butter. Butter came to mean love and luxury for me.

When we settled into a one-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side, rather than feeling excitement at having moved to famous New York City, I felt at attention and on edge. Learning a new language kept me in a constantly self-monitoring mode; communication was no longer second nature and had to be measured out. But I had always observed myself as if outside of my body, processing moments to transmit back fully editorialized. This activity simply multiplied once I was pried from the cozy, familiar reality of Iran and transplanted to New York.

My brother and I shared the bedroom while my parents partitioned the long living room for their own sleeping area. It felt like we were poor, but the smell of paint and parquet varnish gave the place an air of newness I associated with not being poor. “Poor” to me was the opposite of “new,” represented by frayed, faded slovenliness.

We had moved a couple of times before relocating to New York, and in our last home in Tehran, we each had our own bedroom in a modern, black-marble apartment. There, my father’s — rather than my mother’s — relatives had lived around us. His side of the family didn’t drain yogurt in animal hides or roll fruit into flat sheets outside to dry in the sun. They didn’t set up elaborate mosquito netting on the roof for sleeping in the summertime.

Sleeping on Tehran rooftops meant a mild smell of asphalt and glittering antenna branches lining the sky to the ends of the city. The nights were the blackest black and dusty with stars, balmy breezes hugging my body as I dozed next to my grandmother.

In the new, modern structure, even though my father’s relatives lived in identical apartments above and below us, I felt unprivileged compared to them. Mainly it was because they waxed their black-marble tiles to a reflective shine while ours remained dull and uncoated. This, I knew, must mean we were poor.

Although my mother wasn’t the homemaker type who’d entertain the notion of a waxing mop, we didn’t have a cleaning person either, while our relatives did. It was also the unironed, dingy collar of my school uniform — while the other girls’ collars were crisp and gleaming — that made me feel like an outsider in the private school I attended in Tehran.

I probably wouldn’t have had an inkling of poor or not-poor had my mother been good at “momming.” She, however, had little interest in most aspects of momming.

“How come you never go to the park with us?” we would ask her, and she’d smirk:

“Because I don’t like greenery.”

“Will you help us make a snowman?”

“No, snow is too white. But here’s a carrot for his nose.” She made these claims with such proud self-amusement that we couldn’t help but acknowledge her God-given right to dislike nature, or even child-rearing.

Now in New York, I no longer pined for her to take me along everywhere she went. I was too busy crossing off items from my growing-up list. I already knew how to whistle and light a match. I also clipped my own nails and was an old hand at reading books in Persian with adult-size type and no illustrations.

The four of us living in a one-bedroom apartment, albeit on the Upper East Side, expanded my definition of “poor.” Money did not flow freely to us. My parents couldn’t fool me; I was 9. We didn’t lack comfort or even trips abroad, but now I lived in the same neighborhood as rich New York families and attended school with their children, so I had occasion to compare more than just waxed tile. Those kids had country homes and tennis lessons. Us? We had floor mattresses. That’s how we’d always slept.

Even without bed frames, our bedroom was pleasing to me. The spare furnishings, an arty combination of unfinished wood and primary colors, smelled like fresh lumber and appealed to my sense of symmetry because everything was in identical pairs. My mother had been the one to choose the furniture and set up our room. This successful momming endeavor made me think of her as growing up, in the same way that I kept tabs on my own growing up.

My notion of “growing up” probably missed the mark as much as my original notion of “poor.” Aside from picking up the skills of walking, snapping my fingers, and lighting those matches without supervision, growing up to me meant becoming “nicer.” By the time I completed this unimpressive checklist, after which I could declare myself old enough to keep a passport in my own possession, it seemed not at all worth it. I would have given up being full-grown so I’d also be relieved of the daunting burden of taking care of myself. But this dismaying moment of truth lay in the future.

At not-quite 10, life had a shine to it, and no object was ordinary, not even the radiator encasement I used as a hiding place. So when I started the fourth grade, whether I or my mother was doing the growing up, it didn’t have to mean anything other than becoming nicer.

It also didn’t occur to me that coming from Iran would make me some sort of anomaly in school. New York was a big city, but being from Tehran, we were already from a big city. As a child, one is dragged around and placed in situations according to other people’s whims, and moving to America was no different. I only saw myself as a kid with too-curly hair and a secret sense of superiority, no more an outsider at school in Manhattan than I’d already been in Iran. Those who misunderstood my frown of intense thinking stayed away from me rather than picked on me, except during the next year when for a week my classmates called out “Ayatollah Khomeini” each time I walked by.

The American grade-schoolers somehow seemed to blame me for the Iran hostage crisis. I felt an active, churning hatred toward Khomeini, the deranged cleric who ruined my country. But taunting a young girl by yelling out the name of a despot didn’t cut too deep, and soon they dropped it. I worried instead about being judged for my too-short corduroys in the boy colors of brown or tan. My real self, new to English and buried beneath a shyness I couldn’t overcome, sank a little deeper because of the unfortunate clothing my mother picked out for me.

Around the time kids took to showing off the labels of their 80s jeans, my mother, too, went shopping on my behalf. She may have done right by our bedroom, but when it came to my clothes, she only managed to buy funny-looking off-brands. While other kids showcased ornate designer stitching on their butts, my new “poor people” jeans were plain and two sizes too big.

Still, the jeans represented my mother’s effort. Even though I no longer let on, I looked up to her, emotionally hoarding her momming gestures. Though the results of her cooking were inconsistent, never would I leave a morsel of uneaten food she had prepared. She buttered bread for me in the morning to go with my hot chocolate and packed fresh fruit in my lunch bag. I couldn’t fathom how other kids went through their snack bags and systematically threw out whole oranges and apples.

“Why not take home instead of wasting?” I’d ask, thinking I’d appeal to their logic but instead triggering their contempt. My accented, reluctant English also earned me the reputation of being “thick.” Those kids couldn’t have known that there was no greater insult to me than to attack my intellect — my antelekt that I’d come to regard with snickering pride, as if I were the only one my age in possession of it. For the duration of elementary school, I had to survive the wound of being considered the opposite of antelektooel while knowing its actual meaning.

On the rare occasion when kids troubled to befriend me, I was quick to alienate them. One stray new student who had joined the class midyear trotted up to me during recess before anyone had a chance to warn her of my status as weird.

“Hi, is purple your favorite color?” She was impish, and I was in awe of her ability to make her voice bright and heard.

“Not actually,” I replied with my accent and peculiar word choices, even though I knew every preteen girl’s favorite color was purple in 1980.

“Do you like Grease?” She asked. “Is it your favorite record?” She took out a big wad of purple bubblegum from her mouth and threw it on the ground.

“You should pick up that,” I said. “Someone can step. It won’t be nice for them.” She gave me a look that read, You weird, haughty little fuck, and walked away. Later I asked my father to take me to the record store.

“We are looking for the band Grease,” my father said to the store clerk. My father’s voice was deep and distinguished. He had a striking head of graying hair and eyes that seemed to reflect sunlight indoors.

“The band Grease?” The store clerk chortled. “No such band. There’s a musical. Movie came out last year.” I dropped my eyes, wondering how long it would take before my family and I stopped sticking out.

My father paid for the album, and as soon as we stepped onto the sidewalk, I tore off the cellophane. At home, I listened to the record on repeat and decided I liked Grease much better than purple.

Fifth grade was about the Ming Dynasty, Greek mythology, and sexism. Prior to my teacher’s explanation of gender inequality, I had no indication that a sane society might think less of me because I wasn’t a boy. After all, I was born to a mother who had never bothered with anyone else’s expectations and a father who had treated me with respect, not to mention that people who oppressed women were supposed to be backward fanatics like the ones who were spoiling my country.

By age 11, I also learned to smoke cigarettes under the bridge next to the East River. I hid my pack inside the radiator encasement in the bedroom I shared with my brother. Marlboro reds cost eighty-five cents at the newsstand down the street. The gruff old man with the paperboy hat didn’t miss a beat selling them to me, though I wasn’t physically developed and couldn’t have appeared more than eight. He ignored me with the same disdain he doled out to everyone else, which weirdly designated him the first New Yorker to make me feel like I was where I belonged.

Walking around my neighborhood, I would sometimes see teenage girls, tall, thin-legged, and dangerous in their heavy-metal shirts, their hair painstakingly feathered. Among us young ones the rumor ran that their gapped legs were due to sex and drugs. They wore jean jackets, extra-thick eyeliner, and a feather dangling from one ear. There was no hiding under the bridge for them — they smoked out in the open and ruled the sidewalk. At night they sat on top of the picnic tables in John Jay Park and drank beer, throwing the cans at their feet. It was hard to imagine them snuggling in bed with their parents and watching Tom and Jerry.

The next year during lunch, my sixth-grade class would walk half a block to the same John Jay Park. Us girls would sit on the swings while the boys stood on them, facing us with their legs on either side of our bodies.

“Can I ride you?” the boy would ask first, then hop onto the swing and prompt it back and forth by swaying his pelvis. So I learned what it felt like to have a boy near me, the little hairs all over my body standing at attention. Around the same time, I stopped comparing my family to other families — I was preoccupied with impending puberty and receiving my sex education from Judy Blume books.

Soon I began losing most of my Persian accent too.

A year later when I read Catcher in the Rye, the sheep fell over the cliff, and I thought of the teenage girls from my neighborhood, wondering what had become of them. One September they had disappeared from the streets, but in my mind, they remained forever those dangerous girls strutting down the block with too much eyeliner. After Catcher in the Rye, I envisioned them falling over a cliff, but somehow I was there too, falling upside down and wearing my own jean jacket.

Maybe among the truths of growing up piling around me, I grasped that happiness would never again be as uncomplicated as my mother taking me to the supermarket.

There had been a time when working out a problem — how to whistle, snap my fingers, or cross the street — took mere repetition. Back then I clumped together soil and grass to understand the nature of an antelektooel by making one. But by the time I picked up smoking under the bridge, I knew the means to satisfaction wouldn’t work the old way anymore. Living with that knowledge hurt as much as realizing we were never going back to live in Iran, that wonderland of rooftop nights and my childhood.

***

This essay first appeared in the Spring/Summer issue of SliceOur thanks to Hedia Anvar and the staff at Slice for allowing us to reprint it.