I Was a 9-Year-Old Girl in War-Torn Iran - OZY | A Modern Media Company

I Was a 9-Year-Old Girl in War-Torn Iran

I Was a 9-Year-Old Girl in War-Torn Iran

By Ari Honarvar


Resistance is in our DNA.

By Ari Honarvar

It wasn’t like we were star-crossed lovers or anything melodramatic like that. I mean, I was 9, and he was 10. Nonetheless we were forbidden to be together. There were actual laws prohibiting girls and boys to be in close proximity without a chaperone. We lived in post-revolution Iran, where, in a matter of months, women lost their right to ride a bicycle or sing in public.

At age 6, my life, like that of all women there, took a plunge in value to half the worth of a man. As the law decreed, I learned to walk when my feet urged me to run. I learned to purse my lips when I felt laughter gather in my throat. I learned to sit in the back of the bus, veiled and crammed with other sweaty and miserable humans cursed with two X chromosomes.

The “gender laws” were sometimes unclear, and the punishments seemed random, designed to strike terror. My friend’s younger sister was whipped by the Morality Police for wearing a skirt in public. She was small, perhaps only 4 or 5, and was traumatized for years. There were rumors that women who wore lipstick had their lips cut by razors, but I never met anyone who was cut. Just as this war on women was becoming our new normal, Saddam Hussein attacked Iran, starting a war that lasted eight years and took a million lives.

But Zal and I had been friends all our lives. Now, though, while the law had me cover my hair, Zal could dress as he pleased. Outraged by this inequality, I pretended to be a boy — until people began recognizing me in public, and I had to stop. Regardless of the strange new laws, in my relationship with Zal, I remained the boss. In secret, I came up with plots and characters for all our pretend plays. As he listened to my oration, Zal’s knitted brows and serious face made me love him, the way a general loves his dutiful, loyal lieutenant.

That night, under the flickering of the candlelight, I stabbed my palm with the kitchen knife. I then held out my hand to Zal.

We became blood brothers on a cool summer night.

The adults were outside, distracted, listening to the war news and eating Persian melon. A Scud missile had just crashed into an apartment building in Tehran, killing the hosts and all the guests attending a 6-year-old’s birthday party. Zal and I seized the opportunity and tiptoed our way to the kitchen, turning off the lights and lighting candles.  

Earlier, while we sat on the swing, balancing our dinner plates on our thighs, I had explained the ritual to Zal: “And then we’re gonna cut the palms of our hands and mix our blood together,” I said, with a mouth full of rice and stew.


Zal’s spoon was suspended in midair as he contemplated this. “We’re going to cut ourselves? I don’t know about that. It’s going to hurt. A lot. And what am I supposed to tell my parents about my bloody hand?”

“Don’t worry,” I whispered reassuringly. “It’s under control. We’re just gonna prick our palms. I’ve got Band-Aids hidden in the kitchen already.”  

Ever since I’d read my first Mark Twain novel the previous year, I had fancied myself a female Tom Sawyer. Once I spent a whole afternoon sweeping our yard with the front gate wide open. Every time a kid walked by, I shouted, “This is better than any game I’ve ever played!” But unlike Tom Sawyer, no one gave me more than a glance, much less volunteered to help.

I didn’t try that trick again, but when I read the second chapter of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, my brain went to work immediately. I revised the “oath in blood” to my own liking. I didn’t have Tom Sawyer’s gang of robbers, but I had Zal.

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Portrait of the author, post-revolution, as a young boy

Source Photo courtesy of Ari Honarvar

That night, under the flickering of the candlelight, I stabbed my palm with the kitchen knife. I then held out my hand to Zal.

“See! Didn’t hurt at all,” I lied, forcing my voice to be as steady as my open palm. “We’ll never betray each other. We’ll always have each other’s back. We’ll tell each other everything. Promise?” I whispered, still holding the knife. I grabbed Zal’s hand and pressed the blade on it, drawing blood.

“Ouch!” he yelped.

I smashed my palm against Zal’s and pressed my lips to his for a fraction of a second. The kiss was not a planned part of the ritual. I fell back into my chair. I had kissed Zal to shut him up, but now, for a rare moment, I was the one who was tongue-tied. We looked at our palms, our blood mingled and our thoughts mangled.  

“I promise,” said Zal, his face flushed.

“It’s a real beautiful oath,” I whispered, stealing the line from the Huck Finn book. I took the Band-Aid and placed it on Zal’s palm. Zal returned the favor.

After that night, we still pretended that he was my lieutenant, but my heart leaped whenever I saw him. We both knew that in our world, he was worthy enough to be my equal, and in the real world, I was worthy enough to be his.

I meant to always honor our pact, but when I fled abruptly for a new continent, I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. And even though I ached for my blood brother, I never returned. War? Politics? Me? Today, I blame geography for promises unkept.

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