Roommates, 1978


I had two college roommates.

This blog entry is about one of those roommates — someone who entered my life for one year during my junior year of college. Karen, my friend and first college roommate, had taken a break from college to make some decisions about where she wanted her life to go. That meant that I had no idea who I would be rooming with when I returned to college in the fall of 1977.

When I walked into my old dorm room, my new roommate’s boxes were already there. The mailing labels said “Tehran, Iran.” And so began my year of learning about another culture, another religion, another lifestyle, another human being.

Last night I read some poems with four other poets at the International House in Providence. We were asked to choose poems with a global perspective. I remembered my year with Afi — Afarineh Barirani, a computer engineering student from Tehran, Iran. We had a good relationship as roommates go, but my boyfriend and her intense studies kept us respectful of each other and a bit distant.

In all these years, I have never attempted to connect with her again — but she did make a powerful impression on me. Maybe it’s time I did.

Roommates, 1978

for Afarineh Barirani

Long ago,
we slept in a bunk bed built by an Iowa farmer
with paintings by your Iranian father on our dorm wall.
You read late into the night and left early for class –
your days filled with engineering and calculus
and fears for your family’s lives,
your country’s collapse,
the Shah of Iran, Khomeini.

Every evening,
you covered your long chestnut hair
with a printed shawl and unrolled your prayer rug.
You recited verses from your Qur’an – lifting
your small hands, facing west on the cold tile –
a world away from a childhood
teetering on extinction.

And every day,
you shouldered the weight of fear, of hate –
for your faith, your culture,
your sex, your intelligence.
You walked alone, the only female in class,
past fists that thumped Bibles.
You ate lunch in empty lecture halls.

Still, you laughed.
Still, you found joy in music, in stories,
in this strange country, in a box of sweets
your mother sent to celebrate the end of Ramadan,
which you shared with the girls on our floor,
just as they swapped Oreos and lip gloss.

At the bottom of a moldy college trunk,
I find your unexpected gift from that year –
a small silver box rimmed with etchings,
the lid adorned with a Persian painting.

Today,
I have no idea where you sleep,
if you ever saw your family again
or if you still pray.
But when I open this shiny box,
your laughter spills out.

I awake again to see a pool of light
from your reading lamp splash
over the bunk below me,
and listen as you
turn the page.

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6 thoughts on “Roommates, 1978

  1. Love your Blog Julia, and this entry is phenomenal. Just sent the link to my Iranian college friend Nooshie. I know she will be thrilled to receive it. Your ‘voice’ is so communicative, while being subtle, powerful, sophisticated. That is the way we would all like to be in our work. Brava Julia!

    1. Thank you, Lauri. Still remember your voice, too. One that sticks with me was about a door that you found on a walk near the bay. It was old and ornate and you gave it a past life.

    1. Yes, Afi was my final project for an intro news photography class. I found the photos and story I did andI ‘m thinking I should send it to her. I think I found an address in CA.

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