Former Iranian diplomat on Zelzelah, revolution and politics
Time Out Bahrain staff
As Mariam Behnam prepares to visit Bahrain to talk about her book ‘Zelzelah’, we caught up with the former Iranian politician and diplomat to talk about her remarkable life.
You were born into a conservative society and earned the nickname ‘zelzelah’, or earthquake, for your rebellious streak and because you were born in the year of the great earthquake, where do you think that streak came from, is it something common in the women of your family? Although I come from a long line of strong women who controlled the internal mechanisms of the household, I always felt that boys in our family were given far greater importance and attention than girls, particularly when it came to education, which is probably why I became so rebellious. My mission was to fight that injustice from an early age and I believe that particular battle was won, clearing the path for the rest of the girls in our family that followed. My own sisters, their daughters, my own daughters, their daughters, my nieces, - all are highly educated, independent-minded people who have carved solid paths for themselves.
Please tell us a little about your early life in Iran, was your family always involved in politics? What made you push for your English education and how do you think that aspect helped you in later life? We hail from south of Iran, a small but proud group of families of the Sunni sect. We had more kinship with Gulf Arabs (Khaleejis) with whom we traded than with Iranians on whose soil we lived. Some 120 years ago the people of Bastak and Lengah settled as merchants and pearl traders in the Gulf. Our spoken language is a combination of Farsi and Arabic yet neither can be understood so it was important for my people to learn everyone else’s language in order to be understood. Notably the Bastakis are linguists and love knowledge. Living in India, Pakistan, Dubai, Bahrain and other Gulf countries allowed us to gain higher education. My ancestors travelled farther afield to Paris and London, where they became even more worldly and wise. My own hard-fought education helped me to understand the importance of education for all, and mandatory education for girls and young women as the single most important economic and social developer of any country. This is what I have pushed for throughout my life. A woman makes up 50 percent of the world’s population. A society ignores her at its own peril.
You had an illustrious career as a diplomat, how did that come about, it must have been quite an experience for a woman in those times? Did your family eventually accept your choices? By the time I became a diplomat in Pakistan, my family had given up on me. They realised that my thirst for knowledge and being a ‘change maker’ was never going to end so they did what was good for them and stopped the opposition. When I took on my arts and culture and diplomat’s mantle in the mid 1960s, times were already changing and women could be found surviving well in a man’s world, albeit a definite minority. Women have made huge strides in the last few decades – Bahrain and the UAE are two good examples of nations that have acknowledged the importance of a woman’s contribution to society – it can only get better.
Where were you when the revolution hit in Iran, how did it affect you and your family? How did you get out? I was very much entrenched in my post of Director General of Higher Education in the province of Hormozgan. My children at the time were all at university in various parts of the world so everyone was scattered in different directions. People in senior governmental positions feared the worst if they attempted to leave the country. My office was sealed but I still went and sat in the corridors of my building waiting for the unknown. I knew I had to make a home and a base elsewhere. My sister and the rest of our extended family were already settled in Dubai, so when time came for my departure, which was fraught with complications, it was to the UAE that I headed - a natural, welcoming development. Here, I was able to carve out a brave new existence for both my children and myself.
What was the path to recovery for you after the revolution, what came next? I adjusted to the fast-developing, modern Dubai, both my daughters headed to the UAE and began their careers and marital lives here, I immediately got a job as a feature writer in one of the leading local newspapers and started writing articles about art, culture, women and social development and, much later, I embarked on my writing career, publishing three books of which ‘Zelzelah’ was the first. I firmly believe that when life closes one door, other doors are ready and waiting to be opened.
Have you been able to return to your homeland at all? Yes, many times but my homeland for the last 35 years has been Dubai, the UAE. This country is considered as ‘Ardh-al-barakat’ meaning ‘land of opportunity and prosperity’ for anyone who has traversed its terrain and made it their home. I am a proud national of this country. This is where we sought refuge and received a generous welcome. This is where my children grew up and made their careers, this is where their children have grown up in comfort, safety and security. I was inspired to write all my books here. We are indebted to Dubai for providing the countless life opportunities that it has.
What do you feel about the current situation in Iran? The recent conciliatory messages coming out of Iran’s new system have given a lot of people hope, not just within Iran but the region as a whole.
You have continued to work in the arts and for women’s causes over the years since? I have been a strong proponent of women’s empowerment for pretty much my whole life. I have written articles in newspapers, given talks at schools and universities, I have met one-to-one with women’s groups, I have spoken out at every opportunity – but all of this has been aimed directly at the women themselves because it is they who hold the power to make a difference. Don’t ask ‘how?’ I’ve often said to women – just push the doors wide open and you will find the answers. My love of the arts cuts right across music, poetry and literature. I opened many museums in Bandar Abbas and the Baluchistan/Sistan province - to this day, they are home to some great collections and I am filled with joy that they have been preserved – and that I made a difference in people’s lives.
Do you see the role of women changing still in the region and how would you like to see this progressing? Women in this region have traditionally always played a key role in the running of their homes and households. But in the 21st century, they are required to count outside the home as well, both from an economic perspective and their own personal development. But women have got to want change themselves, whether educationally or running a business/having a career, and it is incumbent upon their societies to enable and empower them to achieve that change. Only then will we reach a point where their contributions will really count both for them and the communities in which they play a part. I am proud to be an Emirati and live amongst people who cherish and respect women.
You were awarded Emirates Woman of the Year in 2010, what did this accolade mean to you and has it helped in your work? It was a defining moment. There were these young, vibrant women, all high achievers in their respective fields – a great vote of confidence for the UAE which has been promoting and encouraging exactly this kind of development – and there was I, at the ripe old age of 91, old enough to be their great, great grandmother, being recognised for my past contributions. It was humbling and, fair to say, it was inspirational to be surrounded by so many independently successful women – clearly something I believed in some eight decades ago and have pushed for all my life, had borne fruit! I basked in that glory for a long time, thanks to Motivate publishing.
And almost finally, what, for you, have been the high and low points of your extraordinary life? I have been beyond fortunate to have had the opportunities that came my way, the friendships, the achievements, the accolades....I have watched my children and their children and their children grow up in progressive, healthy and informed environments and revelled in their ‘can do, will do’ attitude. When you have led such a full and rich life, the highs and lows tend to melt into one. I am a ‘today’ person, never looking over my shoulder and having no regrets. To me, even failures and lack of achievement are learning curves, meant to teach us and strengthen us. I am still learning. Life is not over yet!
What can the audience who come to meet you at La Fontaine expect? A revelation of a secret: A 93-year old woman can feel and act 39, the opposite of 93……! I really do feel young. I still enjoy life in all its glory, whether it be writing, travelling, meeting people from all walks of life, or simply, being in the company of art, book and poetry lovers. I may be older but I still don’t feel ‘old’ and I still relish the moments where young and old get together and have the chance to talk about the brave future. I have a dream that I will live long enough to experience Dubai’s hosting of Expo 2020. To be a tourist on the Virgin Galactic………