I listen again to Arzo’s voice message, double-checking the address. The green metal gate, snug between grocery stores, is just a few steps away. My gaze fixes on the weathered sign above the gate, displaying the madrasa’s name in an ancient, crumbling script. The clock reads 2:56 pm, and a mere four minutes linger until the madrasa’s dismissal. Approaching the metal gate, the soft murmurs of girls reach my ears. As the gate abruptly swings open, they cascade into the alley in clusters. Draped in long black prayer chadors, their faces concealed behind the madrasa’s distinctive masks, identifying Arzo among these similarly veiled figures becomes a daunting task.
Arzo’s familiar and affectionate voice rings out, accompanied by a gentle tap on my shoulder. I turn to face her, my attention drawn to the two bright points of her eyes, delicately lined with kohl. Following Arzo’s lead, we make our way to one of the recently emptied classrooms. The chairs, scattered like weary soldiers after a battle, occupy every nook of the room. On the blackboard, the verb “ضَرَبَ” (Zaraba) has been skillfully conjugated, forming several sentences with the name “زَید” (Zaid).
Arzo’s conversation, after inviting me to sit, begins as follows: “Grandfathers, in any family, are entirely different from the rest of the family members. Being men and the heads of the family, everyone’s eyes and ears are always on them; to their reactions, temperament, both small and significant actions, and most importantly, the surprising decisions they always hold up their sleeves. My grandfather is not educated, but he remembers numerous poems of Hafez, Panj Ketab (A religious poetry book), and a few suras from the Quran.” Arzo adds that her grandfather has always seen her as a reciter or a religious scholar. Since his grandsons showed no inclination towards being a reciter or scholar, she has always been the subject of his attention for this matter. However, this has never been acceptable to Arzo because it is far from her aspirations and desires. Until, suddenly, the closure of regular schools becomes a valid excuse for Arzo to attend a religious school. On one hand, it relieves her of the sense of aimlessness and confusion, and on the other hand, it allows her grandfather to fulfill his long-standing desire. Arzo, caught in that fleeting moment, has no other option and sees the school as a place to be with other girls. For this reason, she expresses her consent, unaware that this decision is like nurturing a jasmine flower in infertile soil or stirring dead roots with rain.
As Arzo places her school bag on the table, she says, “It’s been a year since I joined Madrasa. During this time, many changes have come over me. I must say that all the changes, up to this moment sitting with you, are only in my appearance and attire.” Arzo tells me about the varied colors of her nail polish. She expresses her fondness for the bright red, green, and blue colors among them but laments that she can’t use them. She mentions that she used to wear brightly colored clothes with sharp-colored veils, but now her nails have gotten used to plainness, and her clothes have become dominated by dark hues. Nevertheless, the importance of appearance and makeup when leaving the house, a form of adornment for her, remains significant.
Arzo pulls her madrasa textbooks out of the bag and shows them to me one by one: “Sarf Bahayee,” “Elementary Sarf,” “Sharh-e Awaameel wa Mobahesa.” She absentmindedly runs her hand over the books until it hits the thin pages where she has placed notes and markers, continuing her chatter, “I can hardly force myself to read these books, let alone learn from them. I’m sure after reading these, I’ll become a different person.” Arzo adds that, besides her, several of her friends and classmates have joined this school, but they continue to study with reluctance. Confronting the cold and dark reality of that environment and constructing sentences with those unknown words is challenging for Arzo and the other students. Perhaps the main reason for their presence in that space is the sense of togetherness and connection, taken away from these girls by the closure of regular schools. Arzo says they will use this opportunity to illustrate and shape their abilities and beliefs from their earlier days, even in a world that contradicts their aspirations.
Our conversation mingled with the thick dust scattered by the school janitor’s broom, comes to an end. However, undoubtedly, Arzo’s fate and future are not confined to these chalk-dusted corridors and this madrasa. No matter how time’s compulsion influences a person’s existence, it cannot easily destroy their taste, aspirations, and goals.