This article originally appeared in the Jewish Journal. View Original. In the student lounge behind the North Campus cafeteria at UCLA, the Romanian woman with frosted hair and one too many boyfriends sm...
May 28, 2014 | 11:51 am
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Journal. View Original.
In the student lounge behind the North Campus cafeteria at UCLA, the Romanian woman with frosted hair and one too many boyfriends smoked red Marlboros and spun tall tales about how her mother had walked, barefoot and pregnant, across a frozen continent and away from Nicolae Ceausescu’s killers to freedom in America. The handsome history major on a soccer scholarship from England pined after the petite Iranian girl who wouldn’t give him the time of day. The older American man, bald and broke and happy about it, boasted about his beat-up convertible with the peeling leather seats and cracked windows and announced, “It’s a convertible day” every time the sun was out.
The rest of us sat there, in between classes and late at night, on weekends, over Christmas and Easter breaks. We ate red apples we bought for 50 cents, drank coffee with a splash of hot chocolate in large Styrofoam cups, studied till our eyes nearly bled or we fell asleep on our books or someone announced it was time for a break.
To the science and math and engineering majors in South Campus, we were the slacker bunch. We talked too much and took too many breaks and congratulated ourselves for getting an A in a class with only 80 students, and, half the time, the teacher didn’t even grade on a curve. To the art and film and theater majors in north North Campus, we were the Neiman Marxists who did time in philosophy or English or political science while we waited to get married or to go to law school.
The others built and made things; we, the North Campus crowd, studied and memorized and debated ideas. It was as impractical an occupation as you could engage in, virtually useless for getting a job after college, and yet — and therefore — more serious and significant, more heady and exhilarating than anything I’ve done before or since.
You can’t know the importance of it — of trading in ideas, having the space and opportunity to ponder and develop them, being able to thrash them out openly — unless you’ve lived the alternative. On the first day of kindergarten in Iran, our parents warned us never to utter the words “shah,” “royal family,” “his or her majesty” in any context except the national anthem and the sorood-eh shahanshahi — “Ode to the Shah.” They warned again throughout the school year and at the start of every new academic year, adding new words — “communism,” “Marxism,” “totalitarianism,” “Zionism” — every time. The older we got, the longer the list became.
Not that we even knew the meaning of any of these words. If they were taught at all, mentioned in any book, their definition would be fabricated by the censors in the ministry of interior, their origins, like so much of the history we were taught, manufactured to glorify the existing regime. But in a place where teachers and students spied on each other, cab drivers were paid to eavesdrop on their fares, and secret police operatives pulled people out of bed or off the sidewalk into a car never to be seen again — in a place where ideas were feared and prohibited, their importance recognized, the mere mention of one or another could easily buy a person or her parents a long and eventful stay at an undisclosed, underground location.