A celebration of Persian voices and talent

Our Revolt by Maryam Ghatee

Essay

Our Revolt

by Maryam Ghatee
“Word was that the professor came from a family of Khans—major landowners—from Sistan and Baluchestan who often settled in the more developed region of Khorasan with its temperate climate. I did not find this hard to believe, because he moved about as if every object and person belonged to him.”

Our Revolt
by Maryam Ghatee

In memory of Davood

 

I avoided eye contact with the members of my cohort, as I watched Dr. Gholdorian’s square-edged mechanical pencil cross out sheet after sheet of sketches and renderings, labors of a week of sleepless nights. My mind had given up on deciphering his words, and was focused on the distant chorus of crickets coming through the open window. We were still on campus, hours after the sunset call to prayer had echoed throughout the courtyards, because Dr. Gholdorian’s morning flight from Mashhad had a major delay and we were instructed to stay on campus until he arrived to hold the interim jury. Since Shiraz didn’t have enough architects with doctorate degrees, the Architectural Engineering Program of Shiraz University relied heavily on traveling professors.

We had continued to work on the schematic design of a single-family house throughout the day, taking turns selecting music that ranged from Metallica to Yanni, Googoosh to Ghomayshi, one of the few benefits of the remote location of the School of Art and Architecture, where the campus morality police ignored certain things as long as no one complained.

I had never been too hung up on grades, but the D from Dr. Gholdorian’s Introduction to Architectural Design 1 had been a first. Now in his Intro 2 class, I felt clueless, still unable to comprehend the design expectations, let alone his critiques. The seniors worshipped him as if he were Le Corbusier himself, so as a sophomore, I was waiting for the day that I too would treasure his teachings.

I noticed Dr. Gholdorian staring at me, so I nodded in agreement as if I understood every word of his mishmash of Farsi and French. He paused as if he doubted that I had it in me to revise my work. I sighed in relief when all 6’6” of him stood up to move on to the next drafting table. The crowd followed him, hanging on to his every word, hoping to figure out the favorable elements to incorporate into their designs to meet his approval. My friend, Shabnam, whose work had already been slaughtered, gave me an empathetic nod before following the others.

I sat back on my stool, cursing myself for not choosing civil engineering as my first option on the national university entrance exam. Too late, I reminded myself. I was halfway through my third semester, and even if I could get through the bureaucratic process, I would be two years behind all my friends. I took some notes and considered the salvageable parts. With a full stomach and a good night’s rest, the professor was known to approve the same work he had previously rejected.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Sepehr in his tight jeans and button-up shirt, offering his stool to the professor, which he took without any acknowledgement. Word was that the professor came from a family of Khans—major landowners—from Sistan and Baluchestan who often settled in the more developed region of Khorasan with its temperate climate. I did not find this hard to believe, because he moved about as if every object and person belonged to him. “When he walks into the studio, with his silver hair and beige trench coat draped over his shoulders, the air gets sucked out of my lungs,” I once told Shabnam. “It’s as if a squadron of Voldemort’s dementors have entered.”

When I saw the members of my cohort huddling around Mercedeh’s drafting table, I rubbed my eyes and found my way to a spot across from her, one of Dr. Gholdorian’s few favorites. The professor praised her first sheet, then went on a tangent retelling the familiar story of how he was hazed at École des Beaux-Arts, and then looped back to praise the rest of the sketches. Unlike me, Mercedeh seemed to have a theory for every crevice, curve, and corner.

From my spot across the table, I could sense something brewing behind the professor, as I watched a few of the guys pacing, whispering, and waving in the direction of Mercedeh’s sketches. From the dark bags under their eyes, I could tell that I wasn’t the only one suffering from sleep deprivation.

“Excuse me, sir,” Alireza started, failing to hide the agitation in his voice. “I understand what you said about Mercedeh’s work here.” He paused, considering his next words. “But can you explain how her work is different from that design?” He was pointing to Sepehr’s table, covered with sheets that bore the familiar scars inflicted by the professor’s square-edged mechanical pencil.

I held my breath, the way one does when unsure if their parents’ minor disagreement is going to result in a full-blown argument. Unable to believe what Alireza just verbalized, I couldn’t help stealing glances at Dr. Gholdorian, who was registering Alireza’s accusation. Somehow the crowd had cleared between the men, and they stood as if on two ends of a sparring ring, assessing their opponent’s weak spots.

“Go, look at them,” Dr. Gholdorian said, composed.

“I’ve looked at them, professor, and I cannot see a major difference,” Alireza replied.

“Then, leave my atelier,” Dr. Gholdorian growled.

Alireza did not budge. Instead, he looked Dr. Gholdorian in the eye—the cheek of him!—and replied, “I will leave, sir. But first, humor me with a response.” He looked braver. “Please show me the difference between these two designs.”

I had somehow managed to continue inhaling air into my lungs, and a strange sense of relief started to rise from the bottom of my belly, expanding into my chest. Dr. Gholdorian’s clean-shaven face turned a bright shade of red. He slowly turned to look at the rest of us. I dropped my eyes when his gaze crossed mine, as if it was my fault to be a witness of this scene.

When he looked back at Alireza, he approached him, until there was only two feet left between them. He waved his index finger in Alireza’s face. “Leave my atelier, this instant!”

Leave, Alireza, I wanted to urge him. Leave his atelier.

Alireza did not move a muscle, but I could see the veins pulsing in his neck. It was now a matter of saving face. “I said I will leave, sir,” Alireza said in a low voice. “And I will drop this course. But please be kind enough to answer my question.”

The professor moved another step forward and shoved Alireza. “I’m telling you to leave my atelier,” he yelled.

Alireza stumbled back a few steps before regaining his balance. He paused as if caught by surprise, then quietly walked to his drafting table to gather his belongings. He didn’t look at anyone as he walked out of the studio.

Dr. Gholdorian straightened his trench coat on his right shoulder, then moved on to the next table to critique Sonia’s work.

Shabnam and I looked at each other, unable to comprehend this daunting, yet familiar situation. During our school years, we knew the drill when a vice principal or teacher berated a student: avoid eye contact until later; then sympathize with the student by bad-mouthing the aggressor. Boys had it worse, often enduring beatings when they didn’t abide by the strict rules set by school administrators.

But this was different. We had dedicated the best of our teenage years to excel at school in order to rank highly in the national university entrance exam which was the only way to get the best seats in the oldest, most respected, publicly-funded institutions of the country.  We were no longer some naughty kids to be beaten or berated. We were adults in a professional environment.

A few people silently gathered around Sonia’s table, but the rest of the students appeared to be unnerved. Then, I noticed Naveed whisper something to Sepehr and the two of them started gathering their materials. Right away, two others from the back row did the same. The sound of their rustling papers and latches and zippers had a ripple effect throughout the studio. Soon Shabnam and I were packing our items. Even Mercedeh started packing.

As I slung my tube bag on one shoulder and my backpack on the other to follow the rest of my class out the studio, I saw Sonia’s desperate glances, terrified at the thought of being left alone with the professor. Shabnam and I waited for her in the corridor. We heard the professor’s booming voice say, “You can follow the rest of them, if you wish.” I caught Shabnam’s eye and we both bent over, letting out stifled laughs.

The three of us giggled as we ran through the empty corridors. We found the others in the courtyard, which was only lit by the street lights on the other side of the wrought iron fence. Alireza was sitting on the retaining wall of the entrance ramp, surrounded by his friends, still too upset to speak.

But the rest of us, high on the adrenaline of what we had just done, couldn’t stop talking. “Alireza, that was very brave.” “Good job, man.” “We’re proud of you.” “We really did this.” “I still can’t believe he shoved you.” “What a jerk.”

I sensed the presence of the dementors as a hush fell upon our group. I turned back to see the professor’s towering figure in the door frame, dark against the lit vestibule of the building. We stared him down when he walked past us with his head held high, his silver hair gleaming in the dark.

All twenty-four of us were waiting outside the Dean’s office when he arrived the following morning. News of our walkout had spread throughout the campus. We felt like revolutionaries, proud about backing a friend in the face of tyranny. We had decided that even though Alireza was the class representative for the guys, he should remain silent as the main victim. I was the class representative for the girls, and Naveed volunteered to help me facilitate the conversation with the Dean.

The Dean looked surprised as we filed into his office, the last few peeking through the door frame. He listened carefully as Naveed and I recounted the facts from the night before. He was shocked to learn that the professor shoved Alireza. He first looked at Alireza and then the rest of our group. Everyone nodded silently, confirming that it was all true. I could have cried.

I held the Dean’s gaze. “We are not going back to his studio, sir,” I concluded.

“Why, I don’t blame you. I understand your frustration about not having an option to choose another professor. That is something I will share with your program coordinator. But shoving a student is simply unacceptable.” His sigh made me wonder if he regretted taking on a management role. “I need to speak to your program coordinator and Dr. Gholdorian and escalate the situation if needed. Come back on Saturday.”

When we left his office, I was ecstatic, certain that we were done with Dr. Gholdorian. For the rest of that week, I waltzed through the campus to attend other classes and eroded my jaw retelling the story to whoever would listen.

A week later, when Naveed and I met with the Dean, he informed us that he could not recruit another professor. The bean counters in the university administration couldn’t let go of the fact that they had already split the cost of Dr. Gholdorian’s flights with Shiraz Azad University, where he also taught. “My hands are tied,” he said apologetically.

“But what are we to do?” I asked.

“Would you consider going back to his studio?”

I felt my cheeks burning, but managed to keep my voice level. “He shoved one of our classmates, sir. His studios are a waste of our time.” He picks favorites, I wanted to say.

The Dean looked tired. “He’s been given a warning, Ms. Ghatee. Now the administration wants you to go back.” He paused. “But I also understand your position.”

“Then we will all drop the course.” I said, confidently, though I knew I was stretching my authority as a class representative.

“The administration will not allow you.” He rubbed the stubble on his chin. “What I can offer you is to attend class with his assistant only.”

“Would the assistant conduct the final jury?” Naveed asked.

The Dean tugged at his shirt collar. “No. Dr. Gholdorian will be the one.”

“We will all get a failing grade.” I said, bitterly.

“I will make sure that doesn’t happen.”

I looked at Naveed, my eyes pleading for him to come up with a better argument. He caught my gaze, then looked at the Dean. “We need time to speak to the rest of our classmates, sir,” he said.

In the corridor, I asked Naveed, “How could a single professor turn our dreams into a nightmare?”

We found the others in the middle courtyard and relayed the news. “This is the price we pay for a free education,” Sepehr commented. “If we paid tuition like the Azad University students, the administration would bend to our will.”

“Does everyone agree that choosing his assistant is our only way to make a statement?” Shabnam asked.

“I want to go back to Dr. Gholdorian’s class,” Mercedeh said. “I didn’t have a problem with him.”

We turned to her in disbelief. Alireza shook his head and walked away. I wanted to smack her for compromising our united front. “You walked out with us,” I said, my voice wavering. “You can’t go back now.”

Her attractive face exuded defiance. “I didn’t want to be the one who stayed behind,” she replied.

“Now you’ll be known as the one who went back!” I was screaming. Two passing art major students looked at me as if I were a madwoman. “Anyone else?” I looked at the rest of our group, ready to pounce.

“Maryam,” one of the chadori girls started hesitantly. “I feel the same as you do about his studios. But if he’s going to conduct the final jury….” Her voice trailed off as if to apologize.

Two other girls and one of the guys nodded in agreement. They also wanted to go back.

I felt my throat closing. “Fine,” I said, looking away.

“Anyone else?” Naveed asked calmly. A few people shook their heads.

“This is it, then. Five students will go back to Gholdorian’s studio and the rest will continue with his assistant.” I followed him into the building. “It’s OK if you don’t want to come,” he said over his shoulder.

I nodded gratefully, relieved of the burden of containing my erupted rage to face the Dean again. I texted Shabnam that I was skipping the next class. I’d had enough to call it a day.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Maryam Ghatee is an Iranian-American Rhode Islander, a mother, and an engineer. Find her on Twitter @MaryamGhatee.

IMAGES courtesy of the author