They say it isn't safe to tell you her name. That by revealing her story, I could endanger her or those she left behind. But who she is - even her name - is changing with each day she spends in America, and her story isn't so easily revealed. Like so much that is happening in her country, and in ours, the story is just beginning.
The truth is that she is every Libyan, every Egyptian, every Yemeni, every Iranian. You see her face on the news some nights, illuminated by burning trash cans and Molotov cocktails. Hers is also a face you don't see, hidden in the places where reporters don't - or can't - go. On the streets day and night, refusing to leave, fighting for air. Competing for your attention but ultimately losing to the latest celebrity meltdown, buried in the informational rubble of a 24 hour news cycle.
She hopes the world cares about what is happening to her country, to her family. Either way, she is there, enduring, demanding freedom.
Once she makes it to the U.S., her fight continues, the effort doubled as if to bridge the distance. She shares videos of the protests on Facebook, bytes of information in a tiny bottle, cast into a vast sea. She hopes you find her message. That you understand she is part of an "us" and not a "them." Your wife, your daughter, your niece, your mother. Your fight, the memory of your own country's struggle for freedom still in your bones. She is a piece of history that fits exactly, like the double helix of DNA or a baby looking into its mother's face.
Not so long ago, I waited for her when she was just another immigrant under the surgical lights of JFK's arrivals hall. A flash of blond hair in a crowd of Russian expatriates. A woman who seemed to weigh less than the forty pound suitcases she carried, containing her entire life.
"You made it," I said, amazed.
In total, she traveled two days in the air that, by a trick of time zones, came out to a single day, the same day. The longest day of her life, with only a handful of salty watermelon seeds in her stomach. Snacks made in a factory in the Middle East, labeled in English, sold in Russian airports, with an Australian seal of approval. She had taken pieces of the world with her and left little pieces of herself behind.
She lost her glasses in Moscow. On her own, she managed to catch a connecting flight in an airport where few were willing to help and some sought to take advantage of her. She mastered the art of deciphering signs neither in her own language nor her newly adopted English. A couple weeks after her arrival in the U.S., a suicide bomber would detonate a homemade device packed with shrapnel, screws, and ball bearings in Moscow's Domodedovo Airport. So many opportunities for disaster.
"How was your journey?" I asked, embracing her. She felt like a bird in my arms.
"It was easy," she said. Anyone would have believed her.
When I watch these images of violence and freedom, opposition and revolt, I think of her. Of the day she was dragged into a van and slapped because her friend was wearing the wrong color shirt. Of what was at stake for her had she stayed, and all that is yet to be gained. I see Gigi Ibrahim and Mona Seif and the many citizen activists sharing their stories, and I am proud that she is part of a brave, youthful, and irrepressible spirit. Part of the same face. I'm proud that she will never again have to avert her eyes when a man looks a certain way at her.
When we walked out of the airport into the street, the wind struck us. It was December, and the first snow purled down on New York. She reached up to cover her hair, but then stopped and smiled.
–Iranian-American author Elizabeth Eslami's work has appeared in numerous literary journals and magazines in the U.S. and abroad. Her first novel, Bone Worship, about the complex relationship between an Iranian father and his Iranian-American daughter for whom he wants to arrange a marriage, was released in 2010.
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Causes Elizabeth Eslami Supports
Willamette Writers, The Association of Writers and Poets, The Association of Iranian American Writers