Dr. Sima Goel takes the BD Spotlight OR Why Freedom is the Most Precious Commodity

July 1, 2013

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Dr. Sima Goel protested in the streets of Iran against the Shah’s oppressive tactics. When the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power, and decreed that all women were to wear the hijab, regardless of their religions, Goel, a Jewish teenager, knew she had to flee. Read below to learn about her tremendous experience both lived and relived through the writing of her book, Fleeing the Hijab.

What would you like Book Dumpling readers to know about you?

I arrived in Montreal, Canada in 1983 when I was 18 years old.

I could barely speak any English and not a word of French, nor did I have anyone to support me; I had to rely on myself for finding a way to support myself and pursue my education.

I learned from my mother: take action and leave the rest up to God, no matter what you call him. Prayer was what kept my sanity during the hardest time in my life.

When I arrived, my goal was to be able to read an article in Time magazine and understand what I read.  Thirty-one years later, I have a professional career, am a wife and mother, and my book, “Fleeing the Hijab, A Jewish Woman’s Escape from Iran”, the story of my life, has just been published.

Describe a teacher who had an impact on you:

In 1979, after the Iranian revolution, my literature teacher asked the students in my class to write an essay about a personal hero.

I had a soft spot for Forough Farrokhzad, a well-known female Iranian poet who, inspired by Western and European feminist movements, became a leader and inspiration for Iran’s feminists.

Her poems about freedom were forthright and bold.

Although her work was popular with the people, neither the Shah nor the Islamic government approved of her or her ideas, which were quite radical.

After I finished my presentation, my teacher appeared shocked that I had selected Forough Farrokhzad as my subject.

Many years later, I recognize that my teacher may have been influenced by the same woman and appreciated my choice of hero.

My teacher ignited the flame of freedom in me.

 Do you have any interesting stories regarding writing this past book?

I had no idea how long it took to write a book.

Once I decided to write my story, I consulted Google on exactly how long a book should be; that is, how many words.

I found out that the minimum number of words is roughly 75,000. I calculated that if I wrote 5000 words per week, I could finish my book in less than six months and that surely it would take only six more months before it hit the bookstore.

That seemed like a reasonable plan.

To my surprise, it took five years to complete the process. Writing is not merely putting down a certain number of words per week.

This was my life I was putting out for the world to read.

I had to force myself to re-live painful scenes and incidents in my life which I had buried very deeply; I had to stop writing to let the tragedies and horrors I had experienced pass through me again.  The process was cathartic.

If I ever have to labour over English tenses again, I will lose my mind. In addition, I never learned how to use a keyboard properly and so I type with one finger at a time.

How difficult is it for you to read about people experiencing similar situations in today’s world?   

When the book The Kite Runner came out, I wanted so badly to read it, but I was afraid to.

I knew I would not be able to read it without crying.

My eldest son eventually read it and loved it. He suggested that I should read it, “It will help you because your story is similar and this will help you write your story.”

I adamantly refused.

So I decided to watch the movie. Of course I cried the entire time.

My youngest son brought the book along on our last family vacation and he also insisted: ”Mom please read it.” At this time I had finished writing Fleeing The Hijab and I started reading The Kite Runner.

Wow, what a great book.

Yes, I choked up many times, and I shed many tears, but I enjoyed it.

A dear friend of mine read my book. She compared my story to The Kite Runner.

It was a biggest compliment I could receive.

Do you ever look back on your experience and think ‘that couldn’t have happened to me’? 

Yes and No. Sometimes I am shocked that I am still alive and normal considering all I have endured, and sad because I know that the same situation still exists.

Unfortunately many people do not know about it. This is the reason I spent the last five years writing my story. It is not just my story; it is the story of injustice that is still happening all around the world.

Do you miss anything specific about your home country? Any vivid memories of growing up that you could pinpoint? 

I love and miss the smells of spring: the orange blossoms, which announced the arrival of the New Year. Families would travel to be together with other family members to celebrate the New Year.

In Iran, extended family (aunts, cousins, etc.) helped out in any task, whether cooking for an event, or caring for the sick, or minding the children, etc.

No one was alone to face a problem, or a loss.  Even strangers would offer their help, whether carrying your groceries home, or offering medical services.

I don’t find that same sense of tribal belonging here. The tribe,before the Revolution, was made up of the entire neighborhood: Jews, Christians, Muslims and Baha’i.

Describe how you kept track of your thoughts and experiences for the book.

I kept a little journal while I was in Pakistan, but because of the so many moves we made, I lost it along the journey. I was able to remember the sequence of events, the time of year, the location and images of places where events took place, but I had buried very deeply many of the details and all my emotional reactions: it was a very painful process to get in touch with them.

What is the last, great book that you read and to which type of readers would you recommend it?

I love reading non-fiction books. It is difficult to choose one. I have read the biographies of Albert Einstein, Gandhi and Golda Meir.

I am in awe of their contribution to humanity.

I also loved reading self-help books written by Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, and Louise Hay.

At this time in my life, I am intrigued by neurology and books about the brain.

Which one book would you recommend that almost everyone read at least once?

I think it is more important that people read; subject matter is a personal choice.

But no matter the subject, as you read, you become engaged in ideas and the process of life-time learning. However, if I was going to recommend a book it would be The Kite Runner.

E-reader or the real thing?

Real books.  I love to browse, pick up a book, look at the blurbs on the jacket and wonder if I will enjoy it.

What advice would give to an aspiring author (regardless of age)?

Write from your heart and stay true. Be authentic.

Tell us a little bit about the part in Fleeing the Hijab that has a soft spot in your heart.

In the last chapter, I expressed reconciliation and forgiveness with a family member. I still choke up when I read that section. I did have many reasons to be angry at life, but I choose forgiveness for my own sanity.

If you could add one book to the high school curriculum, which one would it be?  

I would actually recommend mine, for several reasons:

Young people nowadays often take for granted the wonderful, free educational opportunities that they have. Many students choose to coast along, making a minimal effort to achieve the bare minimum. They do not understand that this education is their passport to a free life. In many countries of the world, high school education is not taken for granted.

Often, girls do not get even an elementary education: they never learn to read or write.

Boys, when taught the skills of writing and reading, are not allowed to follow their curiosity.  They are forbidden to read books on many subjects, especially science and culture, current events and history to name a few. They never get a chance to understand their world.

It hurts me that the students don’t appreciate what they have.  I had to fight for it.

Another reason is that, in reading my story, Canadian students might begin to understand what real life was like in a different country, in a different time in history, in the past.

It takes them into a world foreign to their own experience.  It is the story of a high school girl who grew up in a country with very different values, who faced very different challenges in her life, and how she overcame them.

The young readers will experience life issues, things they know nothing about, like taking part in a violent political revolution, like war happening outside your door, like being persecuted, like being hungry, like being frightened to death with no one to help you.

Perhaps in stretching the students’ imagination, it will make them more empathetic about others who have not had North American advantages.

What is the book’s major message?

No matter where you are in your life, and how bad the circumstances are, faith and hope are your best allies in overcoming a difficult situation.

If you are in a good place in your life, reading this book will take you along with my adventure and help you to realize the good things that you have.

Which contemporary book will become a classic in 50 years?

I can’t say which contemporary book will become a classic in years to come, but I can say that I really enjoyed the messages contained in The Little Black Fish.

Which book is criminally underrated?

The Little Black Fish (an Iranian children’s classic of the pre-revolutionary period) which had such an impact on my young life.

Having read my book, my son, went to a great deal of trouble to find an English translation to give me as gift for my 49th birthday. I sat and read it and cried again.

You went from one regime, under the Shah, to that of Khomeini – are regimes really that different from each other if they use oppression as a weapon?

Both regimes used oppression and suppression as a way of ruling. It is a bad mix to have religion, which is a private matter, become institutionalized in a state government.

The only chance we have for humanity to reach its potential will be when we are free to choose wisely for ourselves: from the cloths we wear, to the music we listen to, to the friends we choose, and to have the right to pursue an education in the field that interests us.

Freedom to choose is the best gift in the world.




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