Sohila Zanjani, Mount Eliza

Sohila Zanjani Photograph © David Brewster 2014

 “I think, every little step counts: every programme on SBS or ABC that encourages people to embrace and celebrate difference, rather than be fearful, because fear is destructive. I think Scattered Pearls does that.”

Sohila Zanjani and David Brewster have recently published Sohila’s memoir, Scattered Pearls: Three generations of Iranian women and their search for freedom (Simon & Schuster, 2016).

An audio clip from this interview with Sohila Zanjani:

Sohila, can you describe a normal day for you?

Yes, a normal day these days is going to court and the Victoria Legal Aid office in Frankston. I wake up, and get ready, and come to work, which is voluntary.

The reason it is voluntary is because I had a law degree from Monash University back in 1997 and then I ran a business, but then I became a carer looking after my beautiful parents. And after that I thought I’d like to practice, because I had a law degree, but since this was 18 years ago, the laws have changed and the Victorian Legal Admission Boards requires people – if their degree is over five years – to go back and refresh a few subjects. ‘Priestley’ they call it: ‘Priestley 11 subjects’. So, as a result I was asked to go and refresh and I went to Monash Law Chambers and I took three subjects. I finished that successfully. Then after that, you have to do what’s called articles, in order to practice as a solicitor, and I selected to go to the College of Law, which is an online course. I successfully finished that too with high distinctions in both administrative law and family law. The third component of this course is to do 75 days’ voluntary work in a law firm and I selected Victorian Legal Aid in Frankston. So out of 75 days there are now about 50 days left.

Once I’ve finished this voluntary work requirement of 75 days, then I will apply to the Victorian Legal Admission Board to be a solicitor of the Supreme Court of Victoria. So that is why I am doing voluntary work right now. Some days they send me to Frankston Magistrate’s Court and I help the lawyers there with their clients in family law, family violence, and criminal matters, and on Thursday, which is today, I do infringement clinic. We help clients who’ve got a large amount of infringement using CityLink or EastLink. So these are normal days now for me.

Okay. Have you always lived in Melbourne?

Yes. In fact, when I came to Australia 35 years ago, I lived in South Yarra. Due to events in South Yarra, I moved towards the southeast suburbs, passing from Chelsea Heights eventually to Frankston and now to Mount Eliza.

Before you lived in Australia, where did you live?

I was born and lived in Tehran, which is the capital of Iran. And as I always say, I like to call it Persia. Persia is the name for what the world knows as Iran. Many more know Persia than Iran. They confuse it with Iraq. I lived there and I hope one day Iranian or Persian people will decide to also change the name to Persia again.

What was life like?

When I was born, it was during the time of the Shah of Iran. I think probably we were middle class, close to working class. Maybe we were a working-class family. And the life was very much like Australia then. You know, we certainly had personal freedom in what we wanted to wear. That’s number one for women, I guess. I went to kindergarten, primary school, secondary college, or high school, and then university.

We were a very close family. Family was very important, especially with my mum. My dad was a man who didn’t know how to show his love, so unfortunately, we didn’t know how to show our love to him. So that was a bit sad, that part, but other than that, I think we had everything. But now I’m thinking we didn’t have – I don’t know whether I should call it political freedom. We were not. We grew up but didn’t really understand who we were, in terms of our history; where we were as a nation, we didn’t learn that. For example, I didn’t travel outside Tehran. I could but I didn’t; it didn’t occur to me to get to know my country.

So growing up in Tehran was fantastic and beautiful, with one thing missing, and that was understanding who we were and whether we were a free nation or not. Political understanding wasn’t there. And I think that is what we are suffering today. Even with the education I received I didn’t realise all this from the history lessons we had in high school. Even now, I feel painful about it. How is it that being a Persian, an Iranian with almost 7,000 years’ history behind us, and us being a generous and kind people ….?  If you go to Iran, you be treated like a king and queen, because of generosity, kindness, and hospitality; hospitality is number one. Then it is sad to see that with such a rich cradle of civilisation, we are now a country where … yesterday I was listening to Donald Trump make a speech to the Congress. The only country he mentioned in terms of negativity was Iran. And this really saddened me. Not because of the character of Donald Trump but [because this is how the world sees us]. Why is it that we haven’t managed to present who we are to the world? I am very sad about it.

Tell me, what was it that brought you here?

Well, this was because I was sort of scared of my dad and didn’t approve of his behaviour, and so I always had this nagging thought that I had to leave. But where could I go? Most of my friends went to US, whereas I was watching Skippy the Kangaroo and I liked the nature and not quite materialistic life. That’s how I saw Skippy the Kangaroo, not knowing much about Australia. So I decided to go to the Australian Embassy in Tehran to come to Australia and that’s where I saw my future husband and his family. And that was really why I came to Australia, because my husband lived in Australia. He was an Australian resident and we married and I came to Australia. This is 1981, 19 March 1981. I should have come alone to be honest, rather than marrying him. But I married. We had a beautiful wedding: 200 guests, a beautiful wedding dress. Very nice and in the Continental Hotel there in Tehran. A comparison is a hotel in Collins Street.

So you’ve been here quite a while. So, I suppose I want to ask you two questions and one is about a little bit about what your life has been like. Obviously, that’s a huge question. Then also, how this life is different from your life in Tehran?

You must imagine Melbourne in 1981. Really there was not much there. It was the Flinders Station with Council buildings and there were two very dark brown buildings. I remember they used to call them matchbox buildings. They were some of the main Melbourne buildings. There was nothing in the section of South Bank. It was beautiful, Melbourne. But I remember my first reaction. I had travelled to many countries before coming to Australia; I went to Europe and South East Asian countries. So coming to Australia in 1981, while I was in central Melbourne, in front of the station, my response was, “Is that it?” There was not a wow factor, for I had seen many other countries before this. I found people just like Iranians; we used to dress like you guys and consume almost the same things. The only thing missing here really was my family. So for me, having this nature to explore new things, at least outside Iran, I thought, “We are going to make it. I’ve come here with my husband and we’re going to make a nice life here within this society”. I thought this even though my first response was, “Is that it?”.

I could adapt very easily. I could obviously speak English when I came, and of course, I was an educated woman. I was computer programmer. And also I had a degree in economics and insurance, so I was an educated woman coming to Australia. So that was good but the problem for me was inside my house. It was the relationship with me and my husband which eventually got very bad. And it took seven years. After that I divorced my husband.

I think I had so many problems inside that I didn’t pay much attention to what was happening outside. Of course, very soon, within three weeks, I found employment. Can you imagine? A woman from Tehran, coming to Australia in 1981, and within three weeks, I was employed with Integer Computing Services in South Melbourne as a computer programmer. And I had $700-something salary every two weeks; that was quite substantial for then, 1981. So very soon we rented a flat in South Yarra and got on with working. Work is 9:00 to 5:00, and sometimes later that 5:00, and I was working and coming home. My husband did not have much information about Australia; I didn’t have information. Then there was not these services for women and childcare; there wasn’t really much. Unfortunately, that was my biggest mistake: I did not read newspapers. I didn’t have time. I was working so much, and my work required concentration, writing computer programmes. When I came home I was so tired. That is one thing I encourage people coming to Australia do, and that is to read. Now of course there is the internet but then it was newspapers. Of course, I started reading later but initially that would have helped me had I engaged in gaining information about this country in which I was living. I guess – I can’t say I was lazy but – I was too involved with domestic things. So seven years passed very painfully and after that things changed again. I had to take certain positive steps forward.

If you had been more able to engage with newspapers what are some of the things that you think you might have discovered that might have been useful to you?

For example, the laws in Australia, the laws about women, and their rights, and if there was housing – I think there was housing commission then – and services for women to go to, like refuges for women. There weren’t very many Iranians either, when I came to Australia; even now is not a large community, let alone then, 1981. So I think I would have found out about legislation passed for racism, vilification, and other issues. I wish I would have of come to the library where I was and spoken to someone, learning where I could find information about things in Melbourne. There is a proverb in Persian language that knowledge is power. You see, power is not in anything we might think, like money … It’s in education, and knowledge, but not necessarily even education. I had a degree. What I lacked was knowledge about myself and my rights. This is what I lacked and this is exactly why I suffered.

I think you can expand this to society too. Look at Iran now. I think many Iranians are very knowledgeable. The most successful Iranians live outside of Iran in United States, in the legal industry, finance industry, and medical industry. I was in US in 2000 when my daughter became sick. I went to the doctor. Guess what? Iranian doctor and Iranian nurse. I just went to clinic in Los Angeles. So why is it that we are so successful, I’m thinking, outside Iran?

But in Iran, we don’t have freedom like you have in Australia. I mean, you have freedom, don’t you? You can say what you believe generally. If you don’t like this government, in three years you get to kick them out. Why is it that we don’t have this? In Iran, we are afraid of this regime. And it is this fear which is so destructive, I think. If it is inside a domestic environment, like my house, for example, like the experience I had with my dad, or the experience I had with my husband, and that fear expands to the society, it is much more destructive. And will keep a society with huge history and potential for success behind it from actually contributing to the wellbeing of the international community, in the way that Iran is now isolated in the most negative way. And whose responsibility is this? I think it comes down to us.

Like in a domestic or personal environment, where unless I stood up and stated, “I am a human being with certain rights, I am a woman with certain rights” and the laws support me, I would not have been able to free myself from fear and domination and a destructive life, I think the same is applicable to the society. Unless we Iranians stand up and say we should not be treated the way we are treated ..

We have been defamed in the last 40 years in the international community. We sometimes feel ashamed to say we are Iranians because the general community think we all are either so religious or terrorists, which is not true. Absolutely not true. And we stood up a few times in the last 40 years – in fact in the last 100 years  – but still we have not been successful to become free people, not having fear. Do you have fear about the Australian government? Are you fearful? No. You see, we have that fear of this regime. That’s despotic, isn’t it? Is that the word? I think so, yes. Not democratic, yes.

In various ways you’ve begun to answer another question I have, which is how is living here different from living in Iran?

Democracy. Not fearing the government. Understanding that government is for you, for the people, not people for the government. This is very important. In Iran right now, we don’t have that freedom. I have to be my own person. I’ve never been really a political person, but my personal experience, living with fear, with relation to one person, my husband, shows me that if a nation lives in fear of its regime then it will struggle to change. But then because the regime has the power, it can destroy any demonstration, like that. That is destructive. With all the respect I have for Syrian people experiencing so much pain and suffering, and the suffering in many other countries – look at North Korea – I think Iranians are suffering more than any other nation because no one knows about it. It’s hidden. Why is it that a country with such a history of achievement affecting the whole of humanity is suffering and in pain the way we are now?

All this talk about atomic energy: do you think Iranians really benefit from this? It’s the regime. It’s hard to change that. In 2009 Iranians came to the street in the most civilised demonstration you can imagine. They just walked. Mouths shut. They walked but they were devastated by the regime.

After 40 years, the regime of Iran organised an election. After 40 years, the same people still rule. I don’t think that’s a fair election. Having elections means something like what happens here, every three years, and in the US, every four years. This huge administration of Obama left; a new administration came. Right or wrong, I’m not judging that. It’s none of my business. But that is what elections mean. If the people want to re-elect [someone/a government/a regime] that is the people’s business but for 40 years we have put up with the same ruling class.

In Australia, I learned that you don’t need all of the organisations and institutions to monitor every movement of the people, nation. Here we have ASIO. What does ASIO do? It protects Australians against outsiders I guess. It boils down to this. Whereas right now in Iran, I’m not sure how many organisations there are to control and monitor the people of Iran. Where is this budget coming from? The budget comes from oil, from somewhere, because I don’t think we are a manufacturing nation or an agricultural nation any more, thanks to the policies of this regime. So there is all this expenditure, for probably ten different organisations, to monitor the nation’s movement inside. Who can explain that? Sometimes I think it’s not the people who have fear of the regime, it’s the other way around. It must be, with all these different institutions to monitor every movement of the Iranian people. This truly saddens me, Sharon, it saddens me and the fact that it’s hidden… and the pain of this. How to fix this would take a few generations, wouldn’t it? It won’t happen over night. I mean, it might happen somehow in the next ten years – there is a saying that water boils at some degree – but to clear the mind of the generations of all the negativity and rubbish will take years of effort.

And I feel guilty. I say to myself, “You came to Australia 35 years ago. How is it your business, talking about this?” But it’s a love, a love of Iran, and I feel guilty and I say sometimes, “What can I do? I’ll go back to Iran”. But one person can do something. So I thought I’d bring all these experiences to paper. Perhaps this 35 years’ hard work will get somewhere because it is written and it is written in a beautiful story. The story of the Scattered Pearls is about love and is most successful. Yesterday I received an email that a lady wrote to me. She went to Dymocks in Abbotsford and was told her that due to the unprecedented success of the Scattered Pearls, you can’t find it. So that’s why the new edition has come out now, with the new cover.

Scattered Pearls is a book about three generations of Persian or Iranian and Australian women, my grandmother, my mother and me. Most of the book is in Australia; 35 years of it is in Australia. The rest of the book covers 100 years in Persia, Iran. The book is about love and I think it is the universality of the message of the book that has made it so popular. It was nominated for the Premier’s Awards. It’s now gone to Germany, properly translated, and we are aiming to have a movie in 2023 of the Scattered Pearls. Congratulations. Thank you. Even so, this sense of guilt is still there, I must say.

Tell me, if someone saw you in the street who didn’t know you, what would they be surprised to know about you?

I think they would be surprised to know how much hard work and determination people have who come from different walks of life to Australia. I think they would instantly gain a sense that we are all human beings and that my coming to Australia with dark hair or dark skin or different look does not mean I’m a burden in this society. They shouldn’t think, “Look another person has come here to use our resources”. Sometimes I think some people have this view that we are actually using the resources of Australia. But that’s not the case. That person would discover that for every day I have lived in Australia, I have probably put ten days’ hard work in, if not more. To be successful in Australia, you really have to work ten times more than an average, white Australian. This is applicable to Aboriginal residents of Australia, the Aboriginal owners of Australia, too. We all have to work harder. First of all, with language. We have to be fluent in written and spoken language. I didn’t have any cultural issues to be honest. I am not a religious person. I just believe in humanity and God and I don’t see anyone here as a threat to me. Even if they come from other countries. Even if the colour of their skin be different. It’s none of my business as long as they are human. I respect that. Unless they act anti-human. Then, of course, I would say, what is this person doing?

I think the person looking at me should have an open mind. I have learnt that in Australia, generally people who are not just educated but who have travelled and had contact with other cultures, or when they were little kids have seen other cultures, are more receptive, whereas some Australians who have never seen anyone from a non-English speaking background and have had limited education, have a limited perspective. They may not have travelled at all and perhaps they have just been exposed to a few channels, and never exposed to SBS or ABC. They just watch commercial channels and certain hyperactive programmes. Perhaps they might think of migrants as a burden to society. But I think the average Australian has an open mind and embraces us, because they have seen the benefits.

I have seen the benefit of migration over 35 years here. I can see how successful Australia has been in terms of food. I invited nine people last Sunday and they had five kids, around 10-12. And I said to my partner, “You know what we did today?” He said, “What?” I said, “We invested in the future of Australia. These five kids – aged ten, 11, maybe 13 max – these guys loved Persian food; they loved the openness. They all came and hugged me and they mingled with [our Iranian friends].” To me this is an investment because these five kids will never have a fear of the unknown or someone who looks different. They will embrace us and, I think, every little step counts: every programme on SBS or ABC that encourages people to embrace and celebrate difference, rather than be fearful, because fear is destructive. I think Scattered Pearls does that.

So maybe the person looking at me now will see a fashionable, presentable woman. They will most likely think I am Italian or French or Spanish. I’ve been asked many times, are you French? But this is just appearance. When they read Scattered Pearls, the story of 35 years in Australia, then they will really gain a sense of the work behind this multicultural Australia, this embracing of differences, and the benefit for the whole society.

I’ve become a successful business woman and I pay tax. I employ people, don’t I? So imagine this: how the contribution of Australia has helped me, by its laws, and protection for women’s right, through refuge houses, etc. By my gaining control of my life, I have been able to contribute to and repay this society. There is benefit for the whole Australian society; help and assistance will never go out of the window for no achievement. Of course, there are problems. Every society has them. You think Iran doesn’t have problems with crime, for example? I help Australians in Frankston Magistrates Court: drugs, violence, you name it, we have it. But that doesn’t apply to the whole community. Certainly not. So coming from a different country can be a very good thing for Australia and I think Australian history provides evidence of that.

Tell me, is there anything else that you would like the readers of this interview to know about you?

I want them to know that finishing Scattered Pearls is not the end of my struggle and hard work. In fact, I’m working harder than ever as a volunteer. I’ve been a volunteer four years. Volunteering means you don’t have income, really. I have been to the top and back again because of circumstances, but I’m building up again. The message is, never give up. And when you read someone who is successful, don’t think that’s the end. No, things might change in a blink of an eye, mightn’t they?

So, the message is this: never give up, believe in yourself and do the hard work. I am doing the hard work, Sharon. Today I’m applying to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to give me work experience as a volunteer because I have 50 days left. I’ll still be at Victorian Legal Aid, but if Victorian Legal Aid only want me from two to five days, I still have a few days free I can use to pass this 50 days quickly. So I send an application to them in the hope that they consider me. This brings be back to nearly 20 years ago when I put in many job applications. So there is a cycle of hard work and moving forward, not just looking back. If you look back, take that as a resource for moving forward. So, that’s what I say to myself. “Sohila, you are a volunteer. Don’t worry. Once you finish this, once you get your practicing certificate, somebody will employ you”. So, you see, this is exactly like 20 years ago. This is my message: move forward.

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