Saeide is my email pal. She’s the first email pal I’ve had, but that’s because in the age before computers we had pen pals, people to whom we hand wrote letters. My first pen pal lived in England. I was in elementary school at the time. I found her through a kids’ magazine that was encouraging international exchanges. We corresponded via flimsy blue paper called Aerograms; using these was a standard way to save money on airmail postage. I’m relieved that I have no record of our correspondence, because I have read the research that showed the relationship between adult nuns with dementia and their poor quality writing as teens. Even without the evidence, I’m sure my first letter to England went something like this. I live with my parents. I’m an only child. I have a dog named Cocoa. I like to play, read, and ride my bike. I’m in fifth grade. Oddly, although I have few memories of what we talked about in our letters or how long the correspondence continued, I do remember asking my dad about what I should write and him saying, “Whatever you do, don’t brag and don’t tell her about your toys. She may not have as much as you have.” I remembered feeling somewhat deflated, since that was exactly what I thought would be a great topic of conversation at the time.
My second pen pals were a husband and wife from the former Soviet Union, specifically from Kazakhstan. A teacher of Russian was promoting a campaign to end the Cold War through an exchange of letters among the citizens of both countries. I was learning a lot from our correspondence, which unfortunately ended with the breakup of the USSR.
Saeide is from Iran. We have been writing to each other for a few months and thus far I have not been tempted to tell her about my toys, a hopeful sign that I have matured in the realm of corresponding with people abroad. I’m learning that having email pals is a great improvement over pen pals, because you don’t have to wait three weeks between communications. Saeide teaches English as a Second Language and dreams of getting accepted into grad school in the US and becoming a writer…in English. She writes in almost perfect colloquial English, to the point that I often forget I’m reading the work of someone who was raised speaking another first language. She faces many challenges in Iran when it comes to achieving her goals. One of the biggest is the traditional attitude toward women, which, unfortunately, her father shares. She is able to live and work in Tehran rather than in the small town where her family lives, only because her brothers are enrolled in graduate programs there and she is needed to clean and cook for them. She is determined to pursue her artistic goals, despite any lack of encouragement, or rather, despite full-scale discouragement. She said that when she was a child her father “would punish us if he saw us doing anything other than doing homework. Hundreds of my drawings and a dozen of my stories were burnt in front of my very eyes.”
I am just getting acquainted with Saeide, but our correspondence has an uncertain future based on an announcement she heard from the Minister of Communication that the internet will be shut down in Iran. It’s hard to imagine this or to believe that if it happened clever people wouldn’t figure out how to get around it. This possible eventuality makes me feel helpless, as it probably does her. Meanwhile all I can do is keep writing, monitor the situation there, and continue to wish her well in her endeavors to realize her dreams.