WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- A storyteller and writer at heart, Taha Ebrahimi longs to hear, assimilate and reflect the voices of Iranian women whose life stories remain obscured by the veils of Islam. For Ebrahimi, a young Iranian-American woman and graduating senior at Whitman College, the allure of those voices and stories is understandable. They are the sounds and experiences that might have been her own, had not her parents been displaced two decades ago by the fundamentalist Iranian revolution that coincided with her birth.
Later this summer, Ebrahimi will take the first steps in what promises to be an intensive exploration of the female Iranian culture she feels she was possibly meant to live -- before politics and fate intervened.
Ebrahimi, the first member of her family born outside of Iran, is one of 60 graduating seniors from around U.S. who have received post-graduate fellowships from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation to pursue year-long independent study projects.
More than 1,000 graduating seniors from 50 of the nation's top liberal arts colleges and universities applied for the latest round of Watson fellowships. Applicants accepted for funding receive $22,000 to finance their study projects.
Ebrahimi, a 1997 graduate of University Preparatory School (Seattle, Wash.), is the 12th Whitman student to receive a Watson fellowship over the past six years. An English major, she is the daughter of Yaghoob and Nahid Ebrahimi of Seattle.
The Watson Fellowship Program, based in Providence, R.I., was founded in 1968 to honor the founder of IBM. Designed to reward "seriously creative" people, the program encourages applicants to devise projects in which they can explore specific interests and concerns, test their aspirations and abilities, view their lives and American society in greater perspective, and develop a more informed sense of international concerns.
In her initial application for a Watson fellowship, Ebrahimi proposed spending her first nine months traveling throughout Iran. Her goal was to talk to women of all ages and in all walks of life, gathering their stories and writing her own, based on her encounters and her perspective as an American woman raised in the Seattle, Wash., area. Her plans also called for visits with Iranian women during a pilgrimage to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, and a trip to an Iranian Sufi Commune in Banbury, England.
Her proposal changed late in the application process, however, when she learned that U.S. travel restrictions stood in the way of a Watson fellowship based on travel to Iran. Nonetheless, her proposal was accepted for funding when she scrapped plans for visiting Iran in favor of traveling to several Sufi communities around the globe.
Sufism is an Islamic sect known for its mystical beliefs and widespread missionary work. Because its precepts are viewed as blasphemously diluted in comparison to the Arabic origins of Islam, however, Sufism is banned in Iran, an Islamic republic. While Ebrahimi claims no particular religion of her own, her parents are devout Sufis.
Seeing part of her Watson proposal collapse because of travel restrictions to Iran, Ebrahimi says, served as a reminder of her "displacement" as an American-Iranian. On a more positive note, it also sharpened her desire to collect stories from the Iranian women who chose to leave their country and extended families to live in widely scattered Sufi communities. Hearing Sufi women tell stories of their "chosen displacement," she adds, will set the stage for the day when she can travel on her own to Iran, to visit and talk with its women.
Ebrahimi plans to begin her travels in Banbury, England, the headquarters of the Nimotollah Order of Sufis. Another Sufi commune is a few hours away in London, where editors and writers organize the quarterly publication of the Sufi poetry magazine. Visiting with magazine staff members will be of the "utmost interest" as she shares her passion for writing and editing, Ebrahimi says. "Perhaps these women will have stories that will drastically challenge my own perceptions of passion and writing, or perhaps their stories will ring familiar."
From England, Ebrahimi will travel to Sufi communities in Amsterdam, Cologne and Paris. "Living a Sufi lifestyle, dressing modestly, partaking in no excessive activity, all seem to me -- and perhaps I am ignorant -- to be hard things to do in each of these metropolitan cities," Ebrahimi says. "What is the story between the local lifestyle and the Sufi lifestyle? How does the woman compromise herself in the switches she makes between typical daily activities, like buying groceries and meditating? How does the Iranian storyteller perceive her new world and explain it?"
Her next stop is Spain, a country conquered many centuries ago by the "Moors," and where much of the art and architecture remains Islamic in nature. Her hope in that country is to explore how identity is expressed through art.
Ebrahimi's first stop in Africa will be the Ivory Coast, where a medical clinic is attached to the Sufi Center's meditation house. She plans to volunteer in the clinic, which is used and staffed primarily by women. "What are the stories told by women who help other women?" she asks.
Visiting the Sufi Center in Benin, a few countries away, will offer a different perspective on the African lifestyle, Ebrahimi says. Following her foray into Africa, Ebrahimi will join an Iranian caravan on a pilgrimage to Mecca, the epicenter for all Muslim faith in the world. Because her parents are Muslim, she also is considered Muslim and can receive the necessary permission to enter the Holy Cities. Such a pilgrimage is required of all Muslims, orthodox or Sufi.
"This experience will be very moving for me as I will be sharing the same path that women in my family have traveled for so long," Ebrahimi says. "What are the stories I will experience or hear from the Iranian women in this caravan? How will I feel veiled and riding in the back of the bus, being just as American as any other woman born and raised in the United States? On this path, I will finally share something in common with so much of my past."
Sydney, Australia, will be the last stop on her journey. "After having visited Mecca, will my perceptions as an American or as a woman be altered?" Ebrahimi wonders.
Ebrahimi's parents came to the United States in the 1970s because her father was completing his education at the University of Washington. By the time he earned his master's and doctoral degrees in engineering, he was working for Boeing, and by the time Taha was born on April 2, 1979, Iran was in a state of turmoil as the Islamic Republic of Iran entered its second month of existence. "Once the revolution took place, it was much easier for my parents to stay here in the United States," she says. "My father came here to go to school, not intending to spend the rest of his life here."
While growing up in Seattle, Ebrahimi remained connected to her Iranian heritage in large part because of female storytelling, which her mother joked was a "national pastime" in Iran. By the time she was 13, Ebrahimi had become a serious writer, intent upon committing her stories to paper. "Over the years, I have accumulated over 40 spiral notebooks, each notebook over 200 pages of my spider scrawl," she says.
While at Seattle's University Preparatory School, she worked as editor-in-chief of the high school newspaper and won several writing awards. As a freshman in college, she enrolled in a writing-intensive school, New York's Sarah Lawrence College, where she also interned at Spin magazine. She transferred to Whitman as a sophomore, mostly because of her interest in a more broad-based educational experience that included a campus community not fractured by the glitter and attractions of an adjacent metropolitan area.
"Whitman has been perfect for me," Ebrahimi says. "The sense of campus community is very strong here, and I've been able to maintain my interest in writing." She helped revamp the "blue moon" (Whitman's literary magazine) soon after arriving on campus, and she's serving as editor-in-chief this year. She also has worked as the arts & entertainment editor at "The Pioneer," Whitman's student newspaper, and one of her short stories was accepted recently for publication in "Raven Chronicles," a Northwest literary magazine. Her future plans include the possibilities of pursuing a master of fine arts degree in creative writing and working in the journalism field.
Dave Holden, Whitman News Service, (509) 527-5902