Different Dialogues : Ms. Maryam Behnam

In conversation with Ms. Maryam Behnam – Author. Columnist. Lecturer. Traveller. Cultural Attaché accredited to the Iran Cultural Centre, Lahore (Pakistan). Masters in English Literature from Punjab University. Winner of Emirates Woman of the Year Awards 2010, Dubai, U.A.E.

Maryam Behnam’s home is in a quiet, genial residential road of Dubai. I appraise the locality with a lingering walk because I am ahead by ten whole minutes for my meeting with Maryam Behnam. A straight forward reminder rings in my memory that the grand lady who is 92 years of age, records punctuality as notable and I have memorized her message by heart! Whatever is well said and staunch by anyone, belongs to Maryam. Personally, I am wholly inspired by her, even before the interview.

As I enter Maryam’s drawing room, the place fixes my eye on elegant splashes of colour – flowers, fabric, decorative pieces blend bestowing favours to each other. When I compliment her on the settings, Maryam instantly responds, “There’s an Arabic saying, God is beautiful and loves beauty.” I grasp in no time that Maryam’s personality is limitless, at any moment of time. If you try to picture in any other way, then you are not getting the true picture of Maryam. Now over to almonds and fresh-mint-tea, I opened my dialogue with Maryam.

Born in Iran in 1921, Maryam Behnam’s father and grand-father were prosperous pearl merchants having links with Paris and India through Iran. Her father was a linguist and a scholar. Her ancestors were educated in Theology. Though Maryam came from a highly honoured background, she was the first woman in her family to graduate. During her years, the importance of education was a privilege strictly granted only to the male members of society.

Maryam had to fight to receive formal education. She could not understand why men, only men, were groomed to become Doctors, Engineers, Scientists. “I resented the system,” Maryam states with a well satisfied smile. “The year of my birth saw the year of a terrible earthquake in my home town of Bandar Lengeh (Iran). Because of my strong nature, I was linked with the earthquake and was given the name of Zelzelah Bibi – Little Miss Earthquake.”

Though it is true that an entourage of 3 teachers always travelled with the family on their journeys, but that was not going to be enough to quench the boundless thirst that Maryam possessed for the world of knowledge. “Being the second child and even worse, a female, I certainly wasn’t considered important. I felt the acute pressure of being a girl-child after the death of a younger sibling brother. Often it is the negative attitude of the people around you that brings the best in you.” Maryam states with a philosophical note.

Eventually, when Maryam was 14 or 15, she got the sanction to go to an English medium school in Karachi. Part of her schooling also took place in Mumbai. After her Masters in English Literature from Punjab University, one more hurdle cropped up for the lady. Her family was frowning upon the idea that she was wanting to be a teacher in the school where she had studied. The fighter that she was, Maryam’s reason prevailed. She says with natural pride, “I was an avid reader from the age of 5 when I was introduced to the verses of the Holy Quran. I was not going to stop ever to pursue advancement.” Maryam continued to share her views with me and remarked, “I am appalled to hear from a student recently, who said I don’t see books, I don’t like books, I don’t read books.” Maryam’s ardent message to parents is to let the children “see books”.

22 years of marriage, 3 children of her own, 3 more children adopted by Maryam Behnam, the gracious dame’s life finds fulfillment from every single aspect of activity. She came to Dubai 33 years back to start a new course and finally made Dubai her home. She loves to trace her roots connecting with Bastakiya, now a heritage site of Dubai. She tells me with notable nostalgia, “I have been seeing Dubai for the last 85 years. My entire family lived here as they were, and are residents of this place. Dubai is so special that it has inspired me to write. Sheikh Mohammed is someone special I look up to.” Linking her yesteryears with today, Maryam reflects and tells me, “I never think of being old. A few years ago I was invited for a wedding and was asked to bless the wedding couple. The parents of the wedding couple said to me: please wish our children that they grow old together. I said to them, that I won’t do. What I will say is, let God help them, guide them to remain young together and very blessed.”

Maryam is versatile, zealous and is an example of inspiration for all ages. In the 1960’s, by the Iranian Government Maryam was posted as Cultural Consul and she was the first woman to be bestowed this sensitive, prestigious post. During the tenure of her office as Cultural Attaché accredited to the Iran Cultural Centre, Lahore, Madam Behnam served the cause of Pakistan-Iran cultural friendship. As her term of office came to a close, her Pakistani admirers and friends had decided to present her with an anthology of some of her own speeches that she had delivered before various learned societies in Lahore and other academic centres throughout Pakistan. Later, Maryam was posted in Baluchistan (1973-1977) and selected to become Member of Parliament.

Causes to support women are engraved in Maryam’s heart. She narrates to me a 40 years old incident when she was stopped from her natural right to collect her children’s passports. She says that when she went to pick up the passports, the officer asked her, “Where is your husband?” She replied, “What you want to do with my husband?” “Because we do not give passports to women”, retorted back the officer. To challenge the unreasonable system, she immediately reported the matter to the local daily English paper. That worked like a magic and she had the passports of her children in her hand in no time. Maryam highlights on the incident and tells me, “Can you beat this rule of man! I was the mother who gave birth to my children and was nourishing my children and the authorities felt that I was not eligible to collect my own kids’ passports.”

When we were in discussion about Maryam’s books, I sighted a quality of spiritualism underlining her whole thought about life. Her book, Zelzelah is about a woman before her time living in difficult times. It is a compelling autobiography that documents the turbulent life of Maryam Behnam. Another book, Raindrops is precious because it shows the intrinsic beauty and greatness of Islam. The essays throw light to the deeper meaning of life.

Maryam’s parting message to me was, “Love life. Love yourself”.

For me, the highest merit of meeting Maryam has been the gift of a striving belief. I believe that if I live up to be Maryam’s age and if the same age of Maryam will produce the same felicity and enthusiasm in me – the memoir of my own life will have filed very good returns. Live long! Maryam. Good health and good luck with your pen, Maryam…

Q 1. What has been the turning point of your life?
A. There have been so many turning points in my life with unusual experiences – good and bad. Bombs, destructions, drastic changes and also several achievements. Sometimes, I feel in one life time, it is difficult to experience so much. I feel I have come, gone and come again.

Q 2. If you could go back in time, what would you want to do?
A. I seldom think and linger on past circumstances – which could take away my passion for life, today. Future is far away. Today, matters. I have helped people when needed. I have made a difference in women’s empowerment in general wherever I was. And today, I am proud of their achievements.

Q 3. What are your future dreams?
A. I want to write a few more books on subjects that matter. I dream to organize to set up an institution for the girls of my beloved Dubai. In every sense of the word, they could be instructed with all the useful topics which could make them better mothers, grand-mothers. In fact, home-making classes could be attended by older generations, also – since the only thing that never ends is the process of learning. We are always learning.

Geeta Chhabra

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