My Leopard Shoes
As a child in Iraq, Farah Montadher must dance behind her closed bedroom door. It is only one of the restrictions she faces: no dancing, no bike-riding, no outings with friends. A visit to her sister in America is a revelation. She decides to claim refugee status in Canada and embraces a freedom she relishes. Shod in leopard-patterned shoes, she rediscovers the pleasures of dancing, this time without having to hide.
The dance studio has blond wooden floors, soft lighting and mirrors that cover an entire wall. I am practicing my ballroom steps in my leopard-print shoes, watching myself in the glass when, out of the blue, I flash on my youth in Iraq.
Mom never approved of dancing, so I had to sneak away and lock myself in my bedroom, where I would dance my heart out for hours– watching myself in the mirror with a soaring sense of joy.
I also loved biking, but when my body began to mature, Mom forbade that too. I wasn’t allowed to go out with friends, and of course, having a boyfriend was out of the question. I felt as if my wings were clipped.
After the Iraq/Iran war, we lost our dear father. Needing to help support my family, I convinced Mom to open a boutique where I could work. I was still under her watchful eye, but at least I was out of the house.
Through the business, I learned to talk to people and earned good money. Meanwhile, my three sisters remained content at home, doing housework and watching TV.
Once the war started with America, business slowed down. Things got worse when my only brother decided to take over the boutique. Stuck at home, I began to suffocate. Worse yet, mom wanted me to marry! But I protested, saying I could only marry a man I loved.
By arrangement, my oldest sister married a traditional Iraqi-American doctor and moved to the US. I thought she was lucky to live in the west, where she could enjoy greater freedom.
When my sister became pregnant, Mom decided to visit her in Michigan. I tagged along. I landed with ecstatic thoughts of freedom. I ended up living with my sister for three years, but I was still not free! My sister was content at home, following the old rules and not integrating with the American culture. Nonetheless, I became friends with a Canadian couple who lived next door. They talked about life in Toronto, and I began to dream of living in Canada.
But, how? It seemed I had only two choices: return to Iraq–to the war and Mom and her rules–or stay in the States by an arranged marriage to my brother-in-law’s friend, whom I didn’t even like. But in desperation, I got engaged. I had even bought my wedding dress when panic and nightmares struck. My fiancé was very traditional. I just couldn’t do it.
I was so determined to be free: luckily, my lawyer friend advised me to apply for refugee status in Canada. I couldn’t win my sister’s support, but out of desperation, I stole her ID and crossed the Windsor Bridge in March 1997.
Obtaining Canadian status, adjusting to a new country, living alone, improving my English, scraping by financially, and finding a job were huge challenges.
Finally, I found a sales job in a boutique and bought myself the first bicycle I’ve had since childhood. Eventually, I won the right to stay in Canada. Finally, some freedom!
One day my boss invited me to go to a salsa class with her. I rode MY BIKE to the store to get dancing shoes. Right away, a satin leopard-print pair caught my eye. They were feather-light, with suede soles to prevent slipping on the dance floor. Although they cost way too much, I slipped them on, mmm, they felt so good–like a pair of sleek, beautiful paws.
So now, every time I wear my leopard shoes, I feel deliciously free. I found out early that I love to dance, so I dance. And lately, I have discovered the joy of singing, so I sing.
I think I was born to be free.
FARAH MONTADHER was born in Iraq and studied Electrical Engineering. She works as a yoga teacher.