BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
A few years back, I had a chance to interview two women who had surpassed the age of 100. The first woman, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide, was born in 1913 in Western Armenia. The second was a supercentenarian woman who had reached the age of 110. Unlike the first, she was not Armenian, but she had lived most of her life in my hometown, Glendale, California. When I interviewed her in 2016, she had just turned 110. Both women had compelling stories.
Unfortunately, I never got around to writing their stories, because a few unexpected distractions came my way. Instead, I tucked the interviews away, waiting for the opportunity to transcribe their experiences. Although I never found the chance to write about those women, their stories have been kept alive within my own memory.
This brings me to today’s subject. Today, there’s another amazing woman who’s getting close to becoming a centenarian—93-year-old Molly Rad.
Recently, I took a three-day road trip, by tour bus, to Arizona to visit the Grand Canyon and the red city of Sedona. The trip was organized by an Iranian tour company. After the whole group settled in the bus, the tour director opened with some remarks about the trip, and then introduced the passengers.
The first person he introduced was Molly Rad. He explained that she was a steady traveler with the group, and communicated some facts about her life. I was most interested to hear about how Molly, at the age of 93, drove her own car and went swimming seven days a week.
After two short stops, around 4 p.m., we arrived at Lake Havasu in Arizona. We took a ferry-boat ride to the other side of the lake, where there was a little casino and a restaurant.
While on the boat, I had the chance to sit next to Molly. She told me about her life stories, which piqued my interest. What stood out especially was that she was born in Tabriz, Iran and had lived there until she was 13-years-old.
Molly was born in 1926. Her family lived in Lilava, a region in Tabriz that was mostly populated with Armenians. However, she was born to a Muslim family, not an Armenian one. My mother was also born and raised in Lilava, and had told me many stories about Tabriz and that particular neighborhood.
In the 1930s, around 30,000 Armenians lived in Tabriz. There were two Armenian neighborhoods, Lilava and Ghala. The latter was a more prestigious and wealthy neighborhood. It boasted a majestic Armenian school which was built in 1836. My mom remembered that, in 1936, the Armenian community celebrated the centennial of the school with fanfare.
Molly told me that after elementary school, she had attended a school which she thought might have been an Armenian school, because most of her classmates were Armenian girls.
Here, I must bring to your attention a slice of history, and clarify the situation of the Armenian schools in Iran. For that, I have to go back to the time when Reza Shah became the Shah of Iran, with the help of Britain, in 1925.
Reza Shah, the father of the last Shah of Iran, is known for modernizing Iran and eliminating the women’s veil—referred to as a chador. This outrageous move was met with opposition of the Mullahs from the religious establishment, but it helped with the awakening of Iranian women.
For those unfamiliar with the details of the rule of Reza Shah, I should explain that he followed the policy of Kemal Ataturk—the President of Turkey—as a Nationalist, which resulted in the suppression of ethnic groups living in Iran and brought about the closing of ethnic schools, including the Armenian schools.
Around 1938, the Armenian schools in Iran were officially closed, and Armenian children were forced to learn to read and write, in Armenian, at home. Families in the Lilava neighborhood, where most Armenians had made their homes, had no choice but to send their kids to non-Armenian schools. That’s why Molly thought she had gone to an Armenian school, and why most of her classmates were Armenian.
The closing of the Armenian schools lasted only a few years. After Reza Shah was exiled, his son Mohammad Reza Shah, who ruled from 1941 to the Islamic Revolution of 1979, gave the Armenians ample opportunities for advancement.
Having linguistic abilities and contacts with Europe, Armenians had an advantage. It wasn’t long before they were given important positions, assisting in the development of the Iranian economy. They became dominant and respected citizens in their professional roles.
The Shah trusted and admired his Armenian subjects. Thus, the status of Armenians rose. Tehran, similar to Beirut, became a major center of Armenian life.
Armenians played a significant role in the development of the 20th-century Iran, both in its economic and cultural life. They were pioneers in photography, theater, music and the film industry. They also played a pivotal role in Iranian political affairs.
Throughout Iran, in many cities, the Armenian communities flourished. Each city opened its own cultural centers, sports clubs, and associations. The number of Armenians, before the Islamic Revolution, reached to around 200,000.
Numerous churches, schools, and libraries served the needs of the Armenian community. Armenians had the privilege to choose their own Senator and Member of Parliament.
There were also numerous Armenian publications, books, journals, periodicals, and newspapers. A main publication, a daily journal, was The Wave (or Alik, in Armenian). Today, the number of Armenians in Iran is approximately 50,000-60,000—with only 600 in Tabriz.
Now back to my story. Molly lost her father when she was five-years-old. A few years after the death of Molly’s father, her family moved from Tabriz to Tehran. Upon moving, Molly started eighth grade at Nourbakhsh high school. When she graduated from high school, she took the entrance exam of Tehran Polytechnic and was accepted into the Electrical Engineering Department.
On the first day of the school, the Dean of the Engineering Department called her to the office and said,”Though you have been accepted to the program, the material in this department is too strenuous for a woman to study. I don’t think you’ll be able to follow through with your studies.” In response, Molly said, “That’s okay. If I fail, I will repeat the class again.”
That’s how she began her studies in a male dominated program. She became the first woman to get her license as an electrical engineer in Iran. She met her husband at Tehran Polytechnic, and later had two daughters with him.
Before coming to America, Molly created a unique high school for girls, which offered technical education such as electrical engineering, mathematics, and sciences.
I have four words to describe Molly: Sweet, petite, determined, and intelligent. She was 53-years-old when the Islamic Revolution started, and she was adamant that she didn’t want to live under the strict Islamic regime.
To that end, she decided to leave the country. Iran has a rule, that if the wife wants to travel outside of the country, she needs to have the consent of her husband. So, she told to her husband that she wanted to leave the country. She explained how he asked her, “What if I don’t give you the permission to leave the country, then what would you do?” She responded, “I will take the dangerous journey of fleeing the country by crossing the border.”
Long story short, Molly, her husband and their two daughters moved to Los Angeles, California in the early 1980s. Molly did her own research and realized that the best business to start would be computer programming. She studied on her own, day and night, to learn the ins and outs of the computer programming business.
In 1981, the husband and wife started a thriving programming business together, and kept it for thirty years. After closing their business, at the age of 85, Molly signed up at Santa Monica college to study computer animation.
I asked her, “Why animation?” She said that while in Tabriz, her mother liked to go to the movies, and she often took her children with her. Before each movie started, they showed cartoons, and Molly was fascinated by them.
When they closed their business, she thought it was the right time for her to learn animation. She got two licenses from studying computer animation—a remarkable achievement.
Then, I asked Molly to tell me about her swimming habits. She said that ever since she was a child, she loved swimming. They had a pool at their home, in Tabriz. Her parents left the pool half full, to prevent any chance of drowning. However, during the summer, while her parents took an afternoon nap, she and her brothers would sneak out to have a splash in the pond. That’s how she developed a life-long love for swimming.
Today, at age 93, she drives her car to the gym; she’s a member of LA Fitness in Santa Monica. She swims seven days a week for half an hour, and she does half an hour of strength training three days a week. Suffice to say that she’s in excellent health, and not a good customer for the doctors.
Molly’s story is inspiring on many levels. When we returned from the trip, she got off the bus, picked up her pink carry-on, crossed to the other side of the street, and used her phone to call an Uber to go home. As for me, I’ve resolved to follow her routine.