Walled In, Walled Out: A Young American Woman in Iran

Mary and girls from summer camp on their way to visit the orphanage.

Kerman girls on way to orphanage.

Mary with girls from summer camp on their way to visit Kerman's orphanage.

About the Book

 While our country leaps on and off a collision course with Iran, Americans forget we have not always been enemies. This memoir is set in the early 1960s when the shah reigns, the word ayatollah is rarely spoken, and SAVAK, Iran’s secret police, wields uncompromising power. In the 1960s west, however, Persia evokes images of colorful carpets, wealthy oil sheiks, and glamorous royalty. Leaders of the 1979 Iranian Revolution are in elementary school when Mary answers John F. Kennedy’s call to “ask what you can do for your country” and joins the Peace Corps.

The setting is Kerman, a conservative southern city on the stark Iranian plateau where she teaches English to high school girls. Problems appear immediately. Her culinary skills are woefully lacking: Just where on that lamb carcass are the succulent chops her mother makes? Those green leaves in the basket are spinach? Back home, Birdseye froze that vegetable in hard, rectangular boxes. Even when the food is identified, Mary has no idea how to prepare it. The room she shares with another volunteer at the teachers’ training school for girls has no running water.

Mary Dana Marks with boys, Kerman, Iran. Ruins of Qaleh Dokhtar (girls' fortress in background.

Mary’s position in Kerman’s classrooms is nebulous at best. The English lessons are primarily in Farsi, her role limited to oral exercises at the end of class. But she learns a lot of Persian sitting in those classrooms, and her students’ pronunciation improves. Socially, she’s a curiosity. Any public appearance creates a stir as she and her roommate are the only women who don’t wear chadors. Chatting with a male colleague in the bazaar causes an uproar. In the classroom, or walking through the bazaar, a turbaned Baluchi tribesman in front and a chanting Sufi dervish behind, it is Mary who stands out. But the adobe walls that seclude women from prying eyes exclude her, a bareheaded foreigner. Her every move is scrutinized; Mary’s youthful indiscretions nearly get her ejected from the city.

 Woven throughout this adventure are dusty travels from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea, colorful feasts, rich history, and hidden romance. Walled In, Walled Out recounts Mary’s convoluted, often humorous journey from ignorance to understanding in this place that mixes mirage and harsh reality, a country where the people speak with many voices.

 Mary with a group of curious boys. The ruins of Qalah Dokhtar (the girls' fortress) are in the background.

Shop in the copper bazaar, Kerman, Iran.

A shop in Kerman's copper bazaar. The male Peace Corps volunteers lived in a house not far from here.