Friday, June 09, 2006

A Young Iranian Emigrant Writer

Finally we hear from them, those uninvited guests, to whom most of us abroad played host in one way or another, that young generation of Iranians who embark on an unwanted “exodus.” That generation which reluctantly gave up the luxury and comfort of “family” and was young enough not to predict what might come after. That generation which, at the airport, did not know its destination or why it was traveling in the first place. That generation which was going to live with an aunt or uncle and whose spouse was a stranger known only from pictures in family albums. That generation which walked into an unknown world even less prepared than its predecessors who had at least left the country at the right age. That generation which came to Paris, London, Berlin, Vienna, etc. in the 1980’s and lined up at the American Embassy waiting and praying for a visa and is still wondering why. And when many of them ended up here in the houses (not homes) of their relatives or friends of the friends of their parents, and cousins and second cousins of their old teachers who were themselves mostly buried in all sorts of problems, they still did not know why.

Those of us who knew them then expected after some 20 years to see doctors, engineers, lawyers, university professors, technicians, biologists, journalists, real state owners, CEOs, investment bankers, consultants, and businesspeople. We look and see them sometimes in the billboard halls of Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center or Kennedy Center, film festivals, or local theaters, or even as artists and writers in the bookstore windows of Borders or Barnes and Nobles as well. Surely we are very proud of them all, of their achievements, since each of them represents hundreds of them who made it here against all the odds.

I personally know a number of these young boys and girls among that generation of the “exodus,” and indeed all of them are successful and able. Many of them have their own families now and are parents to children who soon will be the same age as their parents were when they arrived here. They are the first generation that calls itself Iranian American. (I still call myself Iranian after 35 years.) This is the generation which carries the burden of being “first generation” by Margaret Mead’s definition. Of being acquisitive, collecting, gathering, and surviving. I have to remind myself so often to avoid excessive expectations and not to get too annoyed when Andre Agassi does not even bother and calls himself just American and does not utter a single Persian word, or seeing these young people who do not know even our very recent history. (Recently one 14-year-old asked her mother, once a political prisoner in Iran, who Empress Farah was.) However as a “third generation” by Mead’s definition, I cannot forget what my generation is standing for: “culture.” And indeed “culture” Iranian style, which undeniably includes national pride.

I came across Afshineh Latifi’s book Even After All This Time on a bookshelf at Borders. Impatient to hear their side of story, I read the book with many question in my mind, with joy, with expectations of the sweet and bitter taste of an aperitif before a feast.

Afshineh’s memoir could be divided into 3 parts. The first, 90 pages, is about what happened before their “flight,” some 35 pages about her and her sister’s stay in Vienna, 35 pages on their early stay in Virginia, and the rest is almost an anticlimax about their approaching adulthood.

The first part of the book is their memories of the Iranian revolution, resulting in the arrest and, ultimately, execution of their father, which rightly leaves them with a heavy bitter sense that remains with them and the reader throughout the book. I do not think any reader would ever be untouched by the account of an 8-year-old child who has lost her father in such a painful and tragic way. I even felt the grief that her mother went through, although we only know about it second-hand. Then comes the decision to leave the country, and here the trouble starts. That is the part I was interested in. That is the part that formed a new phenomenon unprecedented in our history, the flight of kids who have never been in a grocery store or did not even know the price of bread, or a gold coin, alone, to Paris, Vienna, and London. Who does not know the pain of a great loss? But who knows how to tell a child that for her own sake they have to be deprived of the most precious blessing that a human being can enjoy: family. As far as I know, we have never in our history had a situation that a family voluntarily splits when nobody’s life is in danger. In the 1980’s during the IranIraq war, due to the large number of casualties, many Iranians parents decided for their sons to leave. Un-Iranian as it was, it was a matter of life and death. However, even in those cases, many parents accepted the responsibility for their decisions. In the absence of that threat, one would have a hard time to appeal to any sort of excuse; one has no choice but to accept the responsibility and the consequences. Afshineh tries to solve this problem by claiming that the flight was forced upon them. Their lives were in danger. Their privacy had been violated. The reflective voice which later, in the middle chapters, changes to a child’s memory, is employed to function both as a tool to convince the reader that their trip had been forced upon them, and gives her a chance to displace the heavy burden of responsibility from the truly responsible party, namely her mother. In the part of the book before the exodus, Afshineh speaks reflectively. A reflection of an adult, educated defense lawyer who not only remembers the pain of loss, but knows the unfairness and injustices involved. She argues, she judges, she blames, and she paves the road to create a few good hero-victims. None of them are responsible, and they are forced to leave. Do we all get that sense? Not me. I had recommended the book to my friends in our reading group. When I raised the question, one of our friends was convinced that, yes, they had to leave since their mother did not want her daughters to live a “backward life” and have a good education. I am not sure if Afshineh wanted to convey that message to her readers. Let us give her the benefit of the doubt and agree that she did not. In that case she ought to have come up with a better excuse than an inappropriate marriage proposal which, by a simple “no,” became a forgotten tale. Even various Islamic restrictions or mistreatment and harassment, such as unwarranted house searches, which no one likes or condones, and legitimately could be criticized, are hardly to be considered life-threatening. Afshineh ought to have established a convincing argument in this part of book, at least for her Iranian readers.

The middle part of her book, the one devoted to their stay in Vienna and the beginning of their stay in Virginia, were the most charming part of the book. That was why I recommended it to our book club, even though we read primarily fiction; I thought the reality of the events does not diminish its story-like quality. This part of the book is truly an account of a child in a strange land with a language that she knows very little. It was very impressive how they kept going and no matter what obstacles were in their way, they never lost their morale. The Vienna part is the sad story of experiencing something about which one knows nothing and for which one is not prepared. One just keeps holding hard not to loose ones grip and fall into the abyss. I wish we would not hear the distracting judgment declaring them weird! I wanted a little more than 35 pages of those solitary, silent days. I wished I would have heard more judgment when their mother arrived. I was a little satisfied by the story about how they wasted all the money. That could have taught the mother a lesson. But Afshineh is very careful here. Her voice is not reflective at all, there is no trace of an adult behind the child to judge and blame. It is just a simple description of what happened. After all, who is to blame for the price they have to pay for a little kindness and affection? Who is to blame for being thrown into life without a safety jacket? The mother? Impossible! It is easier to have the voice regress to a child’s level. Surely it is much safer.

The voice also remains that of a child and judgment remains absent for a while in Virginia while the girls lived with their uncle. The description is vivid and honest. Life indeed is hard, very hard. Their uncle fails to fulfill his responsibilities, their mother is not coming, and their cousin does not even give them a ride to school. The weather is cold and heat is not provided. Their uncle neglects their needs, they have problems with English at school. They have no friends and their only relative, another cousin, is too strict. Life is empty and boring. There is no fun. Oddly enough, they never even complain. But really, whom should they blame? Their uncle? Cousins? Their family relationship? It is better to simply describe their hardship. They work very hard and study well. They are on the dean’s list. They work after school, one becomes mother to the other, they comfort and take care of each other. There are sweet anecdotes in this part. The reader will not forget what happened at McDonald’s or Merry-Go-Round, or how her sister’s first pay check is used to pay off their Viennese profligacy. They take everything so well that one wonders if it is because they cannot afford to be demanding or because they are so good-natured. Again I hear a distracting comment off and on, “we were geeks.” I do not know why they thought that. Thanks to Iranian culture and language, which remains unacknowledged, we do not have an equivalent word for “geek,” we simply call them good girls, an answer to every parent’s prayer.

They succeed well. One graduates from high school and sponsors the other; they are free from their uncle’s tyranny. This is when we hear a little nagging. Life is hard and there is no fun. We hear that for once. Why? Going to court to obtain custody without prior discussion with their uncle or even their cousin is so radically different from all the pictures we have from them that it is hard to explain or to understand. All through this period they are so meek and silent, so accepting and accommodating, so tolerant and understanding that even we Iranians might question its veracity. However, there is no indication of what brought on this sudden rebellion. Was this the revenge on the Iranian revolution and their father? How do we know if we are not told? And we are not told, since the book is not written for us. I do not think that she even expected the book to be read and or reviewed by an Iranian who knows Iran and its customs and traditions and language well enough to know even that they lived in the vicinity of the Iranian army’s arms and chemical industry. So it is very natural that after their father is executed, the house was searched, particularly given his position as the head of the engineering department of the National Guard.

This book was shelved in Borders in the Middle East History and Culture section. Unlike the memoirs of celebrities, e.g. Farah Pahlavi, it would be considered a sort of contemporary historical document. That would put a double burden on the author to avoid any kind of indulgence which might distort the facts. Individual freedom of expression should not come before the truth. And a half truth is equivalent to a lie. Afshineh Latifi proved that she is quite capable of writing an effective memoir. That middle 70 to 90 pages testifies to this. However, the rest of the book is devoid of this quality. I can read this book as fiction and enjoy it; indeed, I did, and recommend it as such. But as a historical document, it has too many shortcomings to be useful. There are characters who are amazingly un-Iranian: The grandmother on the father’s side and the uncle on the mother’s side. The absence of all the relatives on the father’s side, particularly given his high position in the National Guard, could raise some eyebrows among Iranian readers. The grandmother’s cruelty and her total indifference towards her grandchildren are also unimaginable. More striking is the fact that the girls had no friends in Virginia. If I were to give the three top Iranian characteristics, friendship and family ties would be two of them. As a reader, I forgot so often that that I was reading about Iranian families. Indeed, I have never seen the institution of family be so irrelevant. There is not even a good paragraph about what was missing growing up without a family. Whatever was said about it was very light, trivial and scattered. What would a young person read into this story if there is no harm at all to grow up without a family’s nourishment? Why is so much importance placed on the family? Why bother going through so much trouble to raise a family if we can send them all to Virginia? I hope someone translates the book and sends it to Iran. It would sell very well. It is an easy prescription. People do not need to go through hell to raise a family, just send them to someone somewhere in the United States, where parenthood is optional and motherhood is a simple remote control device, raising the kids is reduced to a phone call a week, and demanding that they study hard and get good grades and a degree, where there is no need for love and affection, where kids can manage without the kind guidance and the wisdom parents alone can supply, and the result is not bad at all: two doctors and two lawyers.

Painful is what I call the chapter on the journey home. Afshineh is fully equipped with anger, hatred, and vengeance, and goes back home. It starts at the airport when the immigration officers objects to her profession as a lawyer and says “Is this a respectable job for women?” and she says “Yes, in America every one is equal.” This was so sad indeed. I wished she would have paid a visit to Tehran’s Iranian Bar Association Office to see how there are more female than male Iranian lawyers, to see how many of them are the daughter, wife, or sister of clerics. Or to visit any law school, including the one in holy city of Qom, which specializes in Islamic law, to see how many women are in those classrooms. The rest of the trip is not much better. There are clashes everywhere, it is overwhelming how ready she is to be grim and disappointed. I was holding my breath for her, waiting for her to leave the country already. What happened to all that cheerfulness and humor, all that tolerance and forgiveness and understanding we saw from them through their long journey up to this point. I recalled the near-rape scene and their fearful trip through southern states, when they jokingly said that they would “defend themselves with a butter knife if a butter stick attacks them.” What happened to their wit which allowed them to say, after running away from the rapist, that they ought “never to ride with a rapist in truck particularly if he is a drug addict?” What happened to the tolerance with which they faced their other problems in the United States, when similar ones back home become a mandate for outpourings of rage and hostility? I should admit that there are plenty of problems back home and life could be very difficult, but not just because one hotel does not admit single women. (Many famous country clubs in this part of the United States very strictly practice this policy and we do not make any fuss about it.). It seems to me that in this trip Afshineh was looking for an opportunity to assert what she failed to prove.

I do not know what we should do when someone else writes a book about Iran. If all of us, instead of venting our personal rage in this way, examined it and try to resolve at least some of it beforehand, we might get a better result. This young generation might have legitimate grievances and even anger, but like everything else, it should be addressed properly and to the right party. Our anger and frustration won’t go away by humiliating a nation. Moreover, we should remember while we all have the right to criticize, only the citizens and residents of the country are entitled to have demands and expectations from their governments.

Afshineh starts her story with a heartbreaking tale of her father’s execution and ends the book with the desperate aim to prove that he was innocent. Of course, her father was innocent. All fathers are innocent and good. But a soldier is different story. We cannot change the historical rules. In a battlefield, a defeated soldier should either retreat, submit and ask for a clemency from the victorious party, or fight to the last drop of his blood and die. I have no idea where Afshineh learned that a soldier dies if he is guilty. War is not a trial and has nothing to do with guilt or even justice. (Did we not all hear what is happening in Iraq?) Soldiers die because they are defeated. Col. Latifi might have been a very good person and quite innocent as well; however as a defeated soldier, he had only limited options. Col. Latifi chose the latter option and died a noble soldier’s death. Why bear a grudge over it still? Let us respect his choice. However, I should admit sincerely that it is too much to expect his children and his wife to forgive and forget what they thought unjust. As Ferdosi says:

پدر کشتی و تخم کین کاشتی
پدر کشته را که بود آشتی؟
(You killed one’s father and sown the seed of animosity, how could one whose father is killed ever make a peace?) . But even that extreme emotional experience does not justify the betrayal of the truth.

Writing a memoir is a very daring affair, one needs to have the courage to show her or his wounds and scars. One also needs to show the long journey to come is not just fruitful, but will cost something. Seeing things through rose-colored glasses in this kind of memoir could not only mislead the reader, it would not help the author either. Afshineh’s memoir is missing this virtue. Even though we read in the middle part of the book about the pain and the hardship she and her sister went through, we never see the marks or the bruises. And if there are any, they are camouflaged in superficial flattery, niceties, generosities and even humor. Writing a memoir requires some nudity, if one is not able to do it, one had better not write it. There is always the option of fiction or drama, which is more suitable for expressing whatever one wishes without taking the responsibility involved in writing a memoir.

I am worried that we should expect more and more of this kind of memoir. It seems easy. We all have a past life. We all have a childhood. We all have lost something and gained something, and if we are women, so much the better, a little injustice here, a few tears there, and no one knows what is happening in that part of the world. We all are either orphans or victims and then came here and became Cinderellas. America is a big market for Little Orphan Annie and Not without My Daughter stories. We all can be heroes for a few days, why not? Well, it will not remain like that. Someday, the market will be exhausted and hopefully one will have to write something better. Let us hope for that day.

Once, a German journalist asked Norman Finklestein, the author and activist, how long will we Germans have to pay for something that happened long before we were born? I would like to ask this question from this young generation: How long should we other Iranian tolerate your anger and frustration mostly imposed on you by your parents or personal preferences. Please remember that millions of other Iranians all over the world have not been responsible for the pain you have gone through. We are very happy for your success and achievements, but please do not abuse our good will and our patience, please do not try to make heroes of yourselves at the price of destroying or even damaging our pride.


alireza said...

mina aziz khaste nabashi

Alireza said...

khaste nbashi