Monday, March 02, 2009

Saïd Sayrafiezadeh's When Skateboards Will Be Free

If I would not have known the world Saïd described in his book with plenty of Mahmouds and Marthas and plenty of Saïds emerging from their unions, all awaiting a promised land that would follow a golden revolution, I would have thought this book was pure fiction and in fact a masterpiece of fiction. I would have thought another Antoine de Saint Exupery had written a modern version of The Little Prince.

However knowing what I know, I should say that the book is like nothing on earth, simply a breathtaking epic written brilliantly by a genius.

A young couple on a nice sunny day, strolling along the streets of their town, stumble across a flier promising as paradise of justice and equality. They pick up the flier, subscribe to its publication, and then become members of the party which published them. Very soon they are foot soldiers of an army, marching to spread justice and equality all over. Enchanted by the mission they bear, the young couple become immersed in it; and in full excitement, they forget about everything else, including their children. Their three children slip out their hands and roll into the unprotected wilderness that the parents see the need of its turning into a paradise.

The youngest one, Saïd, only nine months old, abandoned by his father, clings to his mother, who herself in turn, abandoned by her husband, detached from whatever tradition she has been familiar with, cleaves to an illusory hope that someday the world would turn into a paradise. It is in the process of his adulthood and maturity that Saïd realizes that not only would the “inevitable revolution” never come, but the hope of its advent is an iron sheet to protect his parents, both of them, from perceiving the painful realities of life, as well as reacting to them. The idea of “when the revolution comes, there won't be any pain” relieves them of all parental responsibilities. But, “When will it come mother, the revolution?” he asks. “It will take a little longer,” she replies. “When I become six? or eight? or eleven? or eighteen?” He asks. “Yes eighteen,” she answers, without even recognizing the impatient cry echoed in this inquiry.

Dragged behind his altruistic, self-sacrificing mother, who not only voluntarily denies life from herself, but also from her own son, and longing for a self-assuring heroic father who, like a grand emperor, is constantly away, fighting to bring on the revolution which never arrives, Saïd tries to make sense of the incongruity, incomprehensibility, brutality, abuses, unkindness, and prejudices existing in the world around him all by himself.

Soon he becomes a little soldier himself to help the mother in her crusade, just by wishing for one more copy of The Militant to be sold, one more subscription, one more by-passer to stop by and ask a question, if not give a favorable response. However, he fails to stifle his increasing craving for boycotted grapes or overcome his sleepiness in the back of the room when his mother is talking politics with her comrades.

His absent father, fighting for a noble cause, becomes identified with the cause, and is gradually infused into a more familiar persona associated with the same cause, Che Guevara, has presence in his life in the form of a fading, yellowing photos pinned to the wall above his bed.

In his naive and innocent quest, he is waiting for all to appear in his life, the father, revolution, justice, equality, and a home with functioning toilets. None arrives except the functioning toilets, and even they come fairly late, when he is almost fourteen.

Strange world is the adult life, when a comrade who wants to bring about paradise on earth indulges in child molestation, when a mother who should take care of her child entrusted him to a total stranger so she could be free to protect other victims, when the institution, which is supposed to save the world, sanctions the crime with the excuse that, “Everyone has a problem in capitalism.” And the world is unbearably cruel when the child feels that his father “would judge the same.”

Saïd innocently accepts his father's absence and follows his mother, continues his life, and reaches his destiny. Sometimes he obeys, sometimes he defies, sometimes he avoids, sometimes he circumvents, sometimes he ignores; nevertheless, he never evades trying to make a sense of it all, if not then, sometime in the future. And surely, he does it so well.

I have rarely come across anyone who could explain the inexplicable so well, one who sees so deeply the nature of this kind of blind devotion and steadfast zeal towards a promise, just a promise, better than Saïd Sayrafiezadeh. And I have never come across anyone who had come to that realization so patiently and so compassionately as he does. Recalling his memories so vividly, he takes us with an immense generosity to the dark parts of his life, without shame, without guilt, without bitterness, without rage or anger. There is no sense of blame or regret in any of those tales, since he has learned the futility of it in adults deceiving themselves by placing all the responsibility on a “sad missing” point in the history, on a thin line decision, or “if only it had been otherwise.”

His story is the celebration of life, a walk towards liberation with open eyes, embracing freedom, and untangling himself from the vacuous balloons of the false promises tied to him to prevent him from landing safely on the ground, all grand, giant and majestic. The father is a god-like figure above all. It is only in the course of few meetings and one letter he received from him that he turns gradually into a mere bullying brat, best illustrated in the Persian restaurant in the Garment District. He is trying to tell Saïd about the garment industry's history, of which he is ignorant, and when he orders Chardonnay, he does not know it from Red or Rose wine. Yet he knows how to thoroughly maltreat the waitress. And the mother, who has a saint-like self-sacrificing nature, desperately quits her job, Party, and life, all at once, admitting she has failed them all.

And finally, ideas, and the reflections of the giants, Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Castro, that are so faithfully collected into heavy volumes and sacredly placed on bookshelves? He finds out, when he opens them, that they had never been read. Much later, he notices that if there were anything to be learned from them, it was only what was written on their covers!

Free from all the bubbles, our little prince lands safely on the ground. The landscape may not be as green as he had imagined as a child, and skateboards are not free at all, but there is enough beauty to be enjoyed. With exceptional wisdom, he simply lives in the reality of life and looks out for real happiness where he can find it. And he finds it, right in the office of Martha Stewart's Living, where he designs labels for potted plants, and on the rooftop of his apartment building, observing Manhattan skyline.
It is a book that should be read by all, Iranian, non-Iranian, young or old, left or right. Just make sure to read it on a weekend when you have no appointments; it is impossible to put down.

And yes, the author is Iranian. Well, in reality, only half, but so what, let's claim him fully. He is generous enough to let us to have him all. Am I right Saïd?

P.S.: Reading this book, and knowing Saïd's father—I met him only once at our home, but have heard about him a lot—and knowing his generation well enough, I am sure that his ideal writer should be Maxim Gorky and his favorite selected book should be the Gorky's Mother. It is such an irony that his son turned into such a brilliant writer, amazingly brilliant indeed, and writes a book which is a reversing mirror reflection to that of that work. Given that they are only one century apart, I 'm wondering if Gorky was that wrong, or are we the misguided ones, or if the world has changed so much.

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