Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Iranian Third

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
But who is that on the other side of you? 
T. S. Eliot

Really, who is that third who is always walking beside us Iranians in the Diaspora? Who is that “Iranian” who appears in our minglings, in our workplaces, in our parties, or in our daily meetings here and there who is not like us but has a much stronger presence than us, that invisible Iranian who is like none of us but is like all of us? Where has it come from and who created it?
The American Embassy inTehran was taken over by Iranian students during my first year of teaching in college.  Overhearing my conversations with faculty members, my students learned that I’m not American and my home is somewhere else; though, I had no idea why my accent had not clued them in! In any case, in one class, students asked me where I’m from. “Guess,” I said. After a wide range of guesses, ranging from South Africa to Sweden, we got closer to “somewhere in Middle East.” I asked them where in the Middle East. Surprisingly one of them said “Somewhere like Africa!” I finally told them I’m from Iran. “Wow! But you don’t look like one!” “One of whom?” I asked. “Those in the street in front of the Embassy.”  I’m not sure if I would have felt better or worse had he said, “Oh, we thought so!” But the fact that students who thought that Africa is somewhere in the Middle East already had formed a fixed image of us within a few days certainly made quite a difference in my life, I learned that there is another “me” walking besides me that I must make sure does not overshadow me.
I was still struggling with that image when Betty Mahmoodi returned from Iran and wrote the famous book NotWithout My Daughter. Very likely her best bet was that it would become the bestseller that it became, but none of us imagined that she would create a genre in Iranian contemporary literature and model for Iranian characters as she did. Since then, I have heard that some books are rejected by publishers because “the men aren’t abusive” or “none of the women are abused,” or “the women in are very strong and independent, not fitting our readers’ expectations.” One author was rejected for years because there was not a single villain in his book. One publisher suggested to an author, “Could you change the persona of the father in your book. He is too soft for a Middle Eastern man.”
And then arrived political about us stories with all the characters either confirming the images of the American Embassy occupation or testifying to the truth of Betty Mahmoodi’s experiences: all men unpredictable, brutal, and irrational and the women, desperate, helpless, betrayed, and beaten up in their private lives, if not tortured, raped, and, in many cases, executed in prison. These stories left nothing more for the characters to do but to defy and turn “defiance” not only into the main theme of our contemporary literature and art, but as an epithet for us, a caricature of being Iranian.
This mode of characterization spread soon to all other branches of art. An art historian, from Spain shifted her study of the history of photography from contemporary Iranian photography to the early nineteen century just to free herself from the expectation of explaining the veil and chador in modern photography or the significance of calligraphy inscribed on the body. A few painters complained that they are all expected to exhibit political painting. It seems that contemporary Iranian art is nonexistent if it is not Islamicized or politicized.
In reality, however, we write a book and create a work of art to tell the world our stories, how we experience life and how we deal with it. Through our art, we try to record history—our identity—to leave a trace for the next generation, for them to know how far we have come to get here. Our artifacts testify to the life we have lived, something to speak for us and tell our tales when we are gone. Undoubtedly life, and our experience of it, is much greater than a few symbols and traits “describing” us over last few decades. Why should this temporary passing phase take precedent over our history? And why should we create a false image, base on a slippery ground of a political page of history, instead of presenting our reality?
This is by no means to deny the emergence of a new culture during the last three decades, the regime’s brutality, the security forces’ violence and lawlessness, or even disorders among civilians. Of course there is no doubt about recurring rape, torture, murder and executions in prison, as is the nature of a dictatorial regime. An alarming amount of domestic violence can also be seen. However, literature and art are about the wider spectrum of life and not only a display of our anger and frustration towards certain period of history. Neither are the territories of our nation limited to the span between Evin Prison and Behesht-e Zahra Cemetery.
Even though the roots of many of the country’s current problems are the malice of the dictatorial regime which has created a suffocating climate for all, many of our concerns could be discussed meaningfully from different perspective. Gay and lesbian citizens are not all executed, though they still face huge amount of obstacle in their way to happiness and fulfillment in Iran’s traditional society. Women are not all facing the threat of stoning, but the local custom and the family relations and lack of communication between man and woman which allow a man to testify against his wife to be stoned in more damaging and of greater concern. If the laws of censorship stop authors and journalists from expressing their thoughts, unwritten habits of talking in metaphors, general terms, obscure references to vague ideas, and reference to unidentified entities are more detrimental still. If artists, artisans, thinkers, intellectuals, and writers do not step up to change these habits, removing censorship will be of little help.
The community of elites in the Diaspora should be more held to account in spreading these stereotypical images than any anyone else. Could we not pay more attention to human needs in a humane society? Could we not promote and emphasize the positive characteristics of our culture that has older tradition than those imposed laws of sharia which have emerged during the last few decades? Could we not contemplate a bit over the virtues we share with the community of nations and build a bridge to them as a passage to a global village rather than focusing on petty eccentricities that divide us and lock us forever in our local tribes?
While many elements may have contributed to forging this kind of model, each of us bears a still greater responsibility. It is up to us to keep the balance between the images we present to our host countries about ourselves, our nation, and our character traits. It is so unfortunate that society has become so sluggish that clich├ęs have an easier time to register themselves. It is so unfortunate that we, as refugees, political or otherwise, sometimes have to exaggerate our grievances in order to be heard. It is even more unfortunate that we sometimes come into competition with so many that we have to turn to the most remote and the most eccentric aspects of our customs and traditions in order to catch some attention. But there are still so many of us that enjoy a kind of security and peace to be able to focus on the more meaningful aspects of our existence.
Why don’t we discuss our problems as they are? Why don’t we present ourselves as we are? The image we have created not only won’t help us to pursue our happiness in our adopted country, but will give a false identity to the next generations. Why don’t we want to take a measure against this falsehood? If we do not do it now, our children in future will have to pay much higher price to do the remedy.  

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Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Ayatollah and I

47th Street was not as crowded as it used to be around this time of year. The Iranian–Canadian Human Rights Defender and Ashraf Dehghani’s leftists had their stage set at the entrance to the 2nd Ave. table.  The HRD’s dances and comic performances appeared even more avant-garde against the Dehghani group’s outdated leftist flyers published in 1975, five years prior to the Islamic revolution! All I could do was to say hello to my friend Shabnam Assadolahi and run to “Ayatollah Khamenei” to fix his costume.
A little further, in the middle of street towards First Avenue, the People’s Mojahedin had already started their act. John Bolton, speaking to the rally, was projected on a large screen. There was enough room for us to set our stage and wait for them to finish so we could start ours. Monarchists with pretty umbrellas decorated with Iranian flags and the Lion and the Sun emblem on them were gathering little by little. Their rally was scheduled in the interval between Mojahedin and us, the Special Committee to Protest Against Ahmadinejad’s Presence in the UN.
 I started quickly to fix Ayatollah Khamenei’s outfit. It went quicker and better than I expected. It turned out to be even more elegant than Khatami’s tailored robes! But there was a little problem wrapping the turban around his head. The fabric was slippery and resisted puncturing by safely pins. But it was done.  I was so proud of myself that I could make such an aba and ammameh and I walked Mohammad, the first volunteer to pose as the Ayatollah, into the cage. (Not to tire him, few friends each took turns posing as the Ayatollah!) We were not sure which of his hands were crippled, but Mohammad correctly used his right hand and placed it right over his chest exactly as the Ayatollah himself poses. Perfect! All of a sudden, everybody rushed to take photos of him and with him. Oddly enough no one abused him. There were no insults, no beatings, no tortures, no interrogations, and no confessions. Only one gentleman came and posed as if trying to strangle him very gently and softly. We made sure he got plenty of sunshine and fresh air. We even helped him dress and undress. And since it was too hot under all those garments, we gave them cold water every so often. But very soon we noticed that Ayatollah seemed to be enjoying himself behind the bars and was smiling! Oops!
Artoro, a musician from Spain, who plays flamingo guitar, started the program. One of our friends, Fawzy, read Majid Tavakkoli’s letter of from prison addressed to Khamenei. Alan Koushan played the santur. Dr. Sedarat talked about the political prisoners and I mentioned Bahareh Hedayat and Atefeh Nabavi, but since there were not enough people to read the biography of each women prisoner, most of them went unmentioned. The program ended with Sadra and Mary, the masters of ceremony, singing the old fedai song, “Winter is over and tulips are blooming all over the mountains.”

We stayed until five and then packed to go for dinner and chat with our friends Enayat and Marmar who took the trouble to come from California and from Atlanta, Georgia. (No, she was not from Nicaragua (see previous post), she is pure Persian, from Luristan no less!) We went to a Turkish restaurant owned and staffed entirely by Kurds, including a young and handsome waiter serving at our table. Oddly enough, as much as we insisted that they are Kurds with a Kurdish identity and should be very proud of their ethnicity, they refused our generous offer. Our handsome waiter, with a smile, insisted that he is a Turk and Turkey is his country.  Some of our leftist friends jokingly tried to provoke them by saying they are brain-washed, but that did not work either.  I bet later on they would regret not accepting our offer. I do not think they would receive such offers anymore. Well, at least, we did our best.
Back at home checking the television and web site reports, I could not find anything about this action. It seems that the Mojahedin won the trophy of “the only opposition with organization.” The HRD were criticized for being too much of a carnival, too festive and celebratory. We were not mentioned at all, as if we didn’t exist. The monarchists were mentioned only on the Islamic Republic’s press the way they are always referred to. It seems that no one noticed that they were the largest group, well assembled and quite orderly. However, there was no conflict among the participating groups. A few Mojaheds and monarchists stayed for our rally.  We all smiled at each other warm-heartedly, and I was introduced to one of the Mojahedin’s supporters, who immediately showed me the picture of his young handsome brother who had been killed in the recent attack at Camp Ashraf. She insisted that she was not a member of Mojahedin but only a supporter. We shook hands, and Heaven knows nothing happened.
The next day, while I was searching You Tube to see if I might have overlooked something, I stumbled on our 2009 rally, in which four thousand people from all over North America and even from Europe gathered to create such a memorable event. Joined in hope, cheerfulness, energy, passion and optimism, we marched while chanting “freedom, independent, and Iranian government.” I watched the clips of those films again and again, wondering if we had failed. Our humble, sober, and calm crowd this year did not have the slightest resemblance to that monument of desire for change of the post election year. But my dry eyes surprised me. Nostalgia? Yes, indeed, but no tears. In fact, I felt I missed all those gatherings of the past several years, the hunger strikes, the demonstrations, the marches and all, but had no hard feelings or regret over failure. Yes, it is true that those exuberant days are gone, but they left us something more valuable.  Indeed, those days were the turning point in our history. In those crowded gathering, in the midst of the excitement we all found a magical sense of belonging, something that was buried deep under the pain of being in the Diaspora for long. We all came together knowing we belong together. We are walking quickly from those days but holding fast to our sense of belonging to our homeland and to each other through it. 
This year we gathered together in silence and not in a large crowd, but we were at peace. We had come not united, and without any “organization”, or color-matched apparel, for that matter. Indeed we were colorful and varied, but our sense of belonging, conducting  so well, made us act with rhyme and harmony. Walking the Ayatollah in and out of his cage without any disagreement bears witness to our victory.

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