Shame on happines
Misery was whispered to us on a regular basis back when we were
October 18, 2006
When emotions are evaluated, Iranian culture
tends to tip the scale in favor of depression, sorrow, and even
misery. I grew up in Mashad, a society where people had an unusual
yearning for sadness and one favored expression was, “Mass
funeral is a wedding!” In fact, happy people, who could
not find enough reason to make them sad, willingly attended a
rowzeh and cried their hearts out for tragedies that happened
fourteen centuries ago. As if living in a religious society wasn’t
sad enough, in our quest for misery we looked to what little
entertainment was available to us.
“Have you seen the Love Story?” a friend in college
asked me. “It’s the best film I’ve ever seen.
I cried so hard that the entire front of my shirt was soaked in
In fact, the first time I went to see it, a woman sitting in front
of me fainted and they had to take her away in an ambulance.”
Considering that rave review, I simply had to go and see the film,
and I did so not once, but on five consecutive nights. Oh, how
I enjoyed watching that girl die of cancer, leaving her grieving
husband all alone in this world! But that wasn’t the only
popular movie because I remember crying just as hard over The
Imitation of Life and I Want To Live, to mention a few.
Our melancholic exploration is by no means limited to films, indeed
Iranians cherish dark books, sad music, and heart-wrenching poetry
much the same way. What better receptor for our tears than the
pages of Les Miserables, or the Gad Fly?
A poem is only worth the
amount of tears it can extract, and as for music, it has to be
morbid enough to make you suicidal or else it isn’t considered
good enough. All I need is a Shajarian and I’m back to the
many losses that I have endured. To this day, our classic lyrics
go far beyond the lover’s sorrow and I can’t begin
to count the number of songs where someone’s beautiful eyes
have already “killed” the singer, or the performer
begs God for his/her death, not to mention the death of the beloved.
One particular song by Homeyra is seared into my mind as she begins
by shrieking, elaheeee, bemireeee! “May you die!” Now,
if that’s not powerful lyrics, I don’t know what is!
is by no means to imply that we never laughed, in fact, laughter
has always been a major component of the Iranian life, only what
we used to laugh at, was so pathetic that in the end, it brought
no joy to the heart. Our jokes were either ethnic, or mean anecdotes
to make fun of different races, or worse, it’s about the
less fortunate and the handicapped. Looking back, it is clear how
Iranian jokes were nothing but a recount of our social tragedies,
much the same as all the jokes we now tell about today’s
Back then, the “intellectuals” were even
more miserable than the rest of us because they were stuck with
the word, “deep”.
Depth had nothing to do with how much one knew or how well one
lived their life, deep people were generally melancholic and had
experienced hardship. Most of them belonged to some political organization
or simply formed their own oppositional group. Drug addicts enjoyed
an unfair advantage, and a history of attempted suicide could just
be the icing on the cake!
On the other hand, those of us who laughed,
enjoyed life, and had a positive outlook, were generally considered “shallow.” No
need to mention how many of us were indeed shallow, but could act “deep” when
the occasion called for it.
As a teenager, my dreams took shape
through films and women’s
magazines such as Zan-e-Rooz. Their stories convinced me that misfortune
was a main ingredient of true love, that miracles did happen, and
that somewhere underneath the cold appearances of men, lay a heart.
And, finally came the biggest misconception of all, the reason
for all the female broken hearts, the belief that love could change
“What’s your ideal type of man?” girls asked
one another in a silly questionnaire booklet we passed around.
The most repeated
answer could shock an outsider because “Heedless and rough,” was
the kind of man we were all attracted to. My generation did not
look for an attentive, educated, or gentle man. We wanted someone
as coarse as James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause -- preferably
with the same good looks. Lucky for us, many of the plain-looking
boys in our society did fancy themselves to be James Dean look-alikes.
No wonder few of us ended up marrying the love of our lives because
those “rough” boys often ended up with someone just
as “heedless”. Besides, it was so much more romantic
to suffer from a broken heart than to live “happily ever
after.” Forget the movies, for a truly sad love story, all
you need to do is listen to any middle-aged Iranian’s memoir.
speaking, misery was whispered to us on a regular basis back when
we were babies. Our lullaby is so tragic that it
would make great lyrics for an opera. “Lala-la-la gol-e
nazi Babat rafteh be sarbazi!” Thus sending the poor baby to sleep
with visions of her father in a battlefield and from there on,
we proceed to name the flowers and one by one rhyme them with all
sorts of misfortune. Now compare that to the American song of “Hush
little baby. . .” where the mother will buy the infant just
about anything she desires, starting with a diamond ring, no less!
look at our rich poetic background and our admiration for the
dark poems of Foroogh, Akhavan, and Naderpoor becomes quite clear.
Who better than the great poets of Persia to open old wounds
question the tyrannies of existence?
As for literature, we grew
up worshipping Hedayat because he brought us that close to our
death wish, and we enjoyed Bozorg Alavi because of the deep sorrow
passed to us through his novel, Her Eyes. Okay, we did have a
good laugh with My Uncle Napoleon, but that was Pezeshkzad and
to admit, not too many of our writers are that funny.
True as it
may be that Iranians have seen too many ups and downs to be happy-go-lucky
people, it is equally true that we wouldn’t
know happiness if it slapped us in the face. The bottom line is
that it is culturally unacceptable for an Iranian to be utterly
happy. In our quest for reaching that infamous “depth”,
many of us, while living in the lap of luxury and out of touch
with the miseries back home, still manage to get all misty-eyed
at the mere mention of name of Iran.
There was this lady sitting
next to me at a recent cultural seminar, whose frequent sighs made
it hard to concentrate on the speaker. “Oh,
my heart is still there,” she told me during the break and
by now I have learned that the word , “there” is a
substitute for the name of Iran. When I asked her how long she
has lived in the States, she sadly replied, “Thirty-two years.”
“Have you ever been back?” I asked.
I shook my head in heartfelt sympathy
for yet another Iranian in forced exile. “So you can’t
go back. I mean, they’ll
probably put you in jail if you do.”
“Oh, no,” she said and laughed at such a silly notion. “I
could go back any time I want to, but it’s just too sad to
see what’s happened over there!”
The way I see it, if
I left my own heart somewhere else, and if I had the means to go
back to wherever I had left the darn thing,
wild horses couldn’t stop me from doing so. Then again, to
admit that I have a good life, that my memories of motherland are
fast becoming a thing of the past, and that I’m out of touch
with the fate of my fellow countrymen, wouldn’t sound so “deep”,
would it? In a way, one could easily say that being happy is literally “against
my religion.” I may go on telling jokes and living a comfortable
life, but I would rather die than ever admit to such shallowness!
common consensus among most of us is that you can only know your
true friends in times of trouble. This is particularly true
of a loss and I’ve heard it many times in regard to attending
funerals. But lately, I have come to the conclusion that in fact,
true friends are the ones who share your happiness. People often
don’t hesitate to go to a funeral and some people in fact
gather around and watch you suffer because, in a weird way, it
is comforting to see someone in worse shape than we are. But win
a lotto, make it to the top, or have your child marry a prince
and you’ll be surrounded by green-eyed monsters. Only then
will your true friends unselfishly share your joy because everyone
else will be too busy talking about your undeserved good fortune.
at what we do to our own people the minute they become successful
or gain moderate fame. I’ve heard enough nasty comments about
people like Ebadi, Nafisi and Ansari to pray that I’ll never
reach such a level of success. On the other hand, God forbid, but
should anything bad happen to any of them, we’ll have a national
hero on our hands with more words of praise pouring in than ever
before. A good example is Ganji, because as long as the guy was
dying in jail, we all admired him, but the second he steps out
into the free world he is suspected of all sorts of conspiracies.
Yes, we really worship our dead heroes and, as Rumi said, it’s
a question why we worship the dead and are enemies of life. Sometimes
I can’t help but wonder what we would have done to the image
of a hero such as Mosaddegh if only he had lived longer.
there is an ironic happiness in sorrow after all, and maybe in
view of all the changes in our lives, some old expressions
need to be altered. It sounds strange at first, but the more I
think about it, the more sense it makes to say, “Cry and
the whole world cries with you, laugh and you shall laugh alone!”? Comment
Zohreh Khazai Ghahremani gave up dentistry to be a full-time writer. She lives in San Diego, California. Her latest book is "Sharik-e
Gham" (see excerpt).
Visit her site ZoesWordGarden.com