|Cat in a bag
At the start of the 24th year of the Iranian Revolution
By Naghmeh Sohrabi
February 11, 2002
The 1979 Iranian Revolution came to me, a 6-year-old child, first in sound and
much later, in pictures. My first memories of the demonstrations in 1977-78 are of
people chanting slogans in the streets, their voices sometimes drowned out by machine
guns fired into the air and onto the crowd.
"Turn off the lights, turn off the lights!" someone would scream and the
entire neighborhood would hold its breath in darkness. We -- my grandmother, mother,
and I-- would huddle around a tiny kerosene lamp in my grandmother's all-purpose
room, while my young uncle would go to the door and out to the street to see where
the demonstrations were happening.
Sometimes the chanting and the bullets sounded so close, I was afraid they'd come
right through the iron-grid kitchen window facing the street. Sometimes it was so
far, it sounded almost as dim as the light from the kerosene lamp in the middle of
I never really understood what was going on, and if I ever asked, I don't remember
what the answer was. Shortly after, my mother and I joined my father in San Diego,
California and the Revolution continued in our absence.
Much like the entire country, my parents got caught
in revolutionary euphoria and we returned to Iran in 1981. To my ears and eyes, 1981
might as well have been 1978: bombs going off in government buildings, President
and Prime Minister getting blown up, and eventually war and the return of the desperate
"Turn off your lights! Turn off your lights!"
The Revolution was busy executing its own revolutionaries. In 1981 political groups
that had joined forces before the Revolution were now being weeded out by those in
power and the Revolution's new sons and daughters were busy attacking unveiled women
in the streets, finding "counter-revolutionary" cells and eliminating them,
entering people's homes without warrants to search for "unIslamic" items
such as music, and randomly stopping people at checkpoints to check their breath
for alcohol and search their cars for anything and everything.
The air was heavy with whispered stories: Of the beautiful woman with the long hair
who before entering a bank (which was a governmental building and in which wearing
the veil was mandatory even before it became the absolute law of the land) put on
a small brand-name scarf, and after her work was done in the bank, took it off at
the doorstep, gave her flowing mane a defiant toss. (Obviously a daring act in the
eyes of the women in my family.)
Or of a man who got on a bus, his leg bleeding and who resisted the good-natured
passengers' offerings of help only for it to be revealed that what was bleeding was
not his leg but the gold bracelet and ring clad arm of a woman that he had cut off
and tied to his leg.
Rumors were everywhere and I, who would catch bits and pieces from hushed conversations
during siesta, was lost in them.
Around this time when like pre-revolutionary days the silence of the nights would
be broken by the sound of machine guns and cars speeding through the narrow alleyways
of my grandmother's neighborhood, I began waking up at nights, shivering cold with
a high fever.
My recently-returned-from-America family could not afford a house yet so we stayed
in my grandmother's three-story building, sleeping in her living room.I would wake
up shivering hot in the middle of the night, night after night, waking up my worried
parents and grandmother who were at a loss as to what could cause my paradoxical
state. A blanket was too hot for my fever and an ice-pack too cold for my shivers.
I did not know what would wake me. I did not have nightmares and as it turns out,
I didn't need them, the reality of post-revolutionary Iran being what it was those
days. My condition ended the minute the doctor at the children's hospital brought
to words what I had locked up in my sub-conscious: I have an image in my head of
a dreary chickpea colored building with a wide long hallway in Muniriyeh Sq. I remember
it being the children's hospital and I see a somewhat chubby woman doctor, asking
my mother if I had seen a scary movie lately.
My mother shakes her head. "She's scared of something," I hear the doctor
say, "you have to figure out what it is." I don't know if my parents figured
out that it was the rumor-heavy air that contained all my fears in the form of stories
whispered from one woman to another.
I don't know if they figured out that at the heart of my confusing condition lay
images I had sketched in my head from all the stories my aunts whispered to one another
as they stretched out in the living room during siesta; images of bodies maimed and
bloody on the streets, of my mother getting shot in the street for not covering her
hair, of locked exits doors in a burning movie theater.
Some of these whispered rumors became facts of post-revolutionary life and lost the
airy quality of theirs that had haunted me. No longer did I plead with my mother
to cover her hair every time she left the house as hijab became the law of the land.
No longer did I wonder from where the sound of bullets came as the opposition was
brutally crushed. My condition subsided as mysteriously as it began.
Images and my intangible relationship to them became the source of my post-revolutionary
fear. Images abstracted from their reality lined themselves up to become my reality,
swallowing me and I became a cat, thrown into a large bag, each attempt at getting
out only adding to further my entrapment.
Yet of all the early revolutionary images of my childhood, one hauntingly remains
with me: That of a young tortured Mojahed woman on national television. Of all the
gauze-covered, out-of-focus memories of that period, her defiance on the television
screen in front of her interrogators and her subsequent meekness, wrapped inside
her obviously tortured body, stands out sharply. Who she was, I still don't know.
Rumors, revolution, moving images, tragic unexpected deaths, they all came together
in the form of one incident, the burning of Cinema Rex in Abadan. This story too
I had plucked from the air, and from its ephemeral threads spun my own horror. A
packed movie theater, the doors all locked, the place on fire.
My first post-revolutionary movie experience was befittingly a terrifying one. I
don't remember where I was sitting, with whom, and watching which movie. I do recall
clearly though how I felt sitting in a movie theater in Tehran: absolutely petrified
and scared. I never took my eyes off the red EXIT signs.
parents, to preserve my English, decided to take me to Tehran's Museum of Contemporary
Art's screenings of undubbed foreign films. I made it to two films, Citizen Kane
and Dreyer's Joan of Arc, before finding an excuse to put an end to this visual
torture. I would leave the movie theater, my limbs stiff with fear and my heart crushed
under the weight of anxiety. My imagination grabbed at the black and white images
of Citizen Kane and Joan of Arc, mixing Joan of Arc's pale round face with Citizen
Kane's looming loneliness in his cold castle.
By the time my father and I pushed the heavy white metal door of my grandmother's
house, returning home from our movie outing, Orson Welles on his deathbed whispering
Rosebud became the focus of all my childhood fears and anxieties, some of which I
do not think I have ever shaken off. For years I thought Citizen Kane was a horror
My grandmother's dead, and my family, like many others, is scattered around the
world, and I now know what I thought was my great grandmother's grave outside the
door of my grandmother's house was actually a chaah-e aab (well).
The word "cinema" no longer evokes fear of burning or suffocation, but
pride or anger, depending on where you stand on the issue. If the lights go out,
it's because of electricity shortage. Four-wheel drives are not the komiteh but young
rich kids driving around town, the same kids for whom checkpoints are merely nuisances,
and CDs of Sting, Leonard Cohen, and the best of the 70s is sold openly at a music
store on a street no longer called Pahlavi.
Twenty-three years after the revolution, rumors are still in the air but they are
no longer heavy, no longer whispered. Stories of bloody terror on the streets have
become stories of corruption and immorality: Of women being kidnapped as they ride
a cab, of how so and so is a jendeh (whore), of how there is no security for
Kitchen politics has now become cab politics as drivers, and sometimes the tired
passengers, offer political theories, observations, and conspiracies to anyone who
will listen. Even the Speaker of the Parliament engages in a little rumor talk hoping
that Jazayeri does not end up eating the same kind of hair remover that Emami did.
And fear has been pushed to the side, flaring up unexpectedly when the surface is
scratched and violence (or the memory of it) oozes out slowly.
It is 22 Bahman, 11th of February, and we are out on the streets to observe the demonstration.
I am no longer 6, no longer is my head wrapped in rumors, no longer am I of one nationality.
And no longer can fear grip me. Or so I think.
It is a warm and beautiful winter day. Streams of people are walking on Inqilab (Revolution)
St. towards Azadi (Freedom) Sq. chatting and breaking the breezy silence occasionally
with pale anti-American chants.
There is a band playing on the sidewalk in front of Tehran University and vendors
selling everything from balloons, to baqali, spools of thread, colorful undershirts,
and maps of Tehran, Iran, and the World.
It feels almost like a carnival, the light atmosphere broken once by a man who kept
telling women who walked by to cover their hair. I tell him "Inqilab kardim
to be free" and walk away as he says "ghalat kardi." (Like hell you
People walk by with posters stating that "the US can not do a damn thing,"
as a peddler uses one of the posters to sit on the ground and spread his wares. It
seems easy to take pictures and many people move into your frame, smiling and holding
their children's hands. Without a doubt, it is not 1981.
But then there is my friend, arguing with a clean-shaven man, and a young chadori
woman with a sleeping child on her shoulder. As I approach I hear my friend ask him
if he has a card identifying him as an official. He gives her a look of hatred and
tells her to follow him and she, returning his look says she won't.
He walks off in search of men with guns, and I grab her arm telling her it's not
worth it. She's reluctant to walk away but as we do, someone grabs me from behind.
It is the chadori woman, her face an image of anger and deep hatred. "What do
you mean it's not worth it? We have sacrificed martyrs and this woman is taking pictures
of bad hijab women?"
"Don't touch me," is all I can muster as fear travels from my head to the
tip of my toes. I am back in my grandmother's house. I am shivering from fever. I
am scared of what I do not know.
My friend is being accused by these random people of taking pictures of only women
with uncovered hair just as half an hour ago she was being accused of taking pictures
of the empty spaces in the street.
Throughout the time we have been there, not one official, one military man has objected.
But here are two citizens, two people, two random faces in the crowd objecting to
something unnamed, unidentified, something that goes deeper than a mere picture of
women with two strands of hair showing.
The woman keeps screaming and when I say she'll wake up her kid, she yells "My
child has lost two uncles in the war. We have given martyrs and you come here and
tell me it's not worth it?" all the time hitting me on the arm.
"Hit me," I suddenly say, wishing that she would. "Hit me," I
repeat as my friend continues telling the woman that she was merely taking pictures
of what she was seeing. The woman brought her hand close to my cheek and said "I'm
familiar with the tactics of the likes of you," as I continue saying "hit
me then, you want to? So why don't you hit?"
"Let them go," someone says as I notice a crowd had gathered around us.
"Go," an old man kindly says as people step aside for us to pass, and as
the first man returns and says to my friend "the police will be following you."
"Thanks for informing me," is her tart reply. Mine is merely a quicker
beating of my heart.
It is hard to describe fear. Like love, it is physical. It grips you tangibly from
intangible places, leaving you shaken and weak. And in this case it seems to have
been born not just of a violence barely controlled but of the memory of a violence
Nothing had happened, just as nothing had happened all those years that I now recall
to be filled with fear. But just as I was haunted in my childhood by images and sounds
of a revolution I did not grasp, so I am haunted now by the face of this unknown
woman and the weight of her hand on my arm and face. I understand neither.
At the start of the 24th year of the Iranian Revolution, there are rifts and
gaps everywhere on its landscape and on the landscape of the people it has touched
so deeply. All the ways we have come to describe Iran after the revolution now seem
inadequate as the number of dispossessed of justice on earth, of lives, of country,
of princely titles, of sons and daughters be it to revolutionary killings, war, or
immigration piles on top of each other. Everyone has something to claim and everyone's
story has at the very least, a grain of validity.
Yet it seems the more complicated it gets, the less
able we become at understanding Iran and ourselves, and articulating that which we
think and that which we want. Thus we end up calling those that disagree with us
"Molla lovers" who then in turn are grabbed on the streets for taking pictures,
for being "zedd-e inqilab" (anti-revolutionary).
We call the Baseeji who decides to set up a checkpoint to harass young girls and
boys going out for a bite to eat a thug, a thug who fought in an 8-year war that's
now brushed under the rug by the same people who promised him a better life, both
earthly and heavenly; we put into prison our own children, students, journalists,
we believe in a savior only to realize he's just a man; we raise the banner of a
secular democracy only to lower the banner of tolerance.
And all along that which we cannot articulate wakes us up shivering hot in the middle
of our nights.