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The joke is on us
Part 1 of 17: Returning to Iran: 1986-87
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Sima Nahan
February 17, 2006

I must go back briefly to a place I have loved
to tell you those you will efface I have loved.

-- Agha Shahid Ali

From now on Iranians must plan their lives according to four givens: Khomeini will not die, the war will not end, Saddam will not go, Mahdi will not come.

I heard this joke in the summer of 1987 in Iran. What struck me about it was its reference to the dawning of a faint and tenuous reconciliation between the religious and the secular. For to the extent that the secular mind is likely to consider one individual immortal, another political leader immune to fall, or even the most terrible war permanent, the devout Shi'ite mind is willing to entertain doubts about the coming of Mahdi, the Messiah.

The point is this, that through a circuitous route the most opposing rationalities could very well have arrived at a single conclusion. It is out of a shared sense of uncertainty and despair that such unlikely harmony appears to have emerged, and going back for the first time after the revolution I found naive revolutionary solidarity beginning to be replaced by this more ironic reconciliation. 

Yet the unspeakable reality of Iran still looms above any celebration of harmony. I spent the summers of 1986 and 1987, mostly in Tehran, taking notes almost reflexively, if only to be sustained through the horror of what I saw by some cathartic satisfaction of scratching the blank pages of my note pad with the thin tip of my pen. To search for identity and reasons in what is left behind by revolution, terror, and war became almost secondary to momentary escapes into note-taking.

Taking notes is a familiar escape for me. Boarding the plane in New York I automatically resort to my little techniques of avoiding eye contact with the passengers next to me. I adopted this attitude after the hostage crisis, in avoidance of the dreaded question: Where are you from? When my answer does not evoke blatant hostility, it is received with a polite pause and the expectant look that I proceed to explain my stance in relation to what has taken place in Iran, and, of course, in relation to the Great Satan. Try presenting a history of a country like Iran in a nutshell, taking care, on top of it, not to step on patriotic American toes. It is draining. So I have come to try to avoid the entire encounter when possible.

On the plane, I busy myself with writing in my notebook. To amuse myself I jot down some of the questions that I am usually asked. "Don't they hate you because you live in the U.S.?" goes one of them. I write that an accurate response is only possible through an explanation of the dynamics of power -- which has little to do with likes and dislikes. By the subtle choices in my particular variation of hejab, the "veil," for instance, "they" can determine in one glance my ideology, social class and even subculture ("student" or ancien régime or some such) fairly accurately. They recognize me and I recognize them -- but it is I who lays down her arms. "I am your enemy," my choice of hejab might suggest. "But you are in power," my demure presence in "their" airport indicates.

I defer and they accept my deference. I dally in petty variations, but they determine the theme. And, yes, they may very well hate me for living in the U.S. -- and this for a number of conflicting reasons -- but their politics at the moment allows for relative freedom of travel and here I am.

But soon I have to abandon the tone and subject matter of my notes. There are countless lines and checkpoints to go through at Mehrabad Airport. Not that it is feasible to go through every single passenger's personal notes upon arrival or departure, but should you be singled out for investigation for any reason, you naturally want to have minimized any incriminating evidence against yourself. I remind myself to write only "personal" things. It is out of these notes to myself and, later, a semi-coded jargon that I envision to generate an article on Iran.

I write that I must be a little out of my mind to be going on this trip. My family is for the most part out; I have a dissertation that I could be writing; and thirteen years after arriving in the U.S. as a foreign student, losing contact with American soil could very well feel like leaving home. What compels me? I wonder. And I write of a certain restless discord that can eat at the insides of your life to leave of it a hollow mound. Or it can throw you at an exasperating pace in any number of directions simultaneously. It can make you feel dense.

Keeping up with the convulsions of culture and history in fierce interaction is more than challenging, and perhaps one has lost a little hope as one has all too frequently watched one's western counterparts stop following one's words past a certain point. It is the straining of the common language you have come to rely on that signals the beginning of a new alienation. Of course you have heard that alienation is paramount description of the Modern Condition, but you have also become familiar with the ways in which its metaphoric extensions have robbed it of any clear meaning. Failing thus at communication, it becomes distressing to suspect that perhaps your English has gotten worse over the years.

But, to be fair -- I go on to myself -- you also wonder whether someone like yourself, really, is just seeking to exhaust herself before succumbing to the charms of the west which happens, at the time, to hold "exile" in somewhat of an intellectual fashion. And could you possibly, the seduction notwithstanding, blame your friends in the west for not having been pushed to the limits that you have been...? This is how I once again resolve, this time still over the Atlantic, that it is indeed timely for people like me to examine the space, however tentative, they are occupying at the present time. And so it is that seven years after the revolution, a number of my friends independently reach a similar conclusion to go to Iran.

Stepping off the plane into the dry heat of a summer afternoon at Mehrabad, surrounded by the vital everyday Persian that I have not heard in a long time, the feeling is unmistakably that of home. An hour or two later, waiting in line to declare my foreign currency, I look over my shoulder at the Komiteh booth that has just cleared me. The "brother" revolutionary guard who slapped my passport in front of me -- the idea of touching whose hand I publicly declared repugnant, Islamic-fashion, by pausing a split second before discretely picking up my passport with the tips of my fingers -- is busily browsing his security roster.

With an inward smile I recite to myself man as diyar-e habibam na az balad-e gharib -- I am from the land of the loved one, not from strange cities -- and have no doubt that my dark-bearded, brown-uniformed brother is also aware of this somewhere behind his knotted (Islamic fashion) brow.

And in the end, I now think, who knows, perhaps all parties will be satisfied: Khomeini will die, the war will end, Saddam will be toppled, and even Mahdi will return >>> Part 2
[Part (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (9) (10) (11) (12) (13) (14) (15) (16) (17)]

Sima Nahan is a writer based in California. She graduated from Reza Shah Kabir high school in Tehran.

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