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Turning to the sky
The fire at Tehran's Arg Mosque

February 17, 2005

I grew up around a kerosene heater, the kind that caused the fire in Tehran's Arg Mosque last Tuesday. They are damn messy. Owning one was a demanding affair. You'd have to fend against blostery winds, fetch a container, march through the snow, stand on queue at the kerosene distribution center for what, to a child whose toes were losing sensation, felt like an eternity.

When you'd finally get inside, all the senses that had been benumbed by the cold, would return by the ghastly smell of kerosene. You'd place your container at the seller's feet. He'd insert a funnel, and pour the liquid. Splash is really what he did. You'd come away from this venture with clothes reeking of kerosene, and a full container that would be a third less by the time you got home, since with each step, a little bit of it would sputter out.

We had two such heaters in our home: one was the kind that we hauled out of the storage each winter and connected to the wall through a fat chimney pipe. My mother dreaded this, as the handling of the pipe loosened the soot off the pipe's walls, and dirtied our livingroom. I remember the grooves of the heater's metal surface, and their imprint against my bare feet. I also remember the chirps of this seasonal canary as we fired it, and the metal began to warm and expand.

The other kind was portable. It was light. We took it from room to room. It had a small window in the front, where you could see the flames ablaze. I'd often fallen asleep next to it, but each time, I had been awakened, minutes later, by the smell of my burning hair.

Thirty years ago, a winter wouldn't go by without weekly reports of fire incidents caused by these heaters. I lost a classmate to one such fire in fifth grade. Its victims were often the most vulnerable, espcially chilren. So many years later, the news is still the same. On Monday, a heater exploded in a Tehran kindergarten. Last month, 13 elementary school students died similarly. Eighteen other students were injured in another fire in a village near Tehran.

If coming to America is at first a jarring experience for an immigrant, it's not simply because of the vast landscape, or the profusion of gadgetry. But also because of the existence of concepts like product regulations and safety standards, the protocols for recall, and the possibility of lawsuits.

A newcomer's first thought upon encountering these procedures is often one of mockery: "Pish ... Americans are sissies!" But years go by, and along with the accent, one also begins to shed one's intimacy with fear, risk, and danger. The idea that death, even at a young age, is as natural as life, falls away. And the old math in which one's chances of living or dying was calculated as fifty fifty begins to seem suspect.

Reminiscing about my childhood, sometimes I can't help but think of it as one grand malfunction. Few things worked reliably, and never consistently. Bad heaters, blackouts, broken cars, trailers that were invisible in the black plume of their own smoke. These imperfect things somehow make up a past that from the distance of decades now appear perfect, and happy. But what a child thinks of as charming, the adult often finds alarming. Recollecting certain memories, only today I fear the things that the child lived through so blithely.

The family members of the 59 victims who died in the mosque fire are unlikely to sue. If they do, their chances of winning are even less likely. In the absence of a system of checks and balances, tragedies such as this are always treated the same: the leaders will give condolences, even shed a few tears. The families reel at first, then frame the photograph of their loved ones with a black ribbon attached aslant to one edge. Then, when all explanations fail, everyone turns to the sky. Where there is no legal recourse, all tragedies are eventually understood as manifestations of God's will.

Roya Hakakian is the author of "Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran" (Crown). See features in Visit

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