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
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.
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
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
Roya Hakakian is the author of "Journey
from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran" (Crown). See
features in iranian.com. Visit RoyaHakakian.com.
goodbye to spam!