A prominent Jewish family living in Tehran, the Hakakians enjoyed the respect of their community and led an intellectual life rich with wit, spirit, and ebullient holiday gatherings. Under the Shah’s rule, they led an idyllic life until the family’s oldest son, Albert, held his first art exhibit, prompting a warning from the Secret Service. Concerned for his safety, the family sent him to the United States. Only nine-years old, Roya began to realize that life, despite its seeming perfection, had mysteries.
Roya Hakakian's Journey from the Land of No (Crown, 2004) has been awarded ELLE magazine's Reader's Prize Contest, and selected Ms. magazine's Must Read book of summer 2004, as well as BarnesAndNoble.com's book club pick of the week, 8/16/2004. Also listen to interview with Roya on the Radio Times Show on WHYY public radio with host Marty Moss-Coane (August 23, 2004).
NEW YORK CITY, JULY 13, 1999
It was an ordinary morning at the office. wrapped in a heavy sweater, sleeves pulled over fingers hiding from the arctic indoor summer temperatures, I had every reason to expect this to be a day like any other. CNN was on. A pile of several major dailies lay on one side of my desk, and on the other was a second stack of magazines I had brought back from the Delta Shuttle courtesy stand. The first order of business was to answer e-mails, which I usually managed to do while sipping a tall cup of latté. I glanced at the names in the in-box, keeping an eye out for any breaking news on the Associated Press wire service. The telephone rang.
“Hi, Roya. This is David, David Unger, calling from the New York Times.”
“Oh, hi! You are . . .”
“An editorial writer working on a piece on the recent student uprisings in Iran. You come highly recommended as a source. Is this a good time?”
No. It was not a good time. It was never a good time to talk about Iran. I rarely did. But this call, I knew, I had to take. Thousands of students had taken to the streets in the largest pro-reform demonstration since 1979. Now, in the demonstration's third day, the students were calling on the newly elected president, Mohammad Khatami, to join their movement against the “hard-line” elements in power, mainly the supreme leader, Seyed Ali Khamenei. Many had been arrested. A few had disappeared, among them Elahe, a dear friend. And sitting in my office, watching the news, seeing young men and women face the riot police, their shirts bloodied, their faces hidden under rags, thugs charging at them with batons, seeing them be clubbed and fall to the pavement, was all too familiar. All too frustrating. There was nothing I could do to help them or my missing friend, except to talk to an editorialist. In my guilty helplessness, I had placed all hope in the New York Times to save Elahe, the students, and Iran itself in a sharp cluster of five hundred words or less. So I said, “Yes. I have been expecting your call. But hold on for just a minute, please.”
This was simply a call between a television journalist and her colleague in print. Still, I got up from my chair, peeked into the hallway, and quietly shut my door. This was a call about Iran; no call could be more personal. We began talking.
I had expected to hear from David. I had also expected the conversation to proceed as it often does with Americans. They come, I had decided, in two kinds: the misinformed, who think of Iran as a backward nation of Arabs, veiled and turbaned, living on the periphery of oases and fairly represented by a government of mullahs; and the misguided, who believed the shah's regime was a puppet government run by the CIA, and who think that Ayatollah Khomeini and his clerical cabal are an authentic, homegrown answer to unwarranted U.S. meddling.
The first group always amused me. In their company, I would blame every appalling trait in my character on my “Bedouin upbringing.” Walking along Coney Island beach on a hot summer evening, I licked the drops of ice cream off my palms, and when I saw the shocked look on my date's face, I explained that my lack of etiquette was due to a childhood spent in a land where napkins and utensils were unheard of. His believing blue eyes welled with tears of empathy.
A college roommate once asked what my family used for transportation in Tehran. I told her we kept six camels of various sizes in our backyard. My father rode the papa camel, my mother the mama camel, my brothers the younger camels, and I the baby camel. While my roommate's common sense was still in the grip of political correctness, I went on to design a fantastically intricate grid of four-legged traffic regulations for bovines on even days and equines on odd.
But that second group-those misguided Americans-exasperated me. Bright individuals abandoned inquiry and resorted to obsolete formulas: America had done Iran wrong. Therefore the clerics cut ties with the United States. Therefore the clerics were leading the nation to sovereignty. These individuals had yet to realize that though Iran's rulers fervently opposed U.S. imperialism, they were neither just to nor loved by their own people. This second group had not accepted the notion that the enemy of their enemy was yet another enemy.
It took only one question for me to decide that David belonged to the second group. He asked, “Do the 'reformists,' backed by President Khatami, stand a chance against the 'hard-liners'?”
This bipolar division between reformists and hard-liners was as crude as my own division between misinformed and misguided Americans. Reducing a nation of seventy million, with three thousand years of history, to two simple camps infuriated me. The assumption that Iran was on the verge of an imminent transformation if only one faction managed to subdue the other had the ring of a sensational headline, and though as a reporter I understood its logic, as an Iranian I detested it. True watchers of Iran knew that Iran itself was the “beloved” its great poets had serenaded for centuries: capricious yet slow, inspiring hope in one breath and evoking despair in another.
However, David quickly added that the editorials did not always reflect his own personal views. In fact, they often did not. This was an important disclaimer. Several more nuanced questions followed. His voice was tender. If a deadline was looming, his voice did not reveal it. In its timbre, there was time and infinite patience, which encouraged me to tell him my worst fears. Every horrifying possibility flashed through my mind: Elahe assaulted, bleeding in a ditch or along one of the many canals of Tehran; or sitting before interrogators, blindfolded, forced to write a recantation letter. Talking to David, I dressed in words the horrors I was conjuring. I told him so. I also told him that I had no faith in the new president, or any other cleric, to deliver what the students were demanding. I saw that the protestors were in grave danger. In the most dignified way I knew, I begged him to write with utmost urgency.
The next day brought an editorial headlined fateful moment in iran; the next week, the quashing of the uprising; the third week, the news of Elahe and her release from custody; the next month, another e-mail from David-a new editorial deadline.
In the weeks that followed, David's notes continued to arrive. He wanted to know about the reformists' background and their former allegiance; the Iranian relationship with the Lebanese Hezbollah; the role of secular Iranians in the revolution of 1979 and in the subsequent fallout. With Elahe's release, I had little incentive to talk about Iran. Writing to David took real effort. I had to provide him with the “insider facts,” information only natives are privy to, and add my own views, which were embittered by my history. Every time I wanted to substantiate an opinion, I drew upon a personal experience I had never talked about before, until at last I wrote, apologetically, that I could not continue. Despite my reputation, I confessed that I was not a good source after all. There were experts far better than I, whose names I suggested. When it came to Iran, I admitted, I was anything but objective. The past and the events of the years that followed the revolution had biased me forever.
Within moments after I e-mailed him the note I thought would be the end of all notes between us, a sharp beep announced the arrival of a new e-mail.
Subject: The years that followed the revolution.
Tell me about them.
When you have been a refugee, abandoned all your loves and belongings, your memories become your belongings. Images of the past, snippets of old conversations, furnish the world within your mind. When you have nothing left to guard, you guard your memories. You guard them with silence. You do not draw your treasures into the light, lest exposure soften their sharp-sad or gay-details (the best lesson I ever learned from visiting museums). Remembering becomes not simply a preoccupation but a full-time occupation. What you once witnessed is the story that brought journalists to your doorstep, but they left without the scoop. What you once witnessed is what scholars sought in the archives but did not find. What you once witnessed is what biographers intended to write. But how much can biographers do if the witnesses are silent?
When you belong to a breed on the verge of extinction, a Jewish woman from the Islamic Republic of Iran living in the United States, one small slip can turn you into a poster child for someone else's crusade. And you know of nothing more suspect than a crusade. Memory is the membrane in which the past is sealed and also the blueprint of what you once, when you were at your most clearheaded, envisioned as the future. You keep silent. To guard all that, true. But also because you cannot tell pain from anger. And since you do not wish to displace them onto an innocent listener, you do not allow yourself pain or anger. You walk on. You must walk on. In the new country, you must begin anew. To make yourself do so, you invent a metaphor. Not a beautiful metaphor, but a practical one to propel you. You imagine you are a secondhand car whose odometer has been reset to zero by exile, that craftiest of dealers. With all the old parts, you are recast as a brand-new human engine. Within you is all the clanking, hissing, and racket of past rides. But you muffle it all and press on.
David wanted me to speak. But he had no crusade. A historian, he was looking for what he knew was still too soon to have been written. He was a voice without a face. Somewhere on the top floor of another New York City high-rise he sat behind a desk. I had never seen him. All I knew of him was the words that kept arriving. Our friendship had been formed in written words, the only life those memories could have if they ever were to be expressed. And in English. To write about Iran in Persian would be daunting. Instead of reexamining the memories, I feared that in Persian, I might begin to relive them. Persian could summon the teenager at sea. English sheltered the adult survivor, safely inside a lighthouse. I did not know how to use the language of the censors to speak against them; to use the very language by which I had been denied so much as a Jew, a woman, a secular citizen, and a young poet. The love of Iran was still in my heart, yet I could not return. The irrevocable journey I had made was not the physical one, out of Iran. It was the journey from “no,” from the perpetual denials. And what I had painstakingly arrived at, greater than even the new land, was a new language, the vessel of my flight to vast possibilities.
I postponed writing David till I could be certain I wanted to commit myself to telling him. His notes had opened the floodgates, and a world once shut away had come rushing back at me. But how and where would I begin? In need of a reprieve, I accepted a reporting assignment that took me to Albany, Georgia, for a few days.
The Reverend Jerry Cochran had served in the U.S. Navy in the early 1970s and was suffering from a lung disease. Like most African Americans of his generation, Jerry had been assigned the most undesirable tasks while in the navy, among them the scraping of the nonskid coating off the deck of the USS Enterprise. Within two years, Jerry had been diagnosed with a “respiratory disease of unknown origin” and discharged. He believed the disease had resulted from the polluted air he had inhaled while working on the deck. Now a biopsy proved the presence of elements, identical to those within the coating he had once scraped, in his chest. The dust was gradually hardening Jerry's lung tissue and lessening his breathing capacity. Jerry was slowly suffocating.
Driving past the cotton fields in rural Georgia, I mulled over the many details that demanded my attention: the few unclear facts, the original documents, footage to shoot, sounds to record, his difficulty breathing and speaking, his wheezing. I decided to arrive at Jerry's church early, to soak in my surroundings, an old habit that had got me far as a child. I reviewed all the questions and went over what I needed to prepare for the crew and our correspondent before the on-camera interviews. This was a man on the brink of death, I thought. He was about to trust his final words to me. And it was up to me to show how he had been mistreated and misdiagnosed and as a result was dying.
Inside the church, rows of children sat around tables, doing homework. Mrs. Cochran welcomed me. She asked if I was too tired or had had any trouble finding my way. The after-school hours were the busiest at the church, she explained, and she apologized for the noisy surroundings. But I insisted on watching the children and staff go about their business. For reasons I never understood, I have always felt instantly at ease among black Americans and forget my own outsiderness. I said, “I am happy to wait here and watch the kids. The reverend must be busy. I know I have come early.”
“The reverend has been on pins and needles for days waiting for you,” she replied, sounding like an exhausted wife who has had to contend with far too much for far too long. “It is not every day 60 Minutes comes to our neighborhood.”
To find a quieter location for the filming, Mrs. Cochran took me on a tour of the building. We walked past several rooms, each filled to the ceiling with boxes of evidence the reverend had gathered on his own condition and that of his fellow servicemen. Years of correspondence had amounted to pile after pile of documents: letters from the Veterans Administration, the U.S. Navy, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and on and on. Some bore the stamps of the White House, others of the U.S. Congress. Behind the facade of an unassuming two-story structure hid a colossal archive. And at the end of its last corridor, I imagined a gaunt man on his deathbed.
But I was wrong. In the last room, at the end of a hallway, behind a desk, in a suit, sat a corpulent man, who rose exuberantly to his feet and greeted me. He looked hale and cheerful. Upon seeing the buoyant reverend, I felt the worst of a journalist's fears rush over me: I was chasing a sham.
It took hours to pore over papers and sift through medical reports till I found the documentary evidence that attested to the severity of Jerry's condition. But more compelling than the records were his testimonies. At first, when he saw the skeptical expression on my face, he slapped his chest and said, as if before a judge, that his heart could no longer bear the weight of a history denied. The disease in those boxes, he pleaded, would kill him faster than the disease in his lungs. He laid out photographs, exhibits for a jury of one, of himself and his buddies, their arms on one another's shoulders, their faces bright with the proud smiles of young, invincible men, standing in uniforms against the majestic background of the sea. They dreamed of serving their country and hoped for a great future. But the dust had buried their dreams. Two of those young men were dead. Being forgotten had already killed their spirits. The dust would finish the rest.
Jerry's eyes fixed on my face as if expecting a confession. He asked whether I understood what it meant to be bearing a story never told. “I do,” I said with a voice on the brink of breaking. He paused, examined my expression, and, seeing that he had won me over, lowered himself into a chair, to rest at last.
Back at the hotel, long past midnight, tossing in my bed, I was restless to write. The feel of Jerry's firm grip as we shook hands still enveloped my hand, and his opening line kept playing in my mind: “I have waited years for you to come and hear my story.” So he had begun.
And so I began.
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