When emotions are evaluated, Iranian culture tends to tip the scale in favor of depression, sorrow, and even misery. I grew up in Mashad, a society where people had an unusual yearning for sadness and one favored expression was, “Mass funeral is a wedding!” In fact, happy people, who could not find enough reason to make them sad, willingly attended a rowzeh and cried their hearts out for tragedies that happened fourteen centuries ago. As if living in a religious society wasn’t sad enough, in our quest for misery we looked to what little entertainment was available to us.
“Have you seen the Love Story?” a friend in college asked me. “It’s the best film I’ve ever seen. I cried so hard that the entire front of my shirt was soaked in tears! In fact, the first time I went to see it, a woman sitting in front of me fainted and they had to take her away in an ambulance.”
Considering that rave review, I simply had to go and see the film, and I did so not once, but on five consecutive nights. Oh, how I enjoyed watching that girl die of cancer, leaving her grieving husband all alone in this world! But that wasn’t the only popular movie because I remember crying just as hard over The Imitation of Life and I Want To Live, to mention a few.
Our melancholic exploration is by no means limited to films, indeed Iranians cherish dark books, sad music, and heart-wrenching poetry much the same way. What better receptor for our tears than the pages of Les Miserables, or the Gad Fly?
A poem is only worth the amount of tears it can extract, and as for music, it has to be morbid enough to make you suicidal or else it isn’t considered good enough. All I need is a Shajarian and I’m back to the many losses that I have endured. To this day, our classic lyrics go far beyond the lover’s sorrow and I can’t begin to count the number of songs where someone’s beautiful eyes have already “killed” the singer, or the performer begs God for his/her death, not to mention the death of the beloved. One particular song by Homeyra is seared into my mind as she begins by shrieking, elaheeee, bemireeee! “May you die!” Now, if that’s not powerful lyrics, I don’t know what is!
This is by no means to imply that we never laughed, in fact, laughter has always been a major component of the Iranian life, only what we used to laugh at, was so pathetic that in the end, it brought no joy to the heart. Our jokes were either ethnic, or mean anecdotes to make fun of different races, or worse, it’s about the less fortunate and the handicapped. Looking back, it is clear how Iranian jokes were nothing but a recount of our social tragedies, much the same as all the jokes we now tell about today’s politicians.
Back then, the “intellectuals” were even more miserable than the rest of us because they were stuck with the word, “deep”. Depth had nothing to do with how much one knew or how well one lived their life, deep people were generally melancholic and had experienced hardship. Most of them belonged to some political organization or simply formed their own oppositional group. Drug addicts enjoyed an unfair advantage, and a history of attempted suicide could just be the icing on the cake!
On the other hand, those of us who laughed, enjoyed life, and had a positive outlook, were generally considered “shallow.” No need to mention how many of us were indeed shallow, but could act “deep” when the occasion called for it.
As a teenager, my dreams took shape through films and women’s magazines such as Zan-e-Rooz. Their stories convinced me that misfortune was a main ingredient of true love, that miracles did happen, and that somewhere underneath the cold appearances of men, lay a heart. And, finally came the biggest misconception of all, the reason for all the female broken hearts, the belief that love could change a man!
“What’s your ideal type of man?” girls asked one another in a silly questionnaire booklet we passed around. The most repeated answer could shock an outsider because “Heedless and rough,” was the kind of man we were all attracted to. My generation did not look for an attentive, educated, or gentle man. We wanted someone as coarse as James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause — preferably with the same good looks. Lucky for us, many of the plain-looking boys in our society did fancy themselves to be James Dean look-alikes. No wonder few of us ended up marrying the love of our lives because those “rough” boys often ended up with someone just as “heedless”. Besides, it was so much more romantic to suffer from a broken heart than to live “happily ever after.” Forget the movies, for a truly sad love story, all you need to do is listen to any middle-aged Iranian’s memoir.
Psychologically speaking, misery was whispered to us on a regular basis back when we were babies. Our lullaby is so tragic that it would make great lyrics for an opera. “Lala-la-la gol-e nazi Babat rafteh be sarbazi!” Thus sending the poor baby to sleep with visions of her father in a battlefield and from there on, we proceed to name the flowers and one by one rhyme them with all sorts of misfortune. Now compare that to the American song of “Hush little baby. . .” where the mother will buy the infant just about anything she desires, starting with a diamond ring, no less!
One look at our rich poetic background and our admiration for the dark poems of Foroogh, Akhavan, and Naderpoor becomes quite clear. Who better than the great poets of Persia to open old wounds and question the tyrannies of existence?
As for literature, we grew up worshipping Hedayat because he brought us that close to our death wish, and we enjoyed Bozorg Alavi because of the deep sorrow passed to us through his novel, Her Eyes. Okay, we did have a good laugh with My Uncle Napoleon, but that was Pezeshkzad and you have to admit, not too many of our writers are that funny.
True as it may be that Iranians have seen too many ups and downs to be happy-go-lucky people, it is equally true that we wouldn’t know happiness if it slapped us in the face. The bottom line is that it is culturally unacceptable for an Iranian to be utterly happy. In our quest for reaching that infamous “depth”, many of us, while living in the lap of luxury and out of touch with the miseries back home, still manage to get all misty-eyed at the mere mention of name of Iran.
There was this lady sitting next to me at a recent cultural seminar, whose frequent sighs made it hard to concentrate on the speaker. “Oh, my heart is still there,” she told me during the break and by now I have learned that the word , “there” is a substitute for the name of Iran. When I asked her how long she has lived in the States, she sadly replied, “Thirty-two years.”
“Have you ever been back?” I asked.
I shook my head in heartfelt sympathy for yet another Iranian in forced exile. “So you can’t go back. I mean, they’ll probably put you in jail if you do.”
“Oh, no,” she said and laughed at such a silly notion. “I could go back any time I want to, but it’s just too sad to see what’s happened over there!”
The way I see it, if I left my own heart somewhere else, and if I had the means to go back to wherever I had left the darn thing, wild horses couldn’t stop me from doing so. Then again, to admit that I have a good life, that my memories of motherland are fast becoming a thing of the past, and that I’m out of touch with the fate of my fellow countrymen, wouldn’t sound so “deep”, would it? In a way, one could easily say that being happy is literally “against my religion.” I may go on telling jokes and living a comfortable life, but I would rather die than ever admit to such shallowness!
The common consensus among most of us is that you can only know your true friends in times of trouble. This is particularly true of a loss and I’ve heard it many times in regard to attending funerals. But lately, I have come to the conclusion that in fact, true friends are the ones who share your happiness. People often don’t hesitate to go to a funeral and some people in fact gather around and watch you suffer because, in a weird way, it is comforting to see someone in worse shape than we are. But win a lotto, make it to the top, or have your child marry a prince and you’ll be surrounded by green-eyed monsters. Only then will your true friends unselfishly share your joy because everyone else will be too busy talking about your undeserved good fortune.
Look at what we do to our own people the minute they become successful or gain moderate fame. I’ve heard enough nasty comments about people like Ebadi, Nafisi and Ansari to pray that I’ll never reach such a level of success. On the other hand, God forbid, but should anything bad happen to any of them, we’ll have a national hero on our hands with more words of praise pouring in than ever before. A good example is Ganji, because as long as the guy was dying in jail, we all admired him, but the second he steps out into the free world he is suspected of all sorts of conspiracies.
Yes, we really worship our dead heroes and, as Rumi said, it’s a question why we worship the dead and are enemies of life. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder what we would have done to the image of a hero such as Mosaddegh if only he had lived longer.
So maybe there is an ironic happiness in sorrow after all, and maybe in view of all the changes in our lives, some old expressions need to be altered. It sounds strange at first, but the more I think about it, the more sense it makes to say, “Cry and the whole world cries with you, laugh and you shall laugh alone!”?