I went to Spain for a holiday. Nothing fancy, just a group of old friends sharing rooms, splitting the cost, reminiscing. It surprised me to find Spain so advanced. Their public transportation must be among Europe’s best. The museums and public places run most efficiently and their subway runs better than other European countries I’ve seen. Barcelona in particular impressed me with its cleanliness.
The last thing I expected in such a modern place was to see Iran of decades ago. At first I thought this was due to the heat and the people’s darker coloring. Or could it be the clanking of dishes in restaurants, taking me back to the chelokabab places on a busy Friday? But the more I looked, the less similarities I found. Their fine architecture bore no resemblance to the new high towers of Tehran, the smooth traffic and fun music couldn’t be further from it and, to be sure, young people in their skimpy outfits had nothing to do with my most recent memories of Iran. So what was it that made me so sad?
For days, I roamed around the beautiful Barcelona but saw Mashad, until one day it hit me: it had to be the disabled who begged for money. My nostalgia had little to do with the place, but the beggars, pleading for sympathy were much too familiar. I guess after so many years of living where the disabled are well-cared for and a society that gives its physically handicapped the respect and dignity they deserve, my perspective somewhat has changed. Overcoming the initial pity, I found such public display rather humiliating. Still, I continued to pay them, giving my co-travelers an excuse to mock my soft heart.
One day, I happened to pass by a man with two amputated legs. This brought back visions of Mashad and a middle-aged man in a military jacket who sat outside Hammam-e-Noe. As a child, on my weekly visits to the large bathhouse, I had come to know and trust him. Whenever my ride was late, I found his presence assuring and stood near him while waiting. He wore round leather covers on his knees, enabling him to take short steps. He acted like a true gentleman, always smiling and took his place more as a doorkeeper’s. If people gave him money, he took it with a classy ‘thank you,’ and a dignified nod. No matter how dignified he was, people still referred to him as “Shaleh” – the crippled – because our society was not taught any better. We pitied physical disabilities, even where respect was due.
I began to wonder whose fault that was. Whether such a disadvantage is caused through nature’s blunder, an accident or ailment, we deal with physical disability in the way we see it. In a country that lacked modern facilities, among a people who did not bother to even learn his name, a disabled man, who was neither rich and nor educated, had found his respectable domain. He did accept money, but not pity. He never begged, acted in a way that made guarding the entry to the bathhouse an esteemed position.
Then again, we are a nation of pity. We feel sorry for ourselves, believe we have suffered extreme misfortunes throughout history and blame destiny for all of it. Iranians must be the only Muslims who truly believe that crying for the martyrdom of their leaders is a good thing and that beating themselves over what happened to Islam over thirteen centuries ago may send them to Heaven. A nation fascinated by deep sorrow, we continue to consider self-pity acceptable.
In a recent Persian concert, I noticed how all the songs’ lyrics circled around our political misfortune, the injustice done to us, and how our only hope is in the future. I couldn’t help but think, what about today? What have we done today that allows us to harbor such hope for tomorrow? And above all, isn’t tomorrow a combination of many such days? Isn’t today in fact the tomorrow for which we had high hopes a decade ago?
Maybe the world is only going to treat us as we treat ourselves. Are we the dignified handicaps who know their limits yet make the most of what they have? Or do we display our miseries, stretch a pitiful hand to the world and beg for sympathy? I for one, would like to hold my head high and say, I come from a country that may get a lot of bad wrap, one that the world still doesn’t know. And, yes, my misfortune may be apparent, it may even appall you, but you can save your pity because that, too, is a part of me. To the ignorant, that may seem like a disadvantage, but I’m proud to be who I am and won’t allow anyone to disrespect that.
Zohreh Ghahremani is the author of Sky of Red Poppies, available Sept. 24, 2010