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All Bamed out!
People have become mirror images of the theocrats they hate

By Shahla Azizi
January 12, 2004

Over a year ago I came back to live in Iran after an absence of some twenty-five years. I came hoping to quell a longing that I had, all those years, for my beloved birthplace. I came to give my children a sense of their ancestral identity. But in this relatively short span of time I have utterly lost any love or sense of belonging for this place that I so carefully nurtured in my years of exile.

Instead of finding a country where people are warm and caring and where time is slow enough to enjoy life, I found myself in a den of thieves, a world of lies where the lack of freedom has hardened people. You have to live under a fascist regime in order to fully cherish the freedom that you no longer possess.

What is worse than the regime itself is the way people have hardened into little mirror images of the theocrats they hate. Yes, there are a few tired souls who have retained their humanity, but they live in cocoons, afraid that if they venture out, the body snatchers that make up the majority may steal their souls. In fact, even the hardened locals tell me that it seems like only the Iranians that have lived abroad for a long time have retained any goodness.

Lying and stealing are the bread and butter of the rest. Those who have been here all along can spot us naïve returnees from afar and drool at the prospect of an easy target to con. We are like lambs amidst a pack of wolves. Not a day has passed without someone trying to cheat or lie to me, sometimes over the simplest of things. Even if you ask someone what he/she had for lunch you cannot be sure that they are telling you the truth. They lie and steal almost for sport as a way of reinforcing their cleverness. Street smartness and guile are the only traits that are valued. We have become a nation of carpet dealers, trying to eek out the most Rials out of the next person we meet.

Rare is the Iranian family whose members, upon the death of their patriarch, have not fallen into the most vulgar of disputes over inheritance, before the body of the poor man is cold. The materialism of this land of Hafiz and Rumi would make the most hardened New Yorker cringe. Here, money rules. Women marry for it. Brothers fight over it. Men steal and lie to get it. Children learn that in order to escape to a better life abroad they absolutely need it. We toppled a monarchy to become a nation of prostitutes and pimps.

The Persian language I so loved, and lamented that I had never mastered, itself is for me now a mere evidence of a national flaw. Over centuries of evolving under oppressive kings and Byzantine court cultures it has been tailored and honed for hypocrisy. Where as before I tried hard not to use any English when speaking Farsi and kept my Persian pure now I cling lovingly to my adopted language: English. The language of truth, of science and of people braver, purer and better than us. The language of a people who prefer death to this form of oppression.

I, myself, too scared to voice my opposition to the regime, remember daily the New Hampshire license plates that brandished the logo: "live free or die". None of us here are brave enough to believe or implement that simple principle.

Jalal Ale Ahmad got it all wrong. The best thing we can do as a backward nation (look at Bam or simply try buying a lamp made in Iran whose plug actually works and you will have to agree with this labeling) is to imitate the West. The West that has brought us freedom, truth and Penicillin. Even as colonizers the Westerners were more human than our present rulers.

I write with sweaty palms knowing that all my liberal friends will disown me quicker than this piece can be printed. But I cannot help typing out what I believe to be the truth. It is easy to be "politically correct" in the cafés of New York or Berkeley. Freedom and truth are universals. No argument for cultural pluralism excuses this kind of oppressive backwardness. You cannot bring democracy to a people who cannot form a line in front of a bank teller. To a nation who steal and lie to each other and who inflate leaders for their own personal gain. This kind of "democracy" is an outright lie.

Collusion and collaboration, betrayal and hypocrisy are the order of the day. Even when one of us wins the Noble Peace Prize, she tows the party line never daring to attack all the blatant human rights abuses taking place under her very nose, against her very own colleagues and clients. Ms. Ebadi even you would prefer being tried in an American court to an Iranian one! Guantanamo is the exception - a wartime measure. A desperate way to fight an enemy who operates on the principle of breaking the rules of war.

The only thing that we, as a nation, are good at is collective mourning. Ever since the Bam earthquake, which, in California, would have claimed maybe only a couple of lives, but here killed 40,000 or more, all we see on the TV is heart wrenching footage of the dead and interviews with the survivors. Poets and artists come on every night pouring out their sympathy, shedding theatrical tears. Not one of them has stood up and asked why in an oil-rich, earthquake-prone country, with much experience in this kind of disaster, were the buildings so badly built? I am not talking about the ancient edifices but the new ones, the hospitals and schools.

Why, as Ms. Namazi so well put it in her article [Un-natural causes], have relief efforts, and coordination of them, been so poor, so little, so late? We answer our problems with prayer and poetry -- the two instruments of our very backwardness. Bring on the engineers, the builders, the concrete dealers, the issuers of building permits, the responsible ones - the hell with the poets who can do nothing but reinforce a culture of fatalism that has kept us from being able to save little children's lives.

We are a nation of spineless souls who at best remain silent or write from the comfort of exile or behind the shameful veil of a nom de plume, like yours truly. I make the fact that I am a mother of young ones my excuse. We come up with poetic excuses, all of us. But in the end we are not brave enough to merit a better regime, a better standard of living, a better life. Only those of us in prison, or dead for the sake of freedom, are honorable.

It would do us good to imitate the brave here and in the West who taught most of us what freedom is and how it can be bought with blood alone. I myself know that each time I say nothing I die a little. Each time I hide behind a pen name I bury myself under the rubble that fear and trembling have made >>> See related poll

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By Shahla Azizi

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