01 Aug 2009 14:14
By KAMIN MOHAMMADI | 1 August 2009
'Now perhaps the world will know us better.' So said one of my cousins and best friends in Iran, my almost daily contact since the election results were announced. We agreed that it was the only real hope that we could salvage from the current situation, one that we both fear will lead to nothing but more bloodshed and misery in our country as two titans of the Islamic regime fight it out for supremacy and control of the country.
'Perhaps at last the world will realise that we are not all like Ahmadinejad. That we are normal people like them...'
It's a noble hope and one that I sincerely share. But the truth is, we are not like 'them'. The rest of the world that Iranians refer to means basically the West and we cannot ever be like the people in the West for the simple reason that they have luxuriated in their freedom for decades, even centuries, while us Iranians have instead lived through millennia of tyranny and subjugation and struggle. We continue to live under such tyranny and the fight for freedom and self-determination is as individual in my country as it is societal. Whether living in or outside Iran, we are all affected by the upheaval of the last 30 years, of the revolution that toppled the Shah and the results of centuries of Western interference in our country's affairs.
Whether living inside or outside Iran, we all -- to a greater or lesser degree -- wear a mask, have two personalities, split ourselves into public and private selves. We are, essentially, alienated from others under our charm and spirit and propensity for laughing, dancing and having fun. We are split because 'they' cannot possibly know us and what we have lived -- and continue to live -- every day. And for us it is simply too complicated to explain so instead we don the mask.
Two years ago, I spent half a year living in Iran. After a decade of shuttling back and forth, I finally stayed for longer than a few weeks. I had my own flat, a busy social life and an array of vivid silk headscarves which I learnt to wear as stylishly as the intimidatingly supermodel-like young girls strutting around town. I worked and wrote in my tower and watched Tehran's flock of bright green parrots swoop through the skies at 4 o'clock every afternoon from my desk. I visited government offices wearing open high-heeled sandals with exposed ankles and bright pink nail polish, only realising my law-breaking gaffe when the gaze of everyone who greeted me slid silently to my feet. I dated and was shocked when one of my dates tried to kiss me in the back of the cab dropping us home after a party. The driver averted his eyes and the doorman of my building never commented on how many male visitors I received -- having been brought up the West, I am used to having platonic friendships with men, but in Iran, even in liberal circles, no-one can still quite believe that a man and a woman alone could be doing anything other than having sex.
Despite a decade of frequent visits, I was still an innocent in the complex web of realities that is Iranian society, and my innocence was what got me through unscathed. But after six months in Iran and four years of Ahmadinejad's rule, even I have lost my innocence.
I returned to London with a heavy heart leaving behind someone I was passionately in love with. We had no specific plans to be together -- like many young Iranians, my lover was determined to rebuild his country from the inside, declaring that he would rather be cleaning toilets in Iran than lording it in the West -- but we had started a dialogue about the future, a conversation that continued after my return to London, one in which we were delicately examining our options. Then one day, that conversation abruptly ended, quite literally.
Soon after arriving back in London, having rushed home at the appointed hour for a phone call, I didn't hear from him. I sat in all night and tried not to be annoyed. I spent another two days trying not to be cross and insecure, trying to play it cool, until finally on the fourth day I rang him. He picked up immediately and his response to my rather snide greeting was urgent and short.
'We cannot speak,' he said quickly. 'I have wanted to tell you but I have had some trouble. Intelligence have been asking questions about me, my boss warned me the other day that I am being watched and my phone is probably tapped. I don't know why or what will happen. I am scared. I love you.' And with that he hung up.
For the next six months I had virtually no word from him. All my questions froze on my lips. I had to go against my every instinct -- to call, to agitate, to rush to Iran and spirit him out -- in order to try and protect him. Bar a couple of formal phone calls, when birthdays gave us an excuse to ring each other briefly, we didn't speak, and even when we did, I had to strain to try to interpret his banal words, which he picked carefully so I could read between the lines. It was a rude lesson in Persian subtlety and strained my Western directness and lack of nuance to its limits.
For weeks, even months at a time, I had no idea if he was in jail, being tortured or even dead. I didn't even know if he had been taken in for questioning, if he was still working, living breathing, walking the same paths we had walked together. I didn't know and there was no way I could find out. Worst of all, I didn't know if the 'trouble' he was in was connected with me and the research he had helped me carry out, travelling together in the process in one of Iran's most dangerous regions. The only thing he had ascertained was that this 'trouble' had something to do with Western friends, and given I am also a journalist, there was a lot for me to feel guilty and responsible for.
Now that I wanted desperately to speak out and wield my pen to some good use, I had to bite my tongue and sit on my hands. To this day I don't know what happened to him in those dark months although we are confident enough now to speak occasionally although of course, the hope of our love has died in the process and we are back to being dear friends.
The worst of it was that no-one understood.
In the West, such stories smack of adventure and romance, even eroticism. But in reality they are nothing but painful. For months I went to bed in tears and woke up in tears. I spent all day trying to rein in my feverish imagination and no matter how much I tried to explain the situation to my Western friends, I could never quite satisfactorily answer their questions, or make them understand. I went through those months wearing a mask of normality, my Western persona on display, my peculiarly Iranian sadness locked up inside. It was hard.
I remember the first time soon after when I heard that one of my friends had been arrested and taken to Evin prison's notorious 209 wing -- the section reserved for political prisoners and run not by the prison authorities, but by the Intelligence Agency. She had been at a peaceful demonstration protesting the arrest of other women activists, all members of the one Million Signatures Campaign in which women -- and some men too -- took a petition calling for equality in the law for women from door to door, explaining and educating women in their rights in the process.
I was in my flat in London reading a report on the arrests when her name jumped out at me. I started to ring friends frantically, to feel rising up inside me the cocktail of fury, frustration and fear that Ahmadinejad's four years in power have made me so familiar with. What could I do? Was it better for them in jail if we spoke out on their behalf in the West, or would that just lead to more trouble for them and accusations of being Western spies? Yet again I sat on my hands, and I eventually picked myself up and took myself off to an evening class I was late for.
Walking through Soho and Covent Garden, watching the early evening drinkers gather outside pubs, laughing and drinking, I couldn't have felt more like an alien, walking the familiar streets of London while all my thoughts were in Iran. Tears poured down my face and fear for my friend gripped me, but I went to my class anyway because what else could I do? I arrived late and the teacher gave me a dirty look. I apologised for my tardiness but didn't try to explain. Because in 21st-century London, how can you explain such things?
I remember the day when I opened an email from a friend in Iran saying, 'I have a few weeks off, what are you doing this summer?' I wrote back inviting him to London and two days later, he was installed on my sofa, where he stayed for a month. I had always admired him, an Iranian like me whose family had fled during the revolution. They had gone to America and eventually, armed with his Ivy League education, he had decided to go back to live in Iran, where he had spent the last years building up a successful business and using any opportunity he could to try to better relations between his two countries, at some risk to himself.
The risk had come home to roost and after four months of interrogations by Intelligence and psychological cat-and-mouse games, he had finally swapped a paranoid life in his lovely mountain-view flat in Tehran for a month of free breathing on my lumpy sofa in London. Many nights we sat up into the early hours, talking and listening to Persian music, sometimes dancing, sometimes crying. He broke down when he told me that he was beginning to think he could no longer live in Iran, that he was contemplating giving up his dream of improving our country.
'People are changing, they are being tainted by this regime, our culture is being eroded. Everyone has a hand in everyone else's pocket and ok, we have always had corruption in Iran, but it was something people tried to hide. Now they boast of it. The mullahs have skewed our moral compass and I am not sure I want to bring children up in this society any more.'
He was one of the lucky ones, armed with an American passport, a healthy bank account and an education that would see him walking into any job he wanted in the West. But the one job he really wanted, running the company he had spent years building, he had to walk away from. When he left to go to America I sobbed because, for all the pain of the situation, we had at least understood each other.
On my last visit to Iran, one of my uncles drove me to the airport when I was leaving. As we sat and had a final tea together, he started to talk to me about life in the Islamic Republic. This man, now a grandfather, for me will always be the handsome youth at whose wedding I was a bridesmaid in the 1970s. He had a thick moustache and wore a white suit like John Travolta's in Saturday Night Fever, his bride had cascading hair woven through with flowers and their wedding reception was held in the glitziest disco in Tehran.
She died during the Iran-Iraq war, leaving him with three small children and, after a decade alone, he married again and seemed happy in his life. He had recently been to Europe for business and had managed to take a few extra days to come to London to see us. It had been his first trip West since the revolution and, as we sipped our teas at Mehrabad Airport, he started to confide in me, much to my embarrassment and no doubt his too, proud man that he is. But confide he did, in that way I have become accustomed to Iranians doing with me, trusted family or old friend yet an outsider who would take their secrets home with me rather than sit and gossip in Tehran.
No-one really wants to do this but their hearts are so full, they must spill out some of the worries lodged there in order to go on. And what he told me was that on his visit to Europe, he had felt like an alien. Looking, walking and talking just like all the other people, but, after 30 years of Islamic rule, after all the daily compromises he has had to make with his soul, his conscience, his very being in order to survive the regime and even prosper, he felt so different to all the people living as people should -- in freedom -- that he had felt locked up inside himself, unable to break the mask, unable to relate to anyone or allow himself to be understood.
'Kamin jan,' he said to me as I tried to contain his confidences, 'we here, we look like human beings, but we are aliens. We are not like other people. I realised this in Europe. There is a gulf because they simply cannot understand what we go through every single day of our lives in order to survive this regime.'
The regime has ignored the people for so long, has so vociferously refused to listen to their hearts' desires, that they are now willing to risk arrest, injury, even death, just to lighten the load that fills their hearts. They simply can't take any more, they have spilled over. Like everyone else, the people of Iran want to walk down the street holding hands with their lover, laughing and shaking their hair in the wind. They want to have a stake in their country and a say in how it will be run. But whether inside or outside Iran, the hardships of the last 30 years, compounded by the last four years of Ahmadinejad's rule, have made sure that we Iranians, no matter how we much we integrate and succeed and prosper, we contain such extraordinary experiences that we cannot possibly be really like you.
Kamin Mohammadi's first book, a family memoir and modern history of Iran, is slated for publication in the spring of 2010.
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau
Photo: "Love Birds." LGOIT.com