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'Paris c'est fini!'

by LD in Tehran

07 Nov 2010 01:173 Comments

Leaving Paris for a utopian garden in Damavand.

4869709812_82300f0a10.jpg[ personal history ] "Avec Paris c'est fini!" So bewails Lady Andreyevna Lyubov, owner of the eponymous cherry orchard in Chekhov's classic play. After years living in Paris, she has left France with a broken heart and a shattered soul, and returned to her Russian homeland. The liberation she felt leaving the city of lights and her lover to return to the country of her birth heralded the start of a new life, based in cultural roots and family values. Paris didn't suit her at all, neither the weather nor the city's joyful ambience.

No one could better exemplify my situation than she. Indeed Paris -- with its heavy tear-laden clouds fashioning the romantic, dreamlike sky, the charming, churning Seine, the elegant, inspiring buildings, the imperial avenues and tortuous streets -- is actually quite melancholic. No wonder Paris, like Venice, is the symbol of romance: its rainy weather and alluring atmosphere, full of the memories of a glorious past, make it a place full of mysterious dreams and nostalgia, of Bertolucci and Bogart ("We'll always have Paris"), of black-and-white visions of that postwar hub where lovers embraced in the streets.

I was four when I arrived. My first memory is of the balcony of our new apartment. It was long, tiny, and ugly, with a gray stone floor decorated by pigeon droppings. I had left northern Tehran, my lush and magical garden of Shemiran, for this cold and anonymous corridor that promised a bleak future, this corridor full of a sweet emptiness and the meaningless illusion of romance.

Did I have a nice life in Paris? I lived the perfect cliché of a typical bohemian bourgeoise. A specialist in social categorization would say that I belonged to a trendy new class, the precarious intellectuals -- journalists, writers, dramatists, translators, and so forth. Speaking perfect French, I have defended a useless but (according to some) interesting dissertation and earned my Ph.D. in the field of theater studies at the fabled Sorbonne. I know opera houses, theaters, and all the interesting places of the city and I have a lovely home full of books. I should thank God and realize how lucky I am to have such a life.

So why do I consider my tenure in Paris unbearable despite its sweetness and charm? Even though I've been here now for over 31 years, I haven't spent a day without thinking that Paris was over, that Paris was not for me, that I would leave this damned city for good, tomorrow at the latest. This thought haunted me for years, and my inner voice constantly reminded me that it was time to run away, start a new life, the one I always dreamt of, the one that would bring me to the core of my soul. I spent my whole life in a city that I virtually left day after day. How strange is it to have become that Parisian while preparing my luggage for some imminent departure. Finally, tired of my moving thoughts, I left Paris for New York. I had the feeling then that Paris was over, yes, I really thought, "Avec Paris c'est fini," that New York was the right place to be, and that I could open my suitcases once for all and feel at home.

Home.... I don't even know what the word means.

Three years went by as I wasted time obsessing over whether New York was better than Paris. Watching busy Gothamites running in the subway with their coffee in hand every morning didn't really make sense to me. Why couldn't they sit down for a few minutes and drink their goddamned lattes? I was too Iranian to be happy in Paris and too French to enjoy New York. I left my luggage unopened and went back to Paris.

I resumed my old Parisian life, which means that I was living in and leaving the city simultaneously. The destination I always wanted to reach during all these years, whether I was in Paris or New York, was Tehran. Did I try to live in Iran? Yes, and failed. My experience was a disaster. I was an immature 20-year-old girl, engaged to a lost but beautiful Iranian guy. Our relationship didn't work at all, and I went back to Paris. Even though I am still driven by the idea of going home again, I haven't tried to start a new life there. I often return for holidays, but I have never again attempted to stay for long. The notion of relocating to Iran has become no more and no less than an obsessive ideal, an irrational utopia that can be seen as a symptom of a deep and neurotic nostalgia.

Despite its painful situation, Iran remains my home. The garden I left when I was four persists as an imaginary realm. The house of my childhood with the magnificent cherry orchard has become a mythical place that has remained forever unchanged, strangely like that romantic Paris of myth. Of course, I know such an ideal place doesn't exist, that it's just the dream of my desires. But despite this knowledge, I keep falling into the trap of vague illusions.

How painful is my situation then, when I travel back to the real Iran and discover the gap between my inner life and objective fact. Even my real garden disappoints me, as it had been violated by the presence of the intruders who now inhabit my home. With the impact of the Islamic Republic's dictatorship, my people have changed so much. And so have I. The differences I experience are due not only to the fact that I have grown up abroad, but even more to the peculiar nature of my social milieu in Iran itself.

Rather than feeling westernized, my difference is to be found in my experience in a marginalized society not recognized by the authorities. My father, still residing in Tehran, used to tell me that he and his intellectual and artist friends were second-class citizens, a decadent cohort that still belongs to another world, alien to contemporary Iranian society. And this feeling of a circulating in a lost world while discovering the strange reality that surrounds it on all sides is what characterizes my Iranian experience. I'm not only different, I don't exist anymore. If my life in Paris and even New York was meaningless, I can truly say that I am a ghost in progress in my own country.

Am I desperate? Certainly not.

I would rather be a ghost running after a utopia than a real person enjoying the emptiness of an absurd life. Being a ghost is not scary. Ghosts are immortal, are they not? And they have hopes and dreams as well. Though they might not exist for real anymore, still they have emotions and desires. And I, little bobo honey in Paris, and a veiled specter in Tehran, have a utopia that is embodied in a small piece of land -- the only thing that really belongs to me -- that is nothing but a patch of earth covered with an enchanting dust. This is mine, this bitter yellow sand is mine, this land is a piece of my soul, and represents both my future and my dream. I can smell my destiny there, can even taste it.

How nationalist I am, you must think.

How crazy you are, says my family.

All these long studies, all this knowledge, this traveling between the United States and Europe is to be denied for this empty land? What do you know about Damavand anyway? What do you know about its conservative and religious people?

Damavand.

Can you hear the sound of this word? Can you feel the velvety softness of that "v"? The final vowel that opens onto infinite vistas? Damavand with his majestic white dome will be our Mount Olympus, Damavand the Olympus, the new home of the wondering, wandering artists and intellectuals who have lost their voice and flesh. And on the magic mountain, I will restore my garden, the one I have preserved in my inner vision and heart.

You have lost your mind, my darling, you are so naive. Will you ever grow up one day? When will you do something of your life instead of creating fabulous utopias in the mountain?

Am I naive?

I met people from all over the world in New York. While attending Columbia University, I talked to many international students, always asking the same question: Will you go home once you graduate? Most of, if not all, the time, they would say, Yes, we want to go back in order to contribute to the social, economic, cultural development of our country. Indians, Pakistanis, Chinese, Africans, South Americans -- that's what most all of them would say. And the Iranians? Well, most of, if not all, the time, they said they would never return to Iran, that they would do anything to stay in the United States rather than live in their homeland again. Did they love the country of their birth? Oh yes, believe me. They loved it so passionately that they would rather give up than face its tragic fate. They had left Iran because they didn't want to become ghosts. Feeling the increasing divide between themselves and the system, they realized their bodies and souls were in danger, saw how powerful the military was becoming, saw the new social order developing, and did whatever it took to get away.

You will never be able to live there.

Maybe.

But who knows except me?

So I packed my stuff. Yes, I really did it. It happened just after the 2009 elections. I was so full of hope that I put on my blue dress for the first time, the one my mother wore when I was four, just before we left for Paris, as we walked through the streets of Tehran. It was the beginning of the Revolution: A Guardian of the Revolution detained her and ordered her to put a veil on her head. She remained quiet and took a very elegant piece of silk out of her handbag. She had heard of this new law but could hardly believe it. That day was her first day with a veil. Thirty years later, as I slipped on the same blue dress that I had kept like a treasure, I thought that my day had come as well, the one without a veil. It hadn't. Horrified, I sat down on my luggage and watched my people being jailed, tortured, raped. My dreams were shattered into thousands of pieces. My heart, like millions of other hearts, hurt so violently that it broke. I had no option but to go back to Paris. Immediately, I started thinking of leaving again. But this time the destination had changed. Death had become my new objective and I simply wanted to die. My cherry orchard was devastated and nothing, absolutely nothing remained, not even the magical dust of my mythical land, not even a single brick of my old house. All my inner visions had shrunk into a neutral and silent space, devoid of emotions and feelings.

In The Cherry Orchard, the aristocratic Lyubov, unable to face the transformation of her old world and the emergence of a more pragmatic social order, loses her wonderful land and returns to Paris, disillusioned, with empty hands. I settled my ghostly soul in Paris as well and forced myself to face the current Iranian situation: My garden could not blossom in such a world. Depression, tears, anxiety, therapy, medications, meditation -- I did whatever I could to believe in something. And very slowly, I built a new mental space that welcomed hope as an honored and special guest. And I keep so focused on it that I don't think of my luggage. Neither do I think of a place to be. The only thing that mattered to me was to bring back my cherry orchard to its native place, which is my imagination. My ideal home is purely mental and my utopian Mansion of Damavand can be experienced only through the process of writing. Writing in English in Paris re-creates the feeling of exile with which I am so familiar. And only writing can capture what will never exist anymore, neither in reality nor in fantasy, as I reached the final conclusion that chains of black words on a white surface could reflect the fleeting vision of a garden in Damavand.

related reading | a life between iran and america the house in shemiran | an iranian in london end of a childhood

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Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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3 Comments

Gosh, this reminds me of how I used to write before I started trying to package my emotions. And I recognise Paris, too. The writing is so personal I feel like a voyeur, but I'm getting used to this wonderful Iranian style and love TB for publishing it.

Ian / November 7, 2010 6:49 AM

A beautiful written piece. TB would be a much better site if it published more of these types of pieces and less of Sahimi's meandering "analyses".

Niloufar / November 7, 2010 3:41 PM

I liked the honest, open depiction of events and their heavy emotional impact on the author. Even though I enjoyed the piece, overall I felt it was too compressed and rushed (esp. at the end), and would benefit from more specifics (e.g. what did she do in NY? Where did she live in Iran?). Seems more like an outline as presented; I would like to read a more expanded edition, even if it's broken into several sections.

Kaveh / November 8, 2010 11:39 AM