Comment | Our Stunted Growth
by IRAJ OMIDVAR
06 Apr 2012 03:35
33 and little change.
This Nowruz, I thought about the absence of love and unity when I again remembered my cousin, who was killed in the Iran-Iraq War. He volunteered to go to the front; he came back a martyr. Now one half of an alley in Tehran bears his name, one half because there are more people than alleys, and in the 1980s, Iran planted entire populations in battlefield trenches and harvested vast crops of corpses for cemeteries like Behesht-e Zahra, where my cousin's remains are buried.
I have thought and written privately about my cousin for many years now. As I get older, my views about him evolve. I always remember him during Nowruz, perhaps because it is a time of beginnings, a time when life is young and giddy. My cousin was killed when he was 16 or 17.
I was younger than my cousin and loved and looked up to him. Before the Revolution, I used to stay at my aunt's house in south Tehran to be with him. In fact, I am sure I remember the city so vividly in part because we used to walk long distances down its streets, visit the bookstores near the University of Tehran, explore the city's many parks.
But my cousin was also an angry adolescent from a poor family, and he was always ambivalent about me. He used to read me some of his essays. In one, he had written that if he could build an atomic bomb, he would blow up Tehran north of some street whose name I don't recall. But I know my family lived north of it.
Even then, I was taken aback by the enormity of his ideas. In the popular discourse of modern Iran, not to mention in the accounts of demagogic commentators, north Tehran is shorthand for the haunt of exploiters who like to live in the cooler climate at the foot of the Alborz Mountains.
To my cousin, it did not matter that in north Tehran lived people like my school janitor and his family, or my mother, whose dad had been an illiterate migrant worker from central Iran and later a servant to a lord and then a gardener at a bank, not to mention my cousin's own uncle, my father, who was ten when his Azeri immigrant father, who ran a hole-in-the-wall cobbler's shop, died of cancer.
My cousin did not seem to care that since our grandfather's death, my young father had worked each summer and every other free moment he could to help our widowed grandmother support her family. It upsets me to remember that I didn't tell him how horrible his thoughts were, and how much more dangerous than his atomic bomb fantasy.
Anyway, I say to myself that he was just taking poetic license, that he of course didn't know any better, being young and the product of an autocratic social structure and a brutal police state. He had found the courage to discharge his ideas, but his environment had not given him an opportunity to have those ideas tested, challenged.
I accept that argument, but I also wonder: Then who was not the product of that system? How about, for instance, the people that my cousin classified as the enemy? Did I, the closest I believe he came to seeing an actual concrete person in his abstracted north Tehrani antagonist, know any better than he did?
This Nowruz, dwelling on my cousin, my thoughts often returned to the idea of immaturity. I fear that, since 1979, we Iranians have been celebrating immaturity. We sometimes forget that the Revolution was also a Nowruz-like event, a time of new beginnings, and that it affected in all manner of ways all sorts of growing things.
It certainly affected me. Around 12 or 13, right when I was beginning to express some preadolescent rebelliousness on my long road to maturity and independence, Iranian grownups themselves went amuck: People on the streets carrying guns and shooting at each other; a seemingly full-grown man coming to a gathering of my parents' friends, bringing with him an automatic assault rifle and hand grenades he had grabbed from an army base and passing his loot around to adults and children, some younger than me. And I recall, incredulously, the abysmal quality of conversations among the exuberant adults on the benefits of the U.S. Embassy occupation, whose endorsement by Ayatollah Khomeini represents a monumental diplomatic blunder exceeded perhaps once or twice in Iran's multimillennial history, as with the killing of Ghengis Khan's ambassadors in the early 1200s.
The Revolution certainly affected my cousin's maturation. He seemed to flourish in that brutal environment, going to every dangerous event he could find, his own early adolescent convulsions toward adulthood fused with the country's soon-to-be-stunted growth.
My cousin never went past that giddy sense of breaking things to be free, breaking bounds, hitting at adversaries and oppressors, and of course the sheer ecstasy of throwing oneself fearlessly and wholeheartedly away.
That youthful ecstasy was harnessed by the country's traditional guardians. I am referring to the clerics, who channeled adolescent enthusiasm into divinely sanctioned wartime activities like cleaning mines. During my cousin's funeral, his military friends reassured the family that he had been courageous; they said he would frequently stand up fully exposed on the very edge of trenches and shoot at the enemy.
I have thought of that image in many different ways over the years. This Nowruz, here is what I see:
I see my cousin standing on the edge of a trench, being shot at by -- and shooting little buds of hatred at -- the beloved son of an Iraqi.
And I see much more than an Iraqi's beloved son in that image. I also see a north Tehrani's beloved daughter, and a reformist's beloved wife, and a social democrat's beloved father, and a royalist's beloved sister, and a hezbollahi's beloved brother, and of course I see my beloved cousin at both ends of the gun he is holding.
Politics both in Iran and the diaspora continues to be about traitors, those others who are beyond the pale and beyond repair, in short beyond the reach of rational discourse. At the end of this Nowruz, I fear that we Iranians have not really moved past where my cousin was three decades ago.
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