This post was written by a first-generation refugee born in Sri Lanka to Iranian parents. I landed in Canada in 1983, just before my first birthday. I acknowledge the many biases inherent to my circumstance. What is written below is an honest account of my feelings on the ongoing protests in Iran from my, admittedly, limited vantage point in space and time.
I know that I was in the middle of a musical memoir that nobody really cared about. It’s been an excuse to write, a familiar pretext to inspire my creative self into action. Frankly, I don’t care if it hasn’t gained much traction among readers. It’s been fun, and I have every intention of seeing it through.
However, as they say, “we interrupt your regularly scheduled programming” because — Iran is ablaze.
I find myself scrolling through Instagram stories obsessively, swiping right, scrolling up, stop-click-play, watch, horrified, comment, like, re-share, perhaps modify with commentary, emojis, flames, fists, a finger, anger, sadness, hashtag, tag, rebuttal, fire, anger, click, swipe, troll, share…
My screen time was up 10% last week.
And I see that I’m not alone. The diaspora of Iranians scattered across the world, especially the community of creatives and influencers, have shelved their pet projects to serve a greater cause. We watch as our brethren courageously shed the iron of their blood and the salt of their tears upon ancestral soil, and we can’t help but feel drawn to contribute.
Visual artists find powerful ways of illustrating, juxtaposing, montaging, photographing, and otherwise presenting the many images streaming from the streets of Tehran, Mashhad, Tabriz, Rasht, Qom, Ilam, Hamedan, Kermanshah, Zanjan, Bandar Abbas, Shiraz, and Qazvin.
The face of #MahsaAmini, the central heroine from this chapter of our tempestuous history, appears often. Her face communicates a story. It relates an all too familiar tragedy. The dreams of young women extinguished by the force of patriarchy. The right to choose curtailed by tyrants who fear a world beyond their control. The premature death of infinite potential. The unresolved murder of a daughter, a sister, my sister, our sister. Her life ended in brutality and those responsible shamelessly escaped accountability. They will return to their routines, validated by a system, a regime that perpetuates a culture of hate.
A regime made of men who are terrified of intimacy with the second sex. Maybe because they never had healthy conversations about love with their fathers or unregulated affection with their mothers. Maybe because their fathers possessed their mothers. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that the men of cloth who loom over Iran would rather masturbate under their robes in private than be caught hardened before a liberated woman. Forcing women to contort themselves to accommodate the underdeveloped emotional and psychological range of men, this is their compensating behaviour.
So the creators create.
The musicians write songs of rebellion put to distorted guitars, disorderly rhythms, the syncopation of high-hats and bass-beats creating space for the slam of spoken words, rage on, rage well, rage often because, in times like these, violence is an expression of virtue. Basiji soldiers punched in the face. A FARAJA vehicle flipped over and set on fire. An unpredictable melody. The vocal fry of a woman incapable of holding a note not because she means to, but because she’s been crying and screaming, night-after-night, emptying her lungs of liberty, and now, at this moment, she stands before you on stage ready to speak truth to power, and she doesn’t give a fuck about what you think about the quiver in her throat.
“I’ve been wearing this hijab like a noose around my neck – excuse me if my voice does not please thee.”
While some illustrate and others compose tunes, what should writers do? What should I do?
What sort of observer should I be? What perspective can I offer to rage with my brethren, to put my weight behind the immovable object, to beat against the ceiling until it finally breaks? Should I analyze and stick to facts or use my heart to express honestly how I am, in this moment? What it means to be me in relation to events as they unfold.
When I speak to my father, someone who lived through the early chapters of this tale – who put his family first and fled from tyranny in ‘82 to abandon a country that had fallen under the control of despots because he knew that it would only get worse, and there was something immoral about knowingly choosing despair for me, his unborn son, when hope was only a few borders away – when I speak to him, it’s clear that for the past forty years he has been fleeing. Fleeing from nuance. Fleeing from that very thing that he and my mom were running towards when they made that pivotal decision to escape Iran: hope.
Hope creates vulnerability. It is an expectation of a better hereafter that may never be. You could hope for a lifetime and never witness your yearnings manifest in reality. Who would choose to hope? Who would choose a life of disappointment? Instead, some choose to seek comfort in hopeless fictions. Stories of good and evil. Stories that absolve us. Stories that place blame squarely on the shoulders of villainous caricatures and impossible circumstances inaccessible to common efforts – especially the impractical efforts of those living a great distance away.
“The people will never win, they are leaderless. Many people in Iran support the regime. The country will never change until they abandon Islam. It’s the fault of Islam and the mullah’s. This one has to die, that one has to die, they all have to die. It’s our fault for accepting this religion in our lives. We did this to ourselves, so we deserve this regime. There’s no point in hoping for anything different.”
It’s a familiar refrain that we, the children of Iran’s refugees, hear all too often. It’s tiresome, old, boring, and uninspiring. Above all, it’s inaccurate and a terribly simplified version of a story, of millions of stories that are far more complex. It’s said that polarity is the enemy of nuance. Me and others. Truth and lies. Good and evil. Religion and secularism. Freedom and oppression. Possibility and impossibility.
Lies, the lot of them.
Hope doesn’t require us to draw any conclusions about history, or the chain of causality that got us here, or the chain of causality that will allow us to arrive at our preferred horizon. Hope only requires that you believe in an idea and, in this situation, the best sort of idea is one that is abstract enough that any number of destinations would satisfy. Then it’s no longer about the destination, but about rallying around the potential for change, having the collective resolve to struggle with an ambition to create the fertile social conditions required for life to thrive along a diversity of paths.
It’s hard to put aside that tenacious want for certainty. How the world is and is not; how it was and will be. It’s easy to dismiss the current protests in Iran as nothing more than the disorganized clamor of youth, or to see little point in reaching out from “way over here” to help those “way over there.”
Still, I can’t help but let my empathy move me while there is a movement unfolding on the streets of Iran. Yes, it’s imperfect – disorganized, leaderless, immature, scattered – and yet, it’s also potentially anything we want it to be. Courage requires that we abandon our analysis of what’s probable or even possible, to throw our veils into the fire, flip over some cars, and to live with the fact that mistakes will, without question, be made on the long stony road to prosperity for all.
Yes, for all. Including those who choose to wear a hijab and those who cling doggedly to the dimming embers of dated narratives.
The worst we can do is abandon our friends to struggle in darkness while wolves descend upon their bodies, to casually walk by and forfeit our part in all of this. Connection is a form of emancipation. To know that you are in the company of many, even when you are in the company of none, can be a source of strength. It can shift the tide of how things are and, like the persevering sea, give power to the gentle waters slapping steadily against the stubborn stone.