An Iranian writer finds meaning and meaninglessness in the fact of her Jewish roots.
Image from Flickr via Sergey Yeliseev
She, your mother: “It is one of the most beautiful places in the world I have ever visited.” Why do you give yourself the right to put those words in quotation marks, to create an illusion of certainty? This visit of hers to Israel was before the Islamic Revolution of 1979. She tells you about it years later, after the Revolution. A new documentary film, Before the Revolution, resurrects the Israeli memories of life in Iran before the Islamic Revolution of 1979. It tells “the untold story of the Israeli paradise in Iran.” Life is divided into the before and the after. The before and the after continue to coexist. Within the body.
He, your grandfather, your father’s father, is amazed with the Kibbutz he visited in Israel, with the orange orchards, with the orange juices, with the woman who ran a chicken and egg factory. He never talked of the place before when you were kids. He has been telling stories of the place only recently. In old age. But just because you don’t have a memory of these stories doesn’t mean he has never told them. He says his brother, who is your father’s uncle, owns hotels in the land. He says many Iranians live in the land. He has told you several times. As if he forgets what he says the moment he says it. How many times has he been there? Does he wish to go again? You don’t ask.
Does he wish to travel to Iran again? You don’t ask. Now they live in a rented house devoid of character in a senior citizens’ community near San Francisco.
He tells the story of building the house in Tehran. Of the house you remember the childhood years of Friday lunches with cousins, running around the indoor garden and pool, the Eden he had created with his own hands inside, in the middle of the living area. No glass walls. Trees. Water. Goldfish. Flowing into and with the architecture and the humans. You rolled up your pants and walked in the spiraling pool with the fish and the cousins under the shadow of the tall trees. Does he wish to travel to Iran again? You don’t ask. Now they live in a rented house devoid of character in a senior citizens’ community near San Francisco. Of their departure you don’t have any memory. No scenes and images of how that house came to its end. No recollection of the goodbyes. He talks of the good old days. Stop resurrecting the past! She, your grandmother, your father’s mother, is furious and reprimands him in her blurry language. She sits in a wheelchair. Paralyzed, robbed of the power of legible articulation after a brain stroke. He gives her hands kisses and with his arthritic hands caresses her hair.
Their bodies are failing. In a foreign land, their minds live in several lands. Robbed of a tense called the future, their minds live in the past. The nostalgic one lives in the present, is in love with life, appreciating every second, still making new friends. The bitter one who doesn’t talk of the past lives in the past, always missing what is lost, always concerned about the kids far away. She asks who cooks for you in that city you are living in alone. She tells you you need to find a good husband.
You wonder what the use is. Of past. Of future. Any. Both. When the present becomes more of a void everyday.
You wonder where they will be buried. How. You wonder about decisions that will be made based on practical considerations rather than intimate personal beliefs and wishes.
You who call yourself the storyteller are ignorant of their stories. You have never used “a word, a tapping, or a rustling that is endowed with the magic power” to bury them in “the cool tomb of long ago,” in the words of scholar Peter Uwe Hohendahl, only to resurrect them. Soon they are to be forever buried in the tomb of future and suddenly you feel this guilt of not having asked, of not pushing them in that other tomb. Even though, as author Nava Semel writes, “this story, that story, the world is filled with so many stories,” even though you have come to believe in the futility of stories and are irritated by the fact that “even those without a story to tell insist on their own snippet,” you feel an urge to know, to tell.
“Why?” Semel continues.
“That’s the whole story in a single word.”
You tell him about your trip a few years ago to the tomb of Esther and Mordechai in Hamedan, Iran, where he is from. He tells you how Hamedan was a center for Jewish Iranians long ago. He is joyous about your sharing that memory with him. Since when did he become so attached to the roots, the traditions? You don’t remember him practicing Judaism during your childhood years. Neither do you of your grandmother. The only memory you have of their being of the other faith is of hearing the story of their objection to your parents’ interfaith marriage. Now they are in love with your mother, don’t wish for any other bride.
In the geography of Iranian media and politics there exists no “Israel.” There exist only “Occupied territories.”
At some point in the conversation, you use the word Johood and he snaps, Yahoodi! Kalimi! He is calm, but you can hear his being offended, saddened. Both are Jewish. They have different implications. They have different connotations. Johoods are miserly and fearful. Yahoodis are great merchants, a unified people. Kalimis are ancient. You feel ashamed. You should have been more sensitive. If someone pronounces the name of your land, Iran, as “Airan,” instead of “Eeran,” you get deeply hurt, even though you know it is just a mispronunciation, with no connotations, simply a sign of ignorance, disinterest in your roots, or language insensitivity. But then the mispronunciation becomes a joke, “I ran from Airan,” and you can’t help but become furious.
Words carry weight. Words wage wars. Wars in languages, on lands. In the geography of Iranian media and politics there exists no “Israel.” There exist only “Occupied territories.” There exists no “Israeli government.” There exist only “The Zionist Regime” and “The Regime Occupying Qhods.” القدس (Al-Qhods) is بیتالمقدس (Beit ol-Moghadas) is اورشلیم (Urshalim) is יְרוּשָׁלַיִם is Jerusalem. Even the order of the names in this sentence might be controversial in a space other than this page.
If we consider the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language affects the world view of its speakers, one location is several cities. One location is several realities. It depends on which satellite you use to look at and map that city.
The city whose several names are tributes to peace and sacredness has become the city of war, in which humans are killed to save what was once supposed to save them.
In the city of love, Paris, you and your Jewish boyfriend end up in a war. You break up only two days into a two-week vacation, ending at the beginning. For practical reasons, you decide to stay together until the end of the trip.
Later, he accuses you of many things, among them your wanting to put down his Jewishness. “Your mother took your father’s Jewishness away. Now you want to do the same to me!” How stupid and childish he sounds. How angry. You try to make him see that this has nothing to do with his Jewishness, but no matter how hard you try you can’t make him rewrite his story of this breakup. You try to make him see that you do not care about his Jewishness, that you could easily forget all about it. But perhaps that is the real problem. He does not want you to forget.
You do not care about anyone’s religion. But you care about religion becoming a defining element, a rule, a law. You care about the mullahs and the rabbis and the priests. Different and the same. You cannot stand any of them. You want to run away from them all. You hate how religion is used all over the world, even in a secular society, to influence and manipulate the masses. The degrees might vary, but the core of the matter is always terrifyingly familiar.
You grow up with religion. You grow up with politics.
Inside the house religion is a personal choice. Your father has converted from Judaism to Islam for the love of your mother. He cares about neither. He only cares for her. Your mother follows in the footsteps of her father who is righteous and more of a Sufi mystic than an observant Muslim. You live with him. There are others in the house as well. Your mother’s uncle stands to prayer five times a day. So do your nanny, the driver, and the gardener. For a few years you stand to prayer with your nanny, fast with her. Those are the years of teenage curiosity.
Outside the house religion is in the center of life, a definition of life in the Islamic Republic. In school you attend the congregational prayer every noon. You hate the smell of socks in the prayer room. You love the colorful flowery veils that fall over your heads. When you go visit your teachers years later, you lie to the principle and say you still stand to say your five daily prayers. Years later you begin to hear the political rhetoric in the Friday prayer sermons.
What you live at home is forbidden outside. What you live outside is shunned inside. You grow up with the paradox, with the complexity. You grow up realizing that different worlds that are in conflict with one another coexist. Not amiably, but they do, they can.
You grow up standing in queue in school, chanting, “Down with the USA” and “Down with Israel” before heading to class every morning.
You grow up to learn, not in school, that the ancestral religion of the homeland, Zoroastrianism, is based not on a desire for death, but on “good thoughts, good words, good deeds,” and that Cyrus the Great is considered to have inscribed the first charter of human rights because in his cuneiform-inscribed clay cylinder of rights he talks of “a just peaceful rule” and “the restoration of deported peoples and their gods.”
You grow up to learn, many years later, that Iran is “home to the largest numbers of Jews anywhere in the Middle East outside Israel,” according to the BBC, that they have one representative in the Iranian Parliament, but also that they face many limitations, like other minority groups in the country.
You grow up to watch Saddam Hussein be killed by the Western allies who had helped him shape years of your childhood with sirens and bombs and rations. To learn that in those years of war, Iran, the United States, and Israel were interconnected in the Iran-Contra affair, a web of complicated, secret operations that came to be known as the scandal of the decade.
You grow up to understand that the enmity, called by Trita Parsi the “Treacherous Alliance,” is indispensable to all three governments. To realize that politics defined and redefined by men behind closed doors defines the everyday life of the women and children, not just in these countries, but in a larger geographical region.
Perhaps “the Wall” is none but “the Berlin wall.” Perhaps “the Wall” is none but “the Chinese wall.” Perhaps “the Wall” is none but Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.”
You grow up to be haunted by Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric on Israel, especially the famous translation/mistranslation of his Holocaust denial comment. To fear Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s constant calls for more sanctions and an attack on Iran. To hope for America’s President Barack Obama’s superpowers to get aligned with peace and humanity.
You grow up to start every morning reading news from various sources, in different languages, concerned about anything from and about the three countries; you know that any change in any of them affects the others and thus your life.
When was it exactly that you became interested in politics? Interested in the sense of hating it? Was there even a time when your life was apart from political news?
In your creative writing class you teach American kids for whom politics and war are foreign distant realities the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, the national poet of Palestine, a state that is only recognized as a state by the United Nations in November 2012. You ask your students what they know about “the Wall.” “The wailing wall?” one of the boys asks. A moment of pause in which you are shocked by your own presumptuousness. For you “the Wall” has always been “the separation wall.” “The Wall” can however also be “the wailing wall.” One word. Two realities. Forever bound together through labyrinthine invisible walls of history. The walls, constructed with different materials, at different points of time in history, function differently in locations very close to one another. One wall accepts narratives in the form of letters, tucked in its crevices, its gaps of time. Private. Folded. Prayers. Religious. The other wall accepts narratives in the form of graffiti. Public. Screaming. Street art. Counterculture.
Perhaps “the Wall” is neither of these two walls. Perhaps “the Wall” is none but “the Berlin wall.”
Perhaps “the Wall” is none but “the Chinese wall.” Perhaps “the Wall” is none but Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.”
Yasmin Levy’s voice first reaches you in the Persian garden of Tehran’s Cinema Museum. It comes through the loudspeakers of the little CD and film stand where you can find or order bootlegged copies of independent intellectual movies and music from around the world. The music surprises you because it is not just copied illegally, but more importantly because the Islamic state law bans most foreign music, and all women’s singing. But you know that in a vortex of legality/illegality, all is allowed until the moment when it is not allowed anymore. As you begin to chat, you understand that the man who runs the stand works in the state-run broadcasting service as a set director or something. He lives for this, for movies and music, in love with some of the great world directors and composers, though he will perhaps lose his job if they find out about that love and the kind of movies and music he sells here. He tells you a bit about Levy after you buy the CD, before you head into the dark theatre to watch an Iranian movie.
The next time you travel to the city and visit the museum the stand has been shut down and the man is not there. You see him several trips later, running a stand at another corner of the garden, tucked-away in the back.
Levy’s voice is magical, penetrating deep into you. It is magical because it joins the sprinkling of the water fountain stretched throughout the garden, the scent of the rose bushes and tall pane trees, and the whisperings of the affluent youngsters getting together at the foot of the museum building dating from the time of Qajars, majestically proud in its antiquity.
And it keeps growing more magical, beyond that first night, beyond that garden, continuing to get more and more engraved in you.
Later on, listening to an interview with her, you come to know a bit about the Ladino language she uses and the story of her father traveling around to collect and record songs in the language on the verge of being forgotten; and you come to listen to her voice joining, with the aid of technology, that of her dead father, while in her womb her child gets ready to be born into the world in a few weeks’ time.
You and the other are bound not just in the space of translation. But on your skin, too. By a mere coincidental coming together of nature, poetry, and a people’s vote.
Later on, listening to another interview, you come to know that in the recent years she has started getting fan letters from Iranians; that her most favorite singer in the world is Hayedeh. Hayedeh is the Iranian diva who died of a heart attack at the age of forty-seven in exile in Los Angeles, whose funeral you still remember watching as a teenager on a bootlegged low-quality VHS cassette in Tehran; whose voice still brings you to tears when you listen to her singing about the desire for a return and the fear of death in exile. Yasmin Levy says she has adored Hayedeh since she first heard her voice with her mother as a child, wishing that one day she could sing like her.
Later on, Levy sings an English translation of a song by Hayadeh. The translator of the song is a friend of yours, an Iranian living in exile who works under a pen name for the Voice of America. That was where you two met, where you too worked, for a few months only, until you decided you did not want your voice to be that voice of America. In that song, your pasts, your friend’s pasts, Hayedeh’s pasts, Levy’s pasts, and those of your people and her people come together and become your shared present.
You and the other are bound not just in the space of translation. But on your skin, too. By a mere coincidental coming together of nature, poetry, and a people’s vote.
On your thirtieth birthday, in the winter of 2007, in Washington DC, you get a tattoo on your left shoulder. A hoopoe in your language. Americans see it and think it is a woodpecker. You need to constantly clarify, to introduce the bird from the Middle East, to tell the story of The Conference of the Birds:
Once upon a time a group of birds sets out on a journey to find the Simorgh (a Persian mythical bird sometimes considered the equivalent of the phoenix). The hoopoe leads the group. By the end of the journey, many birds have turned around and only thirty remain. Where they expected to find the Simorgh, they find a lake upon which they see their own reflections. They realize there is no Simorgh outside of them, that they themselves are what they have come looking for.
The word Simorgh, سیمرغ , consists of two words in Persian: سی and مرغ. The former means “thirty,” the latter “bird.” The mythical utopic creature comes to life only in the coexistence of its components. It becomes a reality only in the story of its heterotopic name.
In 2008, on the sixtieth anniversary of the State of Israel, the people of Israel vote for the hoopoe to become their national bird. President Shimon Peres hoped for the vulture or the dove.
Israel becomes an independent state on May 14, 1948. Israelis celebrate their Independence according to the Hebrew calendar, thus not on May 14th of every year but on the 5th of Iyar. The day is preceded by the “Remembrance Day of the Israeli Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism.” On May 15, 1948 the British Mandate terminates. On May 15, 1948 war begins between the Israeli and Arab forces. Every day proceeding that day is the day of the Palestinian fallen soldiers and victims. On May 15th of every year Palestinians commemorate the Nakba. The word Nakba means “catastrophe” in Arabic. For Palestinians “the catastrophe” is the Occupation. For the Jewish people “the catastrophe” is the Holocaust. The Holocaust is an event of the past that is actively being kept alive in the memories of the Israeli citizens, creating an eternal sense of insecurity that is used to justify further occupation, threats, invasions, and abuse of human rights to help quiet down that sense of insecurity. The Occupation though is not an event of the past; it is present and continuous, ever growing, lived daily by the Palestinians.
Though the two people are burdened by two different catastrophes, they are in fact fighting each other for one and the same reason: Memory. Mahmoud Darwish asks, “Is it a struggle between two memories?” You want to respond in the negative. The struggle is for one memory: the memory of the homeland. The difference is that for Israelis that memory belongs to a future when the ultimate utopia of the Jewish people can come to life, and for Palestinians that memory belongs to a past before 1948 when the utopia of the once-upon-a-time of an ancestral land is believed to have existed.
The past tense is not present here. The future tense is not present here. The future is stuck there in the past. The past is stuck there in the future. The only presence here is two absences that never really conjoin, creating, writes Darwish, “the present tense [that] is hesitant and perplexed.”
If all countries of the “hesitant and perplexed” were to begin wars and shed blood on the basis of memories that are present absences, what would become of our tense?
The question is not: what would become of our tense? The question is: what is already our tense? And the answer is: our tense is the eternal dystopia that is the utopia of the human heterotopia. We do not need to be heading anywhere. We are already there. You write this and suddenly you are terrified of your own entrapment. Any answer as “the answer” is a fallacy. Any question as “the question” is a fallacy. “Those who still aspire to synthesis or unity . . . will obtain this synthesis only at the price of either tyranny or renunciation,” writes physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. It is not even a matter of right or wrong. Your Persian language is devoid of the definite article “the.” It is in the context that definiteness is realized. Not knowing yourself as a definite being, how can you try to express the world as a definite being?
Your name is perhaps your most definite permanent characteristic. The signature of your identity. But even that is not a definite reality anymore. You publish under a pen name. You present anonymously. All to prolong the impossibility of a physical return to the homeland.
You present a paper in the Publishing Impulse Conference in Tel Aviv University in April 2012. The panel you take part in is “Imaginary Travel.” The title of your paper is “The (Im)possibility of a Book.” You do not travel. None of the participants on the panel do. It is a virtual presentation. But even from that you step aside. You become “anonymous from Tehran” and, of the different options for presentation, snatch at the curator’s suggestion for the paper to be read by the audience. The paper begins,
“Qu’importe que ce soit de droite à
چه اهميت دارد که از راست باشد به»
gauche ou de gauche à droite;
چپ يا از چپ به راست؛
la main n’écrit que dans le sens brûlant de la vie à la mort, de l’aube au crépuscule,”
«،دست نمینويسد مگر در مسير پرشور زندگی به مرگ، طلوع به غروب
(The French is from Edmond Jabès’s “A demie ouverte, ma main,” 96. The interpenetrating text is my Persian translation.)
left to right from is alphabet My
.life to death of direction vital the in only writes hand My
Someone in the audience volunteers to read your paper. He has no idea what it is about. He reads. In Persian. From right to left.
But even that is meaningless.
Today it rains. You wear red high heels.
R. Namy is a Persian/English translator and writer. She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Creative Writing at the University of Denver. Her writing has appeared in The Quarterly Conversation, The Barcelona Review, Tehran Bureau, Short Fiction Journal (University of Plymouth, UK), and other places.