I like to write. I dream of writing wonderful, amazing fiction, but then reality happens, and it’s more amazing and powerful than fiction. Maybe “truth” as it is simply cannot be overshadowed by “truth” as I imagine it should be.
Today I read this story about a young Iranian man. His name is Sina. He is 18 years old, and he was going to be hanged. When he was much younger, he killed a drug dealer, and by Iranian law, he had two options: He could wait to be executed on his 18th birthday or he could extract the forgiveness of the victim’s family and pay them the blood money. The amount was not specified in the story I read, but in Iran, each life has an exact price. Those who are rich enough or have the right connections, might consider justice an attainable ambition.
Sina, though, is not from a rich family. His father, after selling his house and everything else the family owned still hadn’t come up with the total requested amount for the drug dealer’s life. So yesterday Sina’s father went to the prison to watch his son’s execution.
Guards asked Sina to tell the crowd his last wish before dying. I forgot to tell you one thing about Sina. He is a musician. He plays traditional Persian instruments. As his last desire, he asked for permission to play his beloved instrument, Ney. Ney is something like flute. Guards brought him a Ney since they must obey the last wish of a dying man. And he played to perfection in a way that mesmerized the crowd; he filled that space with something out of ordinary, something empty of hatred or vengeance, something we can name Art or Beauty or Passion, the only thing capable of softening the unbreakable heart of a sonless mother, a drug dealer’s mother.
Who says Art is but an abstract concept? I always knew, I always felt the magic concealed in Art, the enchantment secreted in a tiny piece of wood like Sina’s Ney.
And this story has a happy ending. Because of his music, the family of the victim finally accepted the blood money and forgave Sina for his crime. And with the financial help of others—witnesses who were moved by his music--Sina’s life was saved.
I am so happy, and not only because of Sina. Since Friday july 13th, I have felt incredibly happy, happier than I have for years.
I guess when you are happy, you see only the news that has happy endings. Happiness in you unearths the joy buried in the world.
On that particular Friday, after 29 years of silence, an email arrived from Azita.
It was 29 years ago when Azita left me at the corner of a busy street in Tehran. She had been my best friend for years, and after she left, we kept in touch by mail. Then one day one of my letters to her was returned, stamped a lost letter, and I thought I would never see her again. I thought she was gone forever.
I was wrong.
It was around 11 AM. I was sitting in my cubicle at work. As usual, I checked my Yahoo mail, and then I remembered I hadn’t yet checked my “other” email address--the empty one. My other mailbox is reserved for anyone who reads the essays I publish on MadAsHellClub.com
in my monthly column “In Between.” I rarely check this email because these days people seldom write to those like me who keep writing sad true stories; people don’t like to become sad and depressed, and I do understand.
I opened my MAHC mailbox and saw that someone had sent me something; my Inbox said 1. I looked at the subject line, and my heart nearly stopped. It said:
>>>> My dear Azarin, I finally found you! <<<<
I didn’t need to open the letter to know who had found me. I already knew there was only one person in the world I was looking for, and I knew if she were alive, she would also be looking for me. Last month I wrote about how I had lost my best friend and how badly I wanted to find her again.
All of a sudden the world - my world – shrank to this moment, this offering, the incredible possibility. The world had suddenly grown smaller, maybe because of Google or maybe because my own desire and drive had closed the distance between me and my long lost friend. I had convinced myself not to accept defeat, not to give up my search for my beloved friend.
The moment I saw her message I realized Azita and I were both fighters, true believers. I didn’t give up on my writing, and she didn’t give up on her Google search. And I understood that writing as an Art, writing even sad and depressing personal essays, could actually change the world!
The day Azita left Iran, when we were both 18 years old, writing was my passion. I wanted to become a writer, a philosopher, Russell or Sartre or someone of their ilk, to speak the truth. But by the time of my own departure from Iran, I had left my dream behind. In fact I always thought it was my dream that had abandoned me, for when I left Iran I lost also my language, my only means for becoming somebody.
I left Iran for France, and twelve years after that I left France too, and I came to America where I had no language at all. I took English classes and spent hours behind a computer - writing software programs using abstract computer languages - and after years of struggle, I finally succeeded in having ordinary conversations in English. Americans were always amazed that I could speak three languages.
But what good is the ability to speak three languages if you cannot express the fire in your mind, the empathy in your heart, the sorrow in your soul, the untold stories of your forgotten memories? The silent volcano of my emotions whirled inside me in three different languages- all of them second languages – and none burst out of me in the ways I wanted -- the ways I knew they should.
I felt like a failure, or I did until two years ago when I bought a book written by Iranian author Azar Nafisi; I bought Reading Lolita in Tehran.
I started to read the memoir, and the more I read, the more my old passion, my old dream, my old nightmares came back to me. The book, a true story, took place about the period just before I left Iran, the same time I still dreamed of being a writer, the same time I was desperately looking for a mentor to help me to believe in myself. A mentor I never found. Every page of the book tasted like a glass of poisoned wine I wanted to sip slowly, a mixture of pleasure and dread. I was so afraid of turning each page, fearful I would find the same old haunting memories I thought I had escaped. I was afraid to discover my own failure.
So I wrote an email to Azar Nafisi to tell her how hard it was to read her Lolita while I was living in Los Angeles.
Amazingly she responded with a beautiful, encouraging letter about why a writer has to write. She wrote: think we write for many reasons, but two are very important: we write in order to gain control over the reality that seems so out of control, and we write in order to remember. It is important to remember the pain and anguish and stench and the hatred. Also, perhaps the fact that despite it all people find ways to survive, to love, to read, to look for beauty and perhaps to even resist, or resist by not giving in to the ugliness and the despair.
As I read these simple, moving lines, I realized that I couldn’t be a failure because I hadn’t even tried yet.
I read books. I took writing classes. I wrote against all odds – a fulltime job, fulltime motherhood, and those nagging fears. I decided I must dare to fulfill my true desire. It didn’t matter if my writing wasn’t as good as I aimed for it to be. And in this simple act of trying, I felt filled with joy.
And so I tried, and almost like Sina and his magic flute, my writing made a difference, for me and for my long-lost friend, Azita.
I thought I had lost Azita. We grew apart in separate worlds. She left Iran to move to Israel to find her lost promised land, to feel finally at home; I left Iran to escape war and death, to become a foreigner, to accept never again feeling a deep sense of belonging. We grew apart because my letters were sad and depressing and reminders of the existence of this other real world that was no longer hers.
I almost followed this pattern with my essays, my sad, depressing essays that I feared offered potential readers only a sense of guilt; I wrote and was the voice of readers’ voiceless conscience, forcing upon people the ugliness of some truths.
Maybe that explained my empty mailbox.
I never wrote a word about the joy, even though I felt that joy every time I wrote.
But then, in that moment in my cubicle when I found Azita and Azita found me, my joy was expanded beyond all borders. No longer was I lost between two worlds. Our parallel worlds had crossed each other at last, not vaguely or only in our imaginations but in reality, in a simple email from a lost friend.
I held that moment close to me, keeping it safe somewhere inside my mind; I don’t want ever to lose that unbelievable taste of joy.
And maybe this is but the beginning of another tale, another essay I will write that is not sad or depressing. Maybe joy, unlike pain and sorrow, is not internal or isolated. Perhaps joy is like a cloud, floating around and touching everyone, revealing hidden beauty behind the pain and sorrow that is spread by war and injustice, linking a single instant to the invisible joyful dancing stream of the eternal universe, defying time, pushing the limits of our mortal existence, teaching humanity to rebel against prejudice and cruelty of the world, reaching to catch these rare moments when hungry dying children smile and their desperate mothers take those smiles as a sign of happiness, offering humanity a different vision, an outlook with limitless possibilities. And maybe Azar Nafisi’s books and letters, and the Azita story and Sina’s music and other acts of courage and will and beauty will be catalysts for believing in such an optimistic prospect.
Maybe, after all, my Mad As Hell mailbox will be filled - - with hope.