As my novel Azadi, Protest in the Streets of Tehran, takes its first baby steps into the world, moments of frustration at things not happening fast enough are more than offset by rewarding ones. As an example, after my interviews aimed at the Iranian audience inside Iran (VOA, Radio Farda, etc.) people have been reaching out to me to tell me that Azadi is their story. There’s Arya, recently released from prison, and reading one of the smuggled copies of Azadi. “That’s just how it was,” he writes me in an email. “Not in every detail, but close enough that it sent shivers down my spine (tanam larzid).” Or that Facebook message from a woman who writes, “My name is also Raha, like your main character. Did you know Raha is not a very common name? (I didn’t). Like her, I too studied architecture at Tehran University and took part in the student demonstrations in Khatami’s time. But that was ten years ago. I’m older than your Raha.”
Others want to chat when I’m working. I respond. How can I not? When I sit at my computer, I’m working. But to them, reaching out is a lifeline. It means looking through the bars on the windows of Iran at a sky much bluer than theirs—metaphorically that is, for there is no sky bluer than Iran’s.
So I sit and chat, becoming more fluent by the day at reading and writing Farsi transcribed in English. I fidget some, as I need to get back to my work, and sometimes feel bad as I find an excuse to say goodbye. What I share with my fellow Iranians lucky and unlucky enough to be living in Iran is often heartbreaking but occasionally also irritating. When Arya tells me he’s just out of prison where he had two fingers of his left hand broken, when Mojgan writes that wearing a headscarf complicates her on-site work as an engineer, when Abbas says that he was interrogated for writing a poem someone didn’t like, I’m all sympathy. But when Meyssam, writing about the pro-democracy movement, says that the problem is no one does any hemayat (a difficult-to-translate word that can mean protection, support, assistance, etc.) I bristle. Call me too westernized, tell me that I haven’t lived under repression, but I don’t understand him. I don’t consider anyone in control of my life and I wish these brave young people wouldn’t either. Their parents did, as did their grandparents before them. Generations of fatalistic Iranians have seen themselves not only as the toys of an omnipotent God but as puppets having their strings pulled by the malevolent state apparatus of foreign countries who, singly or in a coalition, are engaged in conspiring against Iran. That is not only a miserable way of thinking but an irrational one. It also leads to preposterous expectations. In the Egyptian situation last month, the Libyan one right now, the Iranian one two summers ago, every comment falls into one of two categories: One, why isn’t the United States doing something? Two, all this is the result of meddling, past and present, by the United States. So which is it?
Hemayat, Meyssam, can mean many things. The good hemayat is that the hearts of civilized people everywhere are with you. Iranians know that, as do all the people revolting against decrepit, corrupt, and repressive regimes in our part of the world.
That does not mean that foreign powers should interfere directly or take out the Islamic regime. Look at the unforgivable invasion of Iraq, look at the terrible mess in Afghanistan. No one draws the lessons of History but past experience should at least give pause to all but absolute cretins. I agree, there are moments when major powers must rise and take action to help the oppressed and the tortured, but only in the direst situations. I’m a great Bill Clinton fan—as I am a great Obama fan today—but I cannot forgive him for looking the other way during the Rwandan genocide or moving ever so slowly regarding Kosovo. In those cases, intervening was an absolute necessity and he didn’t or he dithered. (Another case for intervention would be the present massacre of the Libyans by the mad colonel.) But generally, it is not a good idea.
The thing is, we Iranians, like other Middle Easterners, tend to see powerful Western countries, especially the United States and Britain, as having a clear, well-defined agenda, a homogeneous decision-making process, and, most importantly, having only their own interest at heart in dealing with any kind of political turmoil or unrest abroad. Iraj Pezeshkzad’s brilliant Dayi Jan Napoleon confirmed what we knew all along about Britain and its nefarious plots against Iranian sovereignty and wealth since the beginning of the last century. Our problems didn’t have anything to do with the weaknesses and corruption of the last Qajar kings, nor the hesitations and lack of political sense of the last Pahlavi king, nor socio-economic miscalculations, nor the unacceptable rise of Islam as a political doctrine, nor our helpless surrender to the worse conspiracy theories. Oh no! All the bala, the misfortune of Iran, comes from Britain and the United States, not to forget Israel. True Manicheans at heart, we will continue to see the world in those terms.
It might be worth our while to pay closer and for once unbiased attention to the United States and its policy toward Iran. We’d see that as with the Mossadeq episode, as with the pre- and post-Islamic Revolution of 1979, as with the turmoil following the fraudulent presidential elections of June 2009, this policy, when it exists at all, is muddled and pulling in different directions. The White House, State Department, CIA, experts and analysts inside and outside the government, all come up with different and contradictory conclusions. There is no single answer and no single picture, understandably enough, as the world is indeed horribly complicated and always has been. No wonder the stock phrase has become the meaningless “all options are on the table.” No one, for example, knows how to deal with the incredibly corrupt Karzai government and its alliance or lack thereof with various violent groups, or with the baffling situation in Pakistan. No one knows what will happen in Iraq, who to talk to in Egypt. Will all these countries go the way of Sharia or fundamentalism, will democracy still have a voice, will oppressed people be more oppressed and have to toe the line, will intellectuals rot in jail? What about other countries, will Israel still exist in ten years? No one knows or can influence any of that. Everyone is scrambling. So please, stop absurdly expecting hemayat as a concerted effort. Anyway, it would be denounced instantly by just as many people as those who claim they want it.
And who am I, sitting thousands of miles away, to tell you anything except keep safe, stay alive, and decide, once and for all, that if you don’t control your own fate—and no one does—you will at least, starting today, no longer see yourself as puppet, victim, or in need of anyone’s hemayat.
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