What it means to be Iranian these days

Whether in the news or on social media, what is currently penetrating the outside world from Iran depicts an all-encompassing crisis. For Iranians observing from the diaspora, this constitutes a scarcely tolerable new banishment into impotent speechlessness and helplessness. By Parastou Forouhar

Essay by Parastou Forouhar

The daily news from Iran and the stories circulating on Iranian newsfeeds have become so painful that one is no longer even able to comment on a post or write a few sentences about a picture out of solidarity. As if words were no longer able to convey meaning. They scratch the surface and simply move on. What remains is helplessness. A sigh. Or swear words that you swallow out of decency.

I have written the following text out of such a feeling: a kind of struggle to escape my own muteness. And I imagine many of us Iranians are in a similar state at the moment. Torn between the need for a statement, a reaction, and the impotence that imposes itself on us.

The crisis of being different

I spend my everyday life in the here and now. My thoughts, however, are often elsewhere, following those events that find no relevance in daily life here. Were I to sum up my feelings of this presence in one word, the word would be: crisis. The crisis of being Iranian, the crisis of being a migrant, of being a refugee, the crisis of being different.

The image of this feeling resembles a broken mirror, sharp and ruthless. No matter where I touch it, it cuts and hurts.

I live and work in Germany and travel around Europe on business. In the security and comfort of that continent where thousands of people who have died in the past years and months in its surrounding waters have dreamed of living – and will certainly continue to die in this way.

In that continent under whose cultivated appearance xenophobia lurks and spreads. My sense of belonging to this continent, which I have built up with great effort and confidence over many years, is in danger of disappearing.

Homeless woman in Tehran (photo: Mehr)
Zunehmende Armut im Iran: "Zwischen der Beschreibung der Misere und dem Leben in dieser Misere ist eine Kluft entstanden, die uns nach und nach den Impuls raubt, Anteil an der Not zu nehmen", schreibt Parastou Forouhar in ihrem Essay.

A land of wounds and pain

It is my concern for Iran that is shaking me at the moment. When I think of my old homeland, the image of a beloved body comes to my mind, hurt and helplessly tied to an autopsy table. Life is being drained from this body. It cannot free itself.

I can be neither a companion for the people in Iran through their misery, nor can I rid myself of the vain compulsion to try to be just that.

The more threatening the crisis, the more urgent my efforts to understand the situation and connect with the place from which I have stayed away become. In a state of virtual hysteria, I follow the official news and the reports of the activists. Now more than ever, I contact my friends and acquaintances in Iran to be up to date.

Everything seems unstable and fragile, as if teetering on the brink of disintegration. If one can speak of any certainty at all, it is that of the presence of an inexorable crisis that strikes from all sides, engulfs everything and opens up abyss after abyss. No matter how much suffering and need one enumerates: there is always that which has not been mentioned.

This period we are living through is like a monster that demands endless sacrifice. And it holds thousands of even more frightening faces, which it might well show.

The danger of daily repetition

This observation is even more bitter when one considers the future. Not the abstract future, which can still be full of hope, but the real future, the roots of which lie in the present misery.

More and more people in Iran are sliding into poverty and misery. The cost of living is rising steadily, unemployment and homelessness are growing rapidly. The terms used to describe people’s plight and the images they create are frightening. This fear, however, is no longer felt because of the daily repetition. A gulf has developed between the description of the misery and life in this misery, which is gradually robbing us of the impulse to share in the misery.

The words and images repeat themselves, we get used to them: to the homeless, to those who spend the night in graves, to those who have been robbed, to the crowds of children who stir up the garbage and drag their prey behind them in sacks that are bigger than themselves. To the telephone numbers of those who sell their organs or their new-borns, taped to every lamp post. To child marriages. Pictures of people made homeless by earthquakes or floods. Images of burnt forests and progressive drought.


The danger of war and the continuing oppression

The unholy danger of war is in the air: there is talk of it as if it were a macabre rumour. This fuels fear and anger, which at the same time is not taken seriously. Is it the everyday burden of life on people’s shoulders that pushes the threat of war so to the periphery? A danger that is closer than ever. Those who cannot find their way in the present do not think and act in the spirit of tomorrow.

Oppression is constantly growing and is becoming more and more perfidious. Different areas of life are affected: political, social and economic protests, young people playing water games in the park, children dancing in the schoolyard, women wearing loose veils in their own cars. Everything is suppressed – all over the country. This oppression prevents organised protests and has no mercy for those who even rudimentarily question the total guardianship of the regime.

Insoluble deadlocks and a deep-seated lack of perspective give rise to anger, hatred and disappointment. Like termites, these feelings devour humanity and civil society.

Some people turn this anger and hatred into political capital. With their lurid slogans they pour oil on the fire and spread anger and revenge, which spread through the social networks at lightning speed. The others trivialise the crisis and create illusions under the motto "reformability of the regime". They constantly warn, plead for lazy compromises and spread poverty and hypocrisy. And neither the one nor the other can alleviate the suffering of this society. They are not a solution, but part of the crisis.

Macabre burglaries

In the past few weeks, my parents’ house in Tehran has been broken into three more times. Since it is hardly possible to break in through the courtyard and the entrance to the house, the perpetrators took other paths. The first time they climbed down with a rope through an 80 centimetre-wide skylight and went out again. The skylight was then cemented over.

The Forouhar apartment in Tehran following one of the multiple break-ins this year (photo: Parastou Forouhar)
Neuerliche Spuren der Verwüstung: Als Parastou Forouhar die Nachricht über wiederholte Einbrüche in ihr Elternhaus erreichte, reiste die couragierte Künstlerin kurzerhand in den Iran. Die Einbruchsserie reisst bis heute nicht ab. Forouhars Eltern waren oppositionelle Politiker und wurden 1998 in Teheran ermordet. Seitdem kämpft ihre Tochter Parastou Forouhar mit juristischen und künstlerischen Mitteln um die Aufklärung des Auftragsmordes.

The second time, the burglars were just bending the window grille of the balcony on the upper floor when a neighbour called the police. They came half an hour later. A second row of grilles was then installed along the row of windows.

The most recent burglary was through a small barred window next to the door to the roof that was torn out of the masonry. The window was then bricked up.

We have had to fence the house, which is supposed to commemorate the ideals of its former inhabitants and their struggle for freedom, with more bars, and lock its doors with more and more locks. What a cynical contradiction.

Screenshots instead of writing

For years I have been taking notes, short sentences to record situations and comment on them. Now I just make screenshots. The news is so terrible that I can no longer react to it with words. Only they themselves can reproduce their content. Only they themselves are the proof of their existence.

One of these screenshots shows a large hole filled with a little cloudy water. Pipes with a diameter of about 30 centimetres protrude from the water, like tubes of a medical device out of the body of a sick person. Some men are sitting in the hole. Their hands and feet are in the water next to the pipes.

The men are probably trying to push the pipes even deeper into the hole to pump out more water. Around the hole are tractors, implements and other men. A symbol of the apocalypse. A symbolic image for me of how life is being sucked out of the land.

Parastou Forouharʹs first screenshot (photo: Parastou Forouhar/Iran Journal)
Symbol of the apocalypse: "Pipes with a diameter of about 30 centimetres protrude from the water, like tubes of a medical device from the body of a patient. Some men are sitting in the hole. Their hands and feet are in the water next to the pipes," writes Forouhar

"A dark abyss threatens our national existence." My mother, Parvaneh Forouhar, said this sentence 23 years ago in her lecture at the annual meeting of the Foundation for Iranian Women’s Research. Two years later she was killed. And we are still in the abyss she referred to.

A few weeks ago I attended this year’s meeting of the foundation. The memories of my mother and her lecture were omnipresent. I love this lecture in which she contrasts the simple beauty of her ideals with the abysses of reality. It has always inspired me, as has she.

Second screenshot

Another of my screenshots shows the muddy, wet masonry of a building in a flooded city. On the wall is written in red: "Your smile breaks the standstill of the city. Laugh, and I’ll rebuild the city."

The suggestive power of these verses frees thoughts from the destructive reality of flooding. Through his message, the author gives us a ray of light that warms us up. Whether he can rebuild the house and the city or not, he preserves something that is like an apparition of goodness. Like the knitting of those condemned to death shortly before the loss of their lives, which they make for their loved ones to capture beauty.

Parastou Forouharʹs second screenshot (photo: Parastou Forouhar/Iran Journal)
"Your smile breaks the deadlock of the city. Laugh, and I'll rebuild the city" – liberating thoughts distract from the destructive reality of the floods in Iran

Last year, during my trip to Iran, a young woman unknown to me visited me one afternoon. It was a Thursday: the day on which I open my parental home to visitors during my stays in Tehran.

The young woman gave me a book: the translation of "Exorcising Terror: The Incredible Unending Trial of Augusto Pinochet" by Ariel Dorfman. The book inspired her and strengthened her hope for justice, she told me. I should know that sometimes she thinks of me and appreciates my commitment to justice. The book should cheer me up so that I don’t give up.

When she wanted to leave, I asked her what she did for a living. She said she earned just enough from her job to make a living from it. She was a poet. She paints life in her poems. She does her best to be a good poet.

The young woman said that each one of us should take responsibility with body and soul, honesty and steadfastness. She said if there was any way out, it would be through such an approach. By those who preserved their humanity and did not stop seeking it among others.

The flame of hope for justice and freedom

When I came back to Germany, I got the same book as a gift from a friend living in exile from another end of the world. Her sister from Tehran had written a note in the book: "with thanks to those who keep the flame of hope for justice and freedom in their hearts and in the hearts of others and save the collective conscience of the country".

In the past weeks and months, when the crisis has been rampant and its calamities have been wreaking havoc, I have often thought of these young women and held on to their brave attitudes. I hope that the number of such Iranians and the sum of their forces will be large enough to lead us through these dark times and safely out of them, so that we can escape from the "dark abyss".

In her speech 23 years ago, my mother spoke of her hope for "human togetherness". I try to hold on to this hope.

Parastou Forouhar

© Iran Journal / Qantara.de 2019