Iran Is Not So Distant

Dedicated to Tomorrow’s Children

I have never traveled to Iran.  Iran has come to me in the form of people I have known over the years. When I see the violence committed by the current government against people who are trying to gain at least some semblance of their right to influence their government, I am affected more than I am when it happens in other countries.  I can’t be dispassionate about it.

I don’t know that Mousavi would be a better president than has been Ahmadinejad, and I am sure that under Mousavi the government’s daily operations would remain largely the same.  Mousavi is hardly the sort of revolutionary who would bring in a new era of civil rights for Iran.  No, the issue is that the government pretended to give the people the right to vote, but like patronizing bastards, decided the winner before the votes had been tallied.  The imams spit in the faces of their own citizens and told them “Your votes don’t matter, because we know what Allah wants for you.  Ahmadinejad won the election.  Go back to your lives or we will stomp you.”

These are the Iranis who have made a difference in my life:

In the spring of 1979, I was a senior in high school.  I was finishing the year in Crookston at Mount St. Benedict Academy, but my twin sister had stayed behind to finish at Hallock High School.  Mom and Dad wanted to have some professional pictures taken of my twin and me together to show at her graduation.  Mom had made a new friend whom I hadn’t yet met, a photographer. She was an Irani immigrant to the U.S. who had married an American and moved to Hallock with him.  She had moved here before the revolution that overthrew Shah Reza Pahlavi and had grown up during the White Revolution.

I wanted to know about Iran, and she told me.  I was curious, because I had a feeling that there was more to the story than we were getting from the news.  There had to be reasons that the students were rebelling against the Shah and pushing for an Islamic Revolution.  She explained it to me, and at last I felt like I understood.  She was a beautiful, warm, friendly woman.  If she had been 16 years younger, or if I had been 16 years older…if she hadn’t been married….  I liked her quite a bit is what I am trying to say.  She was a good friend to my mother and to my dad as well.

She and her husband were over at my family’s house often the following summer, and I wonder where she is now.  Wherever she is, I hope that her family in Iran is safe.  She talked about them: her sisters who found that they were suddenly going to be forced to de-Westernize and to cover their heads and faces, her brothers who were being drafted into the Army even though they had already served.  Her brothers and sisters would be in their sixties now and living through this turmoil again.

Two years later, shortly after Ronald Reagan made a secret deal with the Ayatollah Khomeini to release American hostages for an Inauguration Day present to the American people and our own long national nightmare was over, I was working at the Guest House Restaurant in Fargo.  Two of the servers were sisters, and they were Irani.  Their family had fled Iran during the Islamic Revolution because they were Ba’hai.  The Muslims who had taken control of Iran didn’t respect religious freedom, and the Ba’Hai were being especially persecuted.

The two waitresses talked about the Iran they had left and were often worried about the cousins who still lived there.  The sisters were friendly, and they were students at Moorhead State University.  I talked to them on breaks about philosophy and sociology and about Iran.  I liked them both, but since I was living in sin with someone, I never thought to ask either one of them on a date.

One afternoon I came to work, and they were in a booth crying uncontrollably. Their father was sitting across the table from them, barely able to control his own shaking.  I asked a coworker if he knew what had happened.  He told me they had just found out that their cousins’ entire family had disappeared and hadn’t been heard from in more than a week.  The Ba’hai were being rounded up and taken to prisons. They were being murdered executed by their government for their religion.

The two sisters left work that day, and I never saw them nor heard from them again.  I missed them for several weeks, and in the last few days have I been thinking of them.  I wonder whether they were ever reunited with their cousins.

In 1986 I moved to Oklahoma City from San Francisco.  My sister, not my twin, was also living there.  She worked at the medical library at the University of Oklahoma and met a pre-med student there.  He was on a student visa from Iran, and he was trying to find a way to stay long enough to study medicine in the United States.  He was a brilliant young man and studied very hard.  She married him without the illusion that they were in love, and even though I knew that they were using each other for different purposes, I liked him.

I used to take him out to Henry Hudson’s Pub to drink beer and play the tabletop version of shuffleboard.  We were evenly matched and had a great deal of fun together.  He introduced me to his fellow students, some of them Americans and some of them foreign.  We also went swimming together and took my nephew with us to the park to play.

We lived in the same apartment complex in Oklahoma City, so I saw them nearly every day.  Their next door neighbors lost their electricity for failure to pay the bill and snuck an extension cord over to one of my sister’s outdoor outlets.  My sister and her husband let it go on for a few weeks until one night the neighbors decided to have a party.  The neighbors, the sort of trash for whom the term “cracker” was invented, refused to turn their music down when my sister asked them to.  My br0ther-in-law simply unplugged their extension chord, and one redneck came out of the apartment yelling about “God-damned sand niggers.”  I came out of my apartment and told him if he didn’t leave I would call the cops.

He gave me a look like I was some kind of alien and said, “We have a right to party!”  I told him again to leave, and he did.   If he had been of a mind to, he could have beat the crap out of me even though my blood was up from his stupid racism.

One of the things that my brother-in-law explained to me was that if he ever went back to Iran, even for a visit, he would be drafted into the army for 18 months as soon as he de-planed at the airport.  He missed his family, but he didn’t want to fight in a war against Iraq.   The last time I saw him, he was apologizing to me because he had promised to help me load a moving van as I was getting ready to move to Dallas.  He never showed that day, and I ended up loading the van myself. He came home the next day, just as I was leaving. I have never heard from him since he and my sister divorced, but I am thinking of him today and I wonder whether he ever did go home to Iran.

In Dallas, I got married again and we rented a “zero-lot” town home.  Our landlord was a Persian.  Our families ate dinner and our kids played together.  I talked to him about Iran, and he told me about growing up there and adapting to the modernizing that the Shah had put into place  He was distant from his family in Iran and never expressed a desire to go back.

In St. Paul, years later, I needed a zipper replaced on a parka.  I found Angel Shoe Repair on Rice Street.  The owner has fixed a few coats for me, and is also a shoemaker.  He is an emigré from Iran who has lived in the United States since before the Islamic Revolution.  He is in his fifties now, but since he never served in the Iranian Army, he would be conscripted, because every male from the age of 18 to 60 is required to serve.

I am only writing short sketches and not full biographies of the people I know who are Farsi, but I want you to know that they have been important to me.  Iran seems so far away, so remote and so abstract.  Our governments have been enemies for thirty years, and so many Americans have have thought of Iran as the country whose people called the U.S. the Great Satan and burned Jimmy Carter in effigy in massive demonstrations.  We have twice lived through periods during which Americans have been held hostage by agents of the Ayatollahs.

It is all too easy to depersonalize the people of a country like Iran, when our previous President referred to Iran as one of the three “Axes of Evil” for supporting Hamas and threatening Israel’s existence.  Our State Department has put Iran on the list of countries that sponsor terrorism, and to far too many people they are just seen as another bunch of “sand niggers.”  One Arkansas redneck told me that they don’t value human life like we Americans do, explaining to me that the Iranians had used the Iran Air Flight 655 to provoke the captain of the USS Vincennes to attack.  According to him, the government had wanted to embarrass the United States but didn’t care about the people on board.

I knew better.  We all know better.


“I will participate in the demonstrations tomorrow. Maybe they will turn violent. Maybe I will be one of the people who is going to get killed. I’m listening to all my favorite music. I even want to dance to a few songs. I always wanted to have very narrow eyebrows. Yes, maybe I will go to the salon before I go tomorrow! There are a few great movie scenes that I also have to see. I should drop by the library, too. It’s worth to read the poems of Forough and Shamloo again. All family pictures have to be reviewed, too. I have to call my friends as well to say goodbye. All I have are two bookshelves which I told my family who should receive them. I’m two units away from getting my bachelors degree but who cares about that. My mind is very chaotic. I wrote these random sentences for the next generation so they know we were not just emotional and under peer pressure. So they know that we did everything we could to create a better future for them. So they know that our ancestors surrendered to Arabs and Mongols but did not surrender to despotism. This note is dedicated to tomorrow’s children…

Tags: , , , ,

3 Responses to “Iran Is Not So Distant”

  1. June 22nd, 2009 at 10:20 am

    Trish Lewis says:

    That was simply amazing, Mike. Thank you so much for sharing all those little stories of people who have touched your life. I so agree – the world has become a smaller place, at least to those who are open to it. Iran is not an abstract to me, either. It is personal…

  2. June 22nd, 2009 at 11:36 am

    Norm says:

    While I have met a few Iranians in my life, I don’t know any of them very well. However I have had a strong interest in Iran ever since I left the Lutheran church about halfway through high school. Initially it was spurred by my realization that Kourush I (Cyrus the Great) was the only non-Hebrew ruler that the Bible spoke of favorably. Soon after I dove into the history of the Persian emipres (Achaemenid, Parthian, and Sassanian) and the Zoroastrian religion, and in college I wrote a paper on the Islamic Revolution, learning in the process about the sordid history of US relations with Iran since the 1952 ouster of prime minister Mossadegh. While the Islamic Republic is undeniably a flawed system, the realist in me recognizes it as more democratic than most of its neighbors, and that the people of Iran are sophisticated enough to make the distinction between the government of a nation and its citizens.

    Thus I have followed the recent events there with great interest, and though I am saddened by the violence that has occurred, I am hopeful that a corner has finally been turned and that the unelected mullahs will finally go back to Qom, where most of them would rather be anyway. I agree that had Mousavi won in a fair election things likely would have continued as they were, with a few tweaks here and there, but now it is a new ballgame.

    It has been a dream of mine for more than 15 years to one day visit Iran so I can pay my respects at Kourush’s tomb in person and walk through the Gate of All Lands. I hope that in the coming days that dream can come closer to being realized.

    Thanks for sharing your stories, Mike.

  3. June 22nd, 2009 at 11:55 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    I am glad that you like it.

SEO Powered by Platinum SEO from Techblissonline