The Way It Is

As a child and all through my adolescence, the long summers in Iran seemed like nothing more than a cruel punishment. Summer vacation away from my friends? From my television shows? Previous to #IranElection, there wasn’t anything that made Iran worthwhile to me.

It was hot, Tehran’s smog and pollution were suffocating, and the pasdar terrified me.

The airport scared me even more so – I cannot remember a time going through when we weren’t pulled aside because of our foreign passports, or because my mom’s highlights showed too clearly under her roosaree, or because they knew they could get reshveh out of my dad.

My dad mentioned that during one of our first trips back to Iran, the Basiji detained our family in the airport, asking my dad over and over again his name, his occupation, his reason for visiting etc. My dad claims that the young Basij tried to cross-check the answers by asking toddler me who that man was.

“Daddy!”

This promptly escalated the situation as the Basij, who didn’t understand “daddy” was English for baba, accused my father of intentionally deceiving him. It wasn’t until after a long string of accusations that the Basij was finally convinced that my father was not lying, and yes his toddler spoke English, knowing her father not as baba, but as daddy.

But that’s just the way it is, right? The thought never even crossed my mind as a child, teenager, or adult, that there could be so much more to the birth country I left with my family.

When, as a nine-year-old visiting Mashhad with my mother, a chador-clad woman took a hard swing at my ankle, claiming she could see “too much bone” under my too-hot-for-summer stockings, it wasn’t concerning or surprising. That’s just the way it was. And even as a nine-year-old, I understood that.

SaffronFieldPic(2).jpg

A framed photo of a saffron field with a photo of Ayatollah Khomeini tucked in the corner. Photo Credit: Mana Mostatabi (Iran, 1999)

Loud questions about “all those old men”- ayatollahs and martyrs – painted on public walls, in photos stuck up in every store next to the pictures of saffron fields, and framed beside bazaar weights, were always greeted with loud shushes and too-hard shoves meant to shut me up.

“You can’t say that, Mana. They can take you away.”

I wondered if there were bugs or hidden mics in the streets that recorded what I wasn’t “supposed” to say, and for the most part, this fear quieted me. But it didn’t stop me from whispering a criticism once, just to see if a green-clad police officer would storm out of a bush to tackle me. But this is all I knew.

Knowing I only had to endure three months of the stifling heat and anxiety before returning to what I knew better appeased me. I knew I would leave, and that the suffocation would end for me, but wouldn’t for the ones to whom we tearfully I said goodbye.

That’s just the way it was.

Once the election buzz built, I cracked open an eye, wearily waiting to see if this vote would really change anything. When the protests erupted, I logged into my defunct Twitter and Facebook accounts to watch a change unfold that has greatly challenged my original mantra.

The obsession grew. As someone who can easily sleep for 12 hours a day, the change in my own life was instant. Sleep became unimportant, WIFI became integral, and – despite my strong objections to smart phones – I pushed aside my hatred of the uber-connected device and bought one so I could watch the real Iran unfurl during my work commute.

With my mother having arrived in Iran a day prior to the election, emotions ran high and indifference was impossible to keep.

Landlines weren’t being picked up, e-mails were going unanswered, and the one e-mail I DID receive from my mom was so painfully innocuous, the wording so deliberate, the details about the weather so unnecessarily vivid, that I wanted to know what was happening to prevent my own mother from expressing herself in her usual blunt style.

The cell-phone numbers I counted on were disconnected. Later I found out most of those I knew had quickly tossed their Nokia phones following the initial crackdown.

When I woke up on June 20, 2009, far too early for the weekend, and was faced with the video of Neda’s death – the change couldn’t be stopped.

Footage of Neda’s chest and mouth filling with blood, pictures of ax-wounds, reports of rape, the ringing gun-shots in YouTube videos, the batons, the arrests, and the eerie silence from acquaintances in Iran shook me hard.

In a hand written letter that magically made its way into my hands a few weeks after the election, a friend wrote:  Only through the loud protests can we continue to hope and challenge this shameless government that is so ambivalent about spilling the blood of young Iranians… justice will find those who’ve spilt our blood.”

The determined words (part of a much longer letter) from someone years younger, put me in my place. This particular student inspired me, in two pages of hard-to-read script, to set aside my shock and sadness in lieu of productivity, and more importantly to challenge my own cemented prejudices and decade-long mantra, “that’s the way it is” was no longer an acceptable answer now that I saw clearly that wasn’t the way it had to stay.