Twenty years ago, sometime between two and three in the morning, I came out of a deep sleep by a song that has remained my anthem. But I couldn’t have anticipated its enduring effect back then. I was unable to verbalize my attraction, which I think is true at the beginning of any new wonder. This was sometime in September of 1997, and I was still living in the first and only house my family has ever mortgaged in this country. We’d been in that house in Marlborough, Massachusetts for about a year. And before that, we lived a life of tenancy in a Section 8 apartment in Medford, a six-minute walk from the Johnnie’s Foodmaster that marked the border into Malden.
I’d fallen asleep that night wearing my Walkman, tuned to KISS 108 FM. iPods hadn’t yet been introduced into the market. I remember the crescendo carrying me as if by canoe out of a deep sleep: “Days go by/I’m hypnotized/I’m walking on a wire/I close my eyes and fly out of my mind/Into the fire.”
It took me several days to discover the singer’s identity and, until I did, I was a teenager obsessed. There was no Google in 1997, and taking to the internet in search of answers to every question was not yet common. Besides, my family didn’t have internet; we owned a beautiful leather-bound set of Encyclopedia Britannica, which, like most things we’ve ever owned, was purchased on credit. So I listened to the radio obsessively until they played the song again and I could discover from the DJ the name of the song and singer. It took maybe three days, and once I had Shawn Colvin’s name, I took to the phone and finally, on a Sunday afternoon, after maybe my eighth call into the radio station, the DJ, exasperated and frankly somewhat dubious of my zeal, finally played “Sunny Came Home.” I was prepared: a blank cassette tape in the deck, my fingers simultaneously poised over the play and record buttons. I wanted the world to share in my excitement so pre-Facebook, I took to literal walls, writing Shawn Colvin lyrics across classroom white boards at my high school.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about why, of all songs, it’s “Sunny Came Home” that I continue to love. The song is about a woman who comes home one day, sits down in the kitchen, opens a book and a box of tools. She’s been thinking about her life. She’s come to a major decision. “It’s time for a few small repairs,” she said. She gets her children and then strikes a match and sets fire to her house. The lyrics of the last verse go: “Light the sky and hold on tight/The world is burning down/She’s out there on her own and she’s alright.” Colvin then pares down the chorus into three utterances, each progressively shorter than the one before, until she sorrowfully almost-whisper-sings the very last word of the song: home.
The song tells my family’s story. It evokes the ethos of my mother’s experience as a political refugee fleeing Iran with two young children, arriving in America in 1987 with one hundred dollars and nowhere to call home. My mother, too, sat in a kitchen one day and opened a book. The circumstances of her life had brought her to a moment of great decision. Iraq continued its assault and her world was indeed burning down. At that time, Iran was nearly seven years into a bloody war with Iraq. America had cut all diplomatic ties and was secretly supplying weapons to Saddam Hussein, who continued to drop mustard gas and long-range missiles. Estimates place the total death count on both sides at well over a million souls. So one day she took a long shower, donned her chador, and sat to seek istikharah—or counsel—with God. The decision that weighed on her forced my mother onto a wire: Should she flee Iran with her two young children in hopes that America would give us refuge, or should she stay home and raise us in a country at war?
My mother had made several trips abroad after marrying my father. In Europe, she’d seen life free from imposed religious ideology. When she was a child, my mother would plead with her father to send her abroad to study. Back then, the word abroad was an abstraction; only the rich ever went there, and my mother’s family was not rich. But she grew up, became a teacher, married my father, had me, followed by my brother, and saw enough of the world to know that there was another way to live. The day the school at which she taught appointed students to monitor teachers’ hijabs, even going so far as to have these same students search their teachers’ bags for contraband, my mother knew she had to leave.
Her family tried to frighten her into staying. If you are caught, my grandmother told my mother, how will we answer your children? What should we tell them became of you? My father told her that if she wanted to go, then she’d have to find the way herself. He’d follow. And he did, about four years later, after an imprisonment of which he still won’t speak, after losing our home in a real-estate scheme that left my family homeless on two continents.
In that kitchen in Iran, like Sunny, my mother opened a book, the Quran to an ayah (or verse) that read: “You will neither be left hungry nor naked.” This was in response to a single question that she begged of God: Should she go? That verse sealed our fate. My mother gathered my brother and I, closed her eyes, and we flew. She’d packed her copy of the Quran; her tools were her jewelry, most of which she sold along the way to grease the palms of immigration officers and airport security guards and border police, and to pay the man who directed us out of Tehran and to Istanbul, then Belgrade, and then Vienna, and finally, nearly a year later, to Boston.
Leaving Iran as we did, political refugees without asylum, with no certainty of being granted entry by any country, my mother, in essence, burned down our house. If we’d been forced to return to Iran, it would have meant prison or much worse. During that difficult year of our crossing, when everything was uncertain, my mother couldn’t think of return or home; like Sunny, she closed her eyes and pushed ahead into a future that daily burned with uncertainty. It kept her from sleep as we were shuttled between holding cells, makeshift dormitories, and airport waiting rooms, questioned by men who wielded power with guns and with pen and paper. And then there was the day in Vienna when my brother accidentally overturned a pot of boiling water on his arm, suffering major third-degree burns, and my mother, unable to speak German, panicked and desperate for help, burning as my brother burned, tried to get him to a hospital before it was too late.
Once we had our green cards, we returned to Iran for a visit after eight years gone. My mother was reunited with the family she’d left behind, but for my brother and me, it was as if we were meeting everyone for the first time. The years had washed away whatever intimacy we’d once felt. But our family did not give our aloofness space. My cousins and uncles and aunts flooded us, carrying us in their tide. I remember turning to search for my mother and seeing her outside Mehr-Abad Airport, at three in the morning, falling to her knees to kiss the ground.
My grandmother first regarded me like I might be an apparition, a trick of the light, but once she had my face solidly in her hands, she praised Allah and refused to let my brother and me leave her side. In the end, my grandmother’s warnings to my mother on the eve of our departure all those years ago had proven true. In America, my mother had received news that her favorite brother, the one who became like a father to her once her own had passed away, the brother who supported her through college and the years after when she worked as a young teacher, had died suddenly of a heart attack. Because we didn’t have our papers, my mother couldn’t return for his funeral. And her sorrow grew large in America. It made her hair fall out; she became diabetic.
When I first started working on my novel, I spent a great deal of time meditating on the narrative power of beginnings. In Farsi, children’s stories always begin: Yekee bood, yekee nabood, gheraz Khodah, heech-cast nabood . . . which roughly translates as: One was, one wasn’t. Besides God, no one was. This, in contrast to the way American children’s stories begin: Once upon a time. In the Iranian beginning, the self is ambiguous, and in the American version, the ambiguity lies in time. This tension continues to resonate with me because the stories we first hear mark us in ways that are never really lost.
As I listened to children’s stories in Iran, the power of the beginning shifted my imagination inwards, to the self, to my existence as the will of God. In America I read stories that began, “Once upon a time,” and my gaze moved to the landscape, to the makeup of that world, to far-off places. This tension between consciousness and time, between the self and the world, between the private and the public, is one that I’ve struggled with as I’ve come to understand the power of narrative and the place from where to begin a story. I am drawn between those forces: how to be, but also how to be in the world.
I tried to write this beginning and failed. The airport felt thin, the moment of reunification melodramatic. My family became caricatures of themselves. I was trapped in a well of my own making, private and dark and separate from the world. So I put the novel aside, but I kept returning to that night at Mehr-Abad Airport. When I received news of my grandmother’s death, I remembered her face and how she’d looked at me as if I’d disappear. The airport felt fraught, at once tense and celebratory. Revolutionary Guards and police patrolled and the portraits of Khomeini and Khameini admonished us from above, reminding me how our joy and sorrows were felt under that heavy gaze. It was a moment both private and incredibly public and yet, I didn’t know how to negotiate between the two in my fiction, and so I avoided it altogether, and the pendulum of my writing swung in the other direction.
Saturday, June 20, 2009, around 6:30 p.m. The Amir Abad neighborhood of Tehran. A traffic jam. A woman is standing on North Kargar Street, shouting along with the other protestors: Where is my vote? Down with the dictator! Election—not selection! A movement is underway across Tehran against the fraudulent reelection of Ahmadinejad: green bandanas, headscarves, ribbons, bracelets, face and body paint, makeshift flags of green cloth in the hands and on the bodies of Iranians who pour into the streets for presidential candidate, Mousavi.
When the Islamic Republic banned journalists from covering the protests in 2009, a new phenomenon of the citizen journalist took up the mandate to inform the world about what was happening on the streets of the capital. In the days before and after the election, Iranians took to social media to document the movement. Government officials hadn’t anticipated this. And on this day, it’s a camera phone that films Neda falling to the ground. At first it seems like perhaps she’s only fainted. Don’t be scared , a man is heard shouting. But then, blood rushes from her mouth, her nose, and rivers across her face. Her eyes are open. They are looking into the camera. She is looking at me, as if to say, Look at what is happening . Blood pools into one eye, completely obscuring it. Amazingly, she dies with open eyes. She dies looking at us.
In the video that I watched on loop from my apartment in Lafayette, Indiana, where I’d just completed graduate school, a man runs to her, presses his hands against her chest wound in an attempt to slow the bleeding. A story circulates that Neda’s last words were: “I’m burning.” But who knows if this is true. In the video, a man is shouting, “Don’t be scared, Neda,” until the volume of blood makes him scream. She was twenty-six years old, three years my junior at the time of her death.
A few weeks after, I returned to Boston for good and joined demonstrations in front of the Boston Public Library, shouting against Ahmadinejad’s fraudulent reelection. In Paris, the photojournalist Reza Deghati printed placards of Neda’s smiling face and shipped them to demonstrations around the world to hold before their faces. And while the Iranian government permanently silenced Neda—whose name in Farsi means “voice”—her death inspired humanity to speak. Although she wasn’t the only one to die during those many months of unrest in Iran ( Frontline ’s Tehran Bureau estimates 107 people were killed), Neda was the only one to capture the world’s imagination.
On January 4th, 2011, shortly after 2:00 a.m., Boston Police reported to 141 West Newton Street and found Ali-Reza Pahlavi—the youngest prince of the Pahlavi royal family ousted by the 1979 Islamic Revolution—dead from a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head. Ten years earlier, it was his sister, Leila Pahlavi, whose body was discovered in a London hotel room. An autopsy revealed five times the lethal level of Seconal in her bloodstream.
At a vigil for Ali-Reza, I stood among an idle group of some thirty Iranians on Boston Common, trying futilely to keep my candle lit against the biting wind. My mother was with me. We recognized a few other Iranians and made awkward conversation. Commuters rushed past us into Park Station; it was perhaps 6:30 at night and people were trying to get home and out of the cold. We waited for someone to speak, but no one did. At one point, someone attempted to start us all in a song of remembrance, but not everyone knew the words and our voices wouldn’t come together in any meaningful way and so we all grew silent.
Ali-Reza Pahlavi was only thirteen years old when the revolution forced his family from Iran. At one time, my mother’s generation must have looked at the young prince and imagined great fortunes for their own sons, for their country. And here they stood in the New England cold, unable to articulate the effect of his death, hoping for their collective presence to assign some meaning. We stood shivering until it began to snow, and then abandoned our vigil.
That night sparked many questions that keep me returning to this notion of public stakes pressing on the private imagination. I wonder what it means for the cultural narrative of my generation that our dethroned prince and princess have both committed suicide. I am reminded of the inherent promise in “Once upon a time.” Those words conjure castles and thrones and banquets, a narrative where the prince and princess prevail, always changed for the better. So what does it mean to live in a time when our once prince and princess have taken their own lives? What will become of any of our stories when this is how my generation’s narrative begins? Where do we go from here and how do we tell this story?
Among my generation of Iranian-Americans—born there, raised here—I’ve discovered a sort of apathy at the deaths of our prince and princess. There are no professed royalists in the Iranian diaspora of Boston that I know of, and understandably so. The Pahlavi dynasty had its own brutal tactics. But despite this apathy, I suspect that many of us recognized in Ali-Reza’s death a fear that we’d rather forget, or leave unacknowledged. While we don’t know why Ali-Reza and Leila Pahlavi took their lives, in our private imaginations we understand what it means to never find a home, to never be accepted completely because of our names. Perhaps Ali-Reza and Leila couldn’t ever find their places in this world, given what their family lost, how far from grace they’d fallen. Perhaps they too were caught between culture and politics, outraged by Iran’s violations of its citizens’ human rights that leave those of us in the diaspora tripping over our own words, on the one hand to condemn, and on the other to try and defend our people, to respect Iranian lives, because if we don’t, then no one will.
I grew up with a desk-sized Iranian flag in my childhood bedroom. It was a pre-revolution flag of the Pahlavi Dynasty, depicting an image of a lion wielding a sword, framed by the sun. After my family was able to return, I brought back the new flag of the Islamic Republic, and displayed that too, bringing both flags with me when I moved into my dorm room at college. To me, the pre-revolution flag recalls the Iran of my parents and their parents and the stories of the great kings of Persepolis, the Zoroastrians from which Persians hail and for whom fire is sacred. It reminds me of a time when we were lions, proud of our history, bright-faced to the world, wielding our strength with honor and dignity.
The new and current Iranian flag signifies the Oneness of Allah, a highly stylized composite of Arabic phrases that look, to me, like a bunch of parentheses, one set enclosing upon another. I have a stake in this flag too, because it flies over the heads of much of my family who still live there. I don’t have the luxury of forgetting them. Growing up in America, a sworn enemy of the country where I was born, I know too well what it means to live on the fault lines of conflict, to live under a gaze of suspicion and distrust. To answer that inevitable question: where are you really from, and immediately recognize the shift when I say Iran.
In the HBO documentary by filmmaker Antony Thomas entitled For Neda , Iranian journalist Saeed Kamali Dehghan worked secretly to locate and film interviews with Neda’s family for the first time. The Islamic Republic had banned Neda’s family from speaking with journalists, and even prohibited a public funeral for fear that it would incite more demonstrations. In the documentary, Neda’s mother shows us Neda’s bedroom. The camera pans her desk, into her closet. As her mother holds up an outfit that Neda had recently purchased but never worn, she breaks down; in that private space where Neda rested her head, the full weight of the government’s atrocity is felt. I, too, lose my breath as I watch Neda’s mother clinging to her dead daughter’s dress, never worn. I think about what Neda must have imagined the day she purchased it. What occasion was she saving it for?
Neda’s mother tells us about her daughter’s obsession with Googoosh as the camera pans Neda’s desk and music collection. Googoosh, arguably Iran’s most famous singer and actress, was Neda’s favorite, and she’d been taking singing lessons in order to sing her idol’s songs. Googoosh herself lived through a long period of political unrest in Iran and was imprisoned in Evin on four different occasions, until she was finally able to leave the country in 2000. In the documentary, Thomas interviews Googoosh about Neda. “It’s wonderful that my music resonated so well with Neda,” Googoosh says, “but her voice is more powerful than mine. She speaks to all the world.”
When I think about what fiction can do, I imagine Neda in her bedroom, singing along to Googoosh’s songs. I think about the life Neda imagined when she closed her eyes. I think about how she was forced to listen to Googoosh’s music in secret, and how she couldn’t ever sing in public. There was so much she had to hide. I think about this, and how I, on the other side of the world, was able to blast Shawn Colvin’s music in my own car, write her lyrics on my high school whiteboards, free and careless with my American voice.
Eight years have passed since Neda was killed and the world is no better. In Syria, Assad is still killing his own people. ISIL continues to wage its war of terror. Bodies of Syrian refugees have washed up on Turkey’s shores, among them children, some as young as two. Madmen are driving trucks through crowds, gunmen terrorizing concerts, bombs in crowded train stations, apartment buildings, and markets. When Trump was elected, demonstrators flooded the streets, marched on the US Capitol, marched all over the world. They protested his rhetoric, his worldview, just as Iranians had done to protest Ahmadinejad’s fraudulent reelection. As the investigation into Trump’s collusion with Russia continues, we wait to see how we were cheated.
Meanwhile, white supremacists feel free to spill their hate onto streets, to brandish swastikas in organized marches, to round up and deport vulnerable immigrants who so often don’t have a voice of their own. Trump, the grandson of an immigrant, has turned his back to our plight (perhaps he never faced us). Through fear tactics, he incites divisiveness in our country by legitimizing the misguided fear of a minority. He tries to dismantle the Iran nuclear deal so painstakingly negotiated, goads Kim Jung Un on Twitter, pushing humanity closer to a world that, if we aren’t careful, will indeed burn down.
Amidst these stakes, I safeguard my imagination and return to Neda’s bedroom. In all likelihood, her family has moved away, but I like to imagine the same home because it’s the closest thing to a shrine that Neda will ever have. In that private space, Neda’s mother tends to her things, dusting twice a week, pausing over every article: the notebook half-written in, the photographs curling at the edges, pens that have dried out by now in her Mickey Mouse cup. She toils here alone, carefully, deliberately, methodically working against the scrim of dust that no matter how vigilantly she wipes away, always returns. Here, among Neda’s things, she hears a voice as if on the other end of a long-distance call. It is thin. It is almost a whisper, just beginning to sing.
And I hear it too, but not only in Neda’s voice; this song is the song of multitudes. It sings against a kingdom divided, it begins the story anew, and like fire it grows louder, burning in the torch-clasped hand of the Mother of Exiles. And she is singing, too: “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me/I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”