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“Your parents tell you not to do something and your government pounds it in your head to hate America and you’re just like ‘why?’ And if you’re smart and if you’re curious you think about it. And eventually you get a little older – and I started listening to Michael Jackson and I had no idea what he was all about. But Michael Jackson. You recognize the songs and you sing along – you think you’re singing along but you’re probably not singing the right words. You’re making it up.” – Golaleh Hassanzedah
“I seem to be really drawn to minor keys. Some people would say, well, they're melancholy or they're dark, but I don't think so. I think they're richer and I get a sense when I listen to a minor key that the composer has somehow worked harder at it. It is, it really just attracts me and it's true that most of my favorite pieces tend to be in minor keys.” – Condeleeza Rice on WNYC’s radio show Mad About Music
“If I keep listening to it I won’t be able to finish the revolution.” – Vladimir Lenin, on Beethoven’s Appassionata
When you see George Bush on television speaking about his geopolitical chess game with empty platitudes and strange, circular logic it’s hard not to tune out. It’s hard to feel like you belong to his strange world of speechwriters and Neocon thinktanks. Global affairs become a distant reality—an unfortunate political abstraction for even the most concerned citizens. A world of General Patraeus’ reports and talk of sides of the aisle. The attacks and defenses of George Tenet. Hillary Clinton trying to recast her vote. What the fuck is going on in the Middle East? Does it have anything to do with ecstatic Sufism? The Muslim Order of Assassins? Is T.E. Lawrence involved in some psycho-historical way? What about the Yazidis and their peacock-god, considered by some Christians and Muslims to be the devil? The history of antecedents is endless and the whole thing is unbearably deep. I grew up in the small town of Little Compton, Rhode Island. That’s about 6500 miles away from Tehran, if you’re counting. This story is about the space in between—a fascinating collision with the complexities of Middle Eastern culture. But it begins, of course, on the internet—the chaotic center for true global communion. It was July and I had a roommate heading to Budapest for a month and an extra room in an apartment I rarely inhabit, so I did what any quasi-respectable unemployed Brooklynite would do: sublet the other
bedroom. Subletting is a great way to supplement a rarely-existent income with some paying company. And if there is one reliable and unpredictable medium for bringing “disparate” people together these days it’s Craigslist—a wonderful community of stalkers, perverts, unemployed web addicts, desperate money seekers, bored office serfs and general transients. Craigslist is the place to sublet an apartment. The results are generally a bit unpredictable, though. My past experiences interviewing potential roommates have been widely varied. A few personalities come immediately to mind: the overweight and underemployed eastern European man with greasy spiked hair and strung out eyes who was enthusiastically pursuing holistic medicine; the straight looking blonde hair-blue eyes advertising up-and-comer who rented the room and left behind creepy notes-toself about purging dark sexual tendencies and reading more Ben Franklin; a skinny, pale guy who refused to talk, ate only chicken and peas, and stayed in his windowless, furniture-less room learning Crowded House songs on a cheap electric piano. Strange. This time it was easy. Two mid-twenties females showed up—transplants from Tempe, Arizona. They were friendly, sane and pleasantly charmed by the “eccentricities” of our apartment—both the bookshelf turned secret door and the out-of-commission stove turned roach motel. It was twice as many roommates as I had expected, but they seemed like a safe bet. Andrea and Lala. We agreed they would rent the room for a month and climbed to the roof for a look at the city across the East River. Manhattan’s skyline radiated through evening smog and it felt like it was about to rain, as it does in the summer after it has become impossibly hot and humid. “I’m really happy we’re here,” Andrea said. There was a sort of naïve poignancy to her unmediated affection for the city. As we began to talk, it became clear that Lala (an Anglicized nickname for Golaleh Hassanzedah) had a fascinating narrative lurking beneath her cautious introduction. It emerged in small fragments through the veil of polite introductions: She was born in northern Iran. She described her father as a “Kurdish rebel.” She had escaped Iran years ago and shown up as a refugee in Arizona—a teenager speaking only Kurdish and Farsi. Craigslist refuses to disappoint.
My own New England upbringing was tolerant and culturally well-rounded. In many ways an idyllic country bliss. But if there was one thing that I was well versed in during my pre-collegiate years it was the culture of White America. I experienced it on all sides—from leftist ‘60s parents to cocktail wieners at Thanksgiving. On holidays my grandfather would elaborate on our Mayflower lineage, armed with the family tree as proof. I was obsessed with baseball—and my mother’s second marriage was to the town Little League umpire. I sailed on Cape Cod. I skipped class in high school to eat Wendy’s French Fries. I played the twelve-year-old tourist at a very strange Bar Mitzvah for the only Jewish kid in town. I shopped with my mother at wholesale stores for frozen food. I consider myself a product of that America, and I’m proud of it. But only 200 miles away from my childhood, I emigrated to the land of Sikh cabbies, Dominican parades and limitless falafel variations, where I quickly became a part of New York City’s communal foreignness and general outsider status. But even in New York, a city hopeful politicos and documentarians often refer to as “the world’s capital,” there are still so many lives we never know—experiences we rarely consider.
This time it was Lala. As I continued to get to know her I couldn’t help but thinking she would have insight into some of the impossible questions that I find myself considering each time I open the newspaper or catch waiting room flashes of international affairs. She was a connection not as much to the politics as to the experience—to some reality beyond the fog of beltway jargon and media babble. Born only a year apart, we came of age half a world away, at a time when the simmering conflicts between America and the Middle Eastern nations were truly coming to a head. And so this story became an excuse for excessive inquiry and really an investigation of myself by comparison. It is not an exotic fascination, as much as a question of difference. Though isn’t difference at the core of fascination? Of learning? Of understanding distance? And are we even that far apart?
Within a few weeks our lives no longer seemed far apart. Some, if not all, of the affection for the apartment had certainly dissipated as Lala, Andrea and I attempted to eradicate a newly discovered plague of bedbugs. It began as constellations of bites mistaken for hives. A few days later Lala was quickly vacuuming up potential bug-remnants as Andrea and I drunkenly tossed cushions, rugs, pillows and an oversized couch out the windows and down the stairs. The Arizona émigrés were having their first taste of the unrelenting trials of New York living. No one could sleep at night and each morning brought a renewed round of aloe application and hastily sprayed chemicals. Bugs were rampant in the entire building. In the midst of ridding ourselves of what felt like a biblical plague we got to know each other. Through it all I kept wondering about Lala: Was this hardship for her? How does the social war zone of New York City compare to childhood fears of harassment by the Ayatollah? Of living under Islamic law? Of fleeing your birthplace? Of seeing your first WalMart? Of learning your first English sentences amidst the dry heat of the American southwest? In a way, this was answered without prompt. I’m not sure if you guys really want to sleep in here with so many chemicals floating through the air. I had sprayed some hardware store bug killer around and the place smelled like a chemical dump. I’m sure I was exposed to worse chemicals in the Middle East. Lala’s response was casual and matter-of-fact. She usually maintains this disposition while discussing her tumultuous early years. At this point I really had no idea how chaotic and trying her experiences had been, and I wasn’t sure it was appropriate to ask. But eventually, my selfish curiosity got the best of me and I convinced Lala to sit down with me on a number of occasions and talk about her past.
On the first of these meetings we ate bland falafel and shwarma at a midtown Middle Eastern restaurant. We talked about Lala’s youth in Mahabad, the dissent and persecution of her family and the wild stories of her family’s escape to Turkey by way of Iraq. I cannot distill the events of such a
tumultuous life in a brief narrative here. They are inspiring and unbelievable, but attempting to encompass them would be both reductive and impossible. Many I would never be able to appropriately recount. But, alongside tragic stories of her uncle’s political assassination and first hand accounts of the frustrations of constant scrutiny under Islamic Law were fascinating insights into distant visions of the West. The funny thing is you know America’s name. Literally, you grow up knowing the name because they have rallies—organized rallies. All of those rallies you see on TV—they’re organized by the government. And basically if you’re in school and if you don’t go you get kicked out of school. But what they show are the forefront—the extremists that are all into it. But they never pull out into the middle with the kids, especially—when they say something like, “(?) Amerika…” which means death to America. We talked a lot about her impressions of America before and after she knew she would live here. Its grand myth was always in her consciousness growing up and somehow, she insists, she always knew that she would eventually come here. America was a childhood fascination that seemed like an eventuality. But what I remember, growing up knowing about America, is if I watched television it was literally Clint Eastwood films. It was American films. They were censored, you know, no curses or bloody scenes or stuff like that. But it was those films along with if I read or watched the news about America —it was always negative. My impression of America was that if you walked outside you would be killed. So violent. That’s all you hear about. “A German tourist got killed in Texas.” “Black neighborhood in Washington D.C. abandoned by government because it’s so dangerous.” So I thought if you go into the black neighborhoods and stand up you’re going to get killed. That’s the impression you get. And the heroic era of movies—a lot of Western movies—always Western movies. I don’t know, that’s what my impression was—really cool to live in. Amazing. But at nighttime you have to be inside your house. It is fascinating and strange to consider the popular art of America as the dominant expression of our culture. From an early age it was this Cowboys-and-Indians vision that dominated Lala’s consciousness. Her family had satellite television and when Westerns weren’t on the Rambo movies played. She also, like so many throughout the world, was thoroughly taken in by the songs of Michael Jackson. It was her first musical love and she spent time singing along to words she couldn’t understand. The ever-blurring line between entertainment and politics must have seemed obvious from afar. With Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone and Michael Jackson as America’s most prominent ambassadors, who couldn’t be filled with immense attraction/repulsion feelings for its particular combination of creativity and perversion? Our frontier violence and rugged justice? I doubt there was much surprise when a “cowboy from Texas” became our president years later. The actor Reagan had been exporting Western script ideology through Cold War monologues since Iran-Contra. Whether it was manifesting destiny in the Wild West or global-frontiersman John Rambo’s attempts to reclaim the psychological baggage of Vietnam, American politics were being communicated through the movies as fluently as through political speeches—in some cases the actors were even the same. Even when her continental relocation became a reality, America’s iconography proved inescapable. Lala flew into Arizona years later as a political refugee continually imagining, despite her better logic,
that she would arrive to the iconic sight of the New York skyline. But in November of 1995 she left a snowy Turkish winter in a thick goose jacket and arrived in Phoenix. On the way out of the plane she thought that she was being mistakenly led into the engine room when she felt the desert heat coming in through the open door. She was in the dry, open world of Arizona—a place that, even now, she would only describe with a single word: flat. Then our social worker told us—the first thing he told us, “Don’t leave your house. Don’t leave. Don’t open the door to anybody. Don’t talk to anybody. Don’t let anybody come in, because if you do they might kill you.”
The threat of death against Lala’s family involves a complicated history centered on the story of the Kurds, a people that have remained largely dispossessed and unheard in the post-World War I nationstate era. Unlike the dogmatic anti-American vitriol propagated in the rallies of her youth, the family ideology into which she was born rebelled against both imperialist incursion and the oppression brought upon them by their own government. The Kurds are in many ways a neither/nor group that don’t fit neatly into history books because they have rarely had a say in governing the lands they inhabit. Her father was a Peshmerga, a member of the Kurdish armed resistance movement in the area that would be Kurdistan—currently parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey—though his own efforts focused on Iran. He had been exiled from his homeland under the Shah, during which time he lived in Iraq and met Lala’s mother. But he returned after the revolution, only to be reengaged in the fight at home. As a child she would rarely see him. Her memories recall his absence for months, sometime years. He would leave Mahabad and his family—consisting of two wives, six sons and three daughters—and head to the mountainous region on the Iran-Iraq border to fight as a Peshmerga and work toward the cause of Kurdish independence. Mahabad was central to the movement in Iran, having been the capital of an independent Kurdish state in 1946 that lasted only eleven months before being crushed by the Iranian army and having its leader, Muhammed Qazi, publicly hanged. The city has since been a center for anti-Iranian resistance. The push for Kurdish independence was reignited after the Islamic Revolution when Ayatollah Khomeini pulled back on his promises and became aggressive toward the Kurds, engaging an internal war that continues today. I just remember my father either being in prison or at war in the mountains and coming home. He’d sleep for a week because he hadn’t slept in months. Then he’d just recover and go back. By the time Lala was nine her father had settled back at home after another bout of imprisonment and become a merchant—a word she believes was partly a euphemism for anti-government smuggling operations. He was working with a friend farming outside of the city when fate dealt a blow to his attempt at domestic serenity. Lala’s father was driving a Jeep back from the farm with a friend at night when he accidentally hit and killed a young Iranian soldier. The soldier was setting up a roadside post as a checkpoint but had not yet noted his presence with the customary fire. Unseen on the dark road, he was hit by the Jeep, thrown through the air and killed instantly. Despite the government’s acknowledgement that the death was a legitimate accident, the incident landed her father in jail for a week, just long enough to have elements of his discreet past exposed to the authorities. He was continually interrogated after his release and eventually asked to provide information about the details and participants of conflicts between Kurdish guerillas and the Iranian government. Despite his gaining
years and desire to stay with his family, his distrust of the Iranian government and allegiance to the Kurdish cause forced him to flee. He left police interrogation on a Thursday with the mandate that he return with information on Saturday. On Friday he was being smuggled out of the country through the mountains of Iraq where his second wife, Lala’s mother, had family that could hide him away.
Lala and I wandered through Times Sqaure after our meal. With all of the oversized chain restaurants and oversized tourists, Times Square can make you believe in some of the generic indictments of consumption and obesity that are so often used to belittle this vast, strange nation. We walked through a group of teenagers staring in wonder at the site of MTV’s Total Request Live while a man tried to sell us discounted tickets to Legally Blonde the Musical in a hushed voice as if he were actually selling cocaine. Hearing Lala recount her life and subsequent escape from the Middle East instilled the same feelings of exhilaration and exhaustion that occur after a particularly captivating political thriller. More intense, of course, because of its factuality. But one thing that continued to intrigue and confuse me was the way in which she envisioned herself in America. After all of her insights into the frailties of self-righteous Islamic morality and vivid accounts of witnessing pre-meditated ethnic murder she always came back to her two great interests in life: fashion and music. She came to New York hoping to find a career in one of these fields. As much as I would hope to reserve judgment on either profession, I can’t help but see the industries surrounding each as mired in superficiality and affectation. What could seem further from Iran’s ethnic survivalism than New York’s emaciated fashion culture? Is there an escapist element in the desire to spend your time away from persecution doing something fundamentally apolitical? Did Lala not feel some obligation to address the tumult and oppression of her past? Before I am condemned for asking these questions, know that I saw the contradiction and smallmindedness (not to mention hypocrisy and self-righteousness) of this perspective almost immediately. As we walked east, away from Times Square’s hyper-consumerism and out from beneath the afternoon shadow of the MTV studios, I understood something about how the spheres of life that encompass both Lala and myself had intersected. I thought about Quincy Jones and, yes, I thought about the King of Pop himself. Had they ever imagined, while in the studio constructing the delicate groove to “Billie Jean,” that it would be an aesthetic epiphany somewhere in a country plagued by assassinations and the impositions of religious law? That it would implicitly represent a liberated world to a girl who could only relate through a combination of youth’s imaginative wonder and some vague Clint Eastwoodinduced vision of the West? Before, when we had walked into the restaurant, the man behind the counter had noticed Lala – noticed her in a way that men so often notice women in New York. And I, in turn, noticed him noticing her in a way that can bring men a new sense understanding when you’re with a woman who is being noticed. While considering the large part music had played in Lala’s conception of the West I began to understand, too, that fashion was an extension of that same dichotomy of restriction and freedom. Perhaps casual city ogling doesn’t seem like the best way to emphasize a sense of female liberation but it highlighted the way in which Lala, in a short white dress and oversized sunglasses, exhibited femininity in a particularly Western way—without forced modesty or male-imposed discretion.
Of course Lala wants to be involved in fashion. Of course she’s so interested in music. That’s why she came to New York City. In truth that’s also why I came here—to be part of a culture not bound by the mystical code of an ancient text. Suddenly I thought about Bush (and now Giuliani) talking about “Islamic Fascism.” Sure, it’s all rhetoric and talking-point distraction, but the condemnation of repressive cultural forces will always contain kernels of truth. Of course there is immense beauty to be found in Jerusalem or Mogadishu or Pyongyang or on 46th street—but you have to be allowed to look for it, to experience it. It is not an excuse for invasion, corporate infiltration or “democratization”—but it really is, at least, a reason to love America.
I remember one day I was getting a haircut. I was probably six, I think. And across the street we heard this loud gunshot. It was a chai house. We ran across the street and all I remember was the smell of gunpowder filled the whole place. And a pool of… I’ve never seen blood like that, a pool of blood. Almost black. I couldn’t see who it was and immediately my mom came out and said, “No. Go back inside.” And I was like, “But I want to see.” It was actually one of my friend’s brothers. He was a rebel and even if they’re just rebels and they don’t have a big role the government just gets rid of them. The less there are the better. When it comes to varied experience, living with the steady presence of violence is the most drastic way in which the basic circumstances of Lala’s early life differ from my own. Her father took constant precaution to shield his children from the conflict and violence that plagued Mahabad during her childhood, but it was unavoidable. Scenes of public bloodshed were inescapable and they account for some of her earliest memories. It is a fascinating disposition somewhere between composed and desensitized with which Lala recounts these stories: her brother’s friend gunned down while out walking, her mother shot by a sniper while trying to provide medical assistance to an injured man, assassins jumping out from bushes and firing Uzis at young men, families killed for depressingly small sums of money. The experiences haven’t transformed her into a character of either perpetually extreme behavior or hermetic trauma. And only after extended discussion on the Middle East, and perhaps a few drinks, does she become exasperated by recounting her own past or considering the region’s present situation and the state of Kurdish life. Even then it is with sadness and empathy, not vengeance or hatred, for a culture that she reveres but also sees as plagued by senseless violence and the inescapable weight of drastic ideology. On another evening we stumbled past McCarren Park in Brooklyn after further conversation and a bottle of sake. A playful phrase had emerged and began to steer our conversations: moral anarchy. I had argumentatively suggested what many devout and politicized Muslims in the Middle East might posit: that there is something like “moral anarchy” in America. We don’t have any real moral foundation. We often do covet wealth. We are defined by individualism and there is no strict imperative to act toward the good of the whole. The health of our stock market often seems to take precedence over the health of our neighbors. I wasn’t suggesting that we are a nation without morals—just that they aren’t required and, as a result, they can be at times conspicuously absent. To counter, Lala told me a story about an Iranian Imam that had been kidnapping, torturing and killing
twelve year old boys, only to feed parts of their remains mockingly to his unsuspecting guests. When he was finally exposed by a young victim who escaped from his cell in the sadist’s dungeon, the Imam was not executed. Instead, accordingly to Lala, he was sent off, in a dark twist, to be tortured himself for the rest of his days. (Was this true? An embellished cultural myth?) As with stories of America’s most notorious pedophiliac priests and closet gay Republicans, there seemed to be some essential hypocrisy that acted as an essential companion piece to so many of her experiences with religiosity and self-righteousness. Even if America can seem without the same moral foundation, she would suggest, the stories of violence, sadism and nihilistic vengeance from her home are endless. The Middle East, for her, refuses to be the exemplary moral force that it would hope to be. Her family remain practicing Sunnis but Lala has parted ways with religious practice. My mother thinks I’m going to hell. She said it casually but it struck me as a strange confession. Sad and confusing. Is this cultural separation the natural result of self-determination under liberal democracy? The very definition of what the theocratic governments fear? Is it what becoming American is all about?
Lala left her home in Mahabad as a teenager under the cover of night. Without saying goodbye to friends or family, she piled into the back of a cargo truck and hid beneath a tarp. The truck was one used regularly by her brothers as part of their job exporting chocolate inside and outside of the country. Her mother, sister and brothers were all with her. Together they drove six bumpy, non-stop hours until they reached the next city West on their way to Iraq. Her uncle had hired men with mules and horses to take them through the mountains and across the border. Sneaking across the porous mountain border was not uncommon; Lala had even done it with her family once before when she was a child. Her mother had been through on several occasions to visit her family and, more recently, to see her husband. She told Lala stories of men so poor as a result of the Iraq embargo that they would pull seeds off of any vegetation they could find and mix them with flour in an attempt to create any edible nourishment. Her mother fed these men bread as they brought her across snowy mountain passes. At sunset her family began a long ride through the mountains, attempting to reach the border before the sun came up. This time it was summer and there would be no snow. The women rode and her brothers walked. The roads were narrow and littered with landmines. Only the guides knew where these landmines were hidden and they told stories of those who had met their fate off of the side of the cliffs or at the hands of a landmine. They paid no mind to the sensitive ears of children. As an eleven year old girl, the experience was as adventurous as it was frightening for Lala. She was scared of her horse and her brothers teased her for not knowing how to ride it. As they began to get close to the border, her family fell into a caravan of groups traveling along the route toward the crossing, each separated by a small distance. While riding along the side of a mountain, someone in the group around the bend ahead of them lit a cigarette. All I remember—I had been riding a mundane eight hour ride—is this flash. A really, really loud flash. Like a car accident almost. Everything just kind of crashes and for a split second everything’s a blur. Your soul leaves your body almost. Everything shakes and it’s so loud. You can’t see. You can’t hear. I couldn’t hear anything. I fell to the ground and my whole body was… There were rocks and this
mountainside and my brother was pulling me. He was just delirious… Upon spotting the cigarette, the Iranian border guard began shelling the mountainside. Lala’s group was not hit but the explosion ahead of them shook the mountain. Her young mule became frightened and threw her. The next thing she knew she was being choked as her brother dragged her off the road by the back of her shirt. The children were not injured, but Lala’s mother had dislocated her shoulder. Her horse hadn’t bucked, but in the emotional intensity of the moment she had thrown herself to the ground – imagining that her children were dying and wanting to be with them. The attacks went on for some time. They found shelter as the military continued to shell the area. They were heading for a river on the border, the shores of which acted as a safety zone. Eventually they reached it and spent the night sleeping in rocks adjacent to the river as the attacks continued. The whole night, it was beautiful, visually. It was almost like lava. But the funny thing is the horses are used to it. They’re just sitting there. They just sleep or sit there chewing on their grass or grain. They don’t do anything. My mom found us huddled with the men – my mom liked to have men around us to protect us because it was just her and her six kids. In the morning small pickup trucks came. Her family was loaded in and brought across to Iraq. The roads there had been well maintained by Saddam Hussein’s government during the Iran-Iraq war and the ride was smooth. Because of their age and gender, her teenage brothers were arrested by Kurdish troops. They were eventually released when her father found an Iraqi to vouch for them. Her family was reunited.
Lala told the story of her escape on the sixth anniversary of September 11th. We met without anticipating the date’s obvious relevance to our conversation. She also recounted a story of having been clumsily questioned by the FBI in Arizona shortly after the attack on the Twin Towers. She was working as a cocktail waitress and as part of an effort to raise money for 9/11 she wore a shirt depicting the New York skyline. The smoky looking shirt was of Midtown—the Chrysler building specifically— at sunset in the evening haze. It was a commemorative gesture, but to a drunken patron it appeared more like a depiction of the Twin Towers on fire worn by a Middle Easterner. The next day the FBI called her work and visited her apartment after receiving a call about the shirt. Their interest was further peaked when she told them she was from Iran. The 9/11 hijackers had been in Arizona attending flight school and the Muslim population there was an obvious point of interest for investigators. Interestingly, Lala’s brothers had known who the hijackers were and had seen them passing through the small Middle Eastern community in Phoenix. She told this to the FBI but, strangely, they never followed up. Aside from her visit from the FBI, the time around 9/11 was relatively calm for Lala. This was not true for her mother, who wears a head cover and had things thrown at her when she was out on the street. Her parents also had to avoid the mosque for a short time because of bomb threats. Belligerent emotion had become a guiding principal for too many. One town over, in Mesa, an Indian Sikh named Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot outside of his convenience store four days after the attacks in some strange form of ignorant, xenophobic vigilante retaliation. Later we went back to the apartment to meet up with friends and again take in the view of the
Manhattan skyline. This time it was the immaculate Twin Towers memorial lights that we wanted to see. It is a truly American memorial—its immense beauty is simultaneous to its excess. The lights are so strong that they seem to shine straight through the atmosphere and illuminate space. It is a truly ghostly spectacle that amounts to a sort of melancholy celebration. The cold nights of the approaching fall were creeping in and we decided to go back inside and listen to records soon after climbing up.
One night my friend Stefan and I were falling asleep in bunk beds in Northern Montana, having spent the evening indulging in whiskey and Canadian beer. We began having a speculative conversation about the dreams of Condaleeza Rice. Does she ever spend time considering the confounding implications of her unconscious? Does she wake up with residue of unexpected erotic fantasy in the back of her mind? Is she back in high school, revisiting the missed opportunities of an awkward adolescence? Sometimes I get that feeling—that real 60’s kind of feeling that maybe the world would really be better if she would take some time to just sit on a roof somewhere, smoke some pot and speculate on the nature of stars or the concept of time. That a sense of wonder would inspire in her distinct feelings of empathy and humility. She would feel overwhelmed, believing suddenly that her greatest concerns of international diplomacy and its effect on market volatility were somehow connected to her beautiful and frightening dreams. And that somewhere Ahmadinejad was napping, imagining that he’d forgotten to wear his pants to school—waking up embarrassed and nostalgic, longing for his youth. At least I know Condi is an accomplished pianist in a chamber orchestra. There may be some humanity in that, even if it seems cold and aristocratic. Lenin couldn’t escape the beauty of Beethoven. Hitler loved Wagner. Bill Clinton reunited Fleetwood Mac. It’s strange, though, I can’t imagine Bush even listening to music.
Last week Ahmadinejad came to New York. He stood at a podium at Columbia and suggested that homosexuality didn’t exist in Iran while the university’s president flexed his ego by throwing the Iranian a thousand well deserved insults. They were repelled with a mocking smile. There were protests, a few sympathizers, and a media spectacle that made it feel as if Ahmadinejad had spent his younger years in a Hollywood PR firm instead of developing power around his Holy Cause. Lala and I decided to meet and discuss her Iranian stories formally for the last time. A certain confusion had set in about where this all was going, for me and maybe for her too. It’s not that I believed that there was a great revelation to come from her stories—they are simply the events of a life—but I had begun to look for some purpose or truth in the telling. This sort of searching is the writer’s ultimate vice. I wanted too much. I was of losing site of the person in front of me. (Instead of imagining that Lala represented anything other than herself.) I needed to step back and listen to the words instead of prompting the myth. In attempting this, though, the intensity of our dialogue began to lessen. Something felt strangely flat in our last meeting. Perhaps it was fatigue. Perhaps I had begun to know Lala too well. The complexities of personality— contradiction, confusion, context—they were all piling up. What is a story without myth? Without some fixed perspective? It will keep changing forever
and the story will just be the life. But there was a basic narrative to complete and Lala kindly finished telling me about her final journey out of the Middle East. She lived for seven months in Iraq with her mother’s family in a home without electricity. Her father was in another town, working to acquiring fake passports and devising a plan for their escape. They were caught on their first attempt to sneak into Turkey but succeeded on the second attempt, wading through the mire of a newly watered cotton field just before dawn. With false identities and no home to go back to, they eventually reached the United Nations in Ankar. They stayed in Turkey, awaiting word on their case, and were eventually granted amnesty. They left for America.
Yesterday in Bushwick a teenage boy was shot when he stuck his head out of his apartment window. He heard gunfire and put his head outside and someone put a bullet through it. There are only basic truths: we are born somewhere into the world, created through the bizarre and wonderful coital moment. We grow from a miniscule shape and emerge from between the legs of a woman. We are toweled off, cut from the cord and introduced to a place not of our choosing—a place that to some already resembles hell. It could be just as easily filled with gunfire as with gated communities. It is all out there: genital mutilation, species extinction, drug addiction, nuclear weapons, global warming. War. We dream and lust and talk of righteousness and know almost nothing about ourselves. When Lala was eleven she was asked to walk across a mountain range and through two war torn countries. She was asked to leave everything she knew and go to America. She went. What good is it to meditate on the other possibilities of life? Free will is intellectual gamesmanship—whether or not it exists, the conclusions are the same. We ate pasta and watched the Planet Earth DVD. A Great White Shark jumping out of the water in slow motion, a dying seal clenched in its jaws. Here we are. There is nowhere else. Benjamin Church Smith October 10, 2007
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