What is the opposite of slavery? If you think the answer is “freedom,” then
you’re very American.
The Western idea that freedom is the opposite of slavery is alien to Iran and many other societies. Rather, community is the key element that separates the free and the non-free. Private freedom, understood in this sense, is something that you achieve—for example, through the mystic meditation of Sufism—or that you purchase with wealth. Otherwise, most of the time, if you go off to be alone, you must be either upset or depressed.
This rule applies to traveling in Iran. On my trip to the south, everyone participated in the communal life of the tour—all day long and long into the night. On the bus, we entertained each other with songs and jokes and poems. Once the day’s traveling was done, you could not just go to your room. Instead, after returning to the hotel, everyone was expected to gather together in the teahouse to share songs and poems.
On a previous trip to Iran, I took a tour and held myself back, saying
little and not participating; the tour guide dubbed me “Mr. Rejali,
the American Spy.” This time, I memorized songs and poems
In fact, bus trips such as this are critical zones of freedom for middle-class Iranians, though the freedom here is less the political freedom to say any and everything, than it is the freedom to be a happy community. The government occasionally plants informants on tours, and our guide was expressing great confidence in us when, at the end of the tour, he shared some of the more off-color songs in his substantial repertoire.
And what can I say about community—myself, an Iranian of the diaspora who cannot share the formative memories of the war and its aftermath? I believe we in the diaspora have lost something we cannot take back.
Returning to my grandmother’s home highlighted this for me. Shortly after I came back from Khuzestan, it snowed. I found myself walking outside in the garden. And I remembered a day not unlike it when I was growing up, a day when it had snowed heavily and the pine trees were weighted with snow and the air was crisp and the mountains were so clear you could see the volcano head of Mt. Damavand, 45 miles away. And then the desert sun started melting everything, and all that was beautiful vanished. That is my earliest childhood memory, and in retrospect, the most portentous.
No essay about Iran should end without a poem, and so I can say that I think the condition of Iranians in the diaspora is not unlike that of the mad lover in Alleyway, a poem by Fereidun Moshiri, one of Iran’s greatest modern poets. I was reminded of this poem in Khuzestan, when one of my traveling companions recited it in sonorous tones in the dark one night. In the end, we do not know what takes us back to Iran, but, as Moshiri writes in the last four lines of the poem:
Away went the bitter sorrow,
You didn’t hear from that
You didn’t pass along that
With what feelings I passed