What Iranians Taught Me About Fear

Tuesday 12 July 202204:41 pm

When I asked my father if he liked it here, he answered with a story. “A few years ago I was walking down the canals in Amsterdam. I saw a young couple, fifteen, sixteen maybe, standing at the bridge, next to a bike. They hugged, comfortably. Sometimes kissing. I got it that day. These kids are not afraid. Not of the neighbors who could rat them out, parents who would punish them. They weren’t afraid of the police in the street and their batons, the priest or the imam, the school principal. Most of all, they weren’t afraid of each other, or themselves. That day I realized I made a good choice to leave. I am happy my children are growing up here.”

My father knew fear intimately. Many times it saved him. In the years after the revolution in Iran he knew being recognized might cost him his life. He learned to hold me, a baby then, in front of his face in a way that you wouldn’t quite see who he was. Even his own brother once saw him in the street, to lose him a moment later, before he could shout out “hey Ali, over here!”.

My father knew fear intimately. Many times it saved him. In the years after the revolution in Iran he knew being recognized might cost him his life. He learned to hold me, a baby then, in front of his face in a way that you wouldn’t quite see who he was.

Of course, the fear never left him. I learned that even in the safety of Amsterdam he couldn’t help himself. In a bar he would sit with his back to the door or the windows. No one would recognize him. But he always could see some hidden mirror, some reflective surface that allowed him to observe who would enter. At night I learned to avoid the creaking boards of our house, I realized the slightest sound would make him alert.

If fear is what makes someone alert and saves the lives of people like my parents, it is also the most important tool of those who push us down.

As a kid I thought not having this fear made me stupid. When my religious grandmother called I didn’t guard my tongue like I ought to. “Mama? She’s gone out to the pool with my brother” I would say. I wanted my grandmother to know we were happy here. Politely she would finish the conversation to call back later that evening. Later my mother would scold me. “Careful Sahand. Don’t you know swimming in public is haram, a sin? When my mother called I had to lie and tell her I went to a closed pool that only gave access to women and small kids.”

If fear is what makes someone alert and saves the lives of people like my parents, it is also the most important tool of those who push us down. In schools back home you didn’t speak back to the teacher, fearing a spanking, or worse, not being able to finish your education. At work protesting meant the risk of losing an income, starving children. It was impossible to control everyone, but when you don’t know when it’s your turn to be picked up, or what they know and what will happen when they do, the fear will keep you in line as much as the guns and the batons will.

A dear friend who returned to Iran after a few years of absence and was picked up at the airport said the scariest request had been “Write what you have done. Assume we know everything. If you don’t write one thing that we know your life is over.”

When we genocided our Iranian political activists, hadn’t all the killers been Iranian also? Neighbors? Former friends? Relatives?

I had always been jealous of people who fought an enemy outside of themselves. The Shi’a in Iraq blamed the Sunnis for all the evils in their country, The Sunnis put the blame right back. As did Hindus and Muslims in India, just like how before they were united in fearing as well as fighting the English. The Palestinians fought the Jewish oppression, and the Jews feared the Arabs and the rest of the world. The fights, suffering and deaths were as real as ours. But it seemed like a kindness that in a moment of respite one was safe in the arms of their own communities. Families meant safety, a community meant comfort. Tomorrow the battle will continue, but tonight I rest my head on your lap.

What Iranians taught me about fear is that even our own didn’t mean safety. If my father, a smoking, drinking atheist, had been arrested and killed I would live with the knowledge that some of my mother’s siblings would secretly celebrate the death of another kaffir, an infidel, even if it would break my mother’s heart. When we genocided our Iranian political activists, hadn’t all the killers been Iranian also? Neighbors? Former friends? Relatives?

Yes, I was jealous of my Palestinian friends who didn’t seem to have this internalized fear, as openly as they shared on social media accounts of Israeli injustices. it’s only now that I’m the father of two Palestinian girls that I’ve come to realize no society is free of this fear.

It’s a wonder that the Iranians who write about the crimes they’ve witnessed do so. It’s not surprising many others choose not to. I didn’t get angry with my dear friend when he stopped writing about the injustices of Iran. “Do you know what it means to me not being able to return? To not see my parents? And even if I wouldn’t, I have relatives who have stayed and would suffer”. Like this the Iranian government to this day claims it doesn’t have a real opposition. Only a few thousand loud people in the diaspora. Paid agitators who make up stories with anonymous accounts.

Yes, I was jealous of my Palestinian friends who didn’t seem to have this internalized fear, as openly as they shared on social media accounts of Israeli injustices. it’s only now that I’m the father of two Palestinian girls that I’ve come to realize no society is free of this fear. Perhaps it is more deeply rooted in a people that didn’t need to confront it yet. As long as we fight the enemy in front of us we don’t have to look at the enemy inside. It would break us to find out it had a face like our mother’s, our father’s, uor cousin’s.

When a few weeks ago in Palestine a concert was canceled because of the bullying of thugs and a prominent activist severely harrassd for presumably supporting gay rights, my fearless instinct was to write about it. We know the names of the victims. We know who the bullies are. Who their fathers are, what parties they belong to. A Palestinian fear, as deep as many Iranians know, kicked in. Not the names, not of the victims, not of those who did it. Can we mention the party at least? Are we going to pretend it wasn’t Hamas that turned on regular Palestinians at this event? Or Fatah at the next? Ok, but that’s as far as we go. You have relatives there now. They need to live there. It’s their neighbors. We repeat this mantra, as a daughter tries to date fearing her own family, as a gay boy prays to be “cured”, knowing that he wont, and one day he will have to say goodbye to the houses he loved.

We know the names of the victims. We know who the bullies are. Who their fathers are, what parties they belong to. A Palestinian fear, as deep as many Iranians know, kicked in.

But men and women will speak up in this society. And the fear that makes them suffer today will save their lives, time and again. And when they’ve survived, either in a free society, or broken in ghorbat, exiled like my parents, they will have a drink with this fear, and be grateful it stops with them and isn’t passed on to their children.

* The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Raseef22

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