Shiite Has Been Kicked Out of Me to Grow Up
March 17, 2008
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.
I was born on the very same day Prime Minister Mossadegh was toppled by certain foreign entities: August 19, 1953. But before I get to the circumstances surrounding my birth I must make a confession. I am, really, quite very unsure of what my parents thought they were doing when they were conspiring to beget me. Whatever it may have been, the resulting seed that became yours truly was conceived in an air of suspicion and doubt. Because, since the day I prematurely set foot into this world, I have been a cynic-skeptical of history, politics and everything else under the big white sun. So, it is only natural that on the day the wily old Mossadegh was bombed out of his own house on Kakh Avenue, chased from rooftop to rooftop in his pajamas, I drew necessary conclusions and came up with my own suspicions.
Frankly, the whole affair, which sank my momma into deep despair, did not sit right with me; my eight months of flotation in amniotic fluid, like Neil Armstrong suspended in space, had not prepared me to cope with the shock that ran from my momma directly into my liquid lair. Believe me, believe me not, but this is what I have to say: the same event that sent my momma into a clinical depression, namely the August 19 coup, somehow touched off my untimely birth.
Needless to say I did not know the particulars; nevertheless my cries at birth could have been interpreted as a protest against what I perceived as a naked aggression against my country. I may be wildly wide of the mark, but I can't help accusing the coup plotters of committing a heinous crime, for even by the West's standards, it was the most undemocratic of all undertakings. I may be feeling a bit soft, thinking of the confession I'm prepared to make, but before we get to that, let me get one thing off my chest. That, despite what the West makes of us, we're not a race less ignoble than our fellows. Decide for yourself, but let me outline the concept before you race to judgment.
Back in her womb, while my mother was inhaling-exhaling rhythmically, I was debating with myself whether or not I should slip out of that slimy passage. I knew there was no avoiding it -- I was not that naive -- but the question for me was how long I should hold back, even though sooner or later I knew I had to come head first through that door to the unknown. Why hold back, you say? The whole affair being triggered by the foreign-engineered coup d' état, against the fairly popular prime minister, somehow did not sit well with me, and I rightly felt I had to make my position clear from the start. That's before I found out more on the subject: that the timing of my arrival marred my life with a kind of historic cum epic bent.
You see, my parents belonged to the religious faction of Dr. Mossadegh's National Front. The National Front was a loose sort of alliance between everybody and everything that opposed what in those days was chided as "the dictatorship". My father distributed printed copies of Mossadegh's speeches and worked for his campaigns. He had met my mother in June of 1951, and had fallen in love with her at a political rally opposing the conciliatory approaches to the oil dispute Harriman, namesake of Ahriman, the villainous prince of Hell, was moderating between the United Kingdom and our nation.
Believe me, believe me not, but back then America was on our side. She had been on our side, beautifully so, indeed, for a solid hundred years, if not longer. Despite the impressive history, at this juncture there were mysterious forces at work to undermine our sovereignty, one being the appointment of this Mr. Harriman who expressed the wish to bring together the elements of "logic and feelings," but gained a reputation for being the Devil's Peacemaker.
As my father used to say, this Dr. Mossadegh had no testicles to speak of. An aristocrat himself, Mossadegh was not without faults. He trusted the Shah more than he trusted some of his own allies. During the course of his second tenure, it became apparent, at least to my father, that the prime minister was somewhat of a liar, who mouthed mass-pleasing rhetoric, but conducted unacceptable negotiations behind closed doors.
Father's personal hero was the estimable Ayatollah Kashani, in many ways a grand personality in the genre of Imam Khomeini, the inheritor of prophet Mohammad's tradition. Anyway, Father's speculation was that Dr. M would have accepted the American arbitration, had it not been for leaders like Kashani who whipped up the masses to oppose any reconciliation. Truth be known, Mossadegh would have been more than happy to forget the past and reconcile with the British, but the demonstrations that followed Harriman's arrival at Tehran airport forced him to keep his vows.
My father remembered, in the face of this turmoil in Tehran, the army intervened and took sides with the regime. Citizens were shot dead, fifty or so of them. Himself an organizer and chief participant in many of these massive protests, my father was downed in one by a bullet that slammed into his side and emerged from his belly. Luckily my future mother, who was a comely girl of eighteen then, noticed him as he fell into the gutter, his nose in the dirt. If it hadn't been for fate, the two of them would never have met.
Believe me, believe me not, but that's where they met: gutter-side, under the army stampede, while fighting the soldiers and the police with nothing but their fists, stones and sticks. She rinsed his face in the chocolate water and tied up his wound with her chador. Afterwards, when he was well again, they went to other political rallies, and on warm summer evenings they could be found stargazing together. My mother then became active in patriotic women's groups, always complaining that they did not emphasize enough religion. Other than that, they were a pair happily in love, the sun shining brilliantly now on all the world before them.
They celebrated our nation's victories, and mourned together when Mossadegh resigned his post the following year. But lose hope they did not, because they had each other, and were considering tying the proverbial knot. Gradually, the line between their courtship and their political activism blurred; they sort of fueled each other. My father and my momma could not tell, on any given day, whether they were protesting so that they could be with each other, or whether they met to demonstrate their political rage. This was true throughout their courtship, through Mossadegh's resignation and through the couple of days later when he got his old job back.
Believe me, believe me not; I'm the last person on earth to put stock in superstition, but I suppose there are certain events that affect your life, or shall I say, your character captures the spirit of certain incidents, and in turn is affected by it. It so happened that my parents' wedding night coincided with Mossadegh's return to office. A sharp lemon light rinsed the streets, and the city squares were aglow with colorful bulbs: green, blue, yellow, red. Ribbons of colored wax-paper, twisting, curling, dangled from trees and telephone posts. Bazaar merchants dug into their pockets and gave alms to the poor, and store-owners on Naderi Avenue showered pedestrians with sweets and nuts. The decorations, my father told my mother, whispering in her ear, were in celebration of their marriage, and she giggled at his make-believe.
That night, as they said their vows, the Tehran sky was full of stars. I would not be putting you on if I said their political inclination and the period in which I was conceived lent a great deal to the formation of my conscience. For ten years I carried this huge burden with me, like an incubus that followed me everywhere, without a clue as to what to do with it. Directly after I was born that night of the coup, a few ounces of screaming flesh, my father was led to jail. My only consolation is that, at least he had heard my cries through the walls, before they took him away. For the next three years, he did not see me at all. Children were not allowed in the high security prison for politicos, but my mother saw him once or twice. Security loosened after a while, and we saw him once a week on Friday mornings. He looked disheartened and dreamy, and you could tell that his health was heading down south. When he finally came out he was nothing but skin and bone. Pardon me, but his prick was of not much use either, because I heard him and my mother discuss the merits of seeing a doctor, and him wondering whether such a specialty as a penile doctor existed in the ever expanding and wondrous field of medicine. I suspected that his nether member was all skin and no bone.
His disposition toward me wasn't what you might describe as kind. Always scolding me, pointing out my faults, educating me in the toughest way there was. Later I realized that he had too much respect for me to treat me like a little kid. One day when he had just been released, I came home looking a little disheveled. I thought he was going to kill me, but he sat me down and just talked to me, one on one, adult to adult. I was in third grade. The story goes, that I'd gotten into a daft fight with a classmate of mine over the merits of "Lunic III", the Soviet multi-stage rocket that had recently circled the moon worshipfully. I had cuts and bruises all over, and my shirt button was torn. He sat me down, and the first words out of his mouth were: "Neither West, nor East. Lean on the power of Allah. And don't fight with anyone unless it's for Him, or His cause."
I was never satisfied with the pace of my growth, always felt something keeping me from it. Adulthood contained a mystery I wished to unravel immediately. My dream always was to become a part of the adult world. I wanted to be one of those adults who sits next to other adults at parties and, in the presence of children, lowers his voice and whispers, or laughs along with the other grown-ups. What were they saying to each other? What were they keeping from us children? What? And all that secrecy, what was it about? It used to drive me crazy with curiosity. Sometimes they just whispered and looked on without even acknowledging the little persons who were watching them with lost expressions on their oppressed faces. I hated playing stupid games with my playmates. None of the popular games in my school, chess, leapfrog, tic-tac-toe, small-goal soccer ever interested me. I even hated the word "playmate". I wanted more out of life. I wanted to be respected by my peers, and be talked about, without indulging in any of those frivolous pastimes. That moment, though, was never-coming. It couldn't have been so far.
Realizing my yearning, my mother always said, "It's around the corner. Wink, and you're a dashing young man. You just wait and see." I winked and winked and winked. I wanted to grow up and do the things that grown ups do. One day I found a half burnt cigarette in an ashtray after one of my father's guests had left. As he was walking his guest to the door, I sneaked in the room and picked up the butt from the filthy dish. I had learned to be sneaky around my father because he was simply too honest. Anyway, I went down the basement, set to smoke my treasure, scared to death that he might find me, yet thrilled to the bones about doing something behind his back. I even opened the small basement window to let the smoke out; to minimize the risk involved. And . . . I struck the match. After a couple of puffs and coughs I felt dizzy and started to vomit. I ran upstairs and threw up in the bathroom. My mother came in and asked me what was wrong, and I said I felt sick.
Hardly thirteen, I had already done two things that grown ups did with ease: I had smoked and I had lied. I was on my way, I knew it. After that I enjoyed my cigarettes for the dizziness they induced in me and for the way they felt in my pocket; they completed my adolescence by giving me a sense of adulthood. Shortly after that event, I began smoking regularly. I smoked one or two cigarettes a day and was proud of myself. A cigarette was one of the few items of Americana I could readily get my hands on. I inhaled with relish, and showed off in front of my friends, exhaling perfect loops of smoke; flicked the ashes just so, Ah! Sometimes I emitted the smoke through my nose. I knew a guy who could let it out through his eyes, even. The marvelous thing about smoking was that there were no rules: you did whatever your imagination conceived. I'd been known, for example, to have mixed tobacco with tea and coffee, which induces (if anyone cares to know) nothing but a headache. Of course, you couldn't be as outrageously inventive as the guy who once tried to inhale the smoke through his nose and almost killed himself, but if you stayed within reason, you could spin a few heads.
I carried my pack in my socks, in my belt, within the folds of my rolled sleeves. I held the cigarette between my fingers à la Bogart, and practiced holding conversations with imaginary adults who in turn would be respectfully nodding at me. Owning my first pack of cigarettes in my hand was the single most enthralling experience of my childhood; it captured all the meaning of adulthood for me. That was me at my best. An adult. I was given to the notion that eighteen was the age at which many vague possibilities became realities. In the meantime, I practiced to death for the coming of that wondrous moment when I would be pronounced an adult. One day I left the house for the store to buy batteries for my flashlight, but I didn't tell my mother where I was going. I was fourteen. I figured since I was halfway an adult already, I could take my chances. When I got back, my father gave me such a good beating it still hurts remembering. Then I realized I had better wait. Eighteen was the age transfiguration would take place, I repeated to myself. I would go to bed on the night of my birthday, and the next day, slap bang, I would be an adult. I would greet my father at breakfast, look him in the eye and say, "What a pleasant morning, isn't it?"
He was a strict father, and a faithful husband to my mother. He wasn't one of those pick and choose Moslems you used to meet everyday, no ma'am. In all sixty, seventy years of his life on earth he never skipped his fasting, or missed a prayer except once. That was when he was taken away after I was born. The beating they gave him was so severe, he spent the next two days in a coma, and when he regained consciousness, he couldn't remember whether he was a Moslem or a pagan. For a week he attended his prayers sitting on his butt, because the soles of his feet were swollen and achy, discharging a pink, milky fluid. Other than that though, he performed his ritual ablutions with the pulsing of the sun; the moon flowed into his prayers. The muezzin took his cue from my father performing his ablutions. Twice he went on pilgrimage to Mecca, and hence became a double Haji. That was my mother's pet name for him, especially when they were frolicking. They hardly noticed me noticing them, but I was aware what was going on.
One of our teachers had told us about the mysteries of life by revealing the fact that we, all of us, were each made of a single drop of water. Not water, but a water-like liquid that had found its way into our mothers. A kid sitting behind me got pissed at the news and complained to the principal. Anyway, that day I went home and found them both red as a beet; he was in a doe-eyed mood. They had a good relationship, I think. My mother was afraid of him like a dog, because he kicked the shit out of her when she didn't listen to him. I hardly recall him taking advantage of his position as the man of the house, as long as my mother let him have his way.
After his time in jail, my father got a job with the Health Organization, but that didn't stop his poor health. What did a huge government bureaucracy care about a petty accountant who would never get anywhere? Unless he would push to the side his moral principles and get busy with the under-the-table business, there was no hope. However, that was a strict "no" in his book. Sure he used to complain about his job, but not to us, to his friends. I know he did, because I eavesdropped on him a few times when his friends were at the house. Although they would lock themselves in the guest-room, I could hear everything. I knew what went on in those meetings. They fancied themselves so slick, yet I could hear every word they said. Until I got caught and he beat the shit out of me.
I didn't eavesdrop anymore after that, because then I had formed my own little group of slickies. My group didn't waste its time frequenting trendy places such as the Amir-Kabir Bookstore at the Istanbul Intersection, where intellectual icons like Saeed Nafisi and Taqizadeh used to buy their books. We didn't read novels and short stories either, or the poetry that was so much in vogue in the sixties. History and sociology books were also misleading and out of touch. We considered them all tainted with alien ideas, infected by unknown germs. So what did we do? Where was the wellspring of our ideas? What inspired us? I'm proud to say that we went right to the source: The Holy Book, first, and then the juicy stuff like the literature of "Westoxication". First and foremost was the eminent writer who coined that phrase, Jalal Al-e Ahmad, although by today's standard even he is passé. In the turbulent seventies we did Ali Shariati. We didn't read many of Western writers, but I had heard of Camus and Sartre and Hemingway. But for the most part, forget the Americans, they were the enemy. Somehow after the assassination of their president, they had gone wild. Drugs and crazy music poisoned their youth and they started screwing each other like bunny rabbits.
We wanted pure thought that bubbled out of our own, grown in our own backyard. What did the West know, anyway? Wasn't Dostoevsky the fellow who said our Prophet, may peace be upon his soul, was an epileptic? My father taught me many other things, mostly by beating the shit out of me. This was so mainly because I didn't listen to him very well when growing up. Not the way a loyal son should, as it's documented in the hadith. I'll never forget the time when I saved up all my allowances to buy a Nehru Jacket. It was something that I had always wanted in high school. Understand, it was a hip thing back then, just like the sheepskin coats were a few years before that. So I come home in this somewhat tight Nehru Jacket, light blue with black buttons, all done up to my neck, and I'm what, fifteen or sixteen, expecting to conquer any objections with firmness, and he, without even taking his head out of the newspaper, says: "You'll return that faggot coat first thing tomorrow." I go, "Why? I bought it with my own money." And he says, "Your money? Since you have so much money, why don't you start paying for your food and lodging?" Of course, he knew that I had no money to pay, and he didn't expect me to either. He was just making a point. Had I resisted him, though, or come up with a smart answer, he would've gotten up from his seat and made me see his point in a manner most unsuitable to my almost adult ass. So it was a trade off. Either I had to get rid of the jacket or he would tear it off my back.
This may come as a shock, but I personally approve of his method. I wouldn't be where I am today, had he not kicked the shit out of me with or without reason. Had he been any softer on me or more complacent concerning the principles of child-rearing, I do not believe I would have made it to the Komiteh -- which is regarded as a solid pillar of the revolutionary forces. Perhaps, I wouldn't even have found my way to the glorious Imam, the passionate leader of the revolutionary forces. It's all thanks to him, my father, may his soul lay with naked, crystalline houris in paradise . . . Excuse me, I get teary when I think about my baba. I loved him so much. And now I must go and say my prayers... It was nice talking to you. Hopefully, I will see you again, Insha-Allah... in Jerusalem.
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