THE BLOG

Iran As We Knew It

Sodade is a word for which there is no meaning for in the English language. I first came upon it when I heard the beautiful song with that title sung by Cesario Evora. I remember walking into a store in Venice, California, maybe 16 years ago and instantly suppressing tears as I heard her crooning those words: "sodade, sodade." Without knowing the literal translation I could feel the longing and haunting meaning. Wikipedia describes sodade or saudade as a "vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist... a turning towards the past or towards the future". A stronger form of saudade may be felt towards people and things whose whereabouts are unknown, or a family member who has gone missing. It may also be translated as a deep longing or yearning for something, which does not exist or is unattainable. Saudade is the recollection of feelings, experiences, places or events that once brought excitement, pleasure, well-being, which now trigger the senses and make one live again. It can be described as an emptiness." This is the same feeling I think Chekhov evoked with his plays. In Three Sisters they are trying so hard to get back to "Moscow," not unlike the Iranians of my generation idealizing the Iran they knew.

The Tehran I remember was not a polluted, oppressed nation, but a beautiful landscape nestled by the Alborz mountains, where the scent of the rose gardens would drift along with the breeze. The Iran I remember like I remember a lost lover, was a place where we rode our horses in the autumn, and where I would sit on the laps of beggars in the bazaars. The land where we could hike up to the flowing rivers in the spring and in the winter trek up in the snow with our flasks of Russian vodka to sip along the way for warmth. The Iran I remember or have sodade for is wild with history and rich with the generosity of its people. Although now I am old enough to know the corrupt nature of Iran's monarchy, I was still raised with the fairy-tale image of the beautiful Queen Farah and her little princes and princesses. This is perhaps the longing Ali Reza, the Shah's youngest son, may have been afflicted with. His suicide last week was devastating to all of us Iranians. He was found with a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his apartment in Boston. Apparently he never got over his younger sister's suicide a few years ago.

I have carried this sodade in my being since being a young girl. This may be a byproduct of being an immigrant, a refugee. We escaped Iran in 1979 right after the fall and exile of the Shah Reza Pahlavi. I was 10 years old, and the escape was rather traumatic since we literally left with only the clothes on our back, and then were caught as our plane tried to make it across the border to Turkey. The plane was forced to land when a military jet fired at us in the sky, and then we were held prisoners in the plane surrounded by a swarm of machine guns and military tanks. This was at the moment the Shah had fled and the country was in complete chaos. This was the small window in time where the ruling government has been overthrown and the new regime has yet to take their place. After long hours of negotiating, my father, Parviz Gharib-Afshar, a respected entertainer often described as the Johnny Carson of Iran, managed to miraculously get us back to Tehran. Once back in the capital, we had to negotiate or bribe our way out again. Finally, after several grueling days where I witnessed my father's jet-black hair literally turn gray from the stress, we made it to Germany. There we were stranded since there we ran out of fuel, and it was an unchartered commercial airplane. The captain of our plane, a British Airway pilot trying to get his English crew home with us, being the only passengers aboard, finally charged the gas on his American Express card. We finally landed in London where we were greeted with reporters, since the escape was now deemed a dangerous yet successful mission.

My mother is American, and yet when we finally settled in Los Angeles I couldn't shake the feeling of being a refugee, an immigrant, a "terrorist," an interloper, a stranger. The hostage situation was at its zenith, and being an Iranian was probably worse then being a fan of disco. I feel for my generation of Iranians, the ones who were uprooted and displaced, there is constant longing and yearning for the land we took our first steps on. It is a feeling that transcends class or money. It is a groundlessness that orphans must feel.

I see the second and third generations of Iranian-Americans thriving here, and as we celebrate their assimilation. I think the ones who were uprooted know full well the cost of this. My father has always been political in the sense of speaking out against injustice of any kind. This speaking out has had its price as well. His television show is now being attacked by the regime in Iran. They are accusing him of being a Satanist, and although he laughs in the face of crisis, I can see it taking a bit of a toll on him. He likes to quote Frank Sinatra in times like this -- "I did it my way... " -- as he struggles to keep his livelihood and reputation afloat.

I pray for Farah who still reigns as a Queen in my mind's eye. She is not unlike the Romanovs who escaped Russia in the last turn of the century. I still yearn for "My Moscow" as Irina does in The Three Sisters. We all carry such a heavy blanket of Sodade with us and yet when we do have glimpses of joy it is all the more poignant since we know the price of freedom.