VOX Back to where I came from

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - SAM DAST­YARI

Ali is hold­ing my hand in pub­lic. I’m a lit­tle un­sure how to deal with it. It started in­nocu­ously enough. A gen­tle pres­sure on my fin­gers as we were cross­ing the street. I thought he was just guid­ing me through the on­com­ing traf­fic. Then, as we were walk­ing down the boule­vard, it es­ca­lated. His hand was swal­low­ing mine. It was the con­fi­dence of a man used to hold­ing the hands of others. He had al­ready given me three kisses when he saw me (frankly, two more than I think is ever ap­pro­pri­ate). And there on the boule­vard he took the op­por­tu­nity to tell me that he loved me. That he missed me.

Ali is my cousin. He and I grew up in the same small north­ern Ira­nian town of Sari. We grew up around the same com­mu­nal fam­ily home, a home to our fam­ily for more than 200 years. A home with a court­yard in the cen­tre, as was the Ira­nian tra­di­tion of generations past. Whole fam­i­lies oc­cu­pied sin­gle rooms. It was where my par­ents came for refuge fol­low­ing the Is­lamic Revo­lu­tion, when Tehran be­came too dan­ger­ous.

This was the house from which, on 11 Jan­uary 1988, my sis­ter and I stepped into a car with my par­ents and left for Aus­tralia. No one ex­pected us ever to re­turn. We left a day af­ter my un­cle’s wed­ding, which is where my story and Ali’s di­verged. I left and he stayed. One de­ci­sion, one choice, made by others, and we were a world apart. I have come back for the wed­ding of a cousin. The son of the same un­cle whose wed­ding we at­tended the night be­fore we fled.

“You haven’t come back for decades? I see you on the Face­book. I even see you on the in­ter­na­tional Per­sian news out of Lon­don … but we never see you here.” Ali’s words hurt me. I want to ar­gue with him. I want to counter that I re­nounced my Ira­nian ci­ti­zen­ship and that Iran takes huge is­sue with that. That I did so with­out hav­ing any in­ten­tion of con­duct­ing my mil­i­tary ser­vice, which made re­turn­ing to Iran dif­fi­cult. I want to tell him that it’s com­plete mad­ness for me to come back to Iran. That while the Ira­nian am­bas­sador in Can­berra gave me great sup­port to visit, the words from Iran’s Aus­tralian em­bassy kept ring­ing in my mind: “Re­mem­ber … this is their coun­try and they set the rules.” That be­ing an Ira­nian-born “for­eigner” with a tourist visa is fraught with the dan­ger of be­ing ar­rested at the air­port if they change their mind. That ev­ery of­fi­cial’s as­sur­ance, prom­ise and com­mit­ment is mean­ing­less if a 21-year-old zealot car­ry­ing a badge doesn’t like you, and ar­rests you on trumped-up charges. I could have said that as a pub­lic fig­ure it’s not easy to come back, when you have cut ties with Iran and ev­ery state­ment, ev­ery com­ment, ev­ery word you’ve ever ut­tered in crit­i­cism of Iran can be used against you.

But I don’t say any­thing. I am back in this coun­try for 48 hours. Forty-eight hours to go to my an­ces­tral home, col­lect footage for a doc­u­men­tary, at­tend my cousin’s wed­ding and try to make sure I’m not ar­rested. Two days is all I am pre­pared to risk on a gam­ble that prob­a­bly never made sense in the first place.

There’s noth­ing sub­tle about the “Is­lamic” in the Is­lamic Repub­lic of Iran. Its in­flu­ence is in the 4.20 am call to prayer that rings through the towns. It is in the word “Al­lah” in the mid­dle of the Ira­nian flags dis­played on ev­ery street, and in the gi­ant bill­boards of the two supreme lead­ers: Ay­a­tol­lah Khamenei and his de­ceased pre­de­ces­sor, Ay­a­tol­lah Khome­ini. It’s in the posters, all of them new, of the mar­tyrs who have sac­ri­ficed their lives in Syria to prop up the As­sad regime, and in the sea of scarves on the women in the street.

But un­der the flags are throngs of Ira­nian youth, the post-revo­lu­tion gen­er­a­tion, us­ing their mo­bile phones to ar­range dates and par­ties. Many of the girls’ scarves re­sem­ble colour­ful head­bands and are barely func­tional as head cover. They bal­ance pre­car­i­ously on elab­o­rate hair­styles. Un­der the scarves is make-up: bright red lips and dark lined eyes. The boys’ hair­styles would not be out of place in the most hip­ster sub­urbs in Aus­tralia. The solem­nity of the im­ages on the walls is not re­flected in the laugh­ter I see in front of me. It might be il­le­gal but it’s eas­ier to get a latenight drink in Tehran than in Ge­orge Street, Syd­ney. The arts scene is pow­er­ful and provoca­tive. The young peo­ple I meet are pro­gres­sive, en­er­getic and thought­ful. I don’t un­der­stand how these two worlds can co­ex­ist. This place that was once my home is beyond my com­pre­hen­sion and I have never felt more lost.

Our old house sits empty. Fall­ing apart. Generations of his­tory, fam­ily feuds, laugh­ter and tears are all but a dis­tant mem­ory. The pave­ment where my great-grand­fa­ther and his friends played is bro­ken. The court­yard that saw hun­dreds of years of chil­dren play­ing is now over­grown with wild pump­kins. “Pump­kins!” my mother says. “There were no pump­kins when we were kids.” No one can re­mem­ber if some­one planted them or they just grew from dis­carded seeds. The chil­dren did not need a refuge any­more and did not want to live in sin­gle rooms. They moved on. Ali tells me an old Ira­nian say­ing: “A house knows when it is empty.” Last year my great-aun­tie, the last of a gen­er­a­tion, died in that house. In the room be­side the one I used to play in.

Every­one who comes to Aus­tralia gives up some­thing. Some more than others. What they don’t tell you is that cul­tures evolve and leave you be­hind: in di­as­pora, you’re hold­ing on to an im­age that is out­dated and out of sync with the place you have left. When you leave you stop be­long­ing, and if you are not ac­cepted in your new home you are not ac­cepted any­where. We rarely talk about the mourn­ing for a home that never was and never would be but that haunts the imag­i­na­tion of those who have adopted a new place. We don’t talk about the fad­ing mem­o­ries and the grow­ing dis­tance.

It isn’t easy for those Aus­tralians who are ac­com­mo­dat­ing so much change to their so­ci­ety, even if that change even­tu­ally will make things bet­ter. It also isn’t easy for those who take the plunge, who leave their lives to come to Aus­tralia – even though they are des­per­ate to do so.

A week be­fore I came to Iran, I stood and spoke at a ci­ti­zen­ship rally to those who were ready to be­come Aus­tralian but had had their ap­pli­ca­tions frozen by a gov­ern­ment bureau­cratic de­ci­sion. I didn’t quite ap­pre­ci­ate then what it meant for those peo­ple to have their right to be­come Aus­tralian de­nied. How much of their iden­tity and sense of self they had in­vested in be­com­ing Aus­tralian. I never had to make that de­ci­sion for my­self. It was made for me. But to­day, sit­ting in an Ira­nian street, I un­der­stand bet­ter. I ap­pre­ci­ate the cru­elty of hav­ing the goal­posts changed on peo­ple try­ing to build a new life. To be a vic­tim of pow­ers play­ing pol­i­tics.

They had ap­plied. They had met their re­quire­ments. They were ready to be­come Aus­tralian but are now in limbo.

Even when you des­per­ately want to be Aus­tralian, giv­ing up on your past is never free. I ask Ali why he stayed in Iran and he coun­ters by ask­ing why I left. He knows why; he is just be­ing de­fen­sive. We left be­cause Iran wasn’t safe for my par­ents. I know he stayed be­cause he had nowhere to go. Ev­ery­thing was here and there was noth­ing for him in the West. But he isn’t re­ally ask­ing why. He is ask­ing if I for­got about all of them. I can’t ar­gue that. I did. And I hate that about my­self.

There are mo­ments in life that de­fine you. For me it will al­ways be get­ting off the plane in Aus­tralia. My story, ev­ery time, starts with how I came to Aus­tralia with “a small sum of money and a suit­case full of dreams”. That isn’t the whole story. It never is for any mi­grant. There is al­ways a story be­fore that. A story of a house in a street. A fam­ily. Fear. Love.

There was a life for me in Iran that I left. It wasn’t a bet­ter life, as it would not have had my wife, He­len, and my two daugh­ters in it. It would not have had me be­ing elected to par­lia­ment. It would have had my par­ents’ strug­gle against a regime. It wouldn’t have been as for­tu­nate, no mat­ter how you choose to mea­sure for­tune. But it would have been a life. So I’m care­ful not to judge the lives of others. Even if that other per­son is an al­ter­na­tive me.

And so I stand in the mid­dle of a busy Ira­nian street, in a small town, that was once my town, and I cry. Be­cause I know I don’t be­long here any­more. I could only be­long if I’d stayed – and I left. I cry for a life that would have been hard, but would still have been my life, and my story. Ali un­der­stands, but he doesn’t know what to do or say. So he holds my hand.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.