Life, War, and Everything Else

By Roksana Bahramitash

Long ago, I took refuge from a war and settled in the unceded land of Kanien’kehá:ka Nation.
I now live in Tiohtià:ke, known as Montreal,

and at times feel like I am an accomplice by default,

with the white European settlers.


I left Iran,
a country,
where the sunflowers of my childhood garden salute the sun,
   and start the day.
   I used to watch sun salutation at dawn,
                                                  from the mountaintop of the Alborz in north Tehran,
                                                       where one is witness to light gently spreading over a city,
almost deserted,
  in those days before I left Iran.

War has a morbid odour,
and even at the top of the highest mountain,
      one can breath it,
            like an ominous smoky haze.

Images, from a city under missile attacks lingers on,
      stomach turning,
Women, children, the elderly, and anyone who could pick up their lives and leave,
had left.
Chemical bombs,
  Who could have given Saddam Hussein chemical bombs?
A picture says it all,
A handshake between Saddam Hussein and Donald Rumsfeld,
The world seemed untroubled by the use of weapons of mass destruction
            Iranian death.
                  Some lives do not matter.


More than a decade passes. It is 2013.

Once again, I face another war.

I have already left Iran and finished a Ph.D. at McGill. I am in Cairo for postdoctoral research at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute. Cairo is a city filled with the vividness of my childhood memories. A city with many whispering stories. These whisperings intertwine the city’s history, architecture and the sounds of chatter inside its packed tea houses. The city invites my soul to play lost and found in the busy streets of old Cairo.

In a hotel close to Tahrir square, an American woman working for the Pentagon, tells me:
    ”They have already landed thousands of Marines in Shamal Sheik.”
“But really, what is this at the UN they are talking about? Getting rid of weapons of mass destruction is just a threat, right? They are not actually going to invade, are they?” I said to her naively. I wanted to believe that the Americans intended to resolve the situation through diplomacy.
    ”No, it is not a threat, it is real. They are getting ready to invade Iraq.”

It is New Years Eve, 2003. We are two lonely women who have bought a dinner cruise on the Nile. Here, one could perhaps forget the world. The table is laden with food, turkey, cranberry sauce, and gravy, alongside dolmah and tzatziki. Live music, belly dancing, singing. It is a surreal world, floating over the Nile. I almost want to believe the illusion. I want to believe that the Americans, through the UN, are only after Saddam Hussein’s stockpile of weapons of mass destruction and they will not wage a war.

A month later, during a walk in Old Cairo I find myself in front of TV sets behind an electronics store window. On the TV screens Colin Powell shows a tiny bottle – half filled with something that looks like white powder– to the UN security Council. A representation, supposedly, of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction.
    ”Facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence,” he says.

The Americans are here to invade, I mutter to myself, they must know Saddam Hussein has used chemical bombs on us, on Iranians living on the Western border and the Kurdish province. Surely the US provided exactly how much was needed to kill Iranians. I am on fire. I turn away. I can not watch such a blatant lie to the world.

The only choice is to become part of the collective recognition and denial. The store next door has a poster: Bush is embracing Condoleezza Rice with Colin Powell by his side. Like Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind with the American Civil War in the backdrop. As if all three of them dressed up in Hollywood costumes, and under the poster in bold black letters, it says:


Old Cairo, bustling pedestrians, and busy tea houses with shisha smoke fogging the air. Life as usual.


Cairo brought memories of my father.

He had worked with the American army in Iran. “The Shah brought order; the Shah built Iran,” he used to say.

He loved the Shah. He went to military schools with him and never thought of him as anything but a saviour. I still have a picture of my father, young, before I was born, in 1953 sitting on a tank with a victorious smile in that doomed year. He was sitting with men from the mobs holding sticks. My father is holding a gun.

My father really loved the Shah. Did he not know that the British, who wanted to continue to take our oil for free with the help of the CIA, had staged a coup and had paid the mobs to reinstall the Shah over a prime minister elected by the people?

Many decades later, after the Revolution of 1979, I saw my father in the hospital, pale, unconscious, eyes closed being fed intravenously. My heart sank. He had been beaten by the outraged revolutionaries for his support of the Shah.

Regardless of what he might say or think, history had spoken. The Shah had been overthrown. My father’s beloved king had fled from the country.
    ”Baba, why did you fight against history?” I wanted to ask my father. But I know what he would say to me.
    ”Revolution, what Revolution! We had the best leader, we had the best order.”

In silence and grief, I wanted to ask him, “Why did you not know that participating in a coup engineered by the British and American forces would come to haunt you?”

Immediately after the revolution, he had told me about a letter he had written to the exiled Shah.
                                    Dear Shah, I am a loyal member of your military… I will fight until the last bullet of my gun, as long as I have breath.

I want to scream and ask him, how could you, Baba, support a coup against the people’s elected prime minister? How could you? Did you not know that one day, it would take you away from this world?

Whatever you say Baba, you will always be deeply loved in my heart. You will always be with me.

One’s childhood memories, and the place you are born stay with you forever.

In the hospital bed, I saw a frail man. Millions of images ran through my head. My baba dancing the Lesginak with me. He was my first dance teacher and partner. I can be angry, sad, or both but nothing erases the memory of my first dance partner.

Much of my family has been lost in wars and revolutions. They are all in the tapestries that are hanging in every corner of my heart.

Every image, every picture is framed in little alleys of my memory, and heavily I carry them.
These images are frozen,
        Nothing will melt their ice.


Here in my new home, naively I thought I had fled from war, loss and death.

But no.

People of European origin who migrated to North America did not just wage wars miles and miles away. They also massacred the inhabitants of the lands they now call their country.

I am haunted by the indigenous people who have died fighting for their homelands,
And those who continue to struggle for survival under colonial occupation..

Wandering souls, whispering sorrows, and silenced screams in the deep darkness,
When we are supposed to be asleep.
   I hear them,
I walk with them in the deep darkness of sleepless nights.

As they cry for the loss of their homeland,
   I long for my father, lezginka, the view from Alborz, the highest mountain in Iran
With feverish body I wake up to witness that there is no father, no lezginka and this is not where I can see Alborz.

I have fled to a new land marked by genocide,
I keep hearing whispers of my story,
During the long hours of sleepless nights,
      Stories of displacement, of longing, of war, of killing,
And the sound of crickets breaks the silence.
Will I ever belong to a land brutally taken from its people?
      Or will be a wandering soul,
         Who will eternally long for belonging?

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