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My Iranian Cousin and I ' Try to Have Hope'

New America Media, Commentary, Persis M. Karim Posted: Jun 26, 2009

Editor's Note: Iranian-American writer Persis M. Karim watches events unfolding in Iran and recalls many other points in her life when Iran's political upheavals were an inescapable reality for her family here and there.

Since I was a senior in high school in the United States, Iran and its upheavals have been a part of my conscience.

In the early days of the 1979 revolution, my cousin from Iran was living with us to complete two years at a Bay Area high school. In the midst of the revolution, he decided to return home to witness the overthrow of the Shah. In my senior year of high school, I watched the hostage crisis unfold on TV, and experienced conflicted feelings about nationalism and divided loyalties.

In those early, terrible days of the hostage crisis, I witnessed the first hostile and racist commentaries directed against my heritage, and in some cases, my family. My father began telling people he was a Greek. I watched as Iran became embroiled in war and learned through letters from my uncle and cousins about the bombing of cities by Saddams airforce, and that the cousin who lived with us for two years was drafted into the war.

In 1980, another 16-year-old cousin was arrested while protesting the passage of a law requiring women to wear the veil. She spent four years in jail. Another cousin, picked up in those dark days, was taken to another prison.

I was acutely aware as a young U.S. college student that rebellion was a necessary and acceptable part of my maturation and self-identity. Elsewhere, rebellion had a cost. The revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, the mass arrests and the brutal executions of thousands of young people, dissidents, and protestors by the new Islamic Republic had a profound impact on me. I nearly turned away from the chorus of negative images and ugly stereotypes, but instead, I turned toward them. I wanted to understand them.

I have been trying ever since to make sense of, and peace with, both countries and cultures I am of. As an editor of two books of Iranian-American literature, Ive been called to explain a country and a government that is not my own, but for which I do feel a familial connection. Like many Iranian-Americans, my ties to Iran are not based on nationalism but on a compelling and strong culture and a history of democratic aspirations, which were passed to me through my immigrant parents. I hope for greater connection between Iran and the United States.

Iran is a country that has been deeply embroiled in a political process to make a democratic society, particularly since the 1905 Constitutional Revolution. The process has too often been interrupted and undermined by undemocratic forces both foreign and domestic. Iranians will never forget the 1953 violent coup, instigated by the United States and Britain, of democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. The June 2009 protests of the fraudulent elections will also never be forgotten. They represent the latest democratic moment and movement, led by people and not political leaders, to be put down by brutal and violent means.

A month ago, I called my cousin to discuss the June 12 election. She said she would not vote for the lesser of the four evils (the candidates approved for the election by the Guardian Council). But she thought for certain that Mir Hossein Mousavi would win. (Mousavi was the first prime minister under the newly established Islamic Republic and had a direct hand in the mass arrests and executions during the early 1980s).

She told me people were tired of Ahmadinejad, tired of inflation and unemployment, tired of the rhetoric that alienated Iran from the world, and mostly tired of living under a yoke of repression that was unnatural for a population so dominated by young, cosmopolitan people with dreams and aspirations for change.

I called again 10 days after the election. She said she was sad, that there was a mournful and anxious energy hanging over the country. The security forces were out in full strength, the Basiji militia exacting indiscriminant and brutal violence on people on the street. She felt uncertain about the future. She said she will never forget those beautiful days when hundreds of thousands of people silently and peacefully walked elbow-to-elbow in the streets calling for their rights. She described the sea of people as beautiful, loving, exchanging smiles and sweets, certain that their place in history, that the righteousness of their moment, would guide them. They were professors and students, and educated people letting the movement carry them, their aspirations.

Yes, I try to have hope, she told me on the telephone. But I know that we live in a country that is divided. On one side, you have young people, educated people, people eager to be in contact with the world, and on the other, people who are close-minded and afraid, people who listen to what that guy (a loose reference to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei) says and replay it like a tape-recorded message, afraid that his way is the only way. My cousin reassures me that things will change little by little perhaps. She also assures me that Iranians are a peaceful people. They do not want war, dont want intervention, dont want to destroy their country from the inside out.

Like my cousin, I try to have hope. I see this as one event in a continuum of democratic moments that have defined Irans 20th and 21st century history. It is an example to me as an American, too. Like her, I dont want to forget those hopeful days and the throngs of human faces that make Iran more than a country in tumult; that make its brave and determined people a mirror of our humanity.

Persis M. Karim is a professor of English and comparative literature at San Jose State University and editor and contributing poet of Let Me Tell You Where Ive Been: New Writing by Women of the Iranian Diaspora (2006). She is also co-editor of A World Between: Poems, Short Stories and Essays by Iranian Americans, (1999). She lives in Berkeley, Calif.

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