Translated from Persian by Salar Abdoh
The bus line that extends from the Tehran Rail Terminus in the south of the city, to the Tajrish Bazaar in the north, is by far the most crowded route in the capital. Good luck trying to nab a seat. Today I’m standing next to two older women who hug the railings for dear life as the driver burns rubber, James Bond-style, through the impossible traffic.
“If it weren’t for those fresh leeks in Tajrish, I’d never take this bus,” one matter-of-factly says to the other, her gaunt, elegant face displaying not a hint of anger.
Her friend is not as forbearing. She gestures in the direction of the young woman occupying a choice seat next to where I stand. “Would you look at that sign on the window! They could plaster the entire bus with notices: SEATS RESERVED FOR THE ELDERLY. And still they pretend not to see it. These kids could be our grandchildren, but we’re completely invisible to them.”
The young woman is busy with her mobile phone. Her screen directly in my line of vision, I cannot help but stare into it. She’s submerged in WhatsApp, furiously hitting the letters of the Persian alphabet: “You’re online, but you won’t answer me!” Her hijab has slipped down over her shoulders, hair a mix of blue and green, like the mosaics you see in Isfahan. Planted in the corners of her eyebrows are metallic rings that lend her a look both tough and saintly. She can’t be a day over 20 and no doubt has not heard a word of what the two women are saying.
The calmer lady offers, “Look, these young ones won’t get up for us because they don’t like us. And they don’t like us because we brought them the Iranian Revolution. It was us who ruined their lives.” She catches my eye and nods. “Am I wrong?”
I point to my mouth to make her understand I am unable to open it. For over a week now, the right side of my jaw has been in acute pain. My gums have reacted badly to the dentist’s painkiller. He’s attributed this to the Chinese-made anesthetic, a poor replacement for the European ones that disappeared from the market due to American sanctions. The answer to why I’m suffering could be the very one this woman wants to hear—we’re in the mess we’re in because of a revolution from four decades ago, a revolution that these older women practically dumped on us.
But what exactly did they dump on us?
As a journalist, I have to search for answers from the generation that came after me, the generation of that young woman typing away on her mobile and not paying heed to whose rightful seat she is occupying.
Mohsen, who occasionally translated English-language articles for the Tehran-based film journal, 24, when I was its senior editor, agrees to meet me at a café in the heart of the city. By the time I get there, he’s already spread himself comfortably, working away with every one of his gadgets—a mobile phone, a laptop, a tablet, and an Apple watch. The last thing he looks like is somebody waiting for someone else to arrive. I joke that he seems pretty busy and maybe I should come back another time. He laughs easily and says he’s a workaholic.
“Ever since my wife, Sara, left Iran and I got stuck here, my work habits have gotten more and more exaggerated.”
Mohsen is 26. He studied media and communications at the University of Tehran. Later, he also studied film. He’s a film junkie by his own admission, but works as a creative director for a marketing company. He met his wife freshman year of college, and four years ago they were married. Soon after, Sara won the coveted Diversity Immigrant Visa (the Green Card lottery). This is a lottery meant to diversify the American population by allowing 50,000 people each year from countries with low numbers of immigrants into the US. In 2018 alone, 23.1 million people applied for the lottery. Once you win, you and your spouse and any children under the age of 21 have six months to come to the US. But in Sara’s and Mohsen’s case there was a hitch. Mohsen still had his compulsory military service to complete. They decided Sara would go to the US and Mohsen would join as soon as he could. As luck would have it, he discovered that his father’s status as a wounded veteran of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war allowed him an exemption from military service. He took it, just after Donald Trump was elected president. But then, Mohsen became one of the first victims of the travel ban on Iranians.
Mohsen sizes up the Margherita pizza placed in front of him. He has a pact with Sara. No matter where they happen to be on Friday evenings, each has to order a Margherita pizza—to honor their love of each other and, he adds, “the great American film director, Martin Scorsese.”
He takes a bite. “You know, if the American embassy in Ankara had only given me an appointment three weeks earlier, I’d be with Sara right now. Imagine, just three weeks! But now two years have passed; Sara lives in a state called Indiana and Mohsen is sitting here in front of you.”
To change the mood a little, I ask him how he likes his pizza.
“Perfect. Couldn’t be better. To tell you the truth, I chose this place because I have a memory I want to share. Something that happened around the corner from here on Nilufar Square.”
Rather than sharing the memory, however, he first segues into an explanation of his family. “My parents believe in simple stuff like prayer and fasting during Ramadan. Beyond that, they are easygoing and don’t try to impose their ways on others.”
He says he discovered Scorsese on a late afternoon during holy Ramadan, when he was 16. After breaking the ritual day-long fast, Mohsen returned to his room to secretly watch Taxi Driver. He had no idea what the film was about. He’d only read it had something to do with a man wanting to clean up his town. “Watching Taxi Driver was like someone had clobbered me on the head.” For years he hid his secret film life from his parents. “They wouldn’t have understood. Their young son spending hours every day watching American and European films. It just didn’t flow, not with a dad who was a veteran and a mom whose hijab never came off.”
Still, this same father was a college-educated man who loved photography and the works of the late leftist writer, Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi, and Mohsen’s mother had a graduate degree in religion and mysticism. Her daily reading included the Quran, the Bible, and the Talmud in equal measures.
“Mohsen, you are the sum of all the contradictions of a country called Iran.”
“This is what I’m getting at. During the 2009 Green Movement, my old man had to come right here to the police station next to Nilufar Square to get my mother out. Can you imagine—my then 49-year-old mother, with her hijab like an iron curtain, arrested for joining the demonstrators! When my dad and I got there, she was yelling at the police, ‘You’ll have to answer to God one day for this. You’ll have to answer for everything!’”
Mohsen sighs. Both of us are reliving a moment in Iranian history where so many things could have been different. And maybe if they had been, the two of us would not be having this conversation. The Green Movement, a decade ago now, was when millions poured into the streets demanding that their votes be counted. They wanted freedom of expression and economic opportunity. The feeling in the air was electric and hardly anyone was not somehow affected by what was happening.
“It was the year I’d just been accepted to the university. I’d caught sight of Sara that first time in the music and theater department. Guess what she was doing? Putting up a poster of Jim Morrison on the wall. Such wild days!” He says that in the student dorms, if someone said they were “heading down,” everyone knew what that meant. They were on their way to the demonstrations and no one knew if they’d be seen again.
“But my mom had drawn a red line for me and my brother. Under no circumstances were we to join a demonstration. When we asked her why, she just said, ‘We, your parents, made a revolution back then. We did this to you. We are the ones who are responsible for fixing it.’”
Not only was the year of the demonstrations one of reckoning, it was also the year that, for the first and last time, I imagined Iran was no longer a country I wanted to live in.
I was a woman in her mid-thirties, a journalist, with a deep love of my country. The thought of emigrating elsewhere was like having a limb cut off. After a while, the all-encompassing pain turned into numbness and, by turns, despair. I had begun preliminary moves to emigrate—taking language exams, filling applications, applying for visas. It looked promising; I was among the few some European country would likely accept. This brought no joy, just the sadness that comes from losing something as quintessential as a homeland. It also brought a recurring nightmare, that always included ambulances with their doors left wide open in front of the University of Tehran, where I had attended college.
Then that fateful time in December 2009 arrived—Ashura, the most important of holy days for Shia Muslims. The crowds of demonstrators I’d joined kept getting larger and larger. We were, to the last man and woman, breathless, chanting at the top of our voices, when rocks the size of bricks started raining down on us from the Hafez bridge. The demonstration turned into a stampede. I held my bag over my head and ran across the street, where I stopped cold.
A horde had attacked a fire truck, broken its windows, pulled the hapless driver out, and was beating him mercilessly. Not far away, another furious throng was pummeling a lowly conscript serving his military duty. I was stunned. I could have been any one of these people—the fireman, the soldier, the angry crowd, the people pelting us with rocks. All of them were my flesh and blood. I knew right then I would never leave Iran. The dissatisfaction and shame I felt during those days was not something that could simply be shed, like an article of clothing, by moving away. But rather, this illness—this out-of-control fury that now and then burst onto the surface of our streets and alleys like a collective cancer threatening to annihilate us all—was something I had to confront by staying put. And so I did, hoping against hope that in another four years when we voted again there would be change.
And there was. We elected a president who preferred dialogue with America rather than constant conflict. Before long we had something called the nuclear deal, between Iran, the United States, and five other world powers. There were celebrations on the streets, and sanctions were slowly lifted. Nearly overnight, the economy was jump-started. Hope had returned and the grayness had disappeared.
That is, until the arrival of another change, this time from the direction of the United States. The new American president, Donald Trump, and his cronies did away with the nuclear deal and implemented more sanctions than ever before. He also enacted the travel ban on the citizens of Iran and six other countries, all considered threats to American national security.
Mohsen, like a lot of young people around the world, has a distant love affair with a city he’s never seen, New York. He knows the place inside out. When Sara had decided to travel from Indiana to New York for a concert, Mohsen emailed her with specific directions for shortcuts from her hotel to the venue. When his phone rings, interrupting his story, he points out that its clock is set to New York time before excusing himself and standing. “I apologize, that was Sara calling. I’ll talk to her for a minute if you don’t mind.”
I nod, but can’t let this moment quite pass yet.
“Just a quick question?” I ask, halting him. “Say you were from a country entirely different from Iran. Say Donald Trump had never become the president of the United States. Say everything had gone right for you and Sara until now. Who do you think you’d be today? What kind of a person?”
“A weak man,” he says without an instant’s hesitation.
His mobile had displayed 3 p.m. New York time. That means it’s 11:30 p.m. here in Tehran. For a café to stay open past 11 p.m., a special license is required from the police. Late night jazz plays over the café’s speakers. When the pretty young waitress comes to the table and asks in English, “Last order?” I ask her about the music.
“It’s an online jazz station,” she offers. “And the great thing about it is the government doesn’t filter it.”
When Mohsen returns, his eyes are shining.
I kid with him, “You look like they just gave you the world.”
He laughs. “What Sara and I are going through is a state of total deferral, know what I mean? In the beginning, I imagined Sara would be more vulnerable than me. But slowly I have realized it’s not about who suffers more; it’s about the quality of each individual’s suffering. Imagine me here, in a completely passive role. Before the Americans left the nuclear deal and tightened the sanctions, I was making decent money. Sara’s basic house and food expenses in a place like Indiana were only $1000 a month. I could make that with a two-minute video commercial any time I wanted. But then the currency started its fall. Nowadays I can barely support myself, let alone help Sara. All I can do is get on the phone and tell her how much I love her. There are days we spend hours on FaceTime, even though her day is my night and vice versa. We talk about everything and anything. About all our wasted efforts. We’ve sent countless letters to the American embassy in Ankara. Nothing. Sara even emailed people in her state’s congress. Can you believe—they were Republicans and still took up our cause and followed up on it? But that too has been a dead-end. Two years and this is how we live!”
“And when you’re not on the phone with Sara?”
“There’s a bathrobe Sara bought me,” he laughs. “I hug that bathrobe for dear life sometimes, cry a little bit, and then throw myself back into the world. You know, I can sit here and feel sorry for myself, or I can accept the fact that this is a kind of war that I’m in. The moment you tell yourself, ‘Look at what they have done to me,’ is the moment you’re lost forever. War to me means Mr. Donald Trump. You, yes you, have thrown this huge boulder into the middle of our lives, but we’re not going to be its victims. We have our own show to stage.”
It’s midnight in Tehran. Somehow speaking to Mohsen has energized me. In a way Mohsen is doing the exact same thing that I did, but in reverse. His country is his wife, and to reach her he must leave here. He can’t give up.
The travel ban is only a roadblock in his path.
My ride back home is a Snapp, Iran’s answer to Uber, except (so I hear from people who have used Uber) more efficient, faster, and cheaper. The drivers always want to chat, however, especially this late at night and when their customer is a woman. Usually, I cut the conversation short by not answering. But tonight I’m in the right mood and ask the young man with a ponytail about the navigation app he’s using.
“It’s not Waze,” I observe, referring to the Google app.
“No, it’s one they made right here. A bunch of young guys not even in Tehran, but in the provinces, built it. In Mashhad to be exact. It’s the best GPS I’ve ever worked with to be honest. It even tells you where the police installed speed traps. Can you imagine?
“Good for them!”
The young man glances at me in the rearview mirror and adds, “We will trample America under our feet!” He is smiling as he repeats the famous old dictum of Ayatollah Khomeini’s from the early years of the revolution. He’s about Mohsen’s age, too young to have witnessed the revolution or the long war that followed it. I think to myself: there’s something to this generation that makes me feel right. They have a capacity to love and make fun of themselves at the same time. Most importantly, they get things done, their way. They don’t let obstructions from the state or outside world wear them down. They are used to barriers and getting around them.
We arrive in front of my home, but I can’t open the car door. The driver jumps out and opens it for me.
“Apologies. I had an accident this morning. The door’s broken from inside.”
He is wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the English words, I was genius but education ruined me.
“Nice shirt,” I say, “except it has a word missing.”
“I know,” he laughs. “It’s supposed to say I was BORN genius. I saw it online and had them make it for me here. But they forgot the BORN part.” He thinks for a bit and adds, “It still works pretty good though, doesn’t it?”
Yes, I think to myself, it works pretty good.
Like Mohsen, this young man is a sum of Iran’s contrasts—a country that sits at a strategic crossroads of the world, with formidable technological knowhow and a considerable share of the earth’s wealth and natural resources, but one that suffers acute economic hardship and finds itself a pariah because of other nations’ fears of reprisal from the United States. The Mohsens and Saras of Iran may eventually be able to get around these hurdles, travel ban included. But there is always a price to pay. For them it is the logistics of everyday life—making enough money to eat, for example, or negotiating a young marriage between Tehran and Indiana. For the United States, however, I think it is something far more sobering. When my driver says, “We will trample America under our feet,” he’s kidding, yes. But, I fear, not completely.