Preface and excerpt from Home Proxy Home, 2023
I just erased 1,500 words I had carefully written in October 2022 when the new Iranian uprising was fresh. The piece was to act as a preface to the following excerpt of Home Proxy Home, which is about me claiming my desires and unbelonging, pushing back against the institutions that make an industry of inquisitions from immigrants, refugees, and exiles. The West invades and displaces us, deigns to maybe allow us in through their borders, then examines and fetishizes our estrangement. The cycle is endlessly propagandized and monetized, a perfect closed circuit. The Empire depends on our otherness.
I had aimed to contextualize current events in Iran, since you’ll be reading about Iran here. This albatross to explain Iran. Why couldn’t I be from a country that isn’t constantly politicized? You’ll be reading about my homeland that burns, my homeland that I have not been to in thirty-nine years but hold on to, a wound that doesn’t heal, a homeland that we are prodded about by our Western hosts. Where is home for you, what is home to you? they keep asking in precious hushed tones at swanky events with mucho publicity. They mean the home that has been dismantled over and over again from within and without. Lording it over us that we are somehow a temporary tenant in their home.
Five months after writing those words, upon publication of this excerpt, I found the preface outdated. In fact, it never reflected my uncertainty about the events. That I can't be sure of how they figure into the larger geopolitical chess game of oligarchs and psychopaths. That I don’t trust news from the seemingly pro-uprising, anti–Islamic Republic platforms whose funding sources are questionable. That I can’t be sure of the machinations at work behind the scenes in the gridlock of Russia, Ukraine, Iran, China, the US, Germany, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and parts of Africa. I refuse to buy into the edited masquerade of Iran, a collage of snuck-out videos, strategically distributed pieces, viral distractions, misinformation, disinformation, self-promotions of so-called leaders in the diaspora, and the inactions of Western watchdogs and regulatory bodies—though there is some attempt at pretense and posturing—all bundled up to give us a Total Fiction, a Truman Show of sorts.
The first layer of reports is that Mahsa Zhina Amini was arrested in September 2022 by the Islamic state’s “morality police” while visiting Tehran from her native Kordestan region of Iran. Twenty-two-year-old Mahsa died in their custody while in a coma from a brain hemorrhage likely caused by repeated blows to her head, possibly while she was shoved into a van because her hejab wasn’t deemed pious enough at that hour on that day on that street. Two journalists, Niloofar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi, broke the story, documenting her hospitalization and funeral—how we know about her case, though this is a perpetual state of terror in Iran. The journalists have been detained in Evin prison and charged with being foreign agents of the United States.
This became a watershed moment spurring protests on September 17, 2022, the day after Mahsa died, now the longest sustained all-over demonstrations in the forty-four-year history of the Islamic Republic.
Out has poured cumulated rage against not only the brutalities of the Islamic Republic, but against the legacies of global patriarchy and greed to fuel a new vindication of the rights not only of women but of every soul suffering the twenty-first century: the control of women’s bodies, the obscene wealth gap of late-stage capitalism, climate disasters, homelessness, chronic hopelessness, the damages of social media, the decline of culture in favor of technocracy, corruption, inflation, crushing sanctions, public revelations of harassment that led to the #MeToo movement, the murder of George Floyd in plain view, and so much more.
Young Iranians are unleashing our common pain, their bound hairs, burning their headscarves to make effigies of them, and raising their middle fingers to dictators. Those old figureheads whose terror of women has led to whole ideologies to crush us. No more they say. Schoolgirls stomp on their images and scream their name back at them—BI-SHARAF. BI-SHARAF. BI-SHARAF. BI (pronounced like bee, meaning without) and SHARAF (honor). Honorless to the power of Motherfucker. Say it. Say their name: BI-SHARAF!
The Islamic state has waged war on protestors. Teenagers have been savagely beaten by paramilitary groups, tortured, murdered. Nika, Sarina, Siavash, Zakariah, and countless unnamed Gen-Z guerillas. Thousands are arrested. Innocents have been hanged after sham trials. We are collectively exhausted from the tactical wrangling of our emotions.
The uprising has been fruitful on several levels. Iranian people have shown a new brand of courage to the world. They’ve upped the stakes, inspired you—yes you, reader—to stand up for yourself, pushed us, the diaspora, to air our private pain—be it openly mourning a homeland in ruin or reporting the micro- and macroaggressions carried out on us by White Institutions we strive to belong to. Schoolgirls and young women have imagined new frontiers for us, these Joan-of-Arcs, these bludgeoned beacons who rise to the pantheon of pantheons.
But there are layers we cannot even begin to decipher. Deceptions behind deceptions. My hope for change in Iran is laced with the anxiety of the fugue of history—bloodshed to blank slate to another Big Brother to bloodshed.
I vacillate between wanting global support, but recoil when Western power brokers—the Clintons, the Bidens—express support of the Iranian people. All I can think of is their changing stories and agendas.
The announcement by Jill Biden, the first lady of the United States, of Iranian composer Shervin Hajipour’s 2023 Grammy win for “Baraye” in the first-ever Best Song for Social Change Special Merit Award category, read as political theater. I can’t even fully enjoy his win.
On the one hand, why shouldn’t Hajipour win? He composed ”Baraye” (which means “For” or “Because of,” widely translated as “For Freedom”) from tweets by Iranian people expressing their frustrations and hopes for the uprisings. The song went viral and has become an anthem of the revolution. And we united to rally for his win.
On the other hand, it is political that the Islamic regime arrested Hajipour and made him remove “Baraye" from his social media, and later released and charged him with inciting violence, causing him to lie low. I cringe at the win being celebrated as validation from the West. The Iranian writer Jalal Al-Ahmad wrote a book on this, Gharbzadegi, often translated as Westoxification.
Hajipour posted two words just after the win on his social media: “We won.” He later released a statement that read (in my translation): “All of the people of Iran and I celebrate this win, but it must be said that the lives and wellbeing of many Iranians and the region itself have been destroyed by a government whose first lady presented me with this award. Instead, I wish an award for a work of art was presented by an artist. I love my beloved country in all its beauty and I shall remain here.” Whether this was coerced by the Islamic regime or it was self-prompted, it reflects the knotted ball of complexities we face.
I hope that one day my homeland can vindicate itself. I have also come to realize that time has marched on and I am somehow Iran’s past, conflicted even about calling her my homeland. I am her lost generation. And her future belongs to the generation that teaches me about a place that is no longer mine. The generation that is burning down the house and is burning for it.
This is for all who have skeletons in their own closets but pry about my home:
Home Proxy Home (excerpt)
The scraggly guy who enters the ATM lobby after me and waits on a bench tells me it’s a Georgian thing that the young woman in a crop top and high-waisted white jeans stands at my back talking loudly on her phone and looking over my shoulder as I’m trying to transact.
She doesn’t budge despite me turning around to mime you are crowding me, please step back. She was in the same position with the man at the ATM before me, so I thought they were together and I was confused when she didn’t leave with him. I spread my body to crowd her back and turn to tell the guy that I’ve been coming to this lobby for a few months and nothing like this Georgian thing has happened. But that it would make sense: a doctor I saw at the clinic in Tbilisi told me to undress and just stood there with her nurse glaring at me arms crossed and grinning. In the US, they leave the room, give you time and a paper vest, then knock before entering.
He asks where I’m from. I say isn’t it obvious since I’ve just demanded space. In English no less. He says no. I say I’m from America. He says he wants to go there one day. It’s usual for me to hear this abroad. Everybody is USA USA WOW California! I want to say it’s not what you think it is, but I don’t. You should go! Are you Georgian? No, I’m Ukrainian.
Oh shit. I should have known from his slouch. Here in Georgia thousands of refugees from Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia mingle. A gift of the Russian invasion of Ukraine that started in February 2022. He had that āvāreh آواره vibe [I’ll get into this later]. Light of possessions, untethered, in limbo, allāf علاف or bikār بیکار, a drifter floating in the wind.
He translates on my behalf. A grievance from an American to a Georgian by a Ukrainian in Russian. Crop-top girl scowls and huffs out not too long after.
The Ukrainian is kind of cute. Plus we’ve bonded. I step out and wait on the front steps staring at my phone as he finishes his transaction. He says he is from a war-torn city and, yes, a refugee. He doesn’t know if he can go to USA. I say why not through Mexico. Ah the black way he says. I ask if he’s OK here in Georgia. He says yeah sure OK, he’s been here before but overall not OK. A variation on what the Iranians here in Georgia say when I ask if they are happy. Iranians leaving that religious dictatorship for a better life were allowed in for a brief time in 2015. Now they are pestered at the border of a land that used to be part of their nation before the Qajar kings ceded the territories to Russia in the nineteenth century following years of war. I want to talk more but it’s awkward and he’s on his way so that’s that. Good luck with everything. What else can I do but hope he was able to get money from the machine. He says he’s going to Europe to make his way to USA—I’ll make it one day.
As the Ukrainian exits right, in walks from the left a little old man with a fisherman’s cap and a small accordion around his neck. I immediately snap a few stealthy photos, my favorite way to use my phone. At the corner he starts to play and sing. What a song. What a scene. I’m still only around the corner from my apartment, not having made much progress on my errands. It’s an old song of longing. His voice is slight. The intersection is loud. I leave coins and gesture if I can record him. The slightest nod. I don’t even know what language he sings in. We make eye contact as he keeps repeating the song for me. I’m teary-eyed.
This is happening in Saburtalo, my for-now neighborhood in Tbilisi, in this strange and unfamiliar world I sort of belong to after three months here. It’s Father’s Day in the US. I interpret this scene as the poetry of me missing my father, whom I don’t see often enough.
I’m here to get as close to home as I can. Home. That word of words for immigrants, expats, refugees, āvārehs (آواره meaning displaced, stateless, exiled, homeless, nomad, someone with an incurable longing and unbelonging in the psyche and soul).
The first three decades of my thirty-nine years away from my mother- and fatherland I was pretty fine assimilating. Hell, I was born in the West. But more and more I’m consumed by Iran, that sitting cat. All the cities I haven’t known. All the places I could have seen. All the people I could have been.
My voluntary self-exile though: I minimize risk by avoiding entry into chaos. Though every place has its troubles. But the gash in me is growing. I search endlessly for Tehran, my childhood city, by now mythical to me. The way Tbilisi, or Teflis as I knew it in childhood, was. And now I’m here in old Teflis.
As I age and consider the second half or maybe the last third of my life, I want retreat. Abdication from the society of jackals. To sequester myself in a pastoral Eden on a land of my own. Away from people and concerns of career and fame. But I don’t know where that home could be. My partner and I could never agree on where to buy a house. Here, my Georgian friend grew up in several family homes he still visits. He is a father and cohabitates peacefully with his mother. His uncle tells him to return to their ancestral village home in the hills to tend the vineyard with him. My friend says home is where he feels like a baby. And strong. Which is why he could never live abroad. I envy him this feeling. I feel allāf. Ungrounded. In limbo between San Francisco, a Tehran I don’t go to, Tbilisi, and many other places. Where to pitch that tent.
Because of my voluntary exile from Iran, I visit the lands in proximity to her: Georgia and Armenia. Once part of the greater Persian empire, these lands have ancient ruins built on the bones of my ancestors. I don’t know why that is so important. In the end the globe is one ancient ball and we're all dust. But the DNA is a zombie marching home.
After three months of finding many Tehrans in Tbilisi, a city of sycamore-lined streets just like Tehran, I travel south to Yerevan, Armenia. It too is full of sycamores.
I’m here for one reason.
My driver picks me up. We awkwardly walk to his dusty old Toyota Camry. When he puts my grimy red carry-on into his trunk I notice a stained pillow and blanket. The back seat doesn’t appear to have a working seat belt. I fuss and say I can’t drive in a car without a seat belt. I’ve already alienated the situation. He pulls over to cancel the ride but I have a mission.
The gods have sent me an Armenian-Iranian to take me to the Armenian/Iranian border. My driver is a salt-of-the-earth middle-aged man of no pretenses and easy disposition. As a young man he moved to the US from Iran for a few years but found the dog-eat-dog too taxing so he came to Armenia. He is my brother-in-arms. Well into the ride we have broken the tension. He says in Persian, your own land is something else. He is talking about Iran. He’s lived in Armenia for thirty years, but he’d go back to Iran if it ever became free.
Another way Iranians say this is
مملکت نداریم or مملکت نیست
We don’t have a country, or This is no country (for us).
I don’t care about sights on the way south. I just want to be driven so I can take in the landscape, the topography of my own dust.
The road south is mountainous. First we have a clear view of Mount Ararat and Little Ararat next it. This mountain of the Armenian Highland, the national symbol of Armenia, is now just on the other side of the nearby Turkish border. Tourists pose with Ararat looming in the background on a platform with a carved-out opening designed exactly for this memento. The lesser Caucasus are rolling hills within hills, at times downy green, at times velvety fawn dappled with trees. We two Caucasians ascend to a series of mountains called Zangezur. The region was ceded to Russia by Qajar Iran in 1813 via the Treaty of Gulistan. We stop at bell towers and my driver tells me these bells were tolled to herald approaching enemy forces, hence the name: Zang meaning “bell,” e meaning “of,” and Zur meaning “force." The bells of war. The landscape is bright green with little yellow wildflowers and large rectangular patches of purple wildflowers. I see people up to their waists in one of the distant patches. Reminded me of the lavender fields of Provence in the south of France whose tiny roads I drove through in my large white Ford the previous summer.
Summer 2021, just when international travel had opened up again after the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic seemed to be over. I traveled back to southern France thirty-seven years after I had been a high-school student there. I was returning with trepidation of the same estrangement and non-whiteness I had then, a brown girl with bushy eyebrows and post-pubescence kinky hair fleeing the Islamic Republic of Iran—that had recently transmogrified from its chic and glorious past of the Shah years—for America, Shangri-la.
In the US, I have been a hyphen, an other. But who and what I encountered in the summer of 2021 was a revelation. I remember exactly the moment I became (an) American. I was sitting in a regional branch of the BNP, Banque Nationale de Paris. The supposedly bilingual young man with a little office who should have been able to answer banking-101 questions, or so I thought, could not. In neither of our two languages—OK one language, his half English and my half French, and one translation app—between us.
I don’t know if being outraged at his substandard “customer service” was just my personal strategy for preemptively covering up my own discomfort with being yet again a foreigner, or if it was being accustomed to a certain level of service and the American the-customer-is-always-right ethos—which dwindles as Americans can’t actually live on working wages—or puffery from the general reverence bestowed upon me as an American when abroad, or just my intolerance of ineptitude. But here I was, Miss Demanding American.
And I loved her.
Here in Georgia and Armenia, where I speak none of the languages, I can tell people deride my demandingness. Under their breath or outright: the American this, the American that, eyes rolling—آمریکاییه.
But I don’t care—yes, I care, I hate the scrutiny and contempt, I hate standing out, I hate being a fool in a fishbowl—I do dress like all-American Ali MacGraw in Love Story: crisp white jeans, navy blue short-sleeved T-shirt, clean brown hair. I’m Jackie-O strong.
I enjoy a privilege abroad I never have in the US. You take it where you can.
Twelve harrowing hours of driving through misty mountain passes dodging trucks that carry goods back and forth between Iran and Russia. One overnight stay in a hellish motel with vagrant men. And thirty minutes skirting the Armenian/Iranian border where the cretinous and ruthless border police make me delete all my sneaky photos of the barren toxic dump that the area is, a stinking toilet of splattered shit, nearly confiscating my phone and US passport.
The border mountains are stony and bone-dry. The atmosphere is apocalyptic. I narrowly escape. We backtrack. Behind a rusty metal shed and some burnt-out car parts at the foot of an electric barbed-wire fence my driver and I scrape some earth from this borderland.
But what difference does this earth make. I even forget the plastic bag in his trunk.
I superimpose Iran onto you Georgia
the Alborz and Zagros ranges of Iran
onto the Caucasus mountains of Svaneti and Racha
Peak on peak
Range on range
The sycamores of Vali Ahd st.
onto the sycamores of Kazbegi str.
swaying in the breeze
on hot afternoons
rainy summer sunsets
Leaf on leaf
Tree on tree
Ferdowsi st. onto Rustaveli str.
epic poet onto epic poet
Name on name
Grandmothers onto grandmothers
women in black
listlessly carrying bags of groceries
never a smile
grandmothers shouldering history
the Iran-Iraq war
when brother turned on brother
even as we speak all over Iran
the Dark Nineties
after the Soviets bolted and
all that was left was chaos
no water no heat
when gangs pillaged.
Men who smoke and carry nothing
Streets on streets
Country on country
Beautiful boys onto beautiful boys
boys of hope and no hope
caged doves without flight
boys of a tale that is not theirs
boys abiding by the rules of ignoble men
boys who will dissolve into history
unrealized as the plucked rose
rosebuds of my heart
these boys of history
one boy who seals a city for me
Tehran onto Tbilisi
I am back
to the calming green leaves high above boulevards
Tbilisi is the city of my parents’ golden youth
I don’t even want it as my own city
I want to bring theirs back
Bring them back in time
The women who walk past me
don’t return my smile
The country outside which I dig
doesn’t invite me in
I reach for you
you cold mothers
Preface and excerpt from Home Proxy Home by Niloufar Talebi © 2023
Spring / Summer 2023
The Iran Issue
Author and award-winning translator Niloufar Talebi is a Fulbright U.S. Scholar to Georgia (2021–2022). Her most recent projects include the hybrid memoir Self-Portrait in Bloom, the opera Abraham in Flames (composer A. Vrebalov), and a TEDx Berkeley talk, all inspired by the iconic Iranian poet Ahmad Shamlou (1925–2000).
With special thanks to Lida Nosrati, editorial reader of the preface.
Note: My preference is to spell words like Kordestan and hejab as they are pronounced in the Persian and not in their standardized transliteration (Kurdistan and hijab).