Art by Nazanin Noroozi
When you are a refugee from Iran, it’s hard to say who in the culture consciousness one can relate to. Very few share your story. And those who at least somewhat do—say Googoosh, say Christiane Amanpour—they somehow don’t quite either. (Looking for genuine connection with the very rich and famous is always a losing battle.) Much of your life becomes made up of the quest to find someone whose circumstances might feel relatable.
For me, this person was an unlikely one: an Iranian eccentric my father’s age whose story has never stopped haunting me since I heard it. Mehran Karimi Nasseri, or as he liked to be called “Sir Alfred Mehran,” died this past November. He was most known as the man who spent eighteen years living in a terminal of Charles de Gaulle airport. Born in 1945 in Khuzestan, much of his life was caught up in the bureaucracies that got in the way of simple rights like reconnecting with family, how he ended up at his airport residency in the first place. His documents were always deemed off—whether from Belgium, the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, France, and by the time they were legitimatized he no longer wanted to leave his own personal limbo. The airport was quite simply home.
He was given refugee status in France ultimately in 1999 but he stayed at the airport til 2006, when he had to leave due to illness. He lived in hostels as well, and had only in recent months returned to the airport when he suddenly died of a heart attack, with several thousand euros in hand. (Airport spokespeople have been quoted explaining that he “returned to live as a homeless person in the public area of the airport since mid-September, after a stay in a nursing home.” They mentioned the “whole airport community was attached to him, and our staff looked after him as much as possible during many years, even if we would have preferred him to find a real shelter.”)
He was an icon and legend, as invisible as he was visible. He would spend his days journaling and reading newspapers, while even the people who did know would pretend they did not know. But he was no secret: Steven Spielberg made a movie, The Terminal, based on his life, and countless journalists made pilgrimages just to interview him. He was, as they say, a fixture until suddenly in this dynamic year, he was not.
It’s hard to know what he might have made of this year’s revolution in Iran. After all, he seemed to be suffering varying states of mental deterioration which would often manifest in delusion. He alleged that he was expelled from Iran in 1977 due to participating in anti-Shah protests (there were no records of this). He also claimed his mother was Anglo European and he no longer identified as Iranian—at one point, since documents did not declare him Sir Alfred or British he did not sign residency papers—but again all evidence refuted this narrative.
In November, of course, so much was going on for Iranians all over the world. I saw few Iranians note this legend’s passing. I realized not many Iranians knew what to make of him. Was he embarrassing to them? His story too sad? Or too baffling? Even infuriating? But that all sounded distinctly Iranian to me.
His loss wounded me though. I think what made me feel this bizarre connection to him was his embodiment of our collective placelessness. Years ago I confessed to a partner how I felt most at home in airports and in airplanes—because I wasn’t anywhere. I was just in some in-between purgatory that made me feel most me. There was no tether to a mother country that had long forgotten me or the anchor to the new land that struggled to claim me. I recalled how as a child I loved road trips and train travel for the same reason—the problems really only seemed to exist in the before and after. Nasseri to me seemed to be living incredibly honestly—why tie himself to a land when the truth was he had none anymore and could never quite in his lifetime. Why commit to a place, why seek roots, why go back or commit forward, where there was an actual place that could address his condition. He could be forever in a place of transit, where the cast was ever-evolving, where the responsibilities and banalities and demands of daily life could altogether evade you. Nasseri wanted to live in the confines of an absolute nowhere ultimately. And he was willing to live that very literally. All he had to lose was his mind really.
The last six months have been beyond destabilizing for almost every Iranian I know. Losing our minds has been on the table daily, it feels like, as we read about unparalleled courage of activists and unending slaughter of the same population—often teenagers and other young adults—plus a roller coaster of good and bad news that swings from hope to hopelessness without warning. It’s never felt quite like this, even if we have sort of been here before. In 2011, I edited Guernica’s first and only Iranian-American issue, after the Green Movement which to us seemed full of hope even if felt short of our collective promise. Now we are here again, the same struggle and battle, and victories that feel as traumatizing as their opposites.
In choosing the cast for this special issue, I wanted a diversity of perspective, background, culture, emotion. As a result we have a tremendous amount of talent that dares to answer those questions Nasseri refused. They announce themselves with clarity, candor, courage, and love—they are taking the space that we can no longer afford to push aside.
Whether it is the radical candyscapes of Taravat Talepasand, Hushi Mortezaie’s iconic rock-‘n’-roll-meets-queer-dream aesthetics, Sunny Shokrae’s diasporic visual poetry from her Chapter Series, Lili G’s potent protest art. There is Gary Gach and Erfan Mojib’s oracular Hafez translation that expounds on tyranny and time, Hamed Kashani and Gary Gach’s translation of Bijan Jalali’s bittersweet ode to myth, and Gary Gach’s translation of Alireza Roshan’s heartbreaking portrait of women unmothered in these cycles of revolution. Identity is elastic, especially in the gender tightrope reflections of Danny Rafinejad, and Nina Mir’s channeling of a Prophet Nina in confronting an Iran that might never accept a transfemme identity, and Masi Abolhassan’s trans subjects finding refugee life treacherous outside as much as inside Iran. We have Homa Dashtaki’s Zoroastrian ruminations, and Mohammed Hakima’s meditations on theocracy and oneness, and Niloufar Talebi’s longing for homeland while on a Georgian Fulbright, plus Ava Homa’s call for intersectionality from a Kurdish perspective. We also have Golafarin Razi’s triptych of Persian sayings deconstructed, Zara Houshmand’s candid reflections on the hurdles of translation in poetry form, Marjan Kamali’s Saddam-busting-youth from a section that got cut from her acclaimed novel Together Tea, and Neda Semnani’s playground identity short. And then there is of course my piece of fiction (our publisher insisted I submit!) on a woman being involved in a fictional Iran issue that turns quickly nightmarish.
We hope that all these pieces can provide that kaleidoscopic vision to a new wave of movement that has no real beginning or end—a revolution whose greatest advantage is its deeply diverse, multifaceted, uncatalogable, insistently divisible, beautifully unique moving parts.
Spring / Summer 2023
The Iran Issue
Porochista Khakpour is the author of the novels Sons & Other Flammable Objects and The Last Illusion and the memoir Sick. She is a journalist, professor and contributing editor at Evergreen.
Nazanin Noroozi (MFA, Pratt Institute) is a multi-disciplinary artist whose work reflects on themes of collective memory and displacement. She has exhibited at galleries and museums worldwide, including SPACES, Cleveland; Athopos, Athens; Golestani Gallery, Dusseldorf; Noyes Museum of Art; School of Visual Arts, NY; and Postcrypt Art Gallery, Columbia University. She is the recipient of awards and fellowships from New York Foundation for the Arts; Marabeth Cohen-Tyler Print/Paper Fellowship, Dieu Donné; Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts; and a residency at Mass MoCA. Her works have been featured widely, including in Die Zeit Magazine, BBC News Persian, Elephant Magazine, Financial Times, and Brooklyn Rail. She is editor at large for Kaarnamaa; A Journal of Art History and Criticism.