Art by HK Zamani
“A crown prince, a cult leader, and a cleric walk into a bar,” were the first words I heard. “Who picks up the tab?”
“Not the cleric,” someone muttered.
“Gotta be the prince,” someone else said.
There was a pause as the editor wrote crown prince, cult leader, and cleric on the whiteboard in her hot pink marker. She put plus signs between them and an equal sign after. Then, with a dramatic flourish of the marker that reminded me of a curvature my old gym teacher had made to describe what my scoliosis looked like, she made up the largest question mark she could.
“I don’t know the answer,” she said with a big smile. “But we’re here to solve that. And more. Welcome to the first meeting of the initial symposium for the Iran Issue, ladies.”
There was some lukewarm clapping, a stray chuckle, a few sighs, a smoker’s cough. We broke for tea and out of the twenty-four women originally in the conference room, twenty-two returned. I thought to myself, the people who would have noticed the most were the ones who were gone probably—except maybe for me.
“We are off to a great start,” the editor announced loudly as people returned to their seats around the giant conference table. On the board she had written “WOMEN LOVE FREEDOM” and if that wasn’t bad enough, she was saying it.
“WOMEN LOVE FREEDOM!!”
“Women Life Freedom,” an older voice corrected.
“Live freedom? That can work,” the editor said, pausing.
I wondered for a second if this was some kind of skit.
“Women, life, freedom,” another louder older woman shouted. “It’s three separate things. Like a list.”
“We can make it anything we want to today!” a younger attendee quipped, embarrassed for the editor at the whiteboard no doubt.
“Live, laugh, love,” the editor said. “Women, life, freedom. It clicks doesn’t it? Even better than I thought!”
It really felt like a skit.
“It’s from a Kurdish activist slogan, surely you know this!” a woman who just had to be an academic shouted.
“She knows!” Several women immediately hushed her.
“Love still works!” someone yelled, with a few claps as if to . . . something.
“What’s going on?” one of the journalists in front of me asked another presumable-journalist.
The editor went as rosy as her rosy pantsuit. She closed her eyes for a moment and then, as if like in the cartoons a light bulb had been lit above her, she changed routes. “Listen, I am new to this,” the editor said, clearing her throat in a way that signified importance or so she had learned from television. “And my slot is only fifty minutes. I am here to tell you I don’t speak Persian. I was born here. I have never been to Iran, I don’t know anyone there. I rarely eat food from Iran, I couldn’t tell you what our country looks like.” She paused with closed eyes. Drama—she knew it was a bit much but she also knew it was the way of her people. I hated watching this. “But. And there’s the but. It is my country. I would do anything for it. I would die for—well, maybe not die! But you know—it is mine, it is all of ours!”
There were some light wisps of laughter throughout the room and then some scattered applause, isolated thunderclaps meant to save face. A few knowing glances, a cough, someone’s notifications.
I wanted to disappear.
“Anyway, I for one love WOMEN LOVE FREEDOM or maybe even better WOMEN LIVE FREEDOM because we do, do we not?” she said. She was once told to lean into her errors in a women’s studies class in college, I imagined.
“Yes! Yes!” two younger intern-seeming women called out.
I checked out mentally. I knew I was not alone.
This is gonna be stupid, I am worried, the writer next to me texted her friend in the far back corner of the room, turning her head just enough so her friend could make out the crease of her dimple just so activated.
I knew who it was because I had seen them come in together and I knew the friend—an illustrator—somewhat from social media.
I don’t know what you mean, the illustrator friend texted back, quickly.
Come on, really? she considered tagging on a rolled-eye emoji.
We have to get along. We have to be ONE. You can do it too, the illustrator wrote her in a way that made me want to grab the phone and type back you’ve been hacked but the truth was everything felt that way that season.
ok, she wrote back, which I had once been told was the coldest way to write that word. No period, nothing, no effort. It was enough.
We watched her friend’s notifications get silenced.
She sent her a black heart emoji, for whenever she’d get it.
The whiteboard had filled up considerably after lunch and the architect was fixating on the quadrant at the center of it all: MODELS / INFLUENCERS / ENTREPRENEURS /ACTRESSES. Another hand had crossed out ACTRESSES and turned it into ACTORS with a small happy face and heart next to it.
They were making a list of women in these categories.
“The typical Persian woman is average height, curvy but still slim, light olive skin, silky thick black hair—” a woman in a yellow frilly dress, whose job none of us could figure out, was saying.
“There are Persian blondes, excuse me,” an older singer we all recognized spoke up. She was a Persian blonde and to be honest her famousness shocked all of us. I mean of course she was here but how could she actually be here?! “Myself of course, but many others. Let’s not ignore. We want Americans and Europeans to know we can be them easily.”
There were several vigorous nods and a lot of silence. She was not known for her brains but still, because she was so famous, we all noted it honorably.
The yellow frill went on. “She is college-educated, more than half holding graduate degrees, making high five figures to seven figures, married with two children within ten years—”
An older woman with short white hair, in a large purple pashmina, suddenly got up and walked out the door. She had her things. She had the look of someone in the arts, possibly from another country. The editor noted her more than the rest—she’d somehow hoped to speak to her by the end of that day. There was something about her.
“Are we losing people?” the editor suddenly heard herself say. She wasn’t supposed to say that. “I am sorry. This is all just a lot of pressure.”
“I am not done though,” the yellow frill said in a suddenly weak way as if the purple pashmina white hair had sucked a substantial amount of power out of the room.
There was a hush that sounded like a breeze working its way through the room.
“Does anyone else want to do this?” she asked. “I don’t know what I am doing.”
No one wanted to so we all took a break and after the break, the editor’s assistant took over. “She’s fine, she just is practicing self-care,” she said quietly and began a Powerpoint presentation on the Great Women in Persian History, which everyone decided was a success because, throughout it, no one had given in to the urge to walk out.
At lunch time there were several options: salad which was just one big vat of romaine with tomatoes saturated with a balsamic vinaigrette, it looked like. That went the fastest. There was a separate station labeled “khoresht/stew” which seemed to mainly be a sort of South Asian dal several women loudly pointed out though no one quite minded because who was going to be upset about decent dal? This area was known for South Asian communities, they were told. There was another station labeled “keto/paleo” that seemed full of meatballs and which was largely unattended until, of course, the tallest and thinnest woman in the whole symposium went over. She was wearing brown leather plants. Once she did, a few of the younger women followed her lead.
“Are you paleo?” she heard someone ask.
“Just wanted to try it,” another voice whispered.
“Pre-diabetes is so common among our types,” an older voice intervened. “I’m a fitness expert and I can’t even begin to tell you what I see these days. Are you two familiar with reactive hypoglycemia?”
“No but my mom was just diagnosed with Diabetes 1.5,” one said.
“I heard of it but I just, like, have PCOS,” the other voice said. “My acupuncturist thinks it’s mostly gone though right now.”
The editor’s assistant announced that lunch was going to be an hour longer than what was on the program because the meditation expert’s dog had to go to the animal hospital. “Hopefully nothing is too bad with her baby and she will join us tomorrow,” the assistant said to no one in particular. “Please enjoy the gift of this extra time!”
I decided to raise an enthusiastic fist, the kind of symbol you’d use at a pep rally, a cheer. It was a bit much, sure, but I couldn’t help it. It was so nice to think of a dog.
I had received the invitation from an email I didn’t recognize. My first instinct was that it was someone harassing me or trolling at least. It sounded too patriotic, too nationalistic, the invite in gold and green and red, the particular cream white of the background even signified a kind of inspired formality that bordered on parody. I was definitely honored that it recognized my contributions to Iranian societies all over the world, all these years, but I had questions. Of course I understood the BCC—if you work in these sensitive areas in Iranian circles, your privacy and in fact anonymity is key. But it did make accepting it an issue. If ████ was involved for example, I would have no choice but to decline—the rumors about her allegiances, especially as of recently, were too much. Speaking of that, if ████ was involved I’d also have to decline—not because of her (I rather like her, truth be told) but because of her husband’s recent social media posts which no one in their right mind could engage with. We were all hoping it was some kind of mental health blip, if one has to be totally frank. I also just would steer clear of ████ and ████—not because they are not doing great work but because I’d caught both of them more than once being passive-aggressive about me, to put it most charitably, and I don’t think they knew I noticed or perhaps they hoped I forgot. I never forget things, not things like that. I hope of course ████ is not on that list, though she probably is, but to endure her would require way more of me than these people could afford. And ████ and ████ and ████? This girl squad has been relentless about their self-promotion this season, but no one I know takes them seriously so it would be a hard pass.
Many years ago, a young journalist from a French magazine once asked me who I could see leading us—and I had assumed in politics, but the writer who was very young, said arts was fine too—and I said I had no real answer for things like this. She had turned off the tape recorder and said this was what she thought and feared, that in my communities no one could put their name behind or even by each other. How did we hope for any progress when we had no one? I really had nothing to say to her past that—she wasn’t entirely wrong. (I never saw the interview run anywhere—what would it have said? Blank by blank?)
So I don’t know what got me going, truth be told. I got messages all the time from young women in Iran asking me to post things, to like and comment, to gather my most influential friends, to write a famous person on their behalf, etc. and maybe it was that very urging for my involvement on their behalf that made this delegation more appealing to me.
I really don’t know how to explain it—I was acting in all sorts of ways that winter—but before I knew it I had responded to the email and I had signed on. My agent haggled a bit and got the fee closer to our standard which was strangely much easier than it usually was when there would be sometimes a dozen back-and-forths all to just promise something that was half our target.
I decided to look on this as charity—an act of goodwill based on absolutely nothing. If ████ and ████ and ████ and ████ and ████ and all those others were indeed there and I had to endure all that, on top of god knows what, well, then it would still be nothing close to what my sisters and brothers in Iran were enduring. And wasn’t that the best kind of charity anyway? Sacrifice. If I had to imagine any kind of Iran Issue in my head, aside from all the more satisfying creative aspects and the inevitably honorable activist aspects, I would have to say the flavor of the experience would be undoubtedly cold hard bitter dry sacrifice.
“A bunch of these influencers are just grad students,” she was saying. “Making their way through tuition.”
“I miss when grad students did sex work,” she said.
“They still do that, no? Well, maybe the Arab girls, these are the Purrrrsians. They would never,” she said. “Purrr-get it?”
“Do they really need the help, the money for grad school? I looked up the three or four I had never heard of and all of them are linked to fathers with major business abroad,” she said.
“Do we do this kind of speculation with white girl influencers? Well, yes, we do.”
“What if we crossed them out entirely? Could the thing float? What are they offering? Aren’t the models covering the good looks department?”
“The average Irooni girl is better looking than most influencers, which in terms means many times better looking than the average girl anywhere.”
“Why are we stuck on this? Where were we? Content?”
“Love, this is content.”
She continued, “These girls run content. If you were looking for literally anything else, I’d say, let’s change the subject, but this is it. Content.”
“I’m fine with that. Are you? And you? You? Looks like we’re fine. Let’s start a new page, thanks.”
The first day had gone better than most of them had anticipated, the editor probably thought, I told my husband. He was three thousand miles away and had booked my flight on points. We had asked them to cover airfare but they said since my rate was negotiated at a higher rate than most, I would have to arrange my own travel, they were sorry to say. My husband thought it was fine as he had hoped this would be good for me which I had laughed at as it had sounded like organic vegetables or something—when he clarified that what he meant was the bonding with all the women.
I had told him during that call that there would be no chance of that, which he was confused about, until I mentioned I meant the other women. Of course he wondered what was wrong with them but I just told him nothing and didn’t explain until he nudged me and then I said something that he claimed was like the cliché of it’s not you, it’s me. I laughed and admitted that that was a lie and it was them and then he laughed too in a way that made me certain he thought I was a fool. A fool too. Maybe I fit in.
I wanted to tell him about the older woman in the purple pashmina and the two others who left earlier, how I admired their realness, how I wished I knew where they went. Maybe they were off to visit the famous museum in town. Maybe they were at a bar trying to forget everything. Maybe they went shopping, even though I was told this city had pretty awful shopping. Maybe they were going to come back tomorrow.
Instead of that idea, other ideas came to me. For example, when I was a child I had joined Girl Scouts for a year. My father had forbidden it, just like he forbade sleepovers, just like he forbade parties and dances and women’s magazines. I didn’t know what my father hoped I would turn into but I knew Girl Scouts couldn’t hurt.
There was one other Iranian girl who had just enrolled in our school and she was there. As it went, she was the first set of eyes who made eye contact with me. Her eyes, large and brown like mine, looked frightened. We had gone around and introduced ourselves that first day and the leader of the troupe had asked for us to tell one fun/weird fact and one reason why we were here. The other Iranian girl, whose name was Americanized in a silly way like mine—who probably like me resented that there was someone to recognize that silly Americanization—said as her fun/weird fact that her father was in prison and would probably be in there forever (“we visit him though,” she said soberly). For her reason she said she was hoping to learn how to use a knife.
“We’re not going to be getting to knives anytime soon,” the leader chuckled softly. “But I am sorry about your dad. Where is his prison?” She said it in a way that almost made me laugh as it made it sound like his prison, like the man owned it.
I had a feeling I knew where it was.
I was right.
When they got to me I wanted to make sure I was nothing like her in my answers. I told them that my fun/weird fact was that I didn’t have one, that I was very normal and almost boring. It was the first time I used that line. The leader looked amused by me, though amused in a way that told me someone else must have said it before, and then she asked me what I hoped to learn. I said knitting, even though it was a lie.
We never learned knitting and to this day I have no idea how to knit.
Eventually my father found out and I was forbidden again but not in a way that made me want to join again. I had found it boring to be honest.
They lost two Iranian girls that year. The other Iranian girl moved. No one said it was to Iran. Still I imagined it was there and I tried to imagine her there doing all the normal things, but for some reason my mind kept going back to her father and the knife and the way those two things could be connected.
I was thinking about this all at the hotel bar, thinking if I should leave my husband a voice memo to tell him about this, while I drank my mediocre Chardonnay. I didn’t have the energy. Instead I tried to get myself to admire the maroon carpet with its beige diamond pattern, the Greek columns, the cheap candles, the fake orange leaves that were dangled off the room beams, the smell of generic women’s perfume and toxic cleaning agents, the sound of hotel lobby Muzak and the distinct whir of a vacuum cleaner.
I told myself I was lucky to be there and with every sip, I felt luckier. I ordered myself a second glass of Chardonnay and then finally a third with a bowl of hot nuts. That third glass always stung because of how four could just be a bottle but then again who was going to order a bottle?
I am leaving you, we’re done, I spoke dramatically in a voice not quite mine into my phone, and hit the arrow for the voice memo to do its thing.
I wanted to hear him laugh or else hear him be momentarily fooled or confused or something but instead I heard a less-familiar-but-still-familiar “Excuse me?”
The bar was more crowded suddenly and the editor, still in her bright pantsuit, was bending over me as if she was a giant and I was the smallest woman on earth. I looked under the table, expecting to see her high heels but instead she had on leather flats with cloying bows on them. Her height could not be understood, not by me in that moment, certainly.
“Did you leave your scarf in the conference room?” She was holding a black wool scarf out to me that for a second I thought about claiming. It was the most generic scarf I’d ever seen and pilling though otherwise decently expensive, it seemed, but her effort just somehow shocked me.
“No, not mine,” I said trying to smile. I hoped she had not been watching me drink all those drinks. “Thanks.”
She nodded with a much bigger smile than I deserved and as she walked away she tripped a bit. In those flats. I must have been the only person who saw it, but I definitely saw it.
By the time I made it back to my hotel room, my husband was texting me over and over, I am so glad, I’ve been waiting for this moment, I’ve been cheating on you for years, bitch.
My husband, who was white, had never called me bitch before. I realized I was supposed to joke back to him, that that was how these things went, but instead I was thinking of that scarf and those flats and the Iranian girl with the dad in jail wanting to learn knife skills and how tonight, of all nights, my husband of seventeen years had gone as far as to call me bitch.
The Iran Issue never happened. Or if it did I never heard about it. Something about Iran is that Iranians are often the wrong audience for the Iran stuff. So it could have. But who would know.
I thought I saw the editor one day at an Orange County Persian restaurant that was located in one of those upscale malls. She looked very well-put-together as usual, navy knit cardigan, floral skirt, gold accents, blown-out hair.
I tried to ignore her presence and just focus on my husband and his college friend, but I also worried that maybe she had seen me and ignoring was only making things worse.
“I vote say hi,” my husband said winking at his friend.
“I should have no vote but I vote the same!” his friend said.
I started to feel like my hesitation was silly—after all, she likely did not even remember me and would probably just be very nice about it. She might be relieved someone remembered her efforts, even if the thing never existed.
So once we got to the tea course and my husband and his friend were gently fighting over the bill—as opposed to the Iranian style which would not be so gentle—I decided to go up and approach her table. They were in sync with us and she seemed at peace stirring sugar cubes into her tea over and over.
There were another handful of people at her table and it was hard to figure out ages or relations—typical Persian stuff—but I realized her placement in the very large circular table made it perfect for me to kneel or at least hunch and just with decorous discretion ask the obvious.
“I hope you will excuse me, but are you the editor of the Iran Issue from a few years ago?”
She was smiling at me blankly, her eyes focused somewhere entirely beyond me.
I said it again as it seemed she maybe did not hear, but I did take note that there were two empty bottles of wine at the table.
In a thick accent I could tell was fake, she said, “I am sorry I am not sure what you mean? Do I know you?”
For a second, I really believed I had it wrong and she was someone else but then I remembered her better and I could imagine shame driving her to that kind of response. The accent was such a move though—few would go that far.
“It’s okay, it’s really okay. I thought it was a good experience and you did a nice job. I understand if nothing can be said.”
Her accent only grew thicker, it felt like. It didn’t quite sound Persian—maybe Georgian? I wasn’t sure. “My dear, how can I know—would you like some tea? Cookie? Baklava?” she began pushing plates at me.
I tried to keep my cool.
“We all have our different things that shame us but you really have no need to do this,” I said firmly.
For a second there was a disturbance in her eyes that told me she knew. But then it was gone again, broad fluttering smile blocking her humanity.
“It never happened?” I went on.
She shook her head and began to get up. For a second I wondered what she was up to, when I realized she was just brushing me off and going to the bathroom.
What was I going to do then? Follow her in there?
I did not do that.
A few weeks later I was trying to tell a friend about the whole disaster of the Iran Issue and I went to find her profile on Facebook and it would not let me click. I could tell she was on there but . . . apparently I was blocked. I went on Twitter and Instagram and same thing. My friend could see her profiles but said I wasn’t missing much.
“Selfies and Yahoo News type clips,” she said.
For reasons I could not quite understand, this made me furious. When we got off the phone I wrote her a long email detailing how unprofessional and bizarre she was and how the issue had not happened thanks to her and how she had said WOMEN LOVE FREEDOM and how she had denied knowing me at the OC restaurant and how her accent was so fake and how everyone was probably so glad there was no Iran Issue if it was going to be helmed by an unhinged disaster like herself.
But by the time I reread it, all I could do was hit delete.
I think you did the right thing, I imagined my husband saying though I would never have shared this with him.
You walked out—good, I imagined the old lady in the pashmina saying.
It’s trash, I imagined a teenage girl, the defiant schoolgirl in Tehran saying, flipping through its too-many pages of self-congratulation and promotion and influencers and airbrushed shoots. One day, but that day is not today.
In an Iran this close to its liberation they would never need us, I wanted to tell the teenage girl, but I couldn’t tell if she was mockingly listening to me or really cared what I had to say. I kept telling her something I had heard before—you are the ones you’ve been waiting for—which she smiled at but I couldn’t tell if it was because it was corny wherever it was from. I didn’t have an original world—she had to know that. Her smile was so big and soon I realized it was directed to a crowd behind me, a crowd coming at me, a crowd coming through me—I was of such little consequence, they could move right through my body like ghosts except they had to be the real ones in all this and me the ghost. Indeed I could feel myself fading, but instead I saw dozens, then hundreds, then maybe thousands of them, radiating something like heat as they marched toward an even greater source of heat. It was something like the sun burning bright but we were too close to really tell what it was. At a certain point I could no longer see them—I could no longer see anything—but it wasn’t just me fading, it was them becoming something bigger altogether. Fire can burn, but fire can also warm. I thought I heard crying but then I realized it was probably laughter—how similar the two could sound if enough people were deep in them. I had a hard time imagining the world of malls and whiteboards and emails and influencers in all this sudden something, but I was consoled to believe in this bigger thing—to know that this was it, that this was all them, that the only thing that wasn’t quite real in any of this was us and the past.
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.
HK Zamani is a multidisciplinary artist, educator, and founder of PØST, an alternative exhibition space in Los Angeles (1995-2018). His new works Inadvertent Protagonists allow for an unpredictable shifting of possibilities and imaginings in a dialogue between painting and sculpture. Mirroring, through their various juxtapositions, the cultural duality and overlap that he brings to this work. The Fashion Erasures challenge class consciousness, standardization and expectation. The obscuring of found images cancels their conventional orthodoxies while embellishing and empowering them to suggest both their primal origins and a potential undiscovered future.
Edifice/Oedipus is built on themes explored in the earlier series. They superpose the two inquiries, and peal back to excavate yet another memory.