Art by Parastou Forouhar
When I was seven years old, my parents forced me to accompany them on a road to the holy city of Qom to visit some of my mom’s relatives at a mosque. At that time, Qom was just about the last place on earth that a kid like me would want to visit, because there was nothing there except for prayer and mourning and general ruefulness. It was July 1995, the hottest time of the year, and the drive from our apartment in Tehran to Qom was around two hours. The air-conditioner in the car was broken, and my parents didn’t want me to complain, so they’d packed a lunchbox full of cold sodas and snacks to keep me quiet in the backseat. I was eating fruit rollups and sipping my third Coca-Cola bottle, when all of a sudden, after about an hour or so, I had to pee.
“There’s no place to stop,” my father said. “You’re gonna have to wait til we get to the mosque.”
“But I can’t hold it for that long.”
“Well, you better make it go away somehow. Squeeze the tip of your tube with your thighs until the pee goes back up to your stomach.”
My father was a military man who’d barely finished high school and his low-brow visceral humor always irritated my mother. She was a middle school algebra teacher who valued education and propriety, and she told him how idiotic he sounded (“Do you really think that’s how human bodies work?”) Their conversation turned into an argument about how parents ought to speak to their children, and eventually things got so heated that my father started howling obscenities at the top of his lungs. I was too scared to say anything, so I had no choice but to plug up my tube for the rest of the way.
When we finally reached the mosque, my mother and a few of her aunts headed to the women’s section, and my father took me to the men’s section and told me to run to the restroom while he spread out his prayer rug and conversed with my mom’s uncle.
I can’t remember the name of the mosque, but I recall how spacious and labyrinthine it was. One room with grand arches and vaulted ceilings led to another, and all of the rooms were so packed with people that pretty soon, I was lost. I was a frail little boy, too small for my age, and I was terrified of all the adults standing around me in prayer, towering over me with their eyes closed like solemn statues. I was running around frantically with a hand on my crotch, trying not to think about my bladder bursting, and somehow I found myself in a room with a lavish golden tomb, a gargantuan cube glittering beneath a green chandelier. People were gathered around the tomb, slumped against its crisscrossing bars, wailing and moaning as loudly as they could. I’d never seen so many people crying with such passion. I knew this was ziyarat, the ritual mourning that I’d seen on TV, but for some reason I wasn’t convinced that these people were actually sad. My mother cried when my father shouted at her, but this type of crying didn’t seem pained or anguished in any way. It felt overly fretful and hopeless, almost exaggerated.
I tried to squeeze through the crowd and make my way out of the room, but as soon as I rounded the corner of the cube, I ran into a religious cleric and froze. The man was tall with a scraggly beard and a hefty turban that looked haphazardly plopped on his head. He was flicking his prayer beads, muttering something under his breath, and his jutting nose and beetling brows gave him the bellicose air of a vulture. He must’ve been the quietest person in the room, and it was obvious from the way he glanced back and forth that he was judging everyone around him. People were flaunting their misery for him. Whoever could bemoan the death of the holy figure in the cube with utmost conviction was regarded as a momen, a true believer, in his eyes. This entire spectacle was a crying contest that I hadn’t signed up for, and the cleric noticed my lack of participation.
“What’s your name, son?” he crouched in front of me.
I told him and his face lit up.
“Alhamdullilah,” he squeezed my shoulder with a smile, as if I was a miniature version of the Prophet. “What do you have to say to the Imam?” he pointed inside the cube at a coffin bedecked with bouquets of flowers.
I hunched my shoulders and winced. “I gotta pee.”
The cleric frowned. “You have to what?” There was a tug of authority in his voice, a hint of disappointment that made me feel ashamed. I’d never spoken to a cleric before. I knew they were powerful people that I had to respect, but I also didn’t want to lie to him, because lying was a sin.
“How about this?” the cleric took off his turban and placed it on my head. “This will give you some inspiration. I want you to close your eyes and think about what the Imam means to you and your family.”
I closed my eyes like a good boy and tried to think about the Imam (I don’t recall exactly which Imam it was) but the turban on my head, like an oversized cloud, made me feel like I was soaring through the sky, looking down on everything from above. I felt pressured to think of something profound to say, but the only thing that crossed my mind were images of lush meadows filled with delicate flowers that I’d seen on TV. Those images would pop up during intermissions between programs, and they were always accompanied by melancholic music that was meant to encourage viewers to brood about the beauty of God’s creations. I imagined a gargantuan waterfall next to a grassy field, and all of that gushing water, flowing freely, sent a roil through my bladder. Next thing I knew, warmth was spreading through my pants, streaming down my leg, and I stiffened up all of a sudden and opened my eyes.
“The imam gave us water!” I said.
The cleric’s expression softened into a smile. “His Holiness didn’t invent water. But he did cup his hands so that the needy could drink. Did you know that?”
The cleric cupped his palms in front of me, and I imagined an arc of water spouting from my pants into his hands, creating a beautiful little fountain filled with yellow-tinged water, from which the needy could drink.
“But what if the water was impure?”
The cleric furrowed his brow. “That would never happen! Nothing offered by an imam could ever be impure.”
There was something menacing about his confident voice. I could see him raising a cup of urine to my lips and telling me that it was the cleanest water anyone could drink, and what frightened me was that I would believe him, not because I didn’t know any better, but because I’d been conditioned to think that his lies were greater truths that escaped my understanding. And yet I knew for a fact that if he saw the puddle spreading through my pants, he’d accuse me of desecrating the imam’s tomb, of defiling his holy presence, and I’d have to be escorted out of the mosque.
In that moment, I recognized a grave contradiction: what applied to me, didn’t apply to the cleric. He could never commit wrongdoing, because he was infallible. Even his false statements were truths, because only I could make a mistake. Only I could be impure and besmirch something. He was inviolable.
The turban felt uncomfortable on my head, like a mechanical device that was scanning my brain and manipulating my thoughts, so I handed it back to him and excused myself. I remember running out of the room as fast as I could, forgetting where I was going or what I was trying to do, because I was so disturbed. I wanted to get as far away from the cleric as possible. Shame coursed through me, and I felt like I’d been duped or violated. Even after I’d used the restroom and was washing my hands, I could feel the cleric’s gaze on my back, waiting to see whether I’d clean my sullied pants before stepping out into the mosque. I spurted some hand soap on a tissue and wiped my pants, but no matter how much I scrubbed, it wasn’t good enough. I still felt unclean, debauched in some unfathomable way, as if filth was congenital to my being.
That childhood memory fundamentally changed my prayer routine for many years to come. In August 1998, when my family and I moved to the U.S., the country of The Great Satan, I felt even more compelled to purify myself during wudu (ablutions.) For the first five years, we lived in my uncle’s house in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and my uncle used to complain to my parents that I spent way too much time in the bathroom.
“What the heck does he do in there?” he’d ask. For a while, my mother thought that I was masturbating (another filthy sin) but when I told her that I was washing up for prayer, she told me that I was taking it too far.
“You don’t need to be that clean,” she’d say. “It’s not good for you to keep scrubbing your skin with soap.”
“But what if my thighs are dirty? Maybe I accidentally tinkled in my boxers at school or something.”
I had become obsessed with cleanliness. It wasn’t so much germaphobia or a constant need to take showers, but rather my own prolonged version of wudu that I had to enact every day. I always felt icky and contaminated, as if little bugs were crawling up my legs, and I’d mutter Astagfirullah every five seconds at school, asking God to forgive me for being in America, for sitting in class next to girls without veils and boys who always talked about sex.
I suffered greatly during my teenage years, because American culture was too chaotic and unpredictable to me; there was too much freedom, too much spontaneity, too many people living their lives based on their erratic whims and impulses. Nobody seemed to value discretion and modesty. Kids in high school would date one another and break up a week later, just because they felt like it, and teachers would praise students in class who raised their hands and expressed their opinions, as if fourteen-year-olds were entitled to believe whatever they wanted. Americans saw themselves as individuals, not as subjects of God, and that disconcerted me.
It took a long time for me to realize how deeply repressed I was, and why I had unwittingly internalized ideals that were detrimental to my personal growth. I was too ashamed to admit to myself that I’d been heavily influenced by the paradoxical values of the clerical establishment, and that the reason I was struggling to flourish in America was because the lies and contradictions of the regime had suppressed my humanity, rendering me into a passive subject who’d never acquired the taste for freedom, who’d never associated happiness with self-will. It was only after I learned about the origins of the Islamic Republic that I came to terms with why I was the way I was.
From the outset, the 1979 revolution in Iran was riddled with contradictions. The very concept of a revolution, in fact, was antithetical to the principles of the Islamic regime. According to Hannah Arendt, revolution used to simply refer to the movement of celestial bodies; for the longest time, it had no political connotations whatsoever. It only gained its political meaning after concepts like the inalienable rights of human beings and their values as citizens in a society was introduced into public consciousness. Ayatollah Khomeini, the founding father of the Islamic Republic, didn’t believe in political revolutions or in subverting systems of power and privilege. He viewed humans as feeble subjects in need of guardianship, and he denounced ideas like personal liberty and natural rights as colonial constructs imposed upon Iran by the West. And yet what he cunningly devised was a revolutionary movement that ultimately ousted the Shah and catapulted him into power.
During the late 1970s, Iran was in complete disarray, and the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, knew that his days were numbered. According to British Ambassador Anthony Parsons, the Shah’s aggressive economic and modernization plans had failed because “he had ridden roughshod over traditional forces in Iran, creating major inequalities of wealth and appalling social conditions for the urban poor.” In 1978, people were rioting in the streets, complaining that the Shah was a Western puppet who’d squandered all of the country’s oil money, and that he'd reneged on all of his promises to improve society. CIA profiles of the Shah indicate that he’d lost the support of the burgeoning middle-class because he believed that sharing power and democracy “would impede Iran’s economic development.” From a personal standpoint, he was also severely depressed. He’d been diagnosed with cancer, which made him irascible and indecisive, and he no longer had the mental fortitude to deal with the accusations that had been levelled at him his entire life: that he was a feckless leader compared to his father, that he was a wannabee dictator who didn’t know how to dictate.
Meanwhile, Ayatollah Khomeini had been steadily gaining popularity in the country. The Shah had exiled him to Paris, but even from afar, Khomeini was crafty enough to survey the political landscape and recruit supporters from all sides of the spectrum. He’d set up a stellar team of intellectuals to become the public face of his movement, people like Bani-Sadr and Ebrahim Yazdi, and he was giving speeches calling for democracy and socio-economic freedom. He’d quote passages from the Quran that preached tolerance and open-mindedness, reciting verses like “There is no coercion in matters of faith,” and he told the German magazine Der Spiegel that “our future society will be a free one, in which all elements of oppression, cruelty, and force will be destroyed.” He even promised that women would be “free in the selection of their activities, their future, and their clothing.” His democratic disguise was so effective at concealing his despotic determination that even the U.S. embassy in Tehran concluded that his “Islamic movement was far better organized, enlightened, and able to resist communism than its detractors would lead us to believe.” Just about anyone that listened to him was immediately seduced by his rhetoric.
One of the people who saw through his disingenuousness was Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari, a pragmatic cleric who believed that the clergy should be kept out of governmental positions. He was always cordial with Khomeini, but behind the scenes he warned the U.S. that Khomeini was a radical leader who was developing a dangerous ideology called Velayat-e Fagih (the guardianship of the jurist.) Velayat-e Fagih was a theological concept inspired by Plato’s forms; it basically stated that the demos were incapable of governing themselves, and that they needed the guardianship of a jurist, a philosopher who could transcend earthly conceptions and apprehend divine truths, like revelations in the Quran or the Hadith. Essentially, Khomeini wanted to designate himself as an absolute ruler, as the only person who could convey God’s decrees. Shariatmadari suffered terribly for his betrayal of Khomeini. Paramilitary forces stormed his house and ransacked his belongings, and Khomeini publicly humiliated him by making him apologize for his sins on national TV.
About six months after Khomeini returned to Iran to become the Supreme Leader, the American Embassy in Tehran admitted that their assessment of him had been a mistake. They said that Khomeini and a handful of other clerics were “now making decisions on all matters of importance,” and that any kind of rapport between Khomeini and the U.S. was virtually impossible, because he disdained the democratic values that he’d originally championed. When they asked him about his contradictory beliefs, he casually replied that he’d been employing Tagiyeh, the Shiite practice of dissimulation in the service of Islam.
The hostage crisis of 1979-1981 captured the world’s attention, cementing anti-Americanism as one of the central tenets of the Islamic Republic, and eventually, when people learned about the violence and the mass executions of just about anyone who opposed Khomeini, it became obvious that the Islamic Republic was going to become one of the most repressive regimes in human history.
When I consider the current uprising in Iran, I feel conflicted and deeply disturbed in ways that sometimes seem inexplicable. The uprising began last September, after twenty-two-year-old Mahsa Amini was killed by the Morality Police for “improper hijab,” and for several months afterwards people all over the country flooded the streets, chanting “Death to the Islamic Republic!” and destroying signs and murals of the Supreme Leader. Women took off their hijabs in public and burned them in bonfires. People clashed with riot police (Basij members) throwing rocks and sticks at them, and many were beaten by batons and bruised by rubber bullets. The Basij blinded people by shooting pellets directly into their faces. Blindness became something of a phenomenon in Iran; people started posting pictures of themselves on social media, smiling and covering one eye with an ornate eyepatch or a flower, proudly displaying what they’d sacrificed for the revolution. Universities everywhere closed down for some time and students were encouraged to go fight for their rights. For the first time during the era of the Islamic Republic, people of all ethnicities seemed united; Persians, Kurds, Turks, Arabs, and Balochis all stood side by side against the regime.
A little while ago, the regime augmented its scare tactics by publicizing executions of protestors. Everyday there was news that somebody held in Evin (the infamous prison known for housing political dissidents) was going to be hung the next day, and their parents would upload tearful videos begging the regime to spare their child’s life.
I remember my uncle quite well from my childhood days in Tehran. Although he wasn’t particularly religious (he hardly ever prayed or fasted during Ramadan) he was always somewhat staid and reticent, preferring the low-key comforts of conformity. There are many people like him in the country, especially older folks and bazaari’s (merchants) who complain that they’ve been losing money, because rioters have broken into their stores.
“Who’s gonna fix the butcher shop’s shattered window?” my uncle apparently asked my cousin during a family get-together. “The butcher obviously can’t fix it. He doesn’t have enough money. His store has been closed all week!”
My other uncle on my mom’s side, who works in education and oversees a few English-language schools, is also not in favor of overthrowing the regime, because he’s always been a religious man. My father’s theory, however, is that he’s only a strict Shiite because it benefits him.
“The clerics gave him a great job!” my dad told me during Christmas break when I was visiting home. “This guy runs an entire institution by himself, and all he has to do is report to the office once every few weeks and give the cleric sitting behind the desk some updates on how their schools are going. That’s about it. Shoot, I’d be religious too if I had that job!”
“But you don’t think he’s just pretending to be religious?” I asked. “You think he actually believes it?”
“Of course he does! He has no reason to pretend. His beliefs literally made his entire life better.”
My uncles represent a category of Iranian people known as “Qeshr-e Khakestari,” The Gray Layer or The Gray Zone. Gray people are those who refuse to support the 2022 uprising, either because they’re traditionally oriented and vaguely religious, or because they’re strict Shiites who disagree with Velayat-e Fagih, but are benefitting enough from it so as not to want to eradicate it. The chief problem facing the 2022 revolutionaries is that they don’t know how to inspire Gray members to take to the streets against the regime. This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that the Iranian diaspora is vastly divided. An estimated 4 million Iranians live outside of the country, and for decades petty acrimonies and recriminations have caused great rifts in our community, leading to various factions vying for power.
On February 11th, some of the most well-known voices in the diaspora, including Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi and the vociferous women’s rights activist Masih Alinejad, gathered in Georgetown University to discuss the future of democracy in Iran. Many members of the diaspora have lately been hashtagging #vekalatmidaham on social media, endorsing Crown Prince Pahlavi as their representative to transition Iran from clerical rule to a secular democracy. Pahlavi has been handling this attention with shrewd nonchalance.
“I have no interest in power,” he told an interviewer on Manoto, a London-based Persian language channel. “People only trust me as a leader because I’m an unbiased source who assesses this turmoil from the outside.”
Some Iranians have criticized Pahlavi’s motives, because they interpret his nonchalance as a dubious attempt to divorce himself from his infamous last name and his father’s legacy, and thus gain power under a different brand. One of the main groups uttering this criticism is the MEK, Mojahedin-e Khalgh, a politico-militant organization led by the notorious Maryam Rajavi. Over the past few decades, Rajavi has managed to develop strong connections with U.S. congressmen and powerful leaders in the West. On February 11th, an article in The Intercept stated that over 160 members of the U.S. Congress had put forth a resolution endorsing the MEK to bring about a “democratic, secular, and nonnuclear Republic of Iran.” The problem with the MEK, however, is that they’re a brutally oppressive organization. They’ve been accused of cult-like behavior similar to the Church of Scientology, and they’re known for brainwashing, imprisoning, and sexually abusing their members. Defectors of the cult have mentioned torture cells and forced sterilizations of dissidents, and Rajavi’s close relationship with Trump officials and hawkish Republicans has made it abundantly clear that she’s the wrong choice for Iran’s future.
The main challenge for Iranians now is to figure out how to instill a sense of unity in our community. We need to establish an organized plan for how to move forward. As of now, protests in Iran have largely died down, because tension and friction between various groups has resulted in inaction and indecision. No single group or organization has managed to recruit enough supporters under its banner, and history tells us that without unity and a concrete agenda the Islamic Republic will be impossible to overthrow. Ayatollah Khamenei and his murderous henchmen have spent decades bolstering their defensive capacities; the IRGC is one of the most robust and well-maintained terror institutions in the world. It controls an enormous portion of Iran’s economy. It has its own intelligence agency, its own space program, its own extraterritorial operations division, known as the Quds Force, which General Stanley McChrystal has described as a combination of the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command. It’s a heinous monster that continues to grow, but I have no doubt that millions of Iranians, standing arm in arm, could easily defeat it. We Persians have a rich history of justice and liberty. Our culture is filled with dazzling art and poetry that extols the virtues of humanity and exalts in how unfettered the human spirit can be when it sees itself in unison with all.
“Though the words of the great leaders appear in a hundred different forms, since God is one and the Way is one, how can their words be different?” Rumi asks. “Though their teachings appear to contradict, their meaning is one.”
That oneness is human freedom, and it exists beyond words, beyond the rhetoric of political parties, beyond the contradictory teachings of the Islamic Republic. It’s a oneness that’s celebrated in various festivals throughout our culture, such as “Chaharshanbe Suri,” or Scarlet Wednesday, where Iranians gather in the streets to set off fireworks and jump over bonfires, in order to honor the spirit of our Persian ancestors and feel united with them. That oneness is exactly what I wish I’d known as a boy, so that I wouldn’t have felt demoralized by the contradictions of the clerical establishment, and it’s also precisely what Iranians need to remember now, as they search for ways to overlook factional strife and enhance our revolution.
Spring / Summer 2023
The Iran Issue
Mohammad Hakima is an NYC-based author who immigrated to the United States from Tehran, Iran. He began writing after learning English, and his work is published in Popula, Trampset, JMWW, and etc. He works as a high school special education teacher and has an MFA in fiction from The New School.
Parastou Forouhar is an Iranian artist who lives and works in Germany. Her work responds critically to the political and religious fundamentalism that has shaped and defined contemporary Iran. Forouhar processes experiences of loss, pain, and state-sanctioned violence through a range of media that includes site-specific installation, animation, drawing, and photography, using culturally specific motifs from traditions such as Islamic calligraphy and Persian miniature painting. She has exhibited around the world including in Iran, Germany, Russia, Turkey, England, and the United States.