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October 17, 2003

Waking Dreams
Guest Author: Amir Togha

girls.jpgA few years ago I cast off my apathy at long last and began to feel responsible for the fate of the human species. Not all humans, of course. Mainly Iranians. I was not thinking of them as distinct individuals, though. Iranians en masse! I was mostly concerned about the budding youth, the children in any of the many Ali-Abads of that vast land that is stretched from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf, from Khoy to Chah-Bahar, and from Khorram-Shahr all the way to Sarakhs and more --the country that I had spent all my childhood in.

For some inexplicable reason or perhaps because of some condition I was developing, the sights and scenes that I had seen, the sounds and voices that I had heard and the scents and smells that I had smelled all those years long gone had started to surface and haunt me. As if they were all saved in a hitherto locked chamber of my memory that somebody had inadvertently unlocked.

The jasmine tree that was hanging out from above the wall of a neighbor's house would just pop up in my mind when I was in class writing something on the board for my naughty students who innocently did not have the slightest idea where I had come from. A tree that I used to stop my bike under, reach up and fill my lungs with the heavenly fragrance of its little snow-like flowers when it was in full bloom.

I was all of a sudden concerned about the little kids in those remote villages of my country where the ever-present ever-pungent odor of the animals' manure mixes with the aroma of the burning wood. Children who, given the opportunity, would lead the future of a country that, for whatever irrational reason, I so much cared about.

But why on earth did I even care? I was not living there anymore! Or was I?

I don't know. There was no logical explanation that I could think of. Maybe I cared because I had been born and raised there; that I knew the people, their generosity, kindness, and readiness to make sacrifices for their friends, as well as their meanness, nosiness, and hypocritical ways. After all, I myself was one of them.

I had not been born in China, India, Luxembourg or Burkina Faso! By sheer accident, I was born in Iran to parents who were born there before me to parents who were born there before them. Truth be told, none of us had a say in where we would like to be born. Then living amongst them, I gradually learned and internalized their special ways of handling Life.

Let's not philosophize about whether I could have been born somewhere else to different parents, with blond hair and light-colored skins or flat noses and thick lips. After all, that person would probably not be me. Only I am I! Nevertheless, I more or less looked like the people I could see around me; at home, in school and on streets. Like them, I had one big Iranian nose, two dark eyes, still darker hair and a pair of bushy eyebrows.

To make a long story short, I felt responsible. But I had a very hazy idea of what I should or could do with that burden. The urge to change the world that gnaws at normal people in their late teens and early 20's was taking shape in me around the beginning of my fourth decade. God, I was so behind!

Regular people in their 30's are already too experienced, or disillusioned, to dream about improving anything beyond the confines of their personal life. Even accomplishing that much would call for a celebration. Buying a new car, getting a job promotion, or even getting to paint the house would fill them with a joy and happiness that they know very well they should treasure.

Then in their late 30's, when they are approaching the next age with a big zero in it, they would prepare, as any wise person would, for their midlife crisis. Now with the pace of my progress in life, only heaven knows when I will get there. In fact, my "midlife" crisis may hit me long after I am dead!

The urge started to die away before I took action. Which again worried me for a different reason. I mean I had not taken advantage of the golden opportunity that had finally knocked at my door. The urge was now giving way to guilt. There is always something to suck the joy out of your life! But what should I have done with this belated overwhelming sense of social responsibility anyway?

Well, I did nothing. Don't blame me! What could I have done? It's funny I did not even try to get rid of her. She had been sitting there for a long time, nagging at me constantly. But she did not make sense at all. What did she want from me? "Get off my back, already," I'd whisper cautiously. So we lived together an uncomfortable life. She would get on my nerves every now and then, spoiling the fun every single time I tried to enjoy my American moments.

The mental pictures continued to pop up on the wide screen. They were just out of control. My only reaction was to sulk. Lately, she does not even bother. I must have disappointed her. Could it be that she has given up on me? Or is it that I have come to my senses and given up on redirecting the course of the history of mankind? Or even making a difference...

Amir Togha entered the world in a hospital in Shiraz, Iran. He later obtained a licence in pure math from Kerman University and visited Italy. Amir now lives, somewhat happily, in Arlington, Virginia, trying to complete his 35th cycle around the sun. The above piece is his first attempt at writing an autobiographical fiction.
Ghazal at October 17, 2003 12:39 PM [permalink]:

I remember we had a story in our high school Persian literature about an old man called Aligholi who lived in soviet Azerbaijan and his only wish was that if he could only hear azan from the minaret of their mosque. Back then I couldn’t really sympathies with him but now when I think about how much I am obsessed with my own past memories and how much I miss them I automatically remember Aligholi.
I like to think someday I will live in a small town in Iran , in a clay house with a garden of flowers and berries where there is going to be a small pool in the middle and red fishes will swim in it. I like to think I will go to the line again and get a Sangak (some kind of bread). Or in Ramadan I can go and buy Zolbia bamiyeh (special candies). I can hear the sound of azan at sunset, and I can talk to people who know where Iran is and I don’t have to explain to them that it may snow in Iran or what is our language or we are terrorist or not and I could be of some help for these people.

Kaveh Kh. at October 17, 2003 12:43 PM [permalink]:

A (wo)man's home is at the heart of all those (s)he loves.

Ordak D. Coward at October 17, 2003 05:43 PM [permalink]:

I learnt my lesson the hard way. The lesson is that I am not responsible to anybody in this life and that the social responsibility that I somehow believed in it up to a few years back, is another form of "opium for the masses". Now, I understand that only my (not even my family) "peace of mind" is the ultimate goal, and every other social or ethical value I had could only be looked as a possible option on the path to achieve my peace of mind.

PS. I sense that SG is not going to comment on author's article this time :)

Mehrad at October 17, 2003 05:53 PM [permalink]:

I simply liked your story, Amir!
Honestly, I have never understood those Iranians who say they've got nothing important to miss in Iran.

Mehrad at October 17, 2003 06:31 PM [permalink]:

Dear Ordak,
You're lucky; as you can, at lesat, be sure about reaching your ultimate goal someday and enjoy it forever.
I truely believe that Life sucks, so let's not get too emotional about the lessons it teaches us! It always has new ones to teach...

Hazhir at October 17, 2003 06:38 PM [permalink]:

Thanks Amir for sharing your feelings with us, I enjoyed reading your post... by the way, you are writing here, so you are making some difference, by nurturing this virtual Iranian community:)

Kaveh Kh. at October 17, 2003 11:33 PM [permalink]:

Actually I think Amir is not after anything but that peace of mind that Ordak refers to, in fact self-satisfaction has many faces.

Amir refers to those poor Iranian children as spectacles of misery and destitute. I am not sure if they, say those cute little girls, would agree to such renditions of themselves. They would definitely find their life hard --harder than those who spent some of their hours in the blackout periods, harder than those ravaged by terrorist attacks, harder than those of the American homeless, and harder than the futureless Palestinians. But many of them will admit that they are enjoying their lives! You may say it is because of their ignorance, irrelevance, or even religious arrogance. That is only a twisting of the fact...

The fact is that it is us, not them that are feeling the misery and destitute in our hopeless desire of projecting our "self" on the outside world. In this we are hopeless, but not alone.

Iman Aghilian at October 18, 2003 01:44 AM [permalink]:

I have taken up "active irresponsibility". I would not blame myself should I decide not to take action in some situation. And I recognize my empathy and compassion(I pass on this one. This term is already badly spoilt.) as real feelings that I may or may not take action on.

AIS at October 18, 2003 02:15 AM [permalink]:

Dear Amir,
I really enjoyed your article, since it shares a lot with my own feelings. Well, to be honest I never have cared for the adults in Iran, but only for children and for animals. Perhaps because I never identified myself with the main mentality and culture here, but I regard adults as responsible for their own lives, and they are responsible for a lot of the misery they living in. (That's still a bit self-deception, but hey I can't live without this much! as a friend once told me, self-deception is a great virtue!) But childer are different. Even more so are animals. I know it's perhaps irrational but I can't help it. I suffer for the dogs and cats and cows and chickens and deers and even mice in Iran, their condition, the fact that they get shot in the streets, get killed in savage conditions for food, worse of all for pleasure as in hunting or fishing...I feel this guilt whenever I look in a dog's or a cat's eyes-I know it sounds stupid but I can't help it!
in a sense I understand completely your feelings, and I can to say that it is not a result of being outside of Iran.

As for all this being another selfish effort to ease our mind, this might be true but that is irrelevant. The fact that we have the instinctive ability to put ourselves in others (particularly the victims') place is what makes us 'human' and evolutionary speaking is what made our social life possible as well as the moral progress of our civilisation. We are perhaps still instinctively trying to help ourselves, but this ability makes us help others. The fact that we are doing it for ourselves does not mean that the victims are not suffering and that helping ease their pain is not going to benefit them. Such claim is another self-deception.
In this sense, morality is not what the world is based on, the world is cruel and immoral to the very core, but morality is a human addition to the world and struggling for it is like building a new edifice over nature; not bringing back an ideal golden age of divine past that can be doen by revolutions or fanaticisms. Yet since we are evolved to instinctively view the world from other's point of view, we are 'naturaly' moral creatures. The fact that the nature knows no morality does not make it an unimportant 'artificial' waste of time. The effort to make morality, to bring 'God' into the world (in which no God really exists) is the greatest thing we can do, and I think we can't live a fulfulling life without it. The reason for the latter ,In my worldview, is blind evolutionary reasons.
Who knows, that's perhaps nature's perverse way of being moral after all.

Mehrad at October 18, 2003 10:35 AM [permalink]:

I'm wondering how you could be so sure about "The fact that it is us, not them that are feeling the misery and destitute in our hopeless desire of projecting our "self" on the outside world."

Kaveh Kh. at October 18, 2003 10:57 AM [permalink]:

Correct version:
"The fact that it is ME, not them that are feeling the misery and destitute in MY hopeless desire of projecting MY "self" on the outside world."

I can never be sure of others' opinions.

Senior Grad at October 18, 2003 11:29 AM [permalink]:

Why, O. Coward, did you think that SG would not give you a piece of his mind here? As our friend, Ali M. once bemoaned: "Why, O., why?" ;-) True, I have not much to say against (or perhaps even nothing *about*) Iranian children, but why did you think I was incapable of diputing *stories*, that are *not* exactly arguments. :-) (See the comments below Kaveh Kh.'s latest article!)

So anyway I have a bit of a disagreement with your position, although I perfectly understand (or I would like to think so) where you're coming from. I myself have not been able to resolve the dilemma for myself, so don't get all defensive on me. :-) In fact, I agree with you that it all boils down to one's "peace of mind", or as our beloved Americans would put it, one's happiness.

But then again by concentrating on yourself and caring only for your own needs, somehow paradoxically, you tend to lose that peace of mind that are after. It's ancient wisdom and there is a famous saying expressing this truism, but I can't remember it, so I paraphrased it.

Sometimes, as counter-intuitive as it sounds, it is by genuinely caring for *others* that you achieve that peace of mind for yourself! Okay, now you're saying this shows that that apparent act of benevolence, since it has resulted in your own peace of mind, has been just another selfish undertaking of yours. Well, this is the dilemma I am referring to, and I guess you're wrong here, Ordak, as ordaks are very well-known to be. :-)

See, if something comes about as a by-product of your pursuing your noble intentions, then you cannot claim that that by-product has been the goal you had in mind all along; can you? I don't really know, maybe we should ask Mulla Sadra or Bertrand Russell to shed a light on this dilemma!

Vahid at October 18, 2003 02:43 PM [permalink]:

Very beautiful and touching piece. Thanks for sharing it with us Amir.
When I finished my guidance school and went to high school, I was happy and excited, but after two month, I suddenly missed my old school and friends, and classrooms, and teachers, of my old school. I realized how dependent I became to my memories, and at the same time I learned that life is like a river and you cannot repeat the old memories, what is gone, is gone!
Now it is 3 years that I am living away from Iran. Strangely I do not miss much, and I do not think about my memories. This worries me, because it is not like me, it is like I am avoiding my past. This gives me a mixed feeling, it makes me feel good, since I do not miss home, but at the same time fills me with envy of people like you, how are dreaming about our beloved Iran. Because nostalgia can be a mix of sweetness and bitterness. You are longing the memory, but you also enjoy having the memory and dreaming about it over and over. It is like “Faraagh_e yaar” (being away from friend).
I do not know where are my memories, I am sure I have them somewhere, maybe they come and reside in me again. Since then I am going to enjoy my life.

a at October 18, 2003 05:03 PM [permalink]:

Very funny faces in the picture. Did someone mention cute ones?

Ghazal: I really enjoy it each time that I explain to an American that it snows in Iran.

Nasser at October 22, 2003 02:02 AM [permalink]:

dear all,
that was really a nice writing. you know dudes.I think our spirits still live in iran.we are facing a dilemma between the cultyral and spiritual values on the one hand, and Material values on the other hand. let's admit it dudes that all we can find in western countries is a good job and having a financially peaceful life with access to recent tecknology.But in Iran we can find our oringin.we i remember the times I spent with my grandparents being on a SOFREH eating GHEYME and GHORME SABZI, I can not help thinking of it.I am obssessed with my previous life in Iran.That was all love, laugh with friends and relatives.I could find iranian guys and friends that i could speak with them comfortabley about our common concerns.Dude i have a recommendation.let's find a kind of job that let us to be connected to iran.i have made up my mind to do that, finding a job that let me to live in both worlds and benefit from both countries.I am studying law in Australia.I ranked 7th in KONKOOR and I came here to pursue my studies with lots of ambitions.But I found life here so Non-spiritual.that is why I want to find that kind of job.what you guys say.lets back and serve our country, and be proud of being iranian with profound culture.

Shiraz at October 22, 2003 04:57 PM [permalink]:

Nice article! When is the autobiography going to be published?

Well, I'm not in a position to say if we have a responsibility towards our country or not. But I have been observing my friends and what I see in some of them, myself included, is that “somehow” we feel responsible even though we don’t know how we can be of help. We are sort of torn apart between our own expectations from life (job opportunities, freedom, good education, etc.), which we think we can achieve them better in western countries, and the feeling that as citizens of another country we have to give something back.

But the fact is that “that other country” is so much more different from where I am living now that my everyday life here makes me feel guilty. I don’t know how would I feel, had I come from another industrial country. Would I really feel guilty for every time I go online and print the paper that I need in 2 sec. without any hassle? Would I be overwhelmed by seeing how much money is being spent for doing an experiment and how easy is to buy expensive instruments? I don’t think so.

So, the fact that I know students like me in my country are having a lot of struggles to have the basics for their research and I don’t, makes me feel bad. They cannot do anything about it, the same way that I couldn’t. Except, I managed to run away. But this running away is not a long-term solution. It is not the answer to the problem.

I know, a lot of you will say that the problems in our country are much more grave than what we can fix. Maybe deep in my hearth I acknowledge that. But it doesn’t help me feel less guilty. I still think, there should be a way that we could make things better. In my opinion, becoming indifferent is selfish. What would happen if everybody was indifferent? Would things get better? Of course not.

Besides the feeling of responsibility, there is the feeling of nostalgia. Apparently some people don’t have this extra burden. I find it strange but I believe them. Sometimes these two feelings mix together and result in ones confusion about his/her status in life. I must confess, I’m one of those very confuse and undecided people. Hopefully some people will share their thoughts and make it easier for people like me to find their way.

Amir at October 23, 2003 02:31 PM [permalink]:

I should like to thank FToI editors for accepting my piece and also for their useful suggestions and the interest they showed. I should also thank those who took time to leave a comment for their interest and caring to share their point of view. I also hope I will have the chance to contribute more to this fantastic "dialogizer" in the future.

I would also like to write briefly in regard to some of the comments above. For example, about snowing in Iran, I don't mind explaining it to non-Iranians, but whenever I do so, they still stare at me with wide open eyes, as if they're telling me how I dare say such big lies. They probably conclude that Iranians are the biggest liars on earth. Showing them pictures of snowy streets of Tehran doesn't help much either.

I take side with Senior Grad on Ordak D. Coward's egoistic perspective, but also sympathize with a similar attitude expressed by Iman Aghilian. It helps sometimes to be aware of one's emotions, but too much such awareness spolis everything, because it is too cerebral. For example, instead of actually being happy, you "recognize" that you are happy! Therefore, if a man is too aware of one's emotions, then he can never have children!

There is a difference between autobiography and autobiographical fiction. Since there has not been much worth "-graphy" in my "bio-" so far, I suppose an autobiography will have to wait at least for another 35 years! If by that time I am alive and well and remember my past, then I will write an autobiography. But whether anyone will publish it is another story!

Writing good fiction also requires things that I currently lack. For example, experience, a lot of time, a wild imagination, a humongous vocabulary, an aptitude for making up stories, and a certain craze and zeal that won't let you do anything else beside writing, similar to what Kundera terms as "graphomania". Unless and until I acquire them, I better save myself the embarrassment of producing mediocre writing. At least not in the form of a book.

Steppenwolf at October 26, 2003 02:53 PM [permalink]:

For those who feel responsible, and those who do not (Like Iman Aghilian), there is nothing so romantic about the children living their life in their homeland, romanticism and nostalgia come out of "ignorancia" (as kundera says). The problem is that some of us feel really "special".