Monday, October 18, 2004

The Garden of Heaven

…at the Garden of heaven. For a long time now, I confused the word for "Garden" (Bagh-eh) with the word for Dad (Babba). So when people told me that they were going to the cemetery (literally for Muslims: Garden of Heaven), I knew where they were going, but I heard "Jeanette's Father" (Farsi speakers will understand my meaning).

I still cannot get over a Thursday visit to the graveyard. It is absolutely packed with visitors. On a recent visit, we were surrounded by a huge group of people commemorating the 40th day after their relative's death. People were everywhere: they were standing on graves, drinking punch and eating dates, and introducing wives and husbands. We arrived late: after the requisite, tear-your-hair-out mourning. It seemed to me that we had stumbled on an engagement party. The smiles were broad. Children were jumping and playing. There was plenty of laughter to go around.

At first I thought that either the person whose death they were commemorating was despised or very old. I think the second was true. There were too many people present for a despised person.

I enjoyed watching. It did, I notice, anger the regular mourners just a bit. They have been visiting the graves of their loved ones every Thursday since they died. I am thinking particularly of the mothers of sons who tragically died in car accidents. There are too many of these mothers at the graveyard and too many of their sons buried below the ground.

K was appalled by the state of the graveyard. Kids practice their aim by throwing rocks through the windows of the mausoleums. Garbage was strewn everywhere. The pavilion that hosts funerals is just an empty metal structure: "And Iran calls itself the center of handicrafts...? Why don't they have some on display here?"

K has a constant running commentary on the state of Iran. He is disgusted with the poor craftsmanship, the lack of will, the corruption, religion, politics, news, football, street decorations, earthquake preparedness. Almost every time we get in a taxi he starts with his complaints. By the end of the ride, he usually has the entire car in stitches. When he is really on a roll, he has his entire audience joining in. It might sound like all he does is whine, but it is a particularly funny and astringent whiner. I see a future for him as a stand-up comic.

I am more like a temp. Once I worked as a temp at a failing company. It was fantastic. I learned a lot. I did not get emotionally involved. I didn't care about the bad management, the bad policies, or the failure of the company. I just cared about getting my work done and learning as much as I could while I was there. That's what it's like for me here. I am a temp in Iran.

Armenian is synonymous with Christian in Iran. They have a special place in Iranian society. The Iranian majority thinks that the Armenian minority is more honest and direct than they are. This of course means that the slightest deviation from those expectations is met with extreme disappointment and even prejudice.

All of the Armenians I meet want to talk to me about America. They want to know about Irvine, Pasadena. Orange County, Beverly Hills, Boston, New York, and Chicago. They plan to meet family in America. They are all waiting for green cards or planning to ask for refugee status in Vienna. "Every Iranian has a plan to leave," K's nephew told me.

I sometimes envy the deep roots of people who stay put. Lately, however, I have been so pleased with my rootlessness. I do not envy the Armenian or Jewish populations of Iran with their deep roots in the country and in the history of Iran/Persia/…. I do not envy the sense of history, the memory of oppression and terror, the memory and reality of fear. I am so happy my family made the decision to move to America and cut their ties with a certain type of past. The gift they gave me was the gift of fearlessness, and I thank them for that.

I am happy with my American sense of history: as something that can be overcome. There will always have to be an America: a place where people can go to reinvent themselves and their histories. I get a sense that history remembered is history doomed to be repeated.

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