by Elaheh Farmand
In quarantine, my mother and grandmother recall their time in prison in Iran. They see some similarities: an uncertain future, a sense of fear, a sense that death is closer to home. In lockdown, both women feel restless. My grandmother sits by the telephone in her apartment in Tehran, alone with her god. My mother in the apartment she shares with my father and my older brother in the States, missing visits with her 8 year-old granddaughter. The women have been through this before.
They laugh recalling the memories. It’s a bitter laugh of course. But they’ve both chosen to live and laugh their way through their lives after prison. One does not know how it’s possible to endure such hardships unless one lives through similar pains.
But here is a snippet of that pain: You join a revolution, imagining that you will do good for your country. You believe in it so strongly that you give up motherhood even for the sake of saving the children of the entire country. You imagine that this fight for your country’s liberation from dictatorship is worth the risk, worth leaving your marriage, worth leaving your children. But the result is unexpected, and the reality of a new regime is even worse than the former. You are arrested and imprisoned for your activism without a fair and just trial. You miss years of motherhood, while facing an uncertain sentence. Death awaits, and everyday you wonder if it’s come for you. You watch young lives being taken away, countless executions, countless unjust and unnecessary deaths. You learn of both of your brothers’ executions. Your aging father dies, his memory deteriorated from Alzheimer’s, and he does not recognize you on his death bed. Your mother is arrested too, and you fear that she will not survive. When you are released from prison at last, your children have grown and you feel as though you’ve stepped into someone else’s life, intruded upon the new lives of your children as they matured faster than most in order to cope with your absence.
Imagining quarantine for five years in a 6 x 6 foot cell, six months of which you spend blindfolded, might be hard. But it gives one perspective, a perspective in which we may recognize and see our privileges. Every minuscule task you can do freely, do not take it for granted. If you can safely walk around your neighborhood, if you can make a cup of coffee and look outside your window, if you can walk freely even within the limits of your room, of your home, do not take them for granted. If you can stay home knowing you are protecting yourself and your neighbors, don’t take this for granted. If you have a safe home at all to begin with, don’t take that for granted.
Or imagine life in Gaza for instance, where the people are forever imprisoned, where the Israeli government controls everything: how much food the people get, what medicine (if any) they have access to. This genocide is slow and painful, and the above doesn’t even begin to summarize it. But learning of such stories, reading about them, educating ourselves is a first step to having perspective, to appreciating our privileges a little more, and perhaps (and hopefully), lead to our awakening as a society.
There are countless stories of bravery to be told. Stories of immigrants who risk everything to leave an oppressive government, to make a better life for their children, parents who will do anything to protect them, who don’t have the luxury of privilege, who are constantly in fear, fear of deportation perhaps, fear of uncertainty in a new country, fear of not making ends meet.
I remind myself daily of such stories, and of my own privileges as a documented immigrant, as a citizen. I wish I had fully grasped the magnitude of my privileges in my childhood years, in my teens, even early 20s. My mother once said that I should go back and live in Iran for two years to fully understand how good I have it in America, to grow up and be more mature. It was tough love sure, and I was hurt, with an immense sense of guilt and shame. But I now understand what she meant then. I understand it so well.
I hope we wake up to the reality of the mess we’ve created, the lack of appreciation for our mother earth, the pollutions we’ve created, the waste we’ve produced. I hope we recognize that what we deemed “normal” is not good enough, that the norm we had before the pandemic was toxic, unjust, irrational and that it’s our lack of awakening that has led us here. I hope we awaken to the entrapment of capitalism as we struggle with magnitudes of debt to own a house, to have higher education, to have health care. We are entrapped by a capitalist economy where we work more than before for less pay as global wages continue to decrease. We must wake up to class consciousness, organize, and demand that business as usual is not OK, and that is in fact the problem. We must disrupt it; we must dismantle it.
My inherited suffering from my mother’s family is hardly comparable to actual suffering, but it allows me this perspective. I hope that we can all continue to share these stories because how can we expect others to awaken if we ourselves are not aware, if we ourselves remain in slumber?
Elaheh Farmand immigrated to the U.S. when she was 11 years-old, leaving her birth country of Iran. In 2016, she founded Immigrants & Exile, a space in which artists can share their feelings of nostalgia, longing, and exile. (www.immigrantsandexile.org)