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Carrying History

Sahar Delijani

I am a child of the Iranian revolution. In 1983, my mother gave birth to me in Evin Prison, one of Iran’s most notorious jails. She was twenty-seven years old and had been arrested by the Revolutionary Guards of the newly established Islamic Republic. Four years had passed since the Revolution. The Iran-Iraq War was now dragging into its third year and the prisons of Iran swelled with political activists of every persuasion.

Threatened by foreign invasion, determined to solidify its newly achieved political dominion and eliminate any opposition to its ascendancy, the Islamic regime had set upon arresting all those who resisted its monopoly of power and quickly evolving tyrannical rule. Tens of thousands of students and activists—young men and women who had participated in the revolution but did not wish to hand over the country to the clerics and their men—were rounded up across the country. For months, their families had no news of them. They did not know whether their children, spouses, and siblings were dead or alive. Anyone seeking news was brutally turned away.

My father, taken to prison during the same weeks of the year 1983, was a leftist political activist and a student. He had emigrated from a small mountain town in northeastern Iran as one of the top students of his region. He had come to Tehran to pursue his studies, though he was never able to finish his schooling. Sitting on the wet cement floor outside the prison’s bathroom doorway, with a blindfold that had not been removed for forty-five days, all he could think about was his pregnant wife in another jail cell, the two-year-old son they had left behind, and the child that was yet to come.

My father was not the only one in his family behind bars. His three brothers had also been arrested during the same round-up. For years, my father did not see his brothers, though he heard sporadic news of them from friends and relatives. One had been sent to the frontlines of the war after he was released; another had taken his high-school diploma while in prison. My father was able to see the third—a young man named Mohsen with deep brown eyes and contagious laughter—for a few weeks in Evin Prison before his own release. Leaving the prison, looking at Mohsen who was no longer able to move because of severe back pain, my father did not know that this was the last time he would ever see his brother.

In the summer of 1988, the last year of the Iran-Iraq War, a fatwa was issued. The thousands of political activists remaining in prison were summarily executed, their bodies dumped into mass graves. No one knows the exact number—estimates range from 4,000 to 12,000 people. My young uncle was one of them. His body was never returned to the family.

The area where the mass graves were dug was called the Khavaran cemetery but was better known in Iran as La’anatabad, place of the damned. The bodies had been buried so hurriedly and so superficially that a victim’s piece of clothing, another’s devastated face, another’s thick soiled hair soon resurfaced. The graves became a point of contention between security forces and families of the victims who were turned away over and over again, barred from even laying a flower at the site. A few years later, no longer able to fend off the families, the security forces brought in a bulldozer to claw the earth into anonymous flatness.

My generation, the children born after 1979, has heard and read much about what Iran once was but has only lived in what Iran is today. In the 2,500 years of Persian history, ours is the only generation that has lived in a republic and not under a monarchy. That was essentially what the revolution had been about, putting an end to the monarchy and beginning a new era as a republic. However, the revolution took a different turn, giving birth to a theocracy, which set its roots in the ancient land initially through rhetoric and propaganda and later through one of the most atrocious tragedies of recent Iranian history. The mass executions of 1988 were a historical turning point that solidified the new regime as a full-blown dictatorship.

It is a dark day when a government turns against its own people, when it begins to repress instead of protect, to silence instead of listen. The day that a regime, too afraid to look its children in the eye, confronts them with prison, torture, and the gallows, executes them and then annihilates their graves. The day when the government that was supposed to be their ally becomes their most ruthless enemy.

That is the solitude that befalls a people when they are betrayed and abandoned. It is solitude of unimaginable enormity. When unknown men break into their house at night, blindfold them and take them away, and they have no one to call. They cannot call the police, or a lawyer, or a soldier, or a doctor, or even a priest. They are there in the dark cell, alone, with absolutely no control over their present or their future. This solitude leaves such deep scars that their children, who have never had to experience the darkness of a prison cell, will too be altered by it. The world as these children come to know it is a place where their parents are considered enemies and therefore they are always seen as suspects. It is like living on the edge of a precipice—one wrong movement and it is a nosedive into the abyss.

You learn from the very beginning that losing someone is as easy as one small wrong decision. The precipice is always there and even if you walk gingerly, measuring every step, inching cautiously forward, a great and merciless hand could simply nudge you over the edge, just as happened to your parents.

A dictatorship is not simply wrong in political terms, because it breeds corruption and violence and backwardness. Dictatorships are, above all, human catastrophes because they seek to make you believe that there is nothing out there for you, that your dreams are not your own, that your bodies are not your own, that your intellect, your ability to think, is not your greatest asset but a punishable source of evil, and that your lives are not your own domains where you grapple with your integrity, but rather an arbitrary space where life can be given or taken at any moment.

Dictatorships are catastrophes because they steal away your childhood and all its innocence. When people are forcibly silenced— physically or psychologically—that innocence is shattered and replaced with solitude. In that moment, you come face to face with the depth of that solitude, understanding that if one night they come
and take your parents away, you will not be able to do anything, and if one night, they come and take you away, your parents will not be able to do anything. And even though years pass, the solitude remains. Even though your body grows, it is always the body of a child who has never learned how tall she can really stand.

I was once asked whether I would ever stop being the child of political activists, the child born in prison, the child with a bracelet of date stones secretly made in jail by her imprisoned father and hidden in her clothes during a fleeting visit. At first, I thought the question was meant to be about me as a writer, whether such a past would continue to haunt my writings until it has been exhausted, until all the stories have been told. But then I realized the question was about me as a person, as Sahar. Who is Sahar beyond the child born in prison? And perhaps it went even deeper than that. It was about who is Sahar, but also about who are Sheida and
Omid and Neda and Sara? Who are these children who have been hurt since the beginning? The children whose births were tied to death, whose childhoods were formed by separation? Who are the children of the revolution—the children raised with slogans such as “tulips have been born from the blood of our youth”? Who are the children who were so used to being called “the burnt generation” that they hardly ever stopped to ponder what it really meant. Who are these children and what is their relationship with their past? How do they seek to make sense of their country, of the revolution and their parents’ participation in it? How do they come to grips with the pride and grief and confusion that have followed them since the beginning of their existence?

Will you always be the child born in prison? The question continues to echo in my head. Or will you unbind yourself from that past? Will you become something else? Will you become a child with a normal birth story to tell? Or rather, no birth story at all to speak about.

It is not about tears, I realize. It is about memory, the memory of every one of us, every child whose birth marked the birth of a nation. This is not a question about my past. It is a question about our historical memory. It is about being a child of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and knowing that this republic once created every obstacle possible for me not to be born at all.

I do not believe memory to be something of the past. I believe memory to be a living entity—present, necessary, indestructible—something that breathes and grows and sings and lays the foundation for what we are to become both as individuals and as a nation. It is the foundation upon which we have to construct our present and our future. It is not something that ceases to exist only because we are impatient to reach better days. Better days can never be made possible without having memory to stand upon, solid and resolute. If the last thirty years of Iranian history has been of war and violence and repression and turmoil, it has also been thirty years of fighting and resisting. It is thirty years of having not forgotten, despite all, those ideals of a more just and equal and free society and still being willing to fight for it.

And now, those children, that “burnt generation,” have grown and have set out to find their voice, through revolting and voting, through colors be they green, purple or red, through slogans and poetry, through stone throwing and article writing, through exile and prison, through Facebook and YouTube, through elections and protests, through chanting and discussing, falling apart and re-gathering, giving speeches at university entrances, taking off their headscarves to tend to another’s gunshot wound, calling their own children Sohrab and Neda. Because they know their past was once their parents’ present and their memories once their parents’ nightmares. And it is not so much about finishing what has been left undone but about setting time in motion and about knowing that carrying history with you has never meant falling short of the future.