(This essay contains fragments from a talk I presented at a symposium in Melbourne in Aug 2018.)
Today, I open my talk with an extract of a poem by Forough Farokhzad, my presentation today is about her sense of longing in her poetry. She unabashedly put forth her uncensored words about feminine desire, sexuality, loss and love and she effected the Iranian literary scene at a time when women were preferred to be dolls. She was rebellious.
She defied her mother’s oppressive wishes as a child for her to be a good girl. She engaged in pissing contests with her brothers and was not bound by unspoken codes of norm for women. Today I will say a few words about the mother who gave birth to Forough and I. A different kind of mother and I intertwine my words with her poems of the 50s.
Over the course of my recent journey to the motherland, I encountered a woman in her 60s who was an Iranian expat and I heard her say that this time in Iran she had felt “at home” and that “she had not felt like a foreigner”. I was surprised by her admission to have other times felt foreign. I applauded her courage to speak with such clarity, because it is anxiety provoking to return to the places that were once familiar, but now they have become unrecognizable.
It is rather comfortable to fantasize about belonging to a place that knows and expects my return. A longing to return to the illusory fusion with the mother-land, to become one again, in a land of no frustration, where I join a body of knowledge, my language is understood and there is no responsibility or desire. Upon separation, one may no longer find the way or navigate it the way, one, once did. Returning to the places that one belonged and the fear of becoming unrecognizable.
I am reminded of the song from the Tehran band, Pallett, about a man who returned to his city in Syria and no longer recognized it. The song goes like this in German:
I was touched by these moving words. I had also felt welcomed into this city. The motherland welcomed me back into its bosoms year after year and allowed me to be filled with things that could not be put into words. I had attempted to describe the feelings unsuccessfully to an English listening analyst. For example I had attempted to describe how one feels when walking on the longest street in the middle east, Valiasr street, which connects more than just the north to the south, going right through the downtown, covered on each side in rows of leafy and tall platanus trees, a bicycle lane for the one who dares to use it, shops, familiar smells of food, and of course the thing I miss the most, the familiar sound of my mother’s language.
I had lived for several years in a part of Melbourne that resembled this street. St Kilda was pretty close to home. I only became aware of this when I moved houses to a new suburb and spoke about the extent to which St Kilda Road had resembled Tehran’s tree-lined boulevards.
I thought I was the only child who enjoyed watching the neighbor’s house that was wrapped in ivy being rained and snowed on every winter, and I recall being upset the day that it was knocked down to make way for a new building.
An old man in his 80s carried a boom box in a trolley, which he pushed the heavy object with great difficulty. He was playing a famous slow-dance song with cheeky lyrics on one of those tree-lined streets.
This elusive scene was another one of those Iranian moments that are difficult to be encapsulated by rational logic or be put into words. His performance arouse conflicting emotions in the listener. It seemed that too many forbidden things were being played all at once. An old man speaking through this seductive music of his desire for a love, but not clear what this was. Too much was being revealed with this song and not enough. I was unsure how to interpret this. One could easily dismiss his fantasy and his protest as the irrational actions of a bored old man who has possibly lost his mind. He must return to doing what old men do, play chess in park-e Laleh, pray at the local mosque or feed the pigeons. He should stop this childish demonstration at once!
These elusive performances across Tehran continued. The artists had made creatures from the stumps of the trees that the council had cut down. These were historic trees. The very old platanus trees that were witness to Tehran’s famous boulevards had also fallen victim to the executioner’s blades, condemned to their death, silenced for standing tall, all these years. They had been our ‘patient stone’, as one would say in Persian, unmovable, impenetrable, the city’s silent witnesses.
Legend has it that the tree that marked the battle between Alexander and Darius was also a platanus tree. Someone asked, “has anyone noticed the mysterious disappearing of the platanus trees on Valiasr street?” – I wondered if anyone would notice the presence of the absence of anything in Melbourne, or was it just in Tehran that people had become hyper sensitive to losing more of their love objects.
But somewhere along the way we forgot – it is not the trees that give testimonies. Trees have no words. Trees do not have ears. Trees neither have an unconscious nor have any subjectivity. Although sometimes, I had wondered if my psychoanalyst was also a platanus tree. The trees gave way to creatures with eyes, in fact they were everywhere, and Tehran had become a wonderland. The reality was that the city had exploded in size and needed to make way for new developments.
The compounding oppression had produced a culture of not speaking but acting out. When the big Other has become structurally ‘deaf’, the subject has no other option and may be forced to express her message in actions. Therefore, the messages were coming forth in a strange, unexpected and deformed way. There was shouting in the silent lines and in the performances, in forms of art, and in what was not said. It was in the painstakingly hand painted Persian tiles on the pavements. Who put them there? Why put them there? Why invest effort in covering the city’s potholes with delicate hand painted Persian tiles? Was this part of the council’s “beautifying Tehran” project, or a few vigilantes making a spectacle of this beautiful city’s mismanagement?
These performances around the city had lead to interpretations and headlines with double meanings. Tehran had become a theater with a stage. Suddenly, the uniformity one used to see covering Tehran was no longer there. The city’s destiny was no longer predicted by its street names. The martyrs – the city’s dead objects. The catastrophic eight year war with Iraq had lead to millions of civilian deaths and martyrs who became Tehran’s street names. But, people had mourned the dead and wanted to live. The city was finding its colour and its vigor. The children had grown up, and were making subtle attempts at seeking a desire of their own. It seemed that someone had moved the city’s limit signs and I was finally in the right city.