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Home page > Articles > Broken Peace / Mina Siegel

Broken Peace / Mina Siegel

Friday 19 August 2011

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Feministschool: Seymour Hersh was on the Bryan Lehrer show. Making my coffee, I tried to block myself from hearing what I did not want to hear. I knew what to expect: They will bomb Iran. Not a big one. Just a cute mini one, a mini nuke! And they will drop it just on the nuclear facility. Ah, they will be smart, too. Smarter than those they dropped on Iraq and killed some 200,000 people. Ah, and safe, too! Yes, that was the problem. Iraq’s bombs were not cute and were not safe, just smart, but these are well-crafted, not only the result of a scientist’s mind but of artists and designers skills! Yes, industrial designers!

“… planning to have an air attack …” I rushed to turn the radio off, I guess with more rage than haste, when I heard something shatter. Pieces of a big crystal bowl splashed all over my cobble stone kitchen floor. I bent to pick up the remote control under a small gold plaque separated from the broken bowl. “50th Anniversary”

It was too late! I heard what I did not want to hear, Hersh finished his sentence: “… on the nuclear facilities there.”

I did not move. “No, no, it won’t happen, it won’t happen. Why, why, why? What is wrong with these people? Crazy, they all are crazy.”

I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. I squatted and pick up the plaque instead.

“Breaking?”

“How did that happened?”

“How did I do that? Breaking?” I whispered as I glanced around to see if my father was to appear through the kitchen door.

“No, tell him I did it, I’m stronger, let him punish me.” My brother was not around to comfort me either. Just the echo of the words stabbing me: breaking….artists… artisans… you… stupid… you break, result , workmanship … what if … arrested … going to jail; all incoherent, all meaningless, all vague. It was not the first time. It happened before when one event called for the rest to follow, words, fears, crying, sobbing, silence, guilt, anger, and remorse. It happened to me for years, over and over again, until it became a blurry area in my life; and later on it became my whole life, a blurry life, somewhere between being Iranian and American simultaneously, both and neither, mind here and heart there, or the other way around.

I touched the gold plaque. It was my husband’s grandparents’ golden anniversary memorandum given to us as a wedding present. Believing in coincidences in history, thinking their blessed 75 years of marriage would be carried to our married life, I always kept it in my very rustic kitchen that I had modeled after our kitchen in the military camp near Tehran in Iran, where I was born and lived all my childhood. But this one was an irony, an unlucky coincidence, another Fiftieth Anniversary! Why should that happen now?

****

I heard my father’s voice getting louder and louder. When he could not raise it higher, he hung up. In few seconds everybody scurried away somewhere, probably so as not to be within his reach. Everyone but my mother, who tried to calm him by saying, “I’m sure it is just a rumor. He is young, but not foolish.” All I could detect among the complicated grownups’ conversations was that my brother broke something related to art and artisans. It seems whatever was broken could not be fixed or replaced. What could it be? We had been punished before for breaking stuff, even accidentally, which was really forbidden in our family, but none had made my father so mad, so terrifying.

Still, all I can remember from that night is my father’s fury and anger and the few days of silence that followed. I’m not even sure how long those days lasted before ending with a very strange accident. It was midday when my father and two other colonels who were living nearby rushed back home. His friends did not even stay for a tea or to say goodbye properly. My father walked to the living room and turned on the radio. Very soon my mother was running down the hill, my brothers and a few other students following her. It seems she had dismissed her summer class. She joined my father in the living room listening to the radio, though the transmission was not so good. Every so often my parents, uttering a nasty word, slapped the radio or moved the antenna. The phone rang a few times, and each time ended with short and hurried conversation. After a few minutes, my father picked up the phone and called my brother in Tehran who was living with my aunt. He was not home yet. He hung up, furious again.

Being the youngest, I felt ignored, as though no one even noticed I existed. Instead, everyone took note of the radio. I asked the maid what was happening. “Nothing. You wouldn’t understand. Just go and play,” she answered. But I did understand. It had something to do with whatever my brother had broken. In the evening, the telephone calls stopped. Shortly thereafter, the electricity went off as well. By nightfall silence and darkness shrouded the whole compound. My mother, very grim, called us all and told us that we should not go beyond the fence around our porch.

“It is a serious matter and you will get shot if you go out. You should stay inside until tomorrow morning.” She sent my brothers to their study room to do their homework, and asked them to watch after me though I stayed around to see what is happening. She went to the kitchen with our maid and took all the dishes off the shelves and asked her to take them to the dining room, while she herself started preparing food. The pile of dishes and glasses indicated we were expecting a considerable numbers of guests, yet the atmosphere of the house was not exactly festive. The maid brought some oil lamps and candles and placed them all over. She then brought in all the extra chairs and stools and even benches from the porch and placed them in our big living room and around the dining room, adding a leaf to extend the dining table as well.

Soon, aroma of the food filled the house; however, my parents looks and strange behavior reminded me not to expect much. My father’s face wrinkled like a piece of paper and his eyes drooped down; and my mother was not humming her Lurish melody while working or teasing the maid about her clumsiness. The house’s unusual silence was the worse of them all, I could not even eavesdrop, no one was even whispering. Later that night, the first guest , an officer, arrived and went right to my mother’s dressing room, When she emerged, I noticed she was aunt Malihe the wife of uncle Jamshid (we called all our parents’ friends uncle or aunt.) “Why did she wear uncle Jamshid’s military uniform?” I was still puzzled when the other guests arrived; all the women came in their husbands’ uniforms and changed into their own cloths upon arrival. Then their husbands came one by one. It was the first time that these people came to our home at night wearing their uniforms, but I wondered why their wives had to wear them, too?”

They talked and drank, and oddly enough, they also cried. I recall my father crying and I knew that was related to what my brother had broken, though there was no talk of him or artists or artisans. I’m not so sure it was seeing my father crying or not hearing his screaming and cursing that I felt a sudden feel of love for him. I went to his bedroom and hugged his pillow, and cried myself to sleep.

A few days later, one of our neighbors was taken away by some other military men from Tehran and a week later a truck came to move his wife and baby with all their belongings. Everyone was comforting her, but she looked too dazed to be comforted; it seemed to be a sad departure.

There was no joy in the military camp for a while. Summer school was canceled. All of a sudden, everyone become cold and formal. There was no chatting, no teasing, no swimming in the afternoon, no bicycling, and no cooking jam or baking bread. Still people would come to our home at night, though there was no joy in the gatherings. The backgammon games would go without the usual laughter. The happy rhythmic korkories (teasing remark about the way each played their turns) were replaced by somber clicks of dice. Those few days or weeks were the longest and loneliest I remember. Nothing was more precious than the radio and the newspapers that would arrive by courier every other day and would pass from hand to hand. I just knew that something had happened and did not understand it because I was too young. After a week I started crying; I wanted to grow up and grow up fast. I wanted to go to school, to learn to read, and read newspapers and listen to the news. I was jealous of my older brother Siavash, who was in the second grade and could read newspapers.

One day, I found the household disturbed. I asked Siavash what was going on. He said my brother was coming home from Tehran, where he was student at the Music Academy. I was afraid that he might fail to explain to my father, in a satisfactory way, what he had broken. It was a routine in our household to describe our thoughts prior and after the event that might have gone wrong, such as slamming the door or having some dust on our shoes or stepping over some truth. We had to explain, for example, how we did not predict that stepping over an unstable piece of wood might cause us to fall and be injured. I was praying to God that my brother not fail that test.

It was late evening when my brother came with Cousin Mansour. Though I saw them giggling and laughing outside, when they walked into the living room, where my father was expecting them, they bent their heads and appeared a bit remorseful.

My brother placed his violin case on the table along with his music books. Mansour went and kissed my father and said how sorry he was for everything. My brother followed him and kissed my father’s hand and delivered my aunt and uncle’s regards and respects. They both hugged my mother, though my brother hugged my mother for a long time and gestured something to her. My mother returned the gesture with a signal that meant he ought to be quiet. I was impatient to know what was broken that was so dear to my father.

My father asked questions about the summer school and his progress. He also repeated to my brother some routine statements that he would never be allowed to get a job as a violin player or violin teacher as the main source of income, and that he should become a plumber or electrician if he did not intend to make something better of himself. He told him he was free to play his violin as much as he wanted and he could even play in an orchestra, but it should not be a paid job. In return, my brother reassured my father that he would not play for money. “No one pays even one rial for the kind of music I play, anyhow,” he smiled half jokingly. I had heard this conversation so many times that I knew every single word of it by heart without knowing their meaning or significance. However, missing was my father response: “It serves you right, you call that noise music?” which suddenly gave me the clue that the “broken thing” might have been the violin. That was it, he had broken the violin and my father had to buy a new violin. That was all. I was greatly relieved.

We ate dinner in silence. My father looked seemed not interested in eating and kept looking out through the window though it was so dark. He was indeed very quiet. My cousin, who was always talkative and argumentative, was particularly silent too. He looked as if he had failed his finals, but I felt that too was related to my brother’s “broken thing”. After dinner, my mother urged us to say good night and leave while they all moved to the living room.

After a few minutes that seemed like a lifetime to me, we heard my father’s screaming and shouting not only at my brother but at my cousin too.

“You are the older one, you had the responsibility of stopping him instead of encouraging him. What if you both have been arrested and put in jail?”

“But, dear Uncle…” He was interrupted by my father:

“The hell with going to jail, breaking the artisan’s…” my father said.

I could not hear the rest, just artists and art and artisans, and now jail. That was enough. The horror of those suffocating nights and days, all my aunts wearing my uncles’ uniforms, those silent, mirthless backgammon games, and those grown ups’ crying, all came back to me. I started crying. But my father’s voice faded in the calm and soft comforting voice of my brother who came to my bed and asked what was happening. I did not know what was happening and kept crying. He asked me if I was afraid of the dark, and I told him I was just afraid of breaking things and getting punished.

“What did you break?” he asked.

“Nothing, but I’m still afraid of breaking things.”

“Listen, if you ever break something tell them Siavash broke it, let them punish me. I am stronger. Don’t worry.”

But I could not stop crying. “What did he break? Did he break his violin?” I asked.

“What violin? He has his violin all right, where did you get that idea?”

“Then what is this broken stuff? This ‘artisan’ he broke?” I said.

“Nothing that I know”, he looked confused and worried. He was about to asked me something when we both heard my father’s voice saying, “Breaking is not a protest, breaking is vandalism, don’t you understand? Breaking is vandalism. Vandalism. Didn’t you learned that at the university? Ha? University!” He was apparently talking to my cousin who was a university student.

“That! You heard it? They broke something important,” I said while sobbing.

“Oh that, you silly thing!” He wiggled my head and smiled unconcernedly.

“They were not alone. Just a while ago lots of people went to the street in front of the parliament and there they put a big rope over the statue of the Shah mounted on a horse and pulled it down and broke it. Iraj and Cousin Mansour were there too. There were hundreds of people. They said that they did not get a chance to even touch the rope. They were protesting against the Shah. These people were all against Shah and for Dr. Mosaddeq. Do you understand?”

Not really, but I did my best to place things in some order. Then whoever this Dr. Mosaddeq was, my father must not be on good terms with him.

But in reality it took me a long time to places these words together just to make a meaning of it all. I heard this story again and again in the course of time so that my vague memory of those days not only never had a chance to fade away, but became sharper and sharper. Today I’m not even so sure if what I remember from that event is a vague childish memory or a reconstruction of something dead based on what I have heard for years. As fictitious as my memory may be, that event itself turned out to be a turning point in our history, an epithet for a historical treachery, something irreversible, unforgivable, unforgettable.

It took me years to find out that the “broken thing” was not anything tangible, not a violin and not the statue of Shah mounted on a horse, that the crying night was a significant page of history I witnessed through the crack of the door, that my little head has recorded a massive documents without knowing its value, that a whole dream of a nation was broken, that a hope had been shattered, that the first bud of something called democracy had been plucked before it found a chance to bloom; that a nation was set into humiliation; that a foreign country, without any effort or expense, had shattered the pride of all these military men, whose main duty had been to protect the country from the enemy and outside violators; that they were defeated with ease. By the betrayal of a few men of their own and the CIA, their popular elected government was toppled, and they could not defend it.

It took me even much longer to find out that my father’s broken pride and broken heart amounted to nothing compared to his shattered hope for progress and rebuilding the nation, even when it was reduced to something as small as a statue in the middle of a plaza. We all lived with his fury both over the broken statue and the broken road to progress and modernity. I recall my father talking with grief and anger whenever he referred to it for years that followed, until the time that I was old enough to understand his underlying pain and its source, that he liked Dr. Mosaddeq after all.

Indeed whenever I think about that period, a massive sadness grips my heart. It has been almost half a century since then. Life has changed and has taken a direction we could not possibly have imagined. That night, we were all Iranians, and Americans were Americans. All our aunts and uncles were Iranians and no American called any of us by those titles. Now many of us, Iranians, have become Americans, and many young Iranians call many Americans mom, dad, grandpa, grandma, uncle and aunt. Many of us are buried here and many of our American husbands and wives ought to be buried there in Iran next to us, though, most of us with American passports stay faithful citizen of Iran.

******

“Steve from Connecticut, you are on the air.” Brian Lehrer was accepting calls from the listeners to express their view on a possible war with Iran.

He expressed his concerns for the effect of the attack on oil prices; “Are they going to double or triple?” I was not listening. I picked up the phone and dialed. It was busy. Another caller was concerned about Israel. Hersh said, “Well, the war not only won’t help, it may even makes it worse. Iranians might retaliate through their friends in the neighboring countries such as Syria or Lebanon.” I dialed again. Still busy. I was really upset. “Wait! It is just a Seymour Hersh’s prediction. No one is carrying a bomb to Iran,” I tried to comfort myself. There was another caller, Hamid from Washington DC.

“This regime in Iran is not the legitimate government. They are just there by the conspiracy of British Government. They have occupied our country and confiscated peoples’ property. They are indeed very dangerous to peace of the region and they should be overthrown…”

“Oh my God! Another of those monarchists.” I dialed again, busy again, another caller, a Pakistani fellow. “I sympathize with Iranians. Their situation is somehow like ours. Those who are in power, government or military, none of them have the interest of the nation of one hundred and thirty million in mind. Their decision is not our decision. And I assume Iranians are in the same situation. I’m fifty-five years old, I know Iran and Iranian history as well as its literature. This country we know today has nothing to do with the one I knew before. I hope what I hear is just a nightmare which breaks and ends with the daylight.”

“God bless him. Someone at least remembers how we were.” I dialed again. Still. “What do I want to say?” I had no idea, but I had to say something. Seymour Hersh’s “attack only the nuclear bases” was still in my head. “Stupid! What does he think? Nuclear bases are just a desert? An empty facility?” I couldn’t believe what I heard. Here is one of the most prestigious commentators talking about bombing a country with a population of seventy five million as if he is talking about pulling out a rotten tooth or doing root canal. And that Iranian idiot thought that the bomb discriminates between those mullahs in power and others. I dialed again. It was busy.“But, really, what do I want to say?”

“A lot.” I thought.

“Yes a lot, but a lot of what?”

I did not know how to organize it, “I want to tell them about... about what? Yes, really, about what? My mother! Yes I wanted to tell them about my mother. But are they at this point interested in my mother, even her cherry orchard, and my father and all his ingenious ideas about everything from A to Z, and about artisans and artifacts and arts and artists, and about me who is worried like hell for God knows what?” “Oh I want to express my view about different aspect of Iran and Iranians.”

“ What aspect is that?”

“Their American aspects.”

“The American aspect, yes! It is great.”

“The American aspect of Iranians! That is what I will say!”

“And what is that Shirin?”

“We are one million Iranians here and each one of us has at least one hundred relatives and friends back home and those mini nukes would kill one hundred thousand people right on the spot, and another one million within a month. And for every Iranian who dies, at least one American would mourn…” I dialed again. Still busy.

People were calling but still no other Iranians called. “American aspect of Iranians! Wow! Such a great idea! Why didn’t I think of it before. Where did I get those figures? Oh, no source for it, I don’t know. I didn’t calculate it either; it just popped out! Great!”

I dialed again. Busy.

“We... We are one million Iranians here and each one of us have at least one hundred relatives and friends back home and those mini nukes would kill one hundred thousand people on the spot, and another one million within a month. And that is for every Iranian dies at least one American would mourn…”

“…Oh you know there is something else I want to mention, if that mini nuke drops to destroy the centers of nuclear energy in Iran, one of them is my home, where I was born and I went to school, that is Parchin, you all heard from it last week when IAEA went to visit. Yes, it is my home, one of the most beautiful places on earth. My parents were among the pioneers who built that place; the local school, the only school, was built and founded by them. Yes, they practically built it. Today there is even a college there. They had lots of hope. Yes Brian, my mother cultivated the best cherry orchard there that still produces sour black cherries the likes of which no one has ever tasted. Yes Brian, a huge amount of hope and wishes and good will is buried there. Lots of wonderful people were born there and lived there and were buried there. It is not only uranium there gets enriched, that place is the result of the effort of minds and talents of artisans and scientists and cultured people who spent their life building that place, and now are buried in its modest cemetery. My parents’ graves are there. Someday my very American husband and I should be buried next to them. That mini nuke will not only destroy them all, it will contaminate their very bones, the cherry orchard, and the school, it will also put us, my husband and I, in everlasting shame. Could you imagine that the first time my husband sees my parents in Heaven he should apologize telling them, “Sorry, I’m ashamed for what we did in 1953, and I’m ashamed for those mini nukes. . .”

I dialed; great it is ringing…and ringing and ringing…

“So that was our show for today. I thank all you listeners and all participants…”

I did not even notice how time passed and how many times I dialed. All I noticed was that my face was wet. The phone rang and rang and rang and my call never went through and the American aspect of Iranians never reached any pairs of ears. The gold plaque in the palm of my other hand and the shards of crystal scattered all over the place, crashed, failed and broken, still I didn’t want to let go of any of them. My husband came to the kitchen. I didn’t need to turn back to see his face. I could see him even with closed eyes and I could hear him in his silence. “Don’t worry dear, if that happens I’ll be the first one to go home as human shield.” He came closer and patted my back gently.

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