Wednesday, June 6, 2007
The Day Imam Died
As I now live in the US and am minimally aware of Iranian 'holidays'*, it almost completely slipped my mind that (Imam) Khomeini passed away 18 years ago. I remember the events surrounding his death clearly, as they were truly strange days in a time when strange was almost normal.
Looking back, I remember Khomeini more than anything, as a stern face, hovering over masses of people as he sat on the balcony of his complex, with devotees at his feet chanting their loyalty and devotion. He was mad, but not as mad as he is made out to be in the US for obvious reasons. He was--I think--a pragmatic opportunist who at once held a country together and shattered it to pieces. Oh, and he single handedly made Salmon Rushdie famous for a book that would have never been read had a death sentence not been associated with it.
When my parents decided to move to Iran in 1984, they were truly trend setters. Most people were giving their worldly possessions to leave Iran at that time, my parents decided to sell everything they had, pack up their bags and go home. When we arrived in Tehran, we were surrounded by family, friends and chaos. At the time, Iran had been at war with Saddam's Iraq for four years. People were displaced, embattled, tired and angry. Yet, the message was clear: we will not compromise, we will not give up an inch of this land. For all of the talk of martyrdom, heaven and revolutionary ideals that are publicized, many, many men voluntarily fought and died in that war out of sheer nationalism. The war was a unifier, creating a strange brotherhood of people of different religious and cultural beliefs. Many, my family included, supported the young men who were giving their lives to protect us, in spite of Khomeini's looming face.
So it was a relief when a cease fire was finally accepted in 1988. In his letter/speech to the nation explaining his decisions, Khomeini said accepting the cease fire was like "drinking a glass of poison". People, who were exhausted from the death, destruction and toils of war, rejoiced wondering why he was still alive after his drink. His death couldn't come soon enough.
In May of 1989, Khomeini was hospitalized and everyone knew he was dying. The death watch was as close to a media circus as two state owned television stations could provide. We watched as he sipped broth, prayed and talked to various members of the government. Students like myself wondered if death would disrupt finals and how many days off we'd be granted. By the end of May, there was practically a count down.
On that June morning, I raced to put on my school uniform and scarf and got myself to school as fast as possible, not in a rush to take my final, but to meet my best friend. When I walked into the building, our school janitor who lived on the premises was sitting in her usual place on her rusty folding chair, her face in her scarf, crying as if someone in her immediate family was dead.
"Imam is dead", she sobbed. I looked at her, not understanding why she was hysterical.
"He was like a father to me. He gave hope to the poor, he kept this country together, he saved us." I kept staring at her, not knowing what to say. I felt a tap on my shoulders, it was my best friend E.
"We don't have a test today, right?", I asked getting to the most important issue. She gave me the look she always gave me when she thought I missed the point entirely: a mix of amusement, surprise and sisterly affection. The school was almost empty, except for the three of us, the principal and her assistant sitting in their office waiting for instructions.
"I think all of finals will be canceled, at least half of them. If you play along we may be able to get extra credit for something." I looked at her in awe. She was from a religious, baazari family and had lost a favorite cousin and a young sweetheart in the war. She hated Khomeini and his ilk for the war, for her loss and for the constant 'insult' to religion in the name of religion. She had no qualms milking this situation to her advantage.
"If you want to cry about anything, this is a good time to start.", she whispered as we stood by the weeping janitor. I started giggling, because for almost five years, I had developed a reputation for crying at the drop of a hat. I had been chastised, mocked and soothed into stopping. Today, my best friend was encouraging me to give in to any unwept tears. Unfortunately, it was not a good time to be laughing, but her stern look only made me laugh harder.
This made the janitor look up to me in horror, practically screaming, "You spoiled, ungrateful child! How dare you? Don't you know what a calamity has fallen upon us? Ingrate!" Normally, a stern look would have sobered me, but on this day, of all days, I started laughing louder, doubling over and gasping for air.
E. looked at me with annoyance. "Forgive her, mother. She is in such deep sorrow, she is hysterical." And before I could try to apologize, E. smacked me in the back of the head with a force that was impressive from such a skinny girl. I almost fell over, still laughing, with tears streaking down my face.
"See, she is hysterical.", said E. apologetically. "I know her, she is devastated."
Our principal and her assistant walked out just in time to see me, leaning against the wall, gasping for air with tears rolling down my face. The assistant came and gave me a hug. "It's God's will. Join us for a prayer." E. came and put an arm around me, guiding me toward the office, hissing in my ear, "Stop laughing before I beat you. You'll ruin everything. Just cry--you do it all the time!"
Needless to say, the only tears running down my face that morning, were as a result of my laughing and gasping for air. By the time our principal had instructed E. to make sure I got home safely, everyone was worried that I was so heart broken in my grief, that I would have to be sedated. As we got into the cab, E. had taken her chador out of her school bag and covered her mouth as she whispered calmly, "I think it will work out alright. They think you have lost your mind."
For the next week, all government organizations, including schools were closed to allow the nation to properly mourn The Death. We watched the hysteria on television, wondering who was on the streets. Iranians, ever the conspiracy theorists, came up with all kinds of crazy ideas: the body in the cooler being paraded though the streets wasn't really Khomeini at all; people had been throwing rocks at the glass encasement, expressing their hatred; as the body was being lowered into the ground, people were pulling the corpse apart...This is how Khomeini was buried, in a swirl of conspiracy theories, hysteria and curses.
Almost instantly, a shrine was erected over his grave. What is actually forbidden in Islam, was done in honor of the man who had forced religion onto a nation in chaos. People started organizing pilgrimages, field trips, and picnics to his shrine. While open insults would be severely punished, 'subtle' games were the stuff of legend. The glass encasement around the grave, open enough to drop in donations and alms was suddenly being filled with dirty diapers and underwear. Of course, re-tellings of what people claim to have done while visiting the grave are the stuff of legend, everyone trying to outdo each other. Regardless of these claims, there it stands, so gaudy and big, you see its gold dome from the air before you land at Mehrabad Airport.
As for me, my performance on that day became a legend of sorts. I didn't take any more of my sophomore year's finals. My principal so moved by my emotions and by E's gentle caring for me "despite her own grief", that she insisted we only return when we feel ready. We did not feel ready until the following autumn. I was especially mentioned to teachers and administrators who weren't there that day, because "although I had grown up in the US, my grief for the Imam was overwhelming". I realize I should have put an end to the madness somewhere along the way, but I didn't. It was one of my most bizarre reactions ever, and I finally had a legend of my own. I wasn't ready to destroy it.
* Iranian 'holidays' refers to celebrated and recognized birthdays, such as the birth of the Prophet; deaths, such as the death of the Prophet--and more dramatically his grandson, Hossein; religious Eids; and traditionally Iranian/Persian holidays such as the Winter Solstice and the Persian New Year (which as an Iranian, you'd have to be dead to ignore).