The End of Romanticism in Tehran

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I must have been about ten when my mother and I were called into a cubicle at the American embassy in India, where we had traveled from Iran as part of our visa application, and in light of the absence of diplomatic relations between Tehran and Washington. The official, whom I only recall to have looked like a potato, reached for a red stamp, which my mother had previously informed me was specifically used to reject visas. “No!” screamed my mother three times. “Please. No!” she screamed again, so loud it stunned the entire embassy staff. The large potato-looking man shook his head as a sign of disapproval and rejected our visa applications there and then.

My mother and I walked to a beach in Bombay where she sat down, lit a cigarette, and cried for what seemed like an eternity. I do not recall having ever felt more powerless. At the same time, I had never come across anyone who seemed as powerful as the man who looked like a potato, in charge of the red stamp and, with it, our fates. I had, at the time, wrongfully identified him as a diplomat.

All I strove for over the next fifteen years was to reverse the order between that profoundly powerful man and that profoundly powerless boy. This, I believe, was the seed of my decade-and-a-half-long dream to become a diplomat and later an Iranian diplomat. It was a dream that invoked a sense of horror in my mother.

Some three decades ago, Leftist groups formed a core part of the revolutionary movement that sought to oust the shah of Iran. For many of these Leftists, the Revolution was a bridge between an undesired past most significantly characterized by the imperially controlled shah, and a utopian socialist future. Many Leftists redefined themselves in opposition to the newly founded Islamic Republic, however, soon after Imam Khomeini began to eliminate them from Iran’s political geography shortly after the Revolution. My mother was one of those Leftists.

With two of her closest friends executed by the Islamic Republic in the span of three months, Iran seemed like the referent of the term hatred for my mother. Sometimes I would catch her speaking to herself as she gazed into the mirror while adjusting her hijab hysterically before leaving the apartment, saying, “You really thought it was a joke, do you see how they make you wear this now.” For my mother, the Islamic Republic was understood as a deformed and illogical entity with only one logical conclusion: its rapid implosion. As a premature infant that would soon perish, the Islamic Republic was never a worthy topic for my mother to encounter and understand. The present, as such, was meaningless to her.

Growing up in this household, I anticipated the regime’s downfall every day. For me, the future began the moment after the Islamic Republic’s implosion. The present was always a moment of anticipation and therefore empty. As the years went on, however, the regime’s implosion appeared less imminent, which occasioned a new fantasy for my mother and I: a move to the Netherlands, or England, or America.

I was fourteen when we finally landed in the United States after seven failed legal and illegal attempts. What began for me was a journey during which I would become aware of and struggle with race, ethnicity, and extreme material inequality. For me, the present transformed into another empty moment in between a horrendous past characterized by immigration and a hopeful future of becoming a diplomat. I understood, however, that becoming a diplomat would never be achieved in the United States given the irreconcilability of the gap between the America I despised—that is, of the Clintons and Bushes, middle-class suburbs, xenophobia, and an air of entitlement to the world—and the America I loved—that is, of the civil rights, Chicanos, the “hood,” and a sense of camaraderie with “third world” revolutionaries. American diplomats are rarely chosen from the latter group, and the more I realized this the more a romantic perspective toward Iran grew within me.

This romanticism did nothing but augment with each of Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s speeches immediately after his accession to the presidency in 2005. Everything from his “third wordlist” vocabulary to his attire and style of speaking, which seemed to have been taken right out of my old neighborhood in Tehran, reinforced the idea that I could work for him. In the meantime, and without a clear compass, I had skipped from one city to another, one public school to another, one community college to another, until I enrolled in, and graduated from, the University of Pennsylvania with a master’s degree. With a false sense of confidence that elite universities attach to these sorts of degrees, I packed my bags and left for Tehran to become a diplomat in 2007.

Six months later, and in the absence of a single reply to any of my inquiries at the Iranian foreign ministry, I began to think of my move to Iran as a colossal mistake. Having picked up my mother’s habit of looking for a quiet place to sit and chain-smoke after a major disappointment, I drifted into the University of Tehran one day, where I noticed a poster on the wall advertising a speech by the deputy foreign minister at the main hall later that evening. So I went. And wrote down everything I could point out to him to make his speech better. I then began to strategize an approach, perhaps catching him immediately after he stepped down from the stage or following him a few steps before introducing myself. The deputy foreign minister arrived at the end of his speech and right before signing off uttered one last thing: his mobile phone number. I did not realize until much later that many top state officials were in the habit of announcing their personal mobile numbers publicly in light of Ahmadinejad’s instruction that his administration keep in direct contact with “the people.” This was something that the old political guard poked fun at continuously. But it changed the course of my life…

Purchase MQR 57:6 or consider a one-year subscription to read more. Kusha Sefat’s essay, “The End of Romanticism in Tehran,” appears in the Spring 2019 Issue of MQR on Iran.