OVER WINTER BREAK of 2000, at the age of 20, I returned to Tehran with my mother for the second time since we fled the country nearly 14 years earlier. Formally, I’d declared a major in Neuroscience and Psychobiology. My GPA was nearly perfect, and my mother had no reason to suspect that I was unhappy, or floundering. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that I didn’t want to become a cardiologist — hospitals made me light-headed; blood terrified me. To have confessed this would have meant a very difficult conversation to follow: my duty as a son, the sacrifices she’d made in hopes that I would one day support her in her old age. I kicked the proverbial can further down the road and rebelled in quiet, bookish ways. I had decided to become a writer. Without her knowledge and despite my better judgment, I packed several books by Salman Rushdie in my suitcase for the trip. Among them, The Satanic Verses.
The books scandalized my cousins. Why weren’t they confiscated at the airport, they wondered? I shrugged. My cousins passed my copy of The Satanic Verses between them. They examined the cover, a monochromatic backdrop of brown with a purple silhouette of a butterfly hovering an inch from the bottom. They leafed through the nearly 600 pages before setting the book down, unable to read the words. I couldn’t help but notice their disappointment in finally touching the object that had inspired nearly a decade of riots, murders, bombings, and assassination attempts. It must have been oddly underwhelming. They’d probably imagined the book as something more than just a book. Maybe they thought it would glow red or cause a sudden drop in atmospheric pressure should they open it. But of course it was only a book after all. Its danger — if you elected to see it as such — was quiet.
Still, they warned me not to take the book out of the house. When I asked them what was so offensive, they all toted the official line: that Rushdie had insulted the Prophet Mohammed, ridiculed Islam. I pressed them to pinpoint what about the book, specifically, was so terrible, because I couldn’t see it. They didn’t know. That’s why they had religious leaders, they said.
I ignored my family’s warnings, and carried my copy of The Satanic Verses with me throughout Tehran: to coffee shops, internet cafes, even the park. I held it in my hand as I walked around the city, placed it on tables as I ordered in restaurants, or on the counter at the local bakery where my sweet tooth was placated daily by cream pastries layered with jam and rolled in crushed pistachios. I even made a point of opening it in view of police and soldiers. But to my disappointment, no one paid me any attention. When I visited the many bookstores around Engelob Square, I asked booksellers if they had a copy squirreled away. My question didn’t inspire rage or offense. They didn’t gasp in disbelief or chase me out the store with a broom. Instead, in a rather bored tone, they informed me that the book wasn’t available in Iran. When they learned that I was visiting from America, they added that I could probably find a copy at so-and-so’s bookstore. Like anything else that was forbidden, you only had to know where to look and how to ask for it.
In subsequent trips, I would escalate proof of my freedom through materials emblematic of my American-ness. I both longed for confrontation and was scared by it. I wanted to make a scene without incurring any real consequences. Free speech, I articulated to my family in Tehran, was the most vital human dignity. I was young and brazen and refused to listen to other points of view. I blasted American songs. I positioned my Red Sox cap backwards and wore hemp necklaces. I tied bandanas around my forehead in what I hoped was perceived as an ironic manner.
In the summer of 2008, I returned for the third time and pushed harder. On crowded subways in Tehran, I took out my iPod and in full view of the other passengers, repeatedly watched the scantily clad Pussycat Dolls gyrate on screen, crooning to have their buttons "loosen[ed] up babe". With the music blaring from my headphones, I was certain I inspired awe and jealousy in the Iranians around me, made them feel like unsophisticated rubes because they weren’t privileged to the same images, the same freedoms, as I. Most of the people around me looked at my screen (which I held in such a way so that they could easily see), and then away. No one said anything. But I was naïve and mistook their silence for awe, my rudeness for bravery. By watching the Pussycat Dolls on the subway in Tehran, I thought, mistakenly, I could affect change.
When the Green movement swept across Iran in the summer of 2009, in the wake of Ahmadinejad’s fraudulent reelection, I was back in the United States. From my apartment in Lafayette, Indiana where I’d just completed my MFA, I watched the video of Neda Agha-Soltan’s last moments on earth, captured with a grainy camera phone and broadcast to the world. As this video went viral, Neda immediately became the symbol of resistance to the regime. Don’t be afraid, her music teacher kept shouting before the panic in his voice became unhinged as her blood pooled faster than several hands could hold it in. Her eyes rolled back and away and to the side, her features eventually blurred by the blood streaming from her nose and mouth. I watched that video over 30 times. With each viewing, I felt less able to explain what it was doing to me. I forgot how to write a sentence and how one led to the next. As I watched the riots, I didn’t call my family in Tehran, relying on my mother instead to monitor their safety. Trauma itself, Roland Barthes writes, is understood as a suspension of language. I swallowed my tongue.
You don’t know a thing until you’re in it, until you have a dog in the fight or a horse in the race or however men with swagger would phrase it. Yet, often the loudest voices are those from distant vantages, away from the bloody streets and beyond the struggle. I accept my hypocrisy in writing this (although I do not consider myself loud; often, my voice doesn’t seem like a voice at all).
Neda’s death was a PR nightmare for Iran’s government. Demonstrators across the globe held up her image on placards over their own faces. We are all Neda, signs proclaimed. In a matter of weeks, exiled Iranians turned Neda into a martyr by usurping the regime’s own rhetorical tactics. They streamed her dying minutes for the entire world to see over the internet, enlarged her bloody death-face onto posters they held at protests. Some Americans called it morbid, grisly, in bad taste. But Iranians didn’t see it that way because they are used to such representation. Murals of dying soldiers paint Tehran’s skyline. Billboards of martyrs hang high over highways. Iranians still sacrifice sheep, spilling their blood over thresholds when loved ones return safely from abroad or as payment for their prayers. During the 1979 Revolution, protestors stamped their bloody handprints on buildings and spread them before cameras. Blood means that a human being lived and struggled, a visual cue for the vanished or dead. Blood is how we begin and how we will end. Blood is our story.
There were fewer cameras in 1979 and one would think that with decreased accountability, the revolution would have been bloodier, more ruthless. It could have more easily hid bodies and rejected claims of oppression. But that wasn’t the case. Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi left Iran when it became clear he wasn’t wanted. He’s quoted as saying that he didn’t want to spill any more of his own people’s blood.
The current regime sees it altogether differently. They are not so empathetic. In 1980, they built the first Martyrs’ Museum for those who lost their lives in the 1979 Revolution and, subsequently, the bloody eight-year war with Iraq. Perhaps no place in Iran houses so many bloodstained objects in one place; there are now some 12 such museums across the country. Financed by the powerful Martyrs’ Foundation, the museums strive to function as a cultural reminder of the importance of martyrdom in post-revolutionary Iran.
From the outside, the Martyrs’ Museum in Tehran is underwhelming. Located near the former US Embassy, the four-story building is made of gray cement. It looks like most nondescript buildings that populate the office parks of any American suburb. The only ornament to the building’s exterior is a protruding helmet over the entrance on which a band reads, “O Hussein, the Martyr.” If it weren’t for the displays of war memorabilia in the storefront windows abutting the sidewalk, one would pass the building without pause. The windows on the higher floors are blinded and reflective, mirroring the facades of neighboring buildings and trees. There is no ornate stonework or sculptures, no white pillars or wide stairs leading to decorative doors and vast halls. The Martyr Museum has instead a closed-in feeling, like a mausoleum or crypt.
Inside, the floors of the approximately 300 galleries are painted blue, and lined by horizontal and vertical cases with backdrops of silvery cloth that, presumably, signify heaven. The objects in these cases are varied from the extremely personal to the homogenous. In some cases, the displays visually communicate a narrative of the martyr’s life, while others look like unorganized salvage. Half-composed letters, scraps of poetry, rosaries, clay tablets, helmets, rosewater flasks, undershirts, watches, cassette tapes, dog-eared Qur'ans, bandanas, photographs, ID cards, coins — it’s almost as if the curator opened a bedside drawer and from the disparate objects, tried but failed to piece together the story of a man’s life.
Other galleries display the martyrs’ hobbies, everything from weight lifting to watercolors. The idea is for the viewer to relate to these men by way of common interests. You like to lift weights? The question is posed indirectly. Then you too can be a martyr. You too could gain a sacred place in heaven.
Unlike most museums, where curators go to great pains in order to clean and preserve found objects, the Martyrs’ Museum seems to have a different approach. Many of the objects are soiled, shirts and bandanas stained with dead men’s blood, boots caked in dirt and creased, as if to reveal something of the last steps the man took on this earth. Undershirts are yellowed with sweat and darkened by ominous stains.
In some of the displays, images of the man before and after death are placed facing one another. In one picture, the soldier is seen in posture of prayer, his hands held in front of his face, his eyes towards heaven. In the other picture, he is dead, covered in blood; a block of ice sits on his chest to delay the rot. Between these images are worn copies of the Quran. In some cases, a laminated and bloodstained image of Khomeini also rests between their before and after as if he where the conduit for such a transformation.
School children are taken on field trips to these museums. They are told about martyrdom as if it’s a fancy boat that will sail them to golden coasts and beyond. They don’t cut away, as Americans do, right before the moment of death. The curators want you to see the real thing. And children are receptive to the bloody images. They are told to picture their own fathers, brothers, uncles, and cousins among the dead. The ending is not open for alteration or interpolation; the past is visual; the past is bloodied faces and dismembered bodies.
So it’s no surprise that exiled Iranians heralded Neda’s bloody picture for the entire world to see. To look death in the face is necessary, even if momentarily, even if through the technology of smartphones. From distant shores, we watch her die over and over again because we can do little else. We speak her name. We hold signs because we can’t lend our hands in street fights against the common-clothed Basiji thugs or the Komite, the morality police. We’re the lucky ones who got out. We are unlucky in our guilt.
Predictably, the Islamic Regime tried to halt Neda’s transformation into a martyr. At first, they refused to return her body to her family and only conceded when the family agreed to a swift burial on a Sunday (a work day in Iran) at Behesht-e-Zahra. Some 70 mourners gathered outside Niloufar Mosque where her family hurried through services. On the door to the mosque, they pinned a sign that read: There is no commemoration here for Neda Agha-Soltan. Within 10 minutes, paramilitary forces arrived and dispersed the mourners who were dressed in black and reciting poetry. Later, the government forced the family to remove the black mourning banners from outside their home so that it wouldn’t become a site of pilgrimage. Supporters of the regime desecrated and then removed Neda’s gravestone. The following month, they defaced the portrait of her grave by shooting it up.
Of course there was dissent. Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, a senior cleric and vocal critic of President Ahmadinejad, called for three days of mourning. Former presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi urged Iranians to gather in Haft-e Tir Square to pay Neda tribute. Those who assembled were quickly dispersed with tear gas and live ammunition. The Regime attempted to back-peddle and deny any responsibility for Neda’s death. Then, as expected, they spun conspiracy theories, tried to pin it on the CIA. Iran’s ambassador to Mexico, Mohammad Hassan Ghadiri, stated that the bullet retrieved from Neda’s head wasn’t one that could even be found in Iran (never mind she was shot in the chest and on camera).
But it didn’t work. The Iranian diaspora united to create a new collective memory. We wore Neda’s face as our own, her blood the visual vestige of our common struggle against an oppressive government that sent some of us running, and others holding their breath, and still others caught somewhere in between. While we couldn’t erect a statue or mark the site of her death for future generations, we took to the streets of our adopted homes all over the world with signs and chants. I stood outside the Boston Public Library with a group of some 50 Iranians and chanted for Election, Not Selection and Democracy for Iran as tourists stopped to look, and Bostonians hurried past. My brother didn’t participate in the demonstrations. What were we accomplishing? he wanted to know. Even as I argued for solidarity, I knew that he was right. Instead of feeling strong or united, I never felt more tenuous as a hyphenated American-Iranian. I was neither here nor there. The fight, no matter how much we Iranians want to prove our stakes in it, is not ours because we are the ones who got out.
But I cannot abide silence as the alternative.
NedaSpeaks.org asked people from all over the world to snap self-portraits in which they display the words, I am Neda, in any language, to post online. We tweeted her name and wrote our sympathies to Facebook. She marks most of our Timelines. Today, if you search Neda Soltan on Facebook, you’ll find two pages. The first portrays her smiling face, her chestnut hair falling into her beautiful eyes. If you know Neda, Facebook tells me, send her a friend request or message her. If only. On the other page, there is close up of her lying on the pavement, one eye open, the other covered in blood. Blood rivers from the corners of her mouth, her nose.
Scholars in memory studies have pointed out that memory is “always constructed and reconstructed by the dialectics of remembering and forgetting, shaped by semantic and interpretive frames, and subject to a panoply of distortions.” This is perhaps most evident in any nation’s historical narrative. Museums have housed that collective national memory in the form of objects, but that model is changing. The swell of electronic information, the myriad voices that mold any modern story puts the earlier model of carefully selected and arranged objects in doubt. We are moving towards an altogether different from of memory building, one that is collectively built across numerous social media platforms. The stream of dialogue is unfiltered, immediate, housed in the cloud, and easily accessed. Whether or not this dialogue is politically powerful, and however it shapes official histories, it cannot be entirely ignored; its voices are being heard.
Since the very beginnings of what is now called the Arab Spring, I’ve wondered how any political machine can dominate a populace plugged into networks all over the world. I watch the images with my parents and think of the 1979 Revolution in Iran. There was no internet back then. No social media. And yet the will of the people prevailed. What does Assad want from these people, my mother laments. They don’t want him. It’s simple. Get out. Go. Why kill your own people?
When the YouTube video, Innocence of Muslims inspired violence all over the Middle East, I thought once again about Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, published over two decades ago. Even before I watched the video, I was ready to defend it. The film was so unintelligible, that I left the room after five minutes. My parents watched the entire thing. I heard them cursing from upstairs.
Only in the writing of this, do I finally understand how I manipulated The Satanic Verses or the Pussycat Dolls’ music video. My use of them had much in common with the intentions of the producers of the Innocence of Muslims. I wanted confrontation. To diminish other values and thereby elevate my own. By turning art into a weapon, I undermined its purpose. Something of the power of imagination was lost.
For over 10 years now, Iranians have lived under the threat of military aggression. Some of us have shouted our opinions, organized, and lobbied; others have taken to blogs and social media platforms so that what is happening in Iran does not evade our collective memory. And some of us have only hung our heads and faced the day-by-day of a life in exile, away from those we love most and feel powerless to protect.
Some days it feels as if I am just waking up. I want to throw up my hands and run into the middle of the street and shout, wait a minute, just wait one minute. I can explain. . .
 Cattell, Maria and Jacob Climo, eds. 2002. Introduction: Meaning in Social Memory and History: Anthropological Perspectives. Pp.1-36. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.