Back to where I came from
A trip to Iran brings a senator face to face with the life that could have been
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Ali is holding my hand in public. I’m a little unsure how to deal with it. It started innocuously enough. A gentle pressure on my fingers as we were crossing the street. I thought he was just guiding me through the oncoming traffic. Then, as we were walking down the boulevard, it escalated. His hand was swallowing mine. It was the confidence of a man used to holding the hands of others. He had already given me three kisses when he saw me (frankly, two more than I think is ever appropriate). And there on the boulevard he took the opportunity to tell me that he loved me. That he missed me.
Ali is my cousin. He and I grew up in the same small northern Iranian town of Sari. We grew up around the same communal family home, a home to our family for more than 200 years. A home with a courtyard in the centre, as was the Iranian tradition of generations past. Whole families occupied single rooms. It was where my parents came for refuge following the Islamic Revolution, when Tehran became too dangerous.
This was the house from which, on 11 January 1988, my sister and I stepped into a car with my parents and left for Australia. No one expected us ever to return. We left a day after my uncle’s wedding, which is where my story and Ali’s diverged. I left and he stayed. One decision, one choice, made by others, and we were a world apart. I have come back for the wedding of a cousin. The son of the same uncle whose wedding we attended the night before we fled.
“You haven’t come back for decades? I see you on the Facebook. I even see you on the international Persian news out of London … but we never see you here.” Ali’s words hurt me. I want to argue with him. I want to counter that I renounced my Iranian citizenship and that Iran takes huge issue with that. That I did so without having any intention of conducting my military service, which made returning to Iran difficult. I want to tell him that it’s complete madness for me to come back to Iran. That while the Iranian ambassador in Canberra gave me great support to visit, the words from Iran’s Australian embassy kept ringing in my mind: “Remember … this is their country and they set the rules.” That being an Iranian-born “foreigner” with a tourist visa is fraught with the danger of being arrested at the airport if they change their mind. That every official’s assurance, promise and commitment is meaningless if a 21-year-old zealot carrying a badge doesn’t like you, and arrests you on trumped-up charges. I could have said that as a public figure it’s not easy to come back, when you have cut ties with Iran and every statement, every comment, every word you’ve ever uttered in criticism of Iran can be used against you.
But I don’t say anything. I am back in this country for 48 hours. Forty-eight hours to go to my ancestral home, collect footage for a documentary, attend my cousin’s wedding and try to make sure I’m not arrested. Two days is all I am prepared to risk on a gamble that probably never made sense in the first place.
There’s nothing subtle about the “Islamic” in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Its influence is in the 4.20 am call to prayer that rings through the towns. It is in the word “Allah” in the middle of the Iranian flags displayed on every street, and in the giant billboards of the two supreme leaders: Ayatollah Khamenei and his deceased predecessor, Ayatollah Khomeini. It’s in the posters, all of them new, of the martyrs who have sacrificed their lives in Syria to prop up the Assad regime, and in the sea of scarves on the women in the street.
But under the flags are throngs of Iranian youth, the post-revolution generation, using their mobile phones to arrange dates and parties. Many of the girls’ scarves resemble colourful headbands and are barely functional as head cover. They balance precariously on elaborate hairstyles. Under the scarves is make-up: bright red lips and dark lined eyes. The boys’ hairstyles would not be out of place in the most hipster suburbs in Australia. The solemnity of the images on the walls is not reflected in the laughter I see in front of me. It might be illegal but it’s easier to get a late-night drink in Tehran than in George Street, Sydney. The arts scene is powerful and provocative. The young people I meet are progressive, energetic and thoughtful. I don’t understand how these two worlds can coexist. This place that was once my home is beyond my comprehension and I have never felt more lost.
Our old house sits empty. Falling apart. Generations of history, family feuds, laughter and tears are all but a distant memory. The pavement where my great-grandfather and his friends played is broken. The courtyard that saw hundreds of years of children playing is now overgrown with wild pumpkins. “Pumpkins!” my mother says. “There were no pumpkins when we were kids.” No one can remember if someone planted them or they just grew from discarded seeds. The children did not need a refuge anymore and did not want to live in single rooms. They moved on. Ali tells me an old Iranian saying: “A house knows when it is empty.” Last year my great-auntie, the last of a generation, died in that house. In the room beside the one I used to play in.
Everyone who comes to Australia gives up something. Some more than others. What they don’t tell you is that cultures evolve and leave you behind: in diaspora, you’re holding on to an image that is outdated and out of sync with the place you have left. When you leave you stop belonging, and if you are not accepted in your new home you are not accepted anywhere. We rarely talk about the mourning for a home that never was and never would be but that haunts the imagination of those who have adopted a new place. We don’t talk about the fading memories and the growing distance.
It isn’t easy for those Australians who are accommodating so much change to their society, even if that change eventually will make things better. It also isn’t easy for those who take the plunge, who leave their lives to come to Australia – even though they are desperate to do so.
A week before I came to Iran, I stood and spoke at a citizenship rally to those who were ready to become Australian but had had their applications frozen by a government bureaucratic decision. I didn’t quite appreciate then what it meant for those people to have their right to become Australian denied. How much of their identity and sense of self they had invested in becoming Australian. I never had to make that decision for myself. It was made for me. But today, sitting in an Iranian street, I understand better. I appreciate the cruelty of having the goalposts changed on people trying to build a new life. To be a victim of powers playing politics.
They had applied. They had met their requirements. They were ready to become Australian but are now in limbo.
Even when you desperately want to be Australian, giving up on your past is never free. I ask Ali why he stayed in Iran and he counters by asking why I left. He knows why; he is just being defensive. We left because Iran wasn’t safe for my parents. I know he stayed because he had nowhere to go. Everything was here and there was nothing for him in the West. But he isn’t really asking why. He is asking if I forgot about all of them. I can’t argue that. I did. And I hate that about myself.
There are moments in life that define you. For me it will always be getting off the plane in Australia. My story, every time, starts with how I came to Australia with “a small sum of money and a suitcase full of dreams”. That isn’t the whole story. It never is for any migrant. There is always a story before that. A story of a house in a street. A family. Fear. Love.
There was a life for me in Iran that I left. It wasn’t a better life, as it would not have had my wife, Helen, and my two daughters in it. It would not have had me being elected to parliament. It would have had my parents’ struggle against a regime. It wouldn’t have been as fortunate, no matter how you choose to measure fortune. But it would have been a life. So I’m careful not to judge the lives of others. Even if that other person is an alternative me.
And so I stand in the middle of a busy Iranian street, in a small town, that was once my town, and I cry. Because I know I don’t belong here anymore. I could only belong if I’d stayed – and I left. I cry for a life that would have been hard, but would still have been my life, and my story. Ali understands, but he doesn’t know what to do or say. So he holds my hand.