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Something Cataclysmic Every Week

Scenes from a year in Tehran
Translated from the Persian by Salar Abdoh

It is January. Weeks ago, I was invited to give a talk at the University of Tehran. I am to speak at a program hosted by the sociology department on “The Social Thought of Muslim Thinkers.” This used to be a subject under the purview of “Religious Studies,” a kind of catch-all discipline where Islamic history, philosophy, and Arabic literature were taught. But the revolution changed that. Since 1980, courses drawing on Islamic scholarship have become common in political science and sociology departments. Islam has moved to—rather, returned to—the scholarly mainstream.

My preparations had been going smoothly. But four days before the talk, on January 3, we awoke to the news that an American drone strike had killed General Qassim Suleimani in Baghdad. I spent all of yesterday on the streets, a part of his colossal funeral procession. This grieving mass—a sea of people, CNN worriedly reported—slowly wended its way east, along Enqelab (“Revolution”) Street to Azadi (“Freedom”) Square, where the Azadi Tower was erected in 1971 by Iran’s last king, Mohamad Reza Pahlavi. Suleimani’s funeral was organized by the regime. But this outpouring of emotion for a national hero murdered by the Americans exceeded anything even the government could have hoped for.

The scenes reminded me of Imam Khomeini’s funeral in 1989. Back then, I was fourteen and my family lived in the distant northeastern city of Mashhad. My parents decided to come to Tehran for the funeral, a fourteen-hour trip, and they brought me along with them. I recall reading Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca the whole time on the bus and crying, since that was what all the other passengers seemed to be doing. At Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery, the crowds became so thick that at some point I lost consciousness. My mother had to pull me out of a throng of stampeding legs.

In a televised condolence speech given a few hours after the news of Suleimani’s assassination, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made clear that this American act of terror would be met with a harsh response. Later in the same broadcast, Defense Minister General Hatami echoed the Supreme Leader’s words. Now there is talk in the media of an imminent Revolutionary Guards strike on American positions in the Middle East. And then, inevitably, a major war . . .

Despite all this, I brave my way through the lecture. After it’s over, the distinguished professor who invited me asks if I will return next week for a follow-up. Almost immediately, she seems to reconsider the offer, breaking into a smile as if this were a remembered joke between us. Before I can respond, she turns to address the gathered students, observing aloud: “But, of course, this is the Middle East. In France, if you are absent for ten years and return, not much will have changed. Maybe the price of a baguette will go up slightly. But here, something cataclysmic happens every week.” Turning back to me, she adds, “I suppose we will have another event next week—as long as there isn’t chaos in the government, or an earthquake, or major flooding, or drought, or war!”

Needless to say, the following week’s event never takes place. On January 8, Iran does indeed strike at the American military base of Ayn Al Assad. Only hours later, a passenger jet is struck and crashes over the skies of Tehran, killing everyone onboard: 176 people all together. The government informs us that the jet’s downing was a “human error.” Apparently, the Iranian military believed it was shooting at an American missile aimed for Tehran in retaliation. One of the dead turns out to be my dentist, someone I have known for a long time. He emigrated to Canada three years ago. But he still maintained a partial practice here for old patients like me. I had an appointment with him booked for later in the month.

Three days after the crash, there is a smaller, more distinctly “middle-class” demonstration against the downed civilian airliner. Many of the victims were Iranian students returning home from North America for the winter vacation. “Apologies, miss,” a super at one of my colleague’s buildings tells her. “But that airplane going down felt like a comeuppance. People like me, the have-nots, we figure it’s always us who have to pay for what happens to our country. This time it was your turn.”

The Runaways

It is two in the morning on May 8. Another earthquake seems to bring the entire city out on the streets. There are only two casualties so far. Nevertheless, people are unwilling to go back into their homes. Those who own cars sit inside them wearing masks and gloves. The rest of us huddle about killing time on the sidewalks. A funny thing about Tehran earthquakes is that, no matter what time of day or night they happen—and they happen often—traffic and road congestion increases inordinately. Rather than going to the municipal shelters, people prefer to jump in their cars and drive aimlessly around or make a beeline for gas stations. Men will gather their families on a motorcycle, with the smallest child usually sitting on the bike’s gas tank, and ride on out. To where? Nobody knows.

“In France, if you are absent for ten years and return, not much will have changed. Maybe the price of a baguette will go up slightly. But here, something cataclysmic happens every week.”

When the earthquake hits, I happen to be at Shadi and Mohammad’s home. The couple are journalists; they finally have their papers in order and will soon emigrate to France. In this, they are like a lot of my other friends, convinced that Iran is no longer a place worth living in. The exodus began around 2005, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected for the first time. Since then, the numbers have steadily grown. Despite all the international obstacles in their way, Iranians left the country at a rate of thirty thousand per year between 2010 and 2015, according to Sorena Sattari, Iran’s vice president for science and technology.

When we are outside, Shadi’s cellphone goes off. The call on WhatsApp comes from our friend Negar, who left Iran for good two years ago when she won the annual U.S. green card lottery. Negar has heard the news about the earthquake; she wants to know if we’re all right. “Guys, I miss home,” she confesses. “Here in America, nothing ever happens. It’s boring. In Iran, there’s always something. I miss that.”

I must admit that these expressions of nostalgia from distant compatriots lost most of their humor for me some time ago. These days, they simply put me on edge. I think of a scene from Romain Gary’s White Dog, in which the Gary stand-in reflects that he might curse at his own country now and then, but he’ll be damned if he lets a non-Frenchman do the same. That’s what I want to tell these expatriates who have left us, turned into non-Iranians.

It’s not that I don’t understand the desire to leave. There is no shortage of problems here. But I stay back because I feel a kind of responsibility for my country. Or at least, that’s what I would have claimed until five years ago, when the nuclear deal was signed, and it seemed that things might improve after all. I’m not sure Americans understand how monumental the deal was for Iran. After decades in the wilderness, overnight the country was open to foreign investment and allowed to export goods. The effects were immediate: new jobs at every level, a significant uptick in tourism, and perhaps most importantly, Iran was once again a society where people dared to be hopeful.

The American reversal and the subsequent escalation of sanctions was a punch in the gut. More than anything else, it killed our hope. I continue to remain here, though my reasons for doing so have changed, or at least my understanding of them has. I now feel that I don’t leave simply because I hate running away, because I know that even if I run away from the region I was raised in, I can never run away from myself, from the part of me that is bound up with Iran. “Whatever I have, good or bad, I get from this place, Iran,” Abbas Kiarostami once said. “Away from here we’re lost, and we perish.”

States of Emergency

Ali Karami is a young man, a trained physician, who left medicine to become a photographer and documentary filmmaker. Since the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, he has been travelling and filming around the country. Ali spent weeks with doctors and nurses at Tehran’s Masih Daneshvari hospital, the first to go fully operational against the pandemic. This is why I’ve come to see him. I want to know how we are tackling Covid-19.

The early days were devastating. There is a constant movement of Shia pilgrims in and out of Iran, which sits at the crossroads of Asia, Europe, and Africa. When a virus like Covid-19 finds its way to, say, the holy cities of Qom or my native Mashhad, there is every chance that someone will catch it at a crowded shrine and spread it across the country. This is exactly what happened. Before winter was even over, people began falling sick and dying at alarming rates. Soon, the most implausible conspiracy theories were making the rounds. I watched a television program in which a so-called scientist had the gall to imply that Italy had been hit so hard because the genetic makeup of Italians and Iranians was similar; the virus had been “manufactured by our enemies” to annihilate us, and the Italians were mere collateral.

That said, things soon began to improve. Iran has been one of the more successful countries in checking the progress of the virus. This much is indisputable, according to Ali. The social distancing measures, the use of masks, and especially our cadre of indefatigable doctors and nurses: all this means that the severity of cases and deaths has been going down for weeks by the time we meet in mid-May. Of course, such success, if that is what it is, will likely remain short-lived. U.S. economic sanctions ensure that Iran simply cannot afford to stay shut down for a prolonged period of time. Sooner or later, it will have to reopen the already stressed wheels of industry and commerce; when that happens, Ali admits to me, the virus will return—and indeed, since my visit, it has.

Ali acknowledges that Iran’s relative success has only partly to do with contingent factors: the country’s population is on average young. But the deeper and more relevant truth, whether the world wants to believe it or not, is that Iran’s health care system is quite good. Doctors here are highly trained and proficient at what they do. They also operate as part of a guild—the Medical Council of Iran—which has some leeway to bypass governmental mandates. Like any union, it can lobby and organize in good times or bad.

Perhaps most pertinently, the imperial threat from the United States and its allies has served as good preparation for extended emergencies, placing local hospitals on a sort of permanent war footing. The war with Iraq in the 1980s was a turning point in this regard. Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against his own population and against Iranian soldiers forced us to reckon with the kind of suffering few other countries have had the misfortune to witness in their modern history. I’m not suggesting that Iran’s medical preparedness is perfect. But out of necessity, we have a medical culture unusually well-suited for a crisis, which in this case has proved not only handy but lifesaving.

Ali’s point about the health care system also extends to the Iranian public. The people of Tehran and other major cities have not lost their composure during the pandemic; there have been no reports of runs on the supermarkets or fights over toilet paper. Iranians don’t do these things because we are used to living amid uncertainty. Thanks to American sanctions, not having is all we have known for decades. The prospect of death does not overwhelm us.

When I come out of my interview with Ali, a motorcycle deliveryman swerves dangerously in front of me. I jump back. He brakes, looking genuinely embarrassed. “Apologies, miss!” he says, smiling. “I promise to do a better job of turning next time.” His mask is crooked over his face. As he speeds off, I notice a photo of General Suleimani plastered on the back of his food delivery box. Underneath, a message reads: “Commander, the entire world will soon be seeking your revenge.”

Rich in Poverty

In 2018, I watched a television program about UNICEF workers in Aleppo. They were trying to teach little children, reduced to playing on the street, to flee to shelter when they heard the sound of bombs or rockets. But the safety lessons were lost on the children, who had been born and raised in war. They kept at their games as their city was reduced to rubble.

Whenever someone asks me about the effects that sanctions have on Iranians, as an editor at this magazine has, I am reminded of that program. It’s hard to know how to begin answering such a question. I am a forty-four-year-old woman who has lived forty-one years of her life under varying degrees of economic sanctions. I grew up with the sanctions; I went to school with them; I learned to read and write with them hovering over my head; I fell in love, and began my career as a journalist, and have stayed alive, all under sanctions from the United States of America. Sanctions have been a part of my life like the weather. Like the bombs for those children. They are the air that I breathe and the food that I eat.

To this day, my nephews and nieces make fun of me when I put only a meager spread of butter on my slice of bread, an odd habit from childhood. Besides the sanctions, already in place then, there was also war with Iraq, which turned simple goods like butter into luxury items. This alchemy works on all sorts of objects. Just the other day I heard about the troubles of a woman receiving chemotherapy. The doctor told her to get as many of the chemo ports as she can now. Because sooner or later, even the few medical imports that the country is able to get its hands on by dodging the American sanctions are bound to disappear. Unable to sell oil and unable to participate in the international monetary system, the government has no choice but to put an end to most foreign medical equipment and drugs coming into the country.

Living under sanctions is not just about not having, or not getting enough to eat, or growing poorer and poorer every day. To live under sanctions is also to feel a continuous fear, to dread losing the very little you do have. It is to be frozen out of the world of money. You cannot buy and sell, or possess a credit card, or even have a bank account; many of my friends who have emigrated to Europe have had their accounts blocked time and again just because they happen to be Iranian. If you do have a bank account and can access it, there’s every chance that sanctions-induced inflation will make your earnings worthless. The Iranian rial is worth four times less than it was at the beginning of 2018.

I do not therefore know how to answer questions about sanctions. I cannot recall a time when my life and that of other Iranians was otherwise—was normal. I suppose this can be seen as a form of liberation. In his book Fihi ma Fihi, the great medieval Persian poet-mystic Rumi spoke at length about the kind of person whose wealth is having no wealth.

It would be nice to think that what Rumi says holds true for us Iranians.