An endless escalator scaled one of the entrances to the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, Iraq, to the shrine complex itself. Down below, Shia refugees from the Tel Afar region in the far north, near Mosul, were temporarily sheltered. Majed Neisi, my working partner, and I stood around on a late June midday with a young Iraqi film crew on assignment for an Iranian television channel. The heat, 118 degrees in the shade, seemed to turn everything into an abstraction, removed and unapproachable. Naturally, I thought about American soldiers—the battles that were fought here in the past decade, in 2003, 2004, 2007; I thought about their uniforms and all the gear they had to carry in this furnace. And perhaps one reason that I thought about them is this: Even on my Iranian passport it says that I am a resident of the United States. Place of issue: Washington, D.C. This is just another typical dual frame of reference, of course. Nothing new about it. Yet in a time of war sometimes you long for more clarity and a definite sense of belonging somewhere.
Looking at Majed, who is an Arab-Iranian documentarian of war from southwestern Iran, I knew that this was something he had wrestled with all of his life. Iran and Iraq fought a bitter eight-year war long before American boots ever tramped across these grounds. To have been an Arab then, and for a long time afterward, meant having your loyalty questioned at every turn. Another Arab-Iranian, a writer, told me that during his army service they would often lock him away—essentially hide him—during visits from commanders who had lost men at the front lines and would have been spooked to see the “enemy” among them.
Identity, however, is channeled through a multiplicity of platforms, and race happens to be just one of them. To be in southern Iraq now, in Najaf and Kufa, both staunch Shia cities, during a civil war when Shia and Sunni Muslims, not to mention Kurds, are essentially fighting an endgame over this land, one feels a certain relief at being with one’s own co-religionists. This relief comes with a price, though; you ask yourself: So, this is what it has come down to? Can I really be this glad to be safely tucked inside Najaf and Kufa with fellow Shia, instead of being 40 miles out in that inhospitable desert where bullets and knives await whoever happens to have the wrong first name?
Yes, is the answer.
On that long escalator ride at Imam Ali, there was plenty of time to give oneself over to such thoughts. I looked at Majed’s pensive face again looking back at me from a few steps up and I knew he was thinking the same thing; we were thankful to be here among our own and to be safe. And yet, for those of us who occupy two worlds, at least on paper, there’s always that sense that things could fall apart any minute, even here. One of two passports that you own could be taken away. Or maybe both passports. Somebody might see through your fraudulence, your lack of commitment, your unconscious bad faith.
We were there to film the volunteer Shia fighters organizing to defend their homes and families against ISIS. There are, of course, absurdities that usually accompany such endeavors. That morning for instance, in our semi-decrepit hotel room, it dawned on Majed that if we managed to go north with the men, we might be asked, as their Iranian guests, to lead one of the prayers. We both know how to pray in private and quietly, but we are certainly no experts. What if I recited something incorrectly? What if I misplaced a word or forgot a segment? This pushed me to frantically Google the Shia prayer in order to make sure I had it down cold before I went anywhere.
There was also this: I found my Googling of the Shia prayer not as something hilarious to laugh at afterward with friends and readers. This is not one of those humorous travel accounts. Way too many people have died on these battlefields in the past several decades, and I myself am too close to the subject; I’m not some unattached traveler slumming it in the Middle East. Rather, precisely because I am an Iranian, I felt the need to get things right, show respect, cover all the bases.
Ten days after those everlasting escalators at Imam Ali’s shrine (Imam Ali, who is the first imam of the Shia and the namesake of my father, one of my brothers, a nephew, an uncle, and any number of cousins and second cousins), again I found myself at a place of worship, this time inside a synagogue in the Iranian capital, Tehran, on a late Saturday morning listening to one of the community leaders giving a brief talk against, of all things, palm readers and fortunetellers. When the congregation got ready to pray, I was politely asked to leave because they didn’t want the authorities to wrongly assume there was any proselytizing going on in there. I only had to walk across the street from the synagogue to be inside my own apartment. Chance had it that the research I had been doing for a few years with a colleague at the City College of New York, about a group of Polish Jews who were saved in Tehran during World War II, had brought me to this very synagogue that happened to be directly across from my home in the heart of Tehran. The locals had just shown me where the Poles used to sleep in the basement of the synagogue and where they built their own annex for prayer next to the main building.
For a writer and researcher, it is an incredible stroke of good fortune to find that which they’ve been looking for to be right under their nose. It’s also a bit discombobulating. Because as a constant traveler in the world, as someone who must frequently negotiate more than one place and identity, you also learn that accidents can happen, and those accidents are not always so fortunate.
A mere few days after my synagogue visit in Tehran, I was again in the air, this time back to New York where a backlog of work and people to see was waiting. On a bus to Boston to visit another writer friend from Iran who had been given a much-deserved, and appreciated, residency at Harvard-Radcliffe, I received a sudden text message from my research colleague, Mikhal Dekel. We had not communicated much through the summer, a time when we’re both usually in the Middle East, she in Tel Aviv and I in Tehran. I had been eager to tell her more about the synagogue visit and its association with the Jewish refugees of WWII. Mikhal’s father and aunt happened to have been two of those Polish Jewish children who had been saved in Iran before being sent on to Mandatory Palestine.
But her text stopped me cold. The latest war between Israel and Hamas had been going on for a while now. And a close relative, a young soldier named Gilad had been shot and killed. I knew quite a bit about this Gilad. After years of working on the same book project, Mikhal and I were more than just colleagues. We knew close details about each other’s lives and our families. And, ironically, since both of us are Middle Easterners and spend major portions of each year in our respective cities, we have a distinct understanding and experience of the world that is hard, if not impossible, to share with most of our American associates in academia. I had seen Gilad’s photograph, and I knew who his grandfather was—Mikhal’s stepfather. Mikhal wrote in her follow-up text message: “My family is in ruins. Things will never be the same after this.”
In that Greyhound bus to Boston the numbness I had begun to feel from this news slowly turned into a feeling of hopelessness. Iranian friends had been posting increasingly graphic images of death and destruction in Gaza in the past days. Sometimes these postings seemed more like a game of one-upmanship to show who can post the most terrible images to convey the suffering of Palestinians. One particular image of a young boy with his brains spilled out from the back of his head had kept me from revisiting Facebook for some time. And now Mikhal had written to me about Gilad. In this strange, topsy-turvy world of writers and academics and immigrants where a man from Tehran and a woman from Tel Aviv might end up teaching in the same English department in a university in New York, I now actually knew an Israeli boy who had been killed in this latest war over there.
What, if anything, to do with this information? I could not share it with my sea of Iranian friends back in Tehran, because, one, it would mean little to them and, two, they would confront me with the usual question—had I seen the latest body counts from Gaza? Needless to say, over the years Mikhal and I had had our share of discussions, sometimes heated, about all of this. But knowing a person who gets killed, a person who is not just a number and a statistic to you, changes a lot of things. Or maybe it changes just one thing, perspective.
I called Majed back in Tehran—Majed, my Arab collaborator with whom I’d been in Najaf only weeks ago. He was set to go back into Iraq for a long stretch of filming at the front lines. “Don’t get killed,” I said, sounding ridiculous to myself, and also melodramatic. But I had to say this and he laughed his sleepy laugh eight and a half hours ahead in Tehran and told me not to worry, “I’ve been doing this a long time. Long before you and I started working together, Salar.”
In Boston, on the peaceful and immaculately kept Harvard-Radcliffe lawn I asked my writer friend Hossein Abkenar what he thought about living here in Cambridge. “Paradise,” he said. “These people are living in paradise. They are lucky that way. The universe has been good to them.”
Here was a man who had had to fight in the Iran-Iraq war. Later on he’d written an award-winning novel about it, Scorpion on the Steps of Andimeshk Train Station; the short antiwar novel had gotten him in some trouble back home and he had been barred from publishing another novel for the last decade. So, this one year of peaceful residency in Cambridge was nothing less than a lifeline for him. As, I suppose, teaching for me and Mikhal is in New York. Still, often I get asked how it feels to return to New York from the places I’ve been. “Is it a culture shock?” people ask. It’s more than that, I think. One’s investments are simply too deep for it to just be a culture shock—mine in Tehran, Mikhal’s in Tel Aviv, and Majed’s in the Khuzestan province where he was born during an Iraqi bombing raid.
So, whenever I’m asked how it feels to be back, I return to details, to exact moments and emotions in particular places—to Najaf and that warm sense of shelter and security on the Imam Ali escalators, to Tehran where, as late as 2014, the lights at the local synagogue burn brightly several times a week, or to that feeling of dread and powerlessness while riding a bus to Boston. I think of individuals. I think of their names, faces, and photographs. Of telling Majed to watch his back as he prepares to reenter the front lines in Iraq. And I think of Gilad.
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