Of Common Pains and Common Dreams

From the Series: Woman, Life, Freedom

Night One

We went to S. and her partner’s place to watch Patricio Guzmán’s latest film: My Imaginary Country. Well, we were not there for the film per se. S. had just received her two-year sentence and was waiting to be summoned and present herself to prison. We, her close friends, had decided to spend more time with her, anticipating her heart-breaking absence-to-come (her partner had put a camera on a tripod in the corner of their apartment to capture all these final gatherings for those two years of her absence). Being an experimental filmmaker who had devoted ten years of her life to Afghan refugee kids in Iran, teaching those who had no IDs, and making documentaries with/about them, S. had prepared a long list of films revolving around themes such as resistance and revolution from all around the world. Moreover, since the beginning of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement, S. had collected a fair number of books piled up by her bed, an exclusive reading list: Dorfman’s Exorcising Terror, Havel’s Open Letters, de La Boétie’s Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, and some memoirs and fictions about lives of Palestinian women.

Guzmán’s My Imaginary Country was part of the evening's agenda, visual fuel, and means of reassurance that complemented her presence in the streets during the days of protests. When the film came to end, she turned to us and asked: “What do you make of the title?” Each of us said something, just waiting for S. to share with us her own idea. She said: “I think the stress in this sentence is on MY; my imaginary country; imaginary as “I” imagine it. And “I” here does not only mean the director himself but also all the people on the street of Santiago during 2019–2022 Chilean protests, all the people who sit in front of Guzmán’s camera and talk about their pains and dreams. Imaginary is far away from “fictional” or “unreal” here; it is about how the people imagine their country, imagine themselves in a better future.”

We all knew she was not talking about Chile. She was talking about Iran. Since no published text on the political protests after the 1979 Islamic Revolution can pass the severe censorship, S., like many others, has enriched her mimetic faculty, understanding her country, Iran, via proxy of the whole Middle East, Latin America, North Africa, as well as anti-colonial movements around the world. She said: “I don’t see Iran as a given, as something there within geographical borders, written in history, or as cultural heritage presented in museums: Iran is our imaginary country. It is not about a nation, it is about a people, constitution of the people, through common dreams and pains. I think it is down there in Shamlou’s poem:

I am not a story you could tell
I am not a song you could sing
I am not a sound you could hear
Or something you could see
Or you could know
I am the common pain, cry me out!

Then she turned to me, as I had claimed a couple of hours ago that “Iran is finding and making itself through women. We are witnessing a re-birth of a nation, but this time contra the usual nationalistic propaganda of the state.” She directly targeted me and said:

This means nation, Emad. The nation has no fake border, has no ethnicity, no race, no specific religion. The nation means common dreams and common pains. “The people” are those who in the moment of becoming, cry out this pain. Our demands are basic, rudimental, maybe even crude but they bind us. We claimed our imaginary country in the streets. In Tehran people were supporting Baluchistan, in Baluchistan people were supporting Kurdistan—it was a reunion of different ethnic groups. A young Kurdish woman was murdered, and we all know that it could be any of us instead of her. Iran has always been an amalgam of different ethnicities and languages. It has always found its unity through dreams and common pains, and this goes far beyond even gender. It is about LIFE and goes far beyond ethnicity, language, religion, and social class. The slogans are on the walls of small villages all around Iran, as in big cities, from most religious town to secular middle-class neighbors of Tehran. Why? Because we are all deprived of LIFE. And who are we to measure misery and compare who has suffered more? Suffering is omnipresence and of course women are avant-garde here because they viscerally understand suffering, it has worked on their body and body connects us all. Body is what we have in common, loss of life and freedom is what we have in common—

The battery of the camera on the tripod died. I just remember that all of us hugged each other, and eyes went wet. She was leaving us soon.

Night Two

A few days before the 44th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, with the gesture of a forgiving father who averts his eyes from the minor fouls of his children, pardoned nearly all the detainees of the current movement. S. was one of them. When the news came, I called her with absolute joy. To my surprise, she did not sound happy at all. It turned out that all those sentenced had been conditionally pardoned and had to accept a condition: signing a letter of regret asking for forgiveness. She told me on the phone: “Emad, I would rather go to prison than sign this letter. I do not want his forgiveness. I have not done anything wrong.” We hung up the phone. I drove to her place on the back of my scooter through the traffic jam of Tehran, just like I had two weeks earlier on the day I had been informed she was being released from temporarily custody at Evin Prison and I rushed to the prison gate crowded with friends and families awaiting their loved ones.

When I got to her place, the camera was gone. The two-page text of the sentence was on the living room table. Some friends had arrived before me, as if an invisible emergency call to an assembly had been made. We all knew that she was determined and did not want to ask for forgiveness. I read the sentence fully this time. There were extra penalties in addition to two years of prison:

  • An 80-page research essay about the importance of national security in human societies, love of the country, condemnation of treason, and finally about the cruelty and crimes of Pahlavi’s regime (four reference books were mentioned, and it was also asserted that the essay should be delivered hand-written, in order to prevent outsourcing the task, and the prosecutor would administer an oral exam on the day of delivery)
  • Ne exeat regno for two years and confiscation of their passport
  • A ban on the use of smartphones and devices for two years
  • A ban on joining any kind of NGO, political, or social organization

We all knew the meanings of these absurd sentences. One of us talked about ethics while encountering evil, in strategically telling lies to authorities who lie, to confess you are regretful while in your heart you are proud of what you have done. Hearing news of pardon, one of us called from prison to persuade S. to sign the letter: she would be more useful out of prison. Out of arrogance or maybe out of love, I was angry to see her so stubborn. I became bitter and sarcastic. “Prison,” I said, “has become a sort of fetish for you. You divide people between worthy and unworthy, those who have paid the costs of freedom, and those who don’t. You just want to go there to feel free, to feel no responsibility, to feel no guilt or shame. Because there, within prison, you are at least sure that you can do nothing for the movement, and you would have no bad conscious.” There was a deadly silence. She burst into tears, I felt like I am a just a “man” who knows what is “best” for my “sentimental” female friends. I liked her, I guess, just like the leader that likes all of us, and knows the best for all of us.

Riding alone on my scooter towards home, I asked myself: “what does exist OUTSIDE of the prison that one needs to be IN the prison to actualize it?” To be considered a “real” political subject, as if, one needs to have first been punished by the regime. In this frame, being “inside” prison orients life and liberates the psyche of S. This is not a one-way affair: the regime confiscates the passports of citizens and forces them to remain “inside”—as if being in Iran serves as a punishment. In the same vein, those who “choose” to remain in Iran and not emigrate, might see themselves as “prisoners,” i.e., “political subjects,” who through their daily life in Iran conduct a nonstop grueling battle with the regime. Their normal “lives” in this way are considered acts of political resistance.

I think we have an “intimate” relationship with the regime. It works as a medium through which S. and I relate to ourselves and make our lives. We internalize it, revolt against it and, through this revolt, become subjects. We relate to the regime like one might with the father figure. We tend to objectify a whole network of relations and call it all “the regime” with agency of its own, projected onto the face of the leader, the father. Can the Woman, Life, Freedom movement emancipate us from this father within? Can it offer us the opportunity to free ourselves from the oedipal dynamics? Are we ready to live head-less, de-fathered, without an enemy? Can we bear life without the fantasy of a revolution?