‘Live from Tehran’
It’s 8 p.m. on a Wednesday, and I’m at the studios of KIRN — a Persian-language AM radio station on Barham Boulevard near Universal Studios. I’m a guest on a program called “Live From Hollywood.”
The host/producer, Suzi Khatami, is an Iranian woman who, like me, left the old country — long before the revolution — opted for exile and is happy about it. Earlier this evening, she has had on the show an Oscar-nominated Iranian actress who has just finished making (what else?) “The Kite Runner,” followed by an award-winning Iranian documentary filmmaker who has spent five years in very exotic places shooting a movie about the life of the Iranian poet Rumi. The show’s technician is a young Iranian man; he has the television monitor tuned (without sound) to CNN, where Iranian-born reporter Christiane Amanpour is interviewing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
This may be “Live From Hollywood,” but we might as well be in Tehran.
On the air, Suzi and I talk about books and writing and the places where stories originate. She wants to know how I can write about a country I haven’t seen in 30 years — that I left when I was barely a teenager and cannot go back to for security reasons — how I remember so much of the landscape and the people, so many details of our lives there. I fumble with the response — something about the subconscious mind and how it retains so much during one’s formative years — but I’m more interested on what’s happening on CNN than in my own interview. When we go off the air for a commercial break, I ask the technician if he’s followed Ahmadinejad’s travels through the United States. He lights up.
“Of course I have,” he says, shaking his head in dismay. “That weasel conquered Columbia University. He had the students cheering for him, jeering their own president. It was a fiasco; he went in as the bad guy and came out as the victim. Imagine Columbia’s president making the weasel look good.”
The technician is not saying anything I haven’t already heard, but something about the way he talks strikes me as odd. It reminds me of the way Iranians used to talk about their leaders when I lived there — that mixture of resentment and awe (resentment for the way the country was run; awe for the fact that it was run at all, that anyone had managed to overcome the impossible circumstances, the challenges we faced from inside and out) that begrudging, spiteful admiration one feels for a worthy adversary. Even his choice of words, calling Ahmadinejad a weasel — is singularly Iranian.
Back on the air, I watch him throw switches and talk on his cell phone as he follows the images on CNN. He moves briskly, with confidence, I can do all this and much more just give me a chance and I’ll prove myself. He has the demeanor of someone who is accustomed to staying on his toes all the time, who doesn’t take success for granted. He doesn’t have the jaded quality, the I’m tired when I get up in the morning air of so many Iranian men who have lived in the West for a good while.
At the next break, I ask him how long ago he left Iran.
“Is that all?” Suzi exclaims. “You left only four years ago?”
Suzi’s reaction is understandable: These days, it’s rare to meet an Iranian who hasn’t been living abroad for at least a decade. But for me, it makes perfect sense, defines what I’ve sensed but could not quite put my fingers on: He’s more Iranian, still, than Iranian American. He works quickly, half a dozen tasks at once, because that’s how people work in Iran. He thinks of Ahmadinejad not in general terms, as a lunatic who is a threat to international peace (which is how the rest of us old-timers think of him), but as a lunatic whose actions and decisions have a direct influence over the individual’s daily life. He’s disappointed at the performance of Columbia’s president because he still believes, as we all did back in Iran, that the head of such a mighty institution would easily overpower a working-class former mayor of a Middle Eastern city who goes around with an unshaved beard and whose idea of formal attire is a zip-up windbreaker with dirty cuffs.
“Yup,” the technician nods. “And I go back all the time to visit. But I don’t think I’ll ever live there again. I think I’m going to stay in Los Angeles. I almost like it here.”
At 9 p.m., the show over, we shake hands and say goodbye. I tell him that Los Angeles is an acquired taste; it grows on you till you can’t live anywhere else. I say I envy other Iranians who, as of late, have been able to travel back and forth freely and without apparent threat from the regime’s police and judicial system. I couldn’t do that because of the books I’ve written. He nods pensively. Right when I turn around to leave he says, “They’re still there, you know.”
I don’t understand.
“The places you write about in the book,” he explains, “Sorrento Café, the park on Pahlavi Avenue, the Square of the Pearl Canon — they’re all there, just like you describe them.”
I look at him then and think how strange, that this young man has seen — can still go back and see — all the places that, for me, have long been only images on a distant plain. How my memories, so old they are nearly indistinguishable from my imagination, are actual places — real and concrete and tangible — to people like him. Later, as I drive past Universal Studios to get to the freeway, I think of Sorrento Cafe, and of the character I’ve created and sent to sit on its terrace in Tehran — a man I’ve named “The Opera Singer” because that’s what he wants to do in life, though he can’t sing and has never been to the opera. He sits in the cafe every afternoon, sipping iced coffee and reading government propaganda in yesterday’s newspaper as he waits to be discovered by a person of influence. He stays till dark when the waiters chase him away, watches the sun set over the city before he leaves. Below him the street chokes with traffic, old city buses hiss and sigh and exhale dozens of working-class men every time they come to a stop, dark-eyed young women throw one last glance at the lovers they have met on the sly, away from the eyes of their parents, in the narrow, shady back streets surrounding their school, squeeze into orange taxis and pray they will not be spotted by someone they know.
How strange, I think, to be told that the fairy-tale places I have invented really exist — that they look the same as I’ve described them, are populated by living characters I had thought existed only on my page.
Gina B. Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her new novel, “Caspian Rain,” will be published this fall. Gina Nahai’s column appears monthly in The Journal.