We all know what it feels like to want something you can't have. One spends a great deal of time lamenting on how green the grass was or could be. I once visited a beautiful Russian Orthodox Church in Nice, France, where, out front, a few elderly men were tirelessly playing chess all day long. They were of the old Russian aristocracy, the aristocracy that you read about in Pushkin's poetry and Tolstoy's prose - decadently wealthy and decadently fun. Besides playing chess, they would read the papers in French and Russian (if they could be found). Until sundown they would debate the state of Russia, exchange rumors of relatives back home, and argue about when the proletariat would fall (soon, soon). Where some people found pity or humor in their pastime, I found only my sad realization that, as exiles, we had things in common -- we searched for ways to revive the past.
I am convinced that many people cannot empathize with the exile. If I force a friend to imagine that state of being, I usually obtain one of two antithetic results. An all too common reaction finds its roots in ignorance, not, as some would proclaim, in callousness. It is when my friend scoffs at my ''over-reaction'' toward my exiled situation; he says that I must only be grateful to have found refuge in his wonderful world and that it is my duty (to myself) to shirk memories of the past and begin my new Western life. Such is the imagination of the good patriot who is smug with the unlikeliness of entering my shoes.
Then there is my friend with a different angle. This one treats his imagination like a rose in water and eventually finds the scent too strong to bear. He is wildly sympathetic; writhing in his chair, wringing his hands, wailing with grief as the visions of being ousted from his country gruesomely dance before his eyes. Oh!, the loss is too difficult to feel - he thinks it could be like losing the spring forever. My friends are too extreme for real life. Because the circumstance is never as optimistic as the first reaction, nor as desolate as the second.
Iranians are a social people; emotional, and openly so. We love to gather around a gurgling samovar that someone surreptitiously extricated from back home. The tea is hot and strong, and so is the conversation. We move our hands like Sicilian pizza makers to emphasize our ideas on life and the revolution -- two situations which have become one and the same.
These conversations seem to follow the same pattern each time. Taking first priority are the exchange of sad vignettes and gory tales; rumors, if you will, of the ''new'' Iran. Filtering through the gigantic human pipeline of expatriates, the stories have formed a trail of breadcrumbs from ''home'' to ''here'' -- a perishable lifeline of communication.
My cousin tells his story; the one he's heard from his best friend in Paris who escaped through the dangerous mountain roads of Turkey with only a few essentials for survival -- he was forced to leave his parents behind in Tehran. Everyone nods with understanding -- yes, we miss our parents, brothers, sisters, wives, husbands too. I tell of my friend whose uncle was taken to prison three months ago. He was a professor at the university and one of his students told the revolutionary komiteh that he had made a reference in class to the government's blame for the failing Iranian economy. My friend has heard nothing of her uncle's whereabouts or position. She is afraid; her father was executed two years ago for having been a member of the Shah's army.
And there are more stories. Each one producing the same outpouring of emotional dismay -- the ''oohs'', ''aahs'', and ''oh nos'' so vitally expressed in Farsi. I look around the table and see in those faces what I am feeling inside. These horrors and the context of our displaced lives seem unreal. Like the characters of Oz and Wonderland, we can only dream of returning to Kansas and passing through the Looking Glass.
As soon as everyone is thoroughly depressed, someone will crack a joke, maybe about Khomeini (of which there are many, none favorable) or about the unfortunate Iranian who thought to bargain the price of his groceries at the Stop and Shop in the manner he used in the bazaar. In these times of trouble, the jokes serve to alleviate some of the pain. It's like watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon when you find yourself laughing at what normally would be considered violent, unfair, and impossible.
The laughter becomes contagious -- even the samovar seems to have given up gurgling to join the giggling. Ah, it is just like old times. But someone remembers the quenched smell of the desert earth after a summer downpour; the snow-covered peak of Damavand that hovers like a permanent cloud over Tehran; the scenery of a ride north to the Caspian Sea where the desert seems to gradually reproduce life until the land's green bursts forth to welcome the sea; an evening view of Tehran from its northern mountains as it stretches to the far-reaching corners of its valley -- it is a burst of light like a nova that has peacefully fallen from space. We are all silent so we can remember together. And I can see our memories in the steam of the samovar -- puffs of smoke that are real.
I remember many other things too; things that the revolution erased. This reminds me again of my Russian friends. I don't doubt that my life in Tehran was not unlike theirs before the Bolsheviks. Such wealth that existed was mind-boggling and its overabundance was put to what we frivolously defined as the ''best of use'': for magnificent walled-in marble houses boasting opulent flower gardens painstakingly built into the slopes of desert mountains; for the importation of the most expensive automobiles to be driven by obedient chaffeurs; for numerous annual vacations to Europe for summer and winter wardrobes; for diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires larger than the fruit our peasants ate; for glittering parties offering food and wine flown in from foreign lands; for happiness; for love; for life.Ah, now I remember that we, the aristocracy, were beyond satiation.
I add fresh water to the samovar as I have just done to my mind. As is the undying pattern of these conversations, my compatriots and I are coming to some realizations. The revolution erased our glamorous world and, perhaps, rightly so. What, really, did we learn in our hour of decadence? Or, rather, what were we forestalled from learning? Since the revolution our lives have taken on a different form. My cousin is working for an architectural firm; my aunt has found that she can paint and joyfully does so while her children attend a good prep school; and I have returned to my studies. We don't attend many parties anymore and what wealth we have comes from the past. We are close to our friends for there is no longer room for superficialities. We have been compelled to alter our values and look toward the stabilities of living -- those things we cannot lose: our thoughts, our intelligence, our love. A solemn surprise confronts us -- are we in fact, is it possible, that we are actually in a better way now?
Here then, is where the conversation inevitably arrives. We accept that we will follow our Russian friends and lament over our exiled state, always hoping that the quiet mist of history will slowly roll in to replace the suffering in Iran with a promising future that we, in our new-found identities, can be a part of. For now, however, this is our future, and a second chance.
As the samovar pours us a fourth cup, we are all having a similarly redeeming thought: If not for the revolution, I never would have had the chance to. . .