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#WOMANLIFEFREEDOM

 
Self-portrait ©copyright Maedeh Ojaghlou 2023 by permission. The calligraphy,#womanlifefreedom, in the colors of the Iranian flag--without the Islamic symbol--has become the emblem of the 2023 Iranian resistance/revolution.

 

#WOMANLIFEFREEDOM

 

 

How many deaths?
How many are enough?
Should the list include everyone? Can it?
How can a list be complete when it cannot account for the ones who disappeared without a trace…

 

-Poupeh Missaghi, "trans(re)lating house one,"   Coffee House Press

 

 

Throughout recent history, Iranian women of all ages, genders, income levels and education have participated in national uprisings. In 2023, they are not only participating, they are organizing a resistance which is now massive in scale. The Iranian government is reacting with lethal force, escalating arrests and executions.

 

More than 500 people have already been killed in the current protests including four public executions. Taraneh Alidoosti, a well-known Iranian actress, and one of the most high-profile targets in Iran's campaign against celebrities who have expressed solidarity with the demonstrators, was arrested on Dec. 18th. Though she has since been released, many others haven't. Neda Naji, a labor activist, was sentenced to 8 months in prison, 60 lashes, and fined.

 

There are about 500,000 Iranians and Iranian-Americans in the United States right now and none of them, I am certain, are sleeping well. Maedeh Ojaghlou, 28-years-old, arrived in New York City via Dubai from Tehran on an F1 student visa in August 2022. We connected on the New Paltz Community Facebook page and then met for the first time last week for an in-person conversation at a Dunkin Donuts, a dystopian experience, as it was very crowded and we were both masked up. Maedeh (pr. MAH-eh-day)  was wearing a sweatshirt with the slogan of the Iranian resistance: #womanlifefreedom, a reverberating echo of women all over the world who have struggled for voting rights, abortion rights, the right to be educated, the right to choose a life partner, the right to equal pay, the right to surface from the hijab into air and light, or to remain veiled—in other words, the right to choose.

 

Maedeh and I had a lot to talk about and fell into conversation easily. Since the  444-day siege of the American Embassy in Tehran, there has been no official American consulate presence there. When Maedeh received her acceptance for the MFA program in photography at SUNY New Paltz, she was desperate to accept, but didn't know how her modest, middle-class family—her father is an accountant, her mother a housewife—could afford the funds for travel to Dubai to obtain a visa, and then living expenses once she arrived on campus. Somehow, the family found the money.

 

Maedeh's sister had already emigrated to the United States where she works as a researcher for a pharmaceutical company, so the family was accustomed to departures of their loved ones, and resigned to the financial sacrifice necessary to educate their children, especially their daughters. 

 

Many wealthy Iranian families had fled when the mullahs came to power in 1979 after the fall of the Shah, leaving the less affluent to navigate the new theocracy on their own, in the same way ordinary Afghan families now have to navigate the evisceration of freedoms and opportunities by the Taliban after the American evacuation which privileged those working for the American government or military. The religious fundamentalism of both regimes has been life changing for everyone, especially the women. And Iranians and Afghanis even share related languages: a Farsi-speaking Iranian can probably understand a Dari-speaking Afghani, and vice versa.

 

Maedeh has been an activist for many years. She had volunteered for a charity helping child laborers, some as young as five-years-old, and her parents knew she would have been on the streets demonstrating every day after Mhasa Amini's death. "But my parents  weren't just worried about me," Maedeh says. "They were worried about me and everyone else. We all worry about each other in Iran."  

 

Before long, Maedeh was on a plane to Dubai, her MFA acceptance in hand, applying for a visa. Soon after she landed in New York City, she joined demonstrations with friends and started posting photos on her Instagram account.

 

It might be difficult for Americans to understand that the demonstrators may, or may not, have an argument with Islam itself, one of the world's great religions. Maedeh's mother is devout, she does wear a hijab, but she supports and encourages the evolution of a new forward-looking generation. And her father, whose father was killed in the Iran-Iraq war, encourages his children to fight for freedom in a sanctioned country where there is no separation of church and state, and taxes go to advancing nuclear power and building drones for Russia's war against Ukraine.

 

Life in the United States is calm by comparison to Iran, Maedeh says. She misses her family, but she is safe for now, and feels free to study and demonstrate without fear of arrest, solitary confinement, floggings, or death. 

 

Dedicated to the brave women of Iran and Afghanistan.

 

For more information about incarcerated writers in Iran:

 

   https://pen.org/region/iran/

 

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter 99

My avatar unmasked.

 

Do You See Me?

 

      Sky People cannot learn, you do not See.

 

-Neyteri to Jake in "Avatar"

 

As if one needed eyes in order to see.

 

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

I am usually the only athlete in the gym wearing a mask, and one of the oldest, white-haired women. There's another woman in my demographic, but she does not wear a mask. Kudos  as she fast-walks for more than an hour on the treadmill listening to something or other on her headset, oblivious to everyone huffing and puffing around her. Once the guy next to her did interval training, got off the treadmill, huffed and puffed and spewed. No one said anything about his lack of consideration even though the Ulster County Department of Health had just sent out another "high" Covid alert about a new variant.

 

The years slowed during lockdown, and now have accelerated.  Based on my own unprofessional survey, those in their 20s, 30s, even 40s, don't feel the acceleration as much as older people. They have more time ahead of them, so they are getting on with their lives, as well they should. But in my immediate circle, friends and family are developing ailments they never anticipated, some are dropping away into eternity wherever that is. Covid deaths and Covid related deaths—cascades of organ failure in the ICUs—are commonplace now as they have been during the pandemic, even among immuno-compromised young people, but when they first happened they were a shock, now they are not. We hear about these losses first or second hand, we sigh with compassion, we attend funerals and memorials and continue living our self-absorbed lives afflicted with the "fox-hole" syndrome: the guy next to me is dead but I've survived Covid.

 

A long article in the New York Times last weekend in the "Well" section suggests we recover from pandemic isolation with intention, socialize as much as possible, connect, reach out, make phone calls, cultivate micro-connections in our daily lives. But how to navigate this as a Covid-vulnerable older person wearing a mask? Thus my question today to you, dear reader: I see you, but do you see me?

 

Feminist that I am, I dismissed laments of invisibility from older women… when I was young. No longer. Not only is the lament real, the experience universal, it is now exacerbated by THE MASK.  There is a caveat, of course: American culture is particularly ageist. And this ageism is amplified by our driven, material culture. The woman as object has not disappeared from the male psyche, which is why a not so young guy at the gym cruises and stares at younger women as his eyes glide over me, the invisible older woman, yet more invisible behind a mask. Younger women are also in a glissade when confronted with an older woman. It's more nuanced but it's palpable.

 

By temperament I am outgoing, by profession deeply interested in everyone's stories. Masking is a torture for me, an incarceration. And I cannot find a solution other than to talk through it, a kind of piercing cri de coeur: I see you, but do you see me? As an experiment, I'm going to write these words on a surgical mask in thick black ink and wear the mask to the gym. Who will respond and how? I will report my findings in the comments to this blog post. I anticipate a few laughs, at least.

 

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Memorabilia; A Writer's Reflections

 

Memorabilia; A Writer's Reflections

 

 

Literature is the messenger of freedom at the price of insecurity.

 

-Carlos Fuentes

 

My cousin, Ellen, in Seattle called to say she'd saved a letter I wrote to her at a "trifecta" in her life: her mother had a recurrence of breast cancer, she was pregnant, and starting a school with her husband, Paul, the now famous Northwest School. It was a pleasant surprise to hear she'd saved a letter from me. I was relieved it had provided some solace; her mother, who had suffered so much, was a favorite aunt. But it still felt creepy that an artifact of my psyche from decades ago was extant, on the page, and that someone had preserved it.

 

This is what writers must experience when an (unauthorized) biographer gets to work poring through letters, diaries and emails while they are still alive, I thought. Ugh.

 

It's not unusual for most writers I know to feel this way. It's even difficult to return to published work and feel satisfaction, or total satisfaction; or it feels like a stranger wrote the work. A detachment sets in as we quickly move on to the next project. This is why readings in public spaces in front of strangers often becomes a burden to a writer, unless you are David Sedaris. He's more like a stand-up comic—a  performer—who  happens to write really well.

 

I have moved so frequently in my life, across a continent 2x and an ocean 2x, that it's been necessary to cull books, clothes, furniture, and memorabilia. It's not easy to discern value in the moment, unfortunately, and the culling must be done before the moving truck arrives. And I've never felt regret. But when Ellen's square blue greeting-card envelope arrived, and I saw my mother's handwriting, I did feel a soupçon of regret. In addition to my typewritten letter on thin brown paper, there were two scrawled messages from my mother.

 

Suddenly a surge of vulnerability set in. What have I done throwing so much away? Why did I do this? Why have I moved so much?  Why are my suitcases always at the ready and boxes left unpacked in the closet? These are not rhetorical questions: they have an answer.

 

And there it is, the genocide again. One must be unencumbered and fleet of foot to escape and survive, then flexible enough to reconstitute a life in a new country. Think of the refugees amassed at the border, what they have carried besides water bottles and their children, and what they have left behind.

 

Ellen is a child of Holocaust survivors also, but she's a musician, and was a school administrator, more grounding, perhaps, than being a writer, though that may be my imagination. I must ask her, I  decided. In the meantime, I returned to the computer to write her a thank you email:

 

Mostly I'm left with: this fleeting life. How to hang on to precious moments? Remain sentient? Thus, the writing for me, among other things…I can well remember the enjoyment I felt scrolling paper into a typewriter and feeling the words unfold on the page. Did I write that long ago letter? I guess so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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