A guest post by Shahrzad Noorbaloochi, an Iranian-American activist.
There is a history that echoes and scratches within my blood. It tells stories of the suffering of my mother, my father, my sisters, my uncles, aunts and their grandparents. It is a story of suffering, sacrifices, resilience and solidarity. Often, I am fooled by the smiles of their tellers. However, never forget, behind the hospitality and honesty of my mother’s smile lay wounds that will forever haunt the corridors of all of our histories. They are wounds caused by the brutalities of war, the deaths exalted and the innocences lost. Today, as the drums of war continue to beat ever louder, echoed by the growing burden of sanctions on the backs of ordinary Iranians, it has become apparent that what is called for now is a telling of these stories.
The author at age five
My name is Shahrzad. I was named after Shahrzadeh ghesegoo – Shahrzad the Storyteller- whose telling of stories ultimately saved her own life in One Thousand and One Nights. In the story, King Shahryar, after having his heart broken by his unfaithful wife, takes to marrying virgins, sleeping with them and killing them the next morning. Witnessing this killing, Shahrzad, the daughter of the King’s vizier, offers herself to become Shahryar’s next wife, devising a plan to put a stop to his killing.
On the night of their marriage, Shahrzad begins to tell the King a story, making sure not to reveal its ending. In order to hear the end of the tale, the king allows Shahrzad to live and finish her story the following night. Shahrzad continues in this way for one thousand and one nights, weaving her tale each night and in so doing sparing not only her own life, but the lives of one thousand and one other women. Here is my story. Perhaps it too can save lives.
The author and her family in Tehran, in 1990. Batool Zahedi, top left, Siamak Noorbaloochi, top right, Shahrzad, in Siamak’s arms, Azadeh bottom left, Sharareh center in red.
I was born in Tehran, Iran on November 30, 1989, a year and some months after the end of the eight-year long Iran-Iraq war. I have two older sisters who lived the years of their childhood amidst a country torn by war. During these years, my family lived in the southern city of Ahvaz, which was at this time one of cities most wracked by violence as it directly borders eastern Iraq.
On certain nights, my parents and sisters would hear the deafening sound of fighter jets above and would, out of fear, flee to the ground level of their apartment complex, where they would take shelter under a staircase. My sisters, like the 16 million kids living in Iran today, were children of only six and nine years.
The author’s sister and friends in their apartment in Ahvaz, Iran in the 1980s. During this period, children of her age, along with the rest of the city, were regularly made subject to rounds of terrifying air attacks by the Iraqi military
Under the shelter of the steps, my dad would tell my middle sister that what were in reality airstrikes, brought on by Saddam’s regime with the help of the United States’ government, were in fact only stars in the sky. For some time after these airstrikes, I was later told, my sister was terrified of starry nights, running to cry and hide in her room when she saw them.
My uncle was even closer to the horrors of war than my family, as he was an officer in the Iranian army during the war. He traveled to various battle locations during his term as an officer. During these travels, he sustained a brain injury, arising from his exposure to Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons, as supplied by the U.S. As a result of these injuries, my uncle now suffers brain damage, which had created a host of complications for him and his family.
My mother’s sister lost her youngest son to the Iran-Iraq war. My cousin was nineteen when he was shot in the jaw as a soldier. Despite having Iran’s equivalent of a 4.0 in high school and a receiving a scholarship to study at a Japanese university, he chose to enlist in the war and defend his country against the Iraqi invasion that had begun in 1980. Moved by a need to defend what he saw as an unjust and unwarranted attack on the Iranian people, he had no reservations about making the sacrifice of his life. He had one blue eye and one green eye. Because fair traits like his were very rare among Iranians, he was and still is remembered most for his eyes. He died of an infectious wound shortly after being shot at the age of nineteen.
My family’s stories highlight a reality that permeates the majority of Iranian families today. The terror of daughters, the death of sons and the injury and trauma of husbands, fathers, wives and mothers are fresh wounds that lay at the very surface of Iranian society today.
Notice of Death for Mohsen Sanjali, Shahrzad’s 19-year-old cousin who was shot in the jaw and died as a soldier in the Iran-Iraq war. This is the notice that was distributed in his family’s neighborhood to inform the community of his martyrdom.
One could say that this society is divided into three generations. The first is the generation of adults over the age of fifty who experienced the horrors of the Iran-Iraq war and the repression of the Shah era, both of which occurred with enthusiastic US support. They experienced the 1953 CIA-led coup that unseated the democratically elected prime minister of Iran and the daily brutality of the Shah’s regime, fully aware of the United States’ role in producing that brutality. The wounds are deep and still very raw for this generation of Iranians, and therefore, without variation among ideological lines, this generation is by and large, distrustful of U.S. foreign policy.
Then, there are those over thirty who did not experience the Shah first-handedly but who have vivid memories and experiences of the Iran-Iraq war and know very clearly the extensive support the US provided in order to facilitate the killing of Iranian men, women and children. For this generation, the wounds caused by the US government will never be forgotten either. They too are therefore distrustful of American foreign policy.
Finally, there is the third generation composing Iranian society: the under thirty crowd, who compose nearly sixty percent of the Iranian population today. On the whole, before the onset of the sanctions, distrust of the American government in this generation was less than other generations of Iranians and one could even say that glimpses of optimism about the US’s role in the world could be seen.
Iranians of this generation are generally enthusiastic about Americans and American culture, with many of them hoping one day to visit. It is within this group that we see a possible and ready foundation for the building of positive U.S.-Iranian relations. However, the unfolding of the recent sanctions regime as well as the brutal force, with which they have hit the Iranian people, these fertile grounds for peace are becoming rapidly tarnished.
Today, 80 percent of Americans support the UN Security Council imposing tighter sanctions on Iran in efforts to stop it from enriching uranium, according to the 2012 Chicago Council Survey of American Public Opinion and U.S. Foreign Policy. However, I believe this is because the true effects of sanctions on Iranians as well on Iran-U.S. relations are not known.
During my last trip to Iran in March, 2012, I witnessed many such effects first handedly. I saw and heard from numerous ordinary Iranians about how the prices of basic goods such as meat and eggs had increased to unprecedented heights. Eggs, which used to be a staple of the diets of poor Iranians had become, at that point, somewhat of a luxury, their prices having increased by almost 9 times in the preceding months. There is a large population of Afghan migrants in Iran who live in extreme poverty. They rely on eggs and bread for many of their meals. However, because of the huge increase in the price of eggs, I was told, many are no longer able to afford them and rely on the simpler dish of cheese and bread. The prices of such goods have since grown even more.
Chicken and beef have nearly quadrupled in prices and tea and bread, both Iranian staples, have increased enormously in price as well. Everywhere, talk of the crippling effects of increased prices can be heard. Recent news has revealed how far the value of the rial has plummeted such that ordinary Iranians are getting driven deeper and deeper into poverty and all the suffering, with which it is accompanied. Recent reports have also increasingly pointed to the shortage of medicines caused by sanctions.
According to a recent Washington Post article, the sanctions are now making it extremely difficult for sick Iranians to get access to medicines that they often need for survival. Medical experts are reporting shortages of medicines and raw materials for Iranian pharmaceutical companies. Children suffering from diseases such as hemophilia are receiving their medications in quantities that are insufficient to guarantee their survival. People suffering from cancer, MS, and thalassemia are also finding it difficult to get access to their medications in sufficient quantities. In several small cities outside of Tehran, there have been reports of people dying because they lacked access to medication due to the effects the sanctions are having.
What all of this suggests is this: sanctions have done nothing but increase human suffering in Iran.
Perhaps those eighty percent of Americans favoring sanctions believe that these are costs that must be paid if both the Iranian people as well as the rest of the world want to gain security and peace from Iran’s brutal government. I make no excuses for the Iranian government nor its abysmal human rights record. However, these sanctions will do nothing to further security or peace in the region. This is not only because of the Iranian people’s suffering at the hands of sanctions, but also because given the context in which Iran is situated today, the chance of sanctions working is factually very low.
In an article from the Brookings Institute, published in August, Djavad Salehi-Isfahani outlines some very convincing reasons why the sanctions will not work under the current conditions in Iran. First, he writes, sanctions only work when the populations that they are imposed on identify with their objective, as it was, for instance, in South Africa. In order for the sanctions in Iran to currently achieve their stated goal of halting the Iranian government from pursuing a nuclear program, Isfahani argues, the Iranian people must identify the halting of Iran’s nuclear program as their cause as well.
However, recent opinion polls have shown that the society is divided on its stance on the nuclear program and in fact, have shown that a good number of Iranians support the government’s right to pursue it. Moreover, the recent history of Iran shows that when threatened by sanctions, most Iranians will continue to stand behind their government rather than rise up in support of an external force. When in 1952, the U.S. imposed an oil embargo on Iran, the people stood behind their government and tolerated the pain. For these reasons, the sanctions will not only hurt ordinary Iranians and the social and economic paradigm of Iran but will also not be effective in carrying out what the U.S. states to be its goal in imposing them.
In fact, not only will they be ineffective in bringing about the goals of the US, but that they will in fact promote the opposite. The more the tensions rise between the US and Iran, the greater the Islamic Republic will grow its state apparatus to combat the increased threats. This means for those who are connected to the regime, such as families who support it, employment opportunities rise, wealth increases and power grows. The consequence of such a growth in power is a weakening of progressives who were at the forefront of the Green movement. Furthermore, sanctions and talk of war act to legitimize the Iranian government who has in its thirty years of rule continuously relied on enemies such as the US to legitimize itself. By imposing these burdens on the Iranian people in the form of sanctions, the United States works to materialize the regime’s claims to legitimacy.
However, the very fact that we are, so to speak, here gives me hope. Today, in all parts of the country we are joined by other like-minded activists in organizations such as Raha Feminist Collective, and Havaar, a New York based initiative working against sanctions, war and state-repression in Iran. In our collaborative efforts, we are strong.
The stories retold by Shahrzad in One Thousand and One Nights were fiction stories and the women whose lives she saved were also imagined. However, today, we are living amongst the ruins of a lived war, the palpable memories of the death of a nineteen-year-old son. We are living in the all too real grief of his mother, the broken heart of whom still burns its tragedy in our veins. In honor of her story and all the stories which we have not heard, though we cannot doubt exist, we will stand strong and let it be known that another war and the infliction of poverty and suffering on a people cannot be carried out under our name.