Saturday, June 20, 2009

We have it in our power to begin the world over again.

I remember the day the Soviet Union collapsed, but not because I was particularly attuned to the event's political, social and historical ramifications at the time. I was after all, the ripe old age of six when the USSR ceased to be, so in fact, I probably didn't even exactly realize what the USSR was at that point. But my dad, who still has a varied array of relatives living in Slovakia [and who also because of this made my even younger self pay attention to the Gentle Revolution] sat me in front of the TV that day and made me watch. We were at my aunt's cottage in northern Michigan so for once I didn't want to watch TV when I could run around by a lake - even if it was the dead of winter - plus it was you know, Christmas, but I distinctly remember my dad positioning me in front of that TV telling me "You'll want to be able to say you remember this."
He was right of course, but its not like I realized that when I was six. And now that I'm 23 I wish I remembered more about that time than just how much I wished I was doing something else - I wished I remembered the marches of Solidarity, the pride of being a Slovak who finally had a country to call their own, the words Pope John Paul II said to make my grandma love him so much she never called him anything else except "The Pope." Because maybe if I really, truly remembered the courage of these people maybe I wouldn't be so surprised to see something similar happening in Iran today. It's one thing to lose faith in humanity, but with Craigslist killers, octogenarian Anti-Semite killers, abortion doctor killers and the like, I had in the words of Bob Dylan, no faith to lose and I knew it.

Then this happened:

And oh yeah, this:

And holy shit this:

Nico Pitney at the Huffington Post has been running a truly excellent Live Blog this week about the current crisis in Iran - helped along by readers both in America and abroad who are sending in tips and helping to translate things from Farsi. Some of the things accumulated on said blog - pictures, other blogs, videos, Twitters - are really gut wrenching and heartbreaking. None perhaps more so than the videos of the rallying calls of Allah-o Akbar ["God is great"] from the rooftops at night. I don't know the woman in this video and she'll never know me, but thanks to the wonders of YouTube [!?!??!] we have a weird connection; I must admit a tear formed in my eye when she clearly breaks into tears herself, so maybe I don't hate humanity as much as I thought:

I am not a Muslim, so perhaps the full weight and historical significance of the call of Allah-o Akbar is lost on me, but I do not have to be a Muslim to appreciate it as a cry to the divine for what should be everyone's divine right on earth in the here and now: freedom. All cries for freedom, whether they be Allah-o-Akbar or "No taxation without representation!" are the same, the same in that they should all be heard.
But even more importantly, we should listen to all cries for freedom and that perhaps is the hardest thing to do, especially when they are coming from some far corner of the world we know nothing about. And more than anything that is what the Iranian people have done this past week or so - they have demanded that the world to pay attention to them. Before it was easy to dismiss Iran as merely that place with that insane dictator, but this week the world has been forced to contend with the fact that a nation's leader is not always an accurate representation of its people [something the US had to deal with for awhile too, but nowhere near on this scale!].
It is hard to dismiss Iran now that I have seen one of its citizens - roughly my age! - bleed to death on its city streets, or seen pictures of its universities' dorms smashed and riddled with bullet holes. I lived in college dorms for two years - what would I have done if I had found them surrounded by paramilitaries? Would I run? Hide? Stand my ground? I don't know of course, but seeing images and reading messages from Iranian college students makes us pay attention in that most visceral way possible: What if that was me?! Part of the reason I think the video of Neda has had such an impact is that we can all ask that important question - What if that was me? - while watching. It's one thing to watch a video of a person on YouTube, I don't know, eating macaroni and cheese or something because we don't all have to eat macaroni and cheese. But we do all have to die, and what is up to us is the small matter of whether we think Neda's death was heroic, unnecessary, tragic, exploited, disgusting or a combination of any and all of the above. We don't know how or when we will die, but we can parse out how we feel about something like Neda's death and in some small measure that may help us sort out how we feel about our own mortality.
What is perhaps easiest then to say right now is some banal platitude like "We are all Iranians" in an effort to show solidarity, but that perhaps is the ultimate dismissal, something to say to make us feel like we are informed and caring before we move on to our regularly scheduled lives. We are obviously not all Iranians - we all do not love the country of Iran as much the protesters who take to the streets daily now at risk of their lives. It is also easy to say that "I" thank the Iranian people for reminding me how deep and how strong the human spirit runs, but that seems too self centered a thing to say about a fight that isn't mine.
But perhaps the fight is mine - I am just not fighting this particular battle. The fight is all of ours actually, and I can only hope that when the time comes to fight my battle for freedom, human rights, my check mark on a ballot, or whatever, I can display the same sort of fortitude, courage and bravery the people of Iran have.
My vague memories of Pope John Paul II, my bloody memories of Neda, my academic memories of the American Revolution, all belong in the same file in my brain, the file that reads "We have it in our power to begin the world over again."
I just have to remember to read that file every once in awhile now.

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