Being Iranian American is like being the child of divorced parents who refuse get along, not even for the kids. Growing up as one of these embattled children, conflict embedded in my DNA, I’ve never known a moment when my two homelands have been anything short of archenemies. Thus, what most of the world experiences as an external, geopolitical conflict, I and my fellow Iranian Americans experience as an internal, deeply personal one. These are our parents you’re talking about, and we love them both, even when we hate them.
But lately — between the American regime’s targeted assassination of Gen. Qassem Soleimani and President Donald Trump’s ensuing threats, not to mention the Iranian regime’s murder and detention of innocent protesters — I can’t stand either one of them. Their fighting is literally keeping me up at night.
What most of the world experiences as an external, geopolitical conflict, I and my fellow Iranian Americans experience as an internal, deeply personal one.
Like countless writers, I try to get to bed early, because there’s a special magic that awaits us at dawn — if we’re awake to meet it. I rarely achieve this early rising, but Sunday morning was different. I woke up naturally, effortlessly at 4:30 a.m. Some people call this “inspiration”; I call it a miracle. Afraid and overwhelmed, I knew to reach for my craft, but mercifully, it found me first — as this is exactly what art specializes in treating. It shines a light and wakes us up. It brings everything into perspective. It reminds us what it means to be human, defining cultures and civilizations, sparking revolutions within our hearts that can’t help but spill out into the world around us.
But more and more, it feels like art is under attack, usually rhetorically but this week literally. On Saturday, Trump took a page from the ISIS playbook, tweeting a threat to commit cultural war crimes if Iran retaliated for last week’s killing of Soleimani. “We have targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture,” Trump tweeted. (Even Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper has noted that such an attack would, in fact, be a war crime.)
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A few hours after Trump's first tweet, Atieh Sabbar, an Iranian-Canadian designer and HR professional from Toronto, tweeted photos of her paternal hometown of Kashan alongside a call for people to tweet their favorite Iranian cultural sites. Soon after, I joined her #IranianCulturalSites tweetstorm, noting that destroying any cultural site hurts all of humanity, not just a single race or nationality.
In a tragic bit of irony, Donald Trump and all of the wounded souls apparently so threatened by art are also the ones who most need what it has to offer.
Indeed, although I find the president’s threat repulsive, it also compels me to pray for him. Why? The answer is rooted in my Persian ancestry, and more specifically, in one of the greatest literary icons in all of Persian literature: a mystic poet whom Iranians affectionately call Molana (meaning “our master”) and who the English-speaking world knows simply as Rumi.
Over the past five years, I’ve been researching and writing a memoir interspersed with original translations of Rumi’s poetry. Among those translations is this:
Your wounds may summon the light hereto
But this sacred light does not come from you.
For Rumi, this sacred light comes from “the Beloved,” which he recognizes as the source of all humanity, one known by countless different names but one that invariably supersedes race, religion, gender and nationality. As Rumi notes,
Love’s nation of origin is separate from all creeds.
For the lovers, the Beloved comprises all religions and nationalities.
This light, and this love, is what woke me up so early Sunday morning. And as an Iranian-American artist, I have faith that it can wake all of us up — if we let it. That, after all, is exactly why terrorists of all strains find art so colossally threatening, for it is a natural antidote to terrorism. Born of love, it unites and liberates us through the bridges of our shared humanity, instead of dividing us through the walls of violence and ideology.
Driven by fear, those who go to war with art always lose in the end. Just ask any writer: We all know the best way to ensure a book’s longevity is for despots to ban it and bigots to burn it.
I fell asleep that Saturday night inspired by images of Persepolis and Bam, of the Pink Mosque and the Vank Cathedral, of the tombs of Hafez and Cyrus the Great. And I arose Sunday to the miracle some call inspiration. Like artists from every time and place known to humankind, I catch it and let it do its work, filling my wounds with light and letting its wondrous rays stretch out into a world on the cusp of revolution, desperate for healing.