A Son’s Story

Habibe Jafarian

Artwork by Jensine Eckwall

The present piece is a chapter from Seven Personal Narratives, Imam Mousa Sadr’s Biography. It is written from the point of view of Sadr-ed-din, Imam Mousa Sadr’s son and eldest child.

The book was written based on interviews I carried out with those close to Mousa Sadr – his son, two daughters, his wife, his niece, his sister, brother, and a close friend – between the years 2005 and 2009. Some of these people live in Beirut and others in Tehran. Carrying out the interviews was both pleasant and hard. Using the interviewees’ responses to the questions and writing each chapter in the form of a narrative from their perspective was harder and less pleasant. In the end I had to sit by myself with their words and extract the core of these peoples’ feelings and perspectives toward Imam Mousa Sadr, feelings and perspectives that were hidden in the layers of their descriptions of this man, feelings and perspectives that found different forms and colors based on each person’s relationship with him.

Seyed Mousa Sadr was born on June 4, 1928, in the religious town of Qom, Iran. His father, Ayatollah Seyed Sadr-ed-din Sadr, was the successor to Ayatollah Abdol Karim Hayeri, who had founded Qom’s
hawza and was one of the leading Shiite clerics and marjas of his time. Sadr studied in Qom and Najaf’s hawzas until the age of thirteen. He also attended a regular high school and university and in 1950 entered the Law Department of the University of Tehran as the first cleric-student to study there. In 1959, following the advice of Shiite marjas and the will of Ayatollah Seyed Abdolhussein Sharaf ed-Din, the late Shia leader of Lebanon, Mousa Sadr left Iran to go to Sour, in the south of Lebanon. In winter of 1961, he revived “al-Bar va al-Ehsan” charity organization and founded dozens of other cultural and educational institutions in towns and villages around Lebanon, which then became the roots of the Mahroumin Movement [Movement of the Deprived]. The movement was officially formed in 1974. Mousa Sadr’s efforts led to the improvement of the economic and educational conditions of thousands of poor families, beginning with the Shiites and then encompassing all of Lebanon’s communities, as well as the development of many projects including building hospitals and schools.

After two years of hard work, in 1969 he founded the Supreme Islamic Shi’ite Council (SISC) of Lebanon to improve the lives and rights of the Shiite Muslims as citizens. He organized the first round of talks in Beirut between Islamic and Christian religious leaders, an event that was attended by important figures from both religious communities. Following the Six-Day War between Israel and Arab states in 1967, he visited Pope Paul VI and invited the Sunni
muftis of Lebanon to get together and try to find a way out of the conflicts that beset the different factions of the Lebanese Muslim community. With the beginning of the civil war in Lebanon in March 1975, Sadr devoted his life to bring peace back to Lebanon. In June of the same year, he sat in in Amelieh (Safa) Mosque, in Ras al-Naba’ neighborhood of Beirut, and through his charisma and popularity among followers of all Lebanon’s religions, succeeded in bringing a temporary peace and calm to the country during that summer. However, the political situation in Lebanon and tensions between the different factions were so complicated they could not be solved by one person, even if that person was someone as popular as Mousa Sadr.

As he founded an armed wing for the
Mahroumin Movement, known as Amal, and given his closeness to the Palestinian residents of South Lebanon, Imam Mousa Sadr did not lack for enemies. He left on a trip to Libya in August of 1978, which aimed to promote peace between the different parties involved in the civil conflict in Lebanon. It was a trip from which he was never to return.

Besides being a popular political figure, Mousa Sadr was also known as a noteworthy religious thinker. One of his most important writings is his long introduction to the Arabic translation of Henry Corbin’s
History of Islamic Philosophy.


I tell everyone you were just an ordinary person, but I know that you weren’t. For me you never were and this is perhaps what burdens me. Because I have never been you, I have never become you. I have never wanted to change the world or save a people or carry a mission. But that is not why I suffer. The burden lies elsewhere. It comes from the world turning to push me to “do something for you.” The phrase is simple, simple and harmless, but throughout all the years of your absence, which have been the years of my youth and middle ages, it has gradually begun to reproach me.

A few nights ago Mohsen Kamalian asked me whether I thought you were alive. I gave him a scolding look, and asked whether he thought otherwise. He said, “If you think your father is alive, how can you sit down, go to bed? How can you grab your briefcase every day and go to your office to work? Why don’t you go into the streets and shout? Why don’t you run? Why are you sitting?”

I think a lot about what would happen if we changed places. If any one of us, any one of your friends or family members had gone on a trip from which they never returned, if I were lost in another country or land, what would you do? I don’t know what exactly you would do, because I am not you, but I know that it would be impossible for you to be here and allow one of your own to remain for thirty years in the hell he is imprisoned in. What we have done with you, what I have done with you. You have been gone for thirty years and for thirty years we have been assuming that one day you would return, but you haven’t. I don’t know why. I don’t know why I can’t do for you what you would do for me if you were here. Haven’t I wanted to? Was I not capable? Who can judge? Who can say which one is more pardonable? Who can say which one is sadder?

Sometimes, mostly at night—because it’s darkness that brings everything to mind—I tell myself I have done, and am doing, all that I can; if nothing has happened it’s not my fault. But it’s right at this moment that I become furious with you. I am sure that if you come right now I will fight you. It’s right at this moment that the burden falls on me. The burden of not being you. The burden of you not being an ordinary person. What I have always denied and opposed. If you were in my stead, there would be no “not possible” or “not able.” You did not know “not being able.” You were strange. You had capacities and beliefs that did not falter. Once when I tried to reprimand you or show you that I had grown up, I said, “Dad, these people are not worth it. Why don’t you leave them and go to Iran? You are more needed there.” And do you remember what you responded? You said, “God has asked me to come and serve these people. The very people who are not appreciative, who are perhaps like this because of their ignorance.” You were adamant about who you were and what you needed to do. You said this was your “duty.” This was the role asked of you and you fought for it, got frustrated over it, were looked down upon and insulted because of it, but you kept going; and something really happened; something changed somewhere and some work was done. But what am I doing? What have I done? My youth and adulthood have been spent searching for you, spent in a struggle that I kept hoping would bring you back to me and others, but I have “failed.” Fail. A word you never understood. And rightly or not, I think you didn’t do enough to teach me how to be “unfailing.” I don’t know whether one can teach this to others or not. But I know that if you had the will, I would become another person. This makes me laugh. It’s my belief, or perhaps I want it to be my belief, that you could not deliver miracles. That you were an ordinary person. A virtuous ordinary person. But . . . I still grumble that if you willed, I would have become another person. As if you were God. As if you had a miracle up your sleeve. Isn’t that funny? Isn’t this all contradictory?

Things get so complicated whenever I think about you. Sometimes I think whatever you were and did was good and sometimes I think if you returned at this very moment we would have fought each other. I’m not sure about you—you were always too reserved and pious to fight with anyone—but I would for sure pick a fight with you. Sometimes I think you were the best dad a son could ask for and sometimes I wish I could tell you “It was all your fault,” tell you “You didn’t do enough for me,” but I can’t. These sentences are harsher than anything I could say to your face. Instead I tell you I am mad at you because if you had the will I would become someone else and God knows this is true. You could and I would embrace it. You could and I would become it. For me you were like this. You were always like this. Strange. I have known this since my early childhood. Since the first time you stood next to me. You were tall, a little short of two meters, and your looks were kind of strange, like those of a character in a story, and your clothes further lessened your similarity to others and sometimes even terrified me. Terrified is not the word. By the way, do you know when you first terrified me? It was in Sur, one afternoon when I was coming home from school with friends. We were walking back, playing around, fighting, swearing. I was near the house and I didn’t realize that you were standing at the door and I swore. I don’t remember what I said. I just remember that the swear word was still in the air when I heard you calling my name and I turned around and saw you standing at the door. The moments until I reached you are the longest and deadliest moments of my life to this day. The slap you gave me was not even that horrible. At that moment I felt I had forever lost you. I felt that you would never again love me, never again hug me or speak to me. Once you actually did this. Not speak to me for all of twenty-four hours. Because I had slapped Houra. I was a bully. I slapped Hamid too. Perhaps because I was the oldest kid and felt I could. Felt I had the right. Poor Hamid was soft. Chubby and soft. These days he is thin, but he is still soft. Our fights were an everyday scene at home for which you never punished me, but the first time I slapped Houra, you did not speak to me for twenty-four hours. You were sensible towards women. Nobody was to bully them. When Houra, Hamid, and I were in France, you had forbidden that she wash the dishes or sweep the house. Was I jealous of her? No. You could do as you wished. Whatever you did was right.

I can’t think of a time when you were still with us, when I wished that you had done something differently, or had been a different person. But now if you return, I will pick a fight with you. What do you even look like now? How much of your height is gone? How much of the shine in your eyes? Are they still as green? Were they green? Or grey? You with your strange features have now become a strange eighty-two-year-old who would enter the room and I, the son who has passed fifty and become an old man myself, would throw myself into your arms, put my chin on your shoulder, and ask, Why were you here so little? Why am I not who I was supposed to be? Why did you stay in that dystopia so long that I became an old man myself, why did you stay away when you could have stayed with us instead? While I “should have” been able to do something for you and didn’t. Couldn’t. Why didn’t you teach me to “be destined to be able?” Will I ever tell you all of this? Can I ever forgive you for sacrificing us for your greater cause?

When you were here, I could. When you were here, I didn’t think of anything as strange. I didn’t think it strange that you only dined with us on Sundays. I didn’t think it strange that when we went to bed at night you were not there and when we woke up you were still not there. I didn’t think it strange that mom chose and bought all our stuff, even your clothes. This didn’t seem bad to me. When I was a kid, this was even exciting. You were an important father who was busy doing extraordinary things. Many listened to your words or waited for you to tell them what to do. You were different from other fathers. You weren’t with us that much but the little you were there was so pleasant that it felt enough; in the few hours you spent with us we would indulge in you, even though you were not excessive in showing your kindness, especially if there was a stranger around. Did you ever hug me tight? I remember once. That one time I was shot. I was nine or ten. The son of the neighbor’s janitor was playing with his hunting gun and as I was heading up the stairs a bullet fired and wounded my face. Our driver, Mohammad Ali, rushed me to the hospital. Mom got there first and you arrived later. You hugged me, tightly but briefly, and then you tried to make me laugh so as to forget my pain and fear. If someone saw you at that moment, they would hardly think that you were worried or sad about something, but mom said when you heard the news you grew tense. You were always like that. You hid your feelings. As if no one was supposed to know what was going on with you. You were like this even in normal situations. Although you were rarely in a normal situation. The night of the June 25, 1978 was maybe one of those rare instances. The night of the finals at the World Cup: the match between the Netherlands and Argentina. You liked soccer. I knew this and I even guessed that you were a fan of Argentina, but you didn’t say anything. Sheikh Mohammad Yaqub jumped out of his seat every few minutes, shouting, but you didn’t have any reactions. One could tell that you were feeling excitement but you didn’t seem electrified or else you stopped yourself from showing it. We—Houra, Hamid, and I—were in France; and you, returning from Algeria, after meeting with Houari Boumédiène, had stopped over to see us. Two months later you went to Libya—a trip from which you never returned.

At first, we thought there was just a delay. First we inquired from your office and friends in Lebanon. We were still in France and you were supposed to meet us there. Mom was hospitalized and was to undergo surgery. We called your hotel in Libya. We called the Foreign Ministry. Nobody gave us a clear answer. I don’t know why we didn’t just call the embassy. I don’t know whether things would have turned out differently if we had. I just know that I was young and stupid. I was twenty-two and I had never thought about what to do if you were not there. I had never thought that you might not return from one of your trips to the west or east, trips you took the trouble to make in the hope of changing the world. You always seemed so confident and capable that one could not imagine a day when one had to do something for you. You were the one who was always at risk and you were the one who always acted. One would expect you to die; you had enemies, you had been betrayed, you had been lied to, you were alone, but you were also the one who was supposed to keep standing till the end and not quit. We were not part of this game. You always stood between disasters and us. As if they were painful secrets that were yours and you were under oath not to reveal them. You always kept us at a safe distance. Perhaps you thought there would always be time for growing up and suffering. Perhaps you felt guilty. Perhaps you thought you would lead us through the door when the time came. I remember that I even forced you to speak and tell me what to study at college if I wanted to be a part of what you did, if I wanted to help you out. Because you did not initiate such talks on your own.

This restraint sometimes insulted me. I sometimes even wondered why you never forced me to become a member of the clergy. Once, a family member who had come from Najaf said that Mohammad Baqir Sadr, your cousin, would really like Hamid and me to go to Najaf and study in the hawza and you, in a composed and assured manner, replied, “No!” You didn’t even pause before answering. I was there and was shocked. I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and whether I wanted to one day leave Beirut’s international school for Najaf and studies at the hawza. None of this was clear to me, but I was offended by the way you said “No!” Without pause and with such confidence. I wondered why you did it, why you didn’t provide any explanations. And the first chance I got, I asked you about it. “Why did you say no? Don’t you think we are worthy of wearing a turban or studying religion?” I asked. And you gave me one of your weird answers, “No dear. We have lots of clergymen. What we need is not clergymen, it is men of God and that is not what everyone can be. This you can’t do.” You said these words with kindness, but I wished I had never asked. I wished your “no” remained unclear to me. Did you have any hope in me? I don’t know. Mom says you sometimes just grabbed my hand and took me with you to talk, but perhaps more time and attention was needed for me not to remain weak. For me to be better than what I am. You didn’t give any advice. This was good but also irritating. It could be somehow considered neglect.

Am I being vicious? Am I so intent on demystifying you that I am ruining you? Am I angry that you are not here? That you didn’t do enough for me? That I am not as extraordinary as you are? That you didn’t teach me your magic? I don’t know. When you suddenly disappeared, I felt empty, empty and confused. Felt as if I had been pushed, with such injustice, into a situation for which I had no training. To move forward, I took steps in the dark, trying to find my way, each moment terrified, and still terrified, that I might be making a mistake. Could I do something better, something else? When I am doing fine, when I am kind to myself, I think I have done what I needed to, but when I am not—which is mostly the case—once again I get lost in the same void and confusion. When Mohsen Kamalian asks, “If you think your father is alive, why are you sitting? How do you fall asleep?” I don’t think he is talking nonsense. I don’t think he is not right. Instead, I think the fact that thirty years has passed and you are still not here proves him right. That I think I continue to struggle for you to stay alive and come back, but every day I live the life that everyone else is living proves him right. Do I lack determination? If I were an ordinary person, if my father were a farmer in Sour or a clergyman in Qom, if I were not associated with the distinguished family of a learned man, perhaps I would not feel so incompetent; perhaps life would have been much easier and kinder to me, but this is not what I want. What I want changed is not my ancestry.

Being your son is both good and bad. Not even bad, just hard. Yes, the polite word is this: hard, hard and pleasant. When I was at the boarding school in Beirut I felt the same. When they looked at me differently for being your son I enjoyed it. In that school, everyone was somebody’s kid. Every boy was the son of a highly important father and yet I was still different. Because I was your son and everyone respected you, Christians and Sunnis and Shiites and the Druze, and in Lebanon there were not that many people who were so respected by all; I enjoyed it. First there was joy and then weight. The weight of being better. Being distinguished. Back then, I forgave your absences, your short presences, because of this. I forgave your absences because you wanted to make the world a more tolerant place, because you wanted humans to be better creatures. But now that I have entered my fifties I don’t. Now I imagine that if you enter at this very moment I would fight with you. I think you didn’t do enough for me. I think it’s partly your fault that I have not been able to free you from the hell you are in. I think that if you had willed it, I would be another person, a better person. But I will only ever think about all this, I will never say any of it. The moment these words pass through the filter of my mind, roll up in my throat, and move out of my mouth, they will transform into something else, they will soften and aim their accusations elsewhere. “I could not benefit from dad’s presence.” “I am not the way I should be.” “I have not had, I do not have, your capabilities because I am not you, because I am ordinary.” Yes, that is the way I will speak and I will forgive you because, in the end, in my eyes you are you only when you are good, very good. You are you when you are not ordinary. I keep telling everyone you were an ordinary person, but I know that you were not. To me, you never were. That’s why when we are asked whether, if you return, we would allow you to do again what you did to yourself, to live how you lived, I just look down. When I remember your eyes and your tall figure, something moves in me. “If dad returns we should wait and see what he tells us,” I say. And this is who I am. Didn’t I want to argue with you? Didn’t I want to reproach you? Didn’t I want to consider you guilty? Would I ever be able to say these words? While to me, you were never like other fathers? While I have not even lost you the way others lose their fathers? You have not been sick, dead, or killed. You are lost, disappeared, and there always remains the hope that one day you will come back. Whenever I am not kind to myself, whenever I am angry with the situation, and I want to yell at someone for it, I think about this: the day you come back and listen to my old childish complaints.

translated from the Persian by Poupeh Missaghi

The original Persian piece first appeared in Dastan magazine, Issue 53, July–August 2010, and later as a chapter in Imam Mousa Sadr’s biography.