The Trip That Did Not Happen

Mahmoud Dowlatabadi

Illustration by Naï Zakharia

This year, I failed to make it to the US for the second time in two years. The purpose of this unofficial visit was to spend time with my daughter Sara, her husband, and my granddaughter Sormeh. They have been living in New York for almost four years because of my son-in-law’s job.

For the previous trip that I was to have taken last year, everything was ready—all necessary preparations had been made. The final bit—the visa application—went smoothly in Frankfurt; we had one week to spare before our flight to the US. My wife and I would spend this week in Düsseldorf before boarding our flight to New York. But while we waited, disaster struck in the heart of Europe, in Paris. Nonstop coverage of the concert hall under siege filled our television screen. I have lived my entire life in Iran. I have experienced the Islamic Revolution and its bloody outcomes. I have witnessed a devastating eight-year war; survived the missile attacks wrought on our cities, grabbing my family—my then-young children—with my teeth to safeguard both their physical and, to the extent that it was possible, psychological well-being. I have witnessed bloodshed in war-torn countries next to ours and have been devastated by the extent of the violence before my eyes; I have witnessed the bombing of Baghdad and tried to suppress my melancholia thereafter; I have witnessed all that has happened in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, and more. Before these horrific attacks, I once told a reporter, “The catastrophes taking place one after another in my country and in the greater Middle East will not merely be our problems, affecting us and us alone.” I had predicted that destruction and violence knew no borders. And yet, when my predictions came true before my very eyes in the heart of Paris, I was utterly shocked; so wretched was the loathing I felt toward the world that I decided, there and then, to cancel my trip. In a world filled with such hatred, festering like an open wound, I had no desire to go visit even my loved ones. I changed the date of my return flight, went to the airport the following day, and once back in Tehran, I sat in a corner of my room to despair of this world—not being a thick-skinned rhinoceros, after all, I am still capable of reacting to tragedies.   

Time passes, carrying us along with it, but even this eternal march has an already-examined quality to it—inviting forgetfulness. Faced with new suffering, man’s past suffering fades into the background, and in a multitudinous world such as ours, fresh suffering is always waiting in the wings, from the continuous senseless bombing of displaced Yemenis to the daily chaos that confronts Iraqis, Syrians, and Burmese, and the relentless crimes committed against women in Africa and elsewhere.

Despite all this weight on my soul, I decided to travel to the US this year for my family. After graduating from art school in Tehran, my daughter Sara is currently furthering her studies in New York. For her thesis, she chose to collaborate with her mother, Mehr Azar, and me—the project required our presence in New York. Coincidentally, I received an invitation from the Goethe Institute in Berlin, scheduled around the time that the trip would take place, to read from my new book, The Human Being. I decided to combine the two events: we could go to Berlin first, for the reading, then continue on to New York, to visit my family. Thus it came to be that my invitation to New York was sent to the American Embassy in Berlin. Once again, we bought our tickets in Tehran and waited for the day of our departure.

This all happened two months before Election Day in the US. I had more or less followed the debates leading up to the election, and to tell the truth, I personally liked Mr. Sanders! In Iran, the US elections had become a hot topic among certain circles. Many considered Trump’s campaign promises to be empty words; no one really thought he would go through with them. But, being someone who keeps to myself, I was not part of these discussions. Still, I was aware of the murmurs about some wall being constructed at the Mexican border, as well as about threats to foreigners living in the US, which Mr. Trump claimed were justified, given the costly war in Iraq. Truth be told, I too am against the war in Iraq; I’m against all wars, as a matter of fact. My greatest wish has always been peace for mankind.

After Trump was elected president, these murmurs turned into shouts, especially after the executive order on January 27.

Donald Trump’s inauguration and the Oscars ceremony took place within weeks of each other, so I also heard about the decision made by the crew of Iran’s Oscar-nominated film, The Salesman, to boycott the US and skip the ceremony in protest. I would not call myself particularly engaged by politics, even though politics always pulls the rug out from underneath us. That said, the travel ban singling out citizens of countries including Iran grabbed my attention immediately and I said to myself, “This trip won’t be happening either!” I couldn’t care less about whatever the skilled propagandists of the world might come up with to cushion Trump’s executive order, because, throughout the past forty years or so, not one politician has ever been able to strike the right tone in our bilateral exchange, or utter the right words. So I decided to cancel my trip, regardless of the propaganda noises coming from both sides. It was the simplest decision to make, really, despite the likelihood that both my wife and I would have gotten visas anyway.

One might wonder why I did not go public with my decision. Well, for one, my trip was not an official one, and even if it were, the last thing I would have wanted was to get sucked into the propaganda swirling around the ban; I just hate this sort of thing. I support the cultural exchange between writers and other artistic figures from our two countries. Because I—and others like me—have come to know the US and its people intimately through its literature and its writers. We’ve also come to know and admire American leaders who’ve governed with the trust of their people. Alongside these great American leaders who have shaped America into what it is today, there were also those who, in the face of wars that brought the world closer to destruction with a death machine, changed the course of History. A great pity that this America grew arrogant thereafter, making the mistake of entering into an imperialistic war in Vietnam, and later in Iraq; they were responsible for a coup in Iran too. 
Anyway, no liberal-thinking person will ever forget what the great Abraham Lincoln did to abolish the stain of slavery, the godfather of colonialism and fascism; I have always been proud to call myself a fellow human being of his, and I truly believe that a country as important as America would not want to repeat dear Abraham Lincoln's assassination!  

Back to Trump’s executive order. It calls to mind a Persian proverb: “It’s the Khosrows who know what’s best for their country!” Yes, kings are the ones who impose decrees for their subjects to follow. Orders (or rulings, or decrees) have a special place in Iran’s political history. For example, it’s said the Naderi “Order,” attributed to Nader Shah of the Afshar dynasty, resulted in his son being blinded and hundreds if not thousands of Hindus being decapitated; and the “Naseri Order,” attributed to Naser ed-din Shah of the Qajar dynasty, resulted in the beloved Iranian minister Amir Kabir’s veins being slit in a bathhouse. Even our constitution, drafted with the king’s consent because he was too weak, was signed by Mozafar ed-din Shah (Naser ed-din Shah’s successor) and passed off as Iran’s “Constitution Order"; it was in fact signed into existence by a king who was not really a king except for his Qajari mustache and aigrette, and who would furthermore bite the dust after signing the order!

Because of our big and small royal dynasties, all Iranians have a very good understanding of the meaning of “order.” Our political systems have, however, been called dictatorships by Western scholars. Still, the West—and in particular, the United States—has been called the birthplace of democracy, and we in Iran are more or less familiar with its appearance and know how it works, at least in theory. When President Trump announced that he would repeal the Affordable Care Act, I never imagined for one second that his decision would be implemented, for the reason that sweeping decisions invariably have to be approved by elected officials in democracies—and I was proven right after all. In the end, because not enough support was mustered in Congress for Trump’s bill, the repeal failed.

I recently spoke on the subject of collective will with a reporter from Süddeutsche Zeitung. Executive orders in other affairs—such as the annulment of the Barjam, and the travel ban for certain nations—can be understood along the same lines. As we saw, the US judiciary branch declared the travel ban unconstitutional. Therefore, in a democratic society, it is always the collective will that wins out in the end; the power that lies in the hands of one person—save in certain exceptional cases—remains quite limited.

That said, the words and actions attributed to the leader of an important country like the United States are as important as the country itself and will always have a great impact on the rest of the world. This will lead to particular reactions from other nations, ours included. Those words and actions that ensue may represent judgments holding up a mirror to Americans—judgments which may not be all that welcome. Given his extreme view of the world, President Trump’s words and actions, if they continue to be hostile, will also cause great harm to Iran. First, because they stand to diminish the credibility of all supporters of democracy in Iran. Human rights (including the freedom of expression), which is usually disseminated from the West, will henceforth be seen as a joke; censorship will be stronger than ever. International rules of negotiation with regards to the Barjam will be thrown out of the window, endangering the very principle of international cooperation. With the true reason for the executive order out in the open, chauvinism, nationalism, and age-old prejudice will spread like contagions. Having lain dormant for so long, nationalism and chauvinism awakened by the quest for identity will cause misery all over the world. Post-globalization, newly nationalistic societies will turn inward as they search for their identities, in a drive to return to their ancestral roots. Deadly bitterness will ensue. But chauvinism has never produced any good; xenophobia has only ever engendered hatred. Religious hatred is spreading evil and destruction—as we are witnessing. Amid all this, the one with the bigger head will have bigger aches, as the saying goes. Great countries in a position of greater power have greater responsibilities; the world expects more of them. The United States is one such country.

But allow me to end this piece on a lighter note.

Riddle me this, President Trump: One should be mad to exchange Donald Trump's royal command throne for the troublesome seat of the United States presidency. If it were someone else in Donald Trump's position, would he do so? I'd love to know the answer.

translated from the Persian by Poupeh Missaghi