Ali Araghi, The New Yorker: My mother loves anecdotes, witty sayings, and little old tales that teach a life lesson. A favorite comes from her father, whom she loved dearly. The saying shows the imprint of a life lived in the Iranian countryside, under the rule of mercurial authorities: When you go to fill your water jugs, dip both in the stream at the same time. Otherwise, by the time one is filled, they might not let you use the stream anymore.
I came to America in late 2011, to study creative writing at Notre Dame, my teeth rattling in the Indiana cold. Soon after my arrival, something struck me: many of my fellow students, professors, and the staff at the library, where I worked, talked casually about their future plans. The future was certain and predictable to them. They used the present tense, without any hedging: “We’re going to Disneyland for Ellie’s birthday”; “I’m doing an internship with Microsoft next fall.” It was as if they could see the future in a crystal ball. How could they be sure nothing would go wrong? How could they invest time and money in things so far from the present? The future I had known in my home country was unforeseeable, the path ahead zigzagging into areas I could not predict. I am not talking about the randomness intrinsic to life itself but about a man-made precarity, created and sustained by those in power.
I was born early in the Iran-Iraq War, which broke out about a year and a half after the 1979 Iranian Revolution and dragged on for eight years, claiming over a hundred and fifty thousand Iranian lives. A conflict of that scale necessarily causes a certain amount of havoc. My childhood in Tehran was marked by blackouts, shortages of food and other basic necessities, and the intermittent cancellation of school. On those days, I would stay at home and watch my Persian and math lessons on state-run TV, looking forward to recess, when an episode of “The Pink Panther Show” or “The Great Grape Ape Show” would be shown before the next class came on.
One of the early acts of the revolutionary regime was to enforce an Islamic dress code. Women had to cover their heads and bodies. Men were prohibited from wearing T-shirts and short sleeves, and could be stopped or even arrested for wearing clothes in colors that were deemed too out-there. Music was mostly wiped from public space. Personal VHS players and video cassettes were forbidden. Chess was condemned as gambling. By the time I entered high school, though, the regulations had begun to loosen. Boys and men would no longer be stopped in the streets for wearing T-shirts and jeans, though they could still be prevented from entering certain government buildings, or attending class. (Dress codes remained in place for girls and women.) The city built concrete chess tables in parks. People brought their own pieces and played under trees. Some of my friends’ families acquired VCRs.
There was never an announcement to say it was O.K. to own or do any of these things. You would hear rumors, and the previously forbidden apparatus would appear in shop windows. A gnawing, persistent question formed in my brain: What evil had been exorcised from chess or T-shirts to make them suitable for society? I began to wonder about the logical soundness and consistency of the institutions that controlled my life. When the war ended, in 1988, a sense of imminent attack lingered.
A new round of American sanctions hit Iran in 1995. They hardly registered with me. I had been admitted to a prestigious high school, named Danesh, and was laser-focussed on my studies and on preparing for the university-entrance exam. This test was the event that would make or break my life. Every year a million-plus people across the country sat for the test and just more than ten per cent were accepted. Competition for admission to top universities was even fiercer. I labored over math, physics, chemistry, English, Arabic, and religious studies, and made time to write poetry, too.
My hard work paid off: I scored well enough to go to college. I considered majoring in the humanities, but fear was stronger than any passion. What kind of job could I find with a degree in history or literature? In those years, the safest future that I and many of my peers could imagine was a respected job with a steady salary and benefits. For that, I needed a diploma in engineering, architecture, medicine, or computer sciences. I chose to study mechanical engineering.
Unless they qualify for a handful of exemptions, Iranian men over the age of eighteen are required to serve in the military. I would not have to do my eighteen-month commitment until after I finished university, but I resented it. From others, I gathered an impression of long, arduous drills, terrible food, intentional humiliation, collective punishments for individual oversights, and a general sense of futility. Shortly before I finished high school, though, a law passed that seemed like it would offer me a way out. For the equivalent of about nineteen hundred dollars, I could buy a service-completion card, without which I could not purchase property or get a passport. My family decided to delay buying my card until after I graduated from college. My mother had been saving up for years to buy a house; we thought that was the more pressing need.
In the yard of the modest house my mother bought, I planted a pink silk tree that grew to be some fifteen feet, with broad, arching branches that cast a pleasant shade on hot days. My mother loved how the tree closed its leaves and went to sleep when it got dark. Each day, she swept the narrow strip of tiles in the yard and watered the flower bed late in the afternoon. She also planted a walnut sapling. None of this would have been possible if she had not purchased the house when she did. Soon after, inflation raised housing prices out of the reach of most Tehranis. Around the same time, the law that would have offered me a way out of the army was cancelled.
Once again, instability began to impair not just large-scale plans but everyday life. Even the traffic lights in Tehran were erratic. Their timers were stripped of all rationality, skipping through the numbers in their countdowns without any discernible pattern or lingering endlessly on red. Time both passed and froze. Year after year, I grew less interested in what I studied. My G.P.A. plummeted. Changing my field of study seemed irrational even to me; acquiring a degree in the humanities would be financial suicide. But I decided to pursue a master’s degree in ancient culture and languages. A few months after taking the national graduate-school entrance exam, I received a slip of paper printed with my results: I was ranked second. Scoring well had a secondary benefit: the test takers with the three highest scores in each major would be exempt from military service. Standing on the sidewalk that summer day, I dreamed of getting my military-service-exemption card. But, once again, the law changed to my disadvantage: only those who ranked first would qualify for the exemption.
After I was drafted, I was assigned with a group of other university graduates to a training center in my home town of Tehran. On our first day at the center, we were put on buses and taken six hundred and fifty miles away, close to the border with Afghanistan. We stayed there for the rest of our training. I had come to believe that a new environment would help my writing, and decided to apply to M.F.A. programs in the U.S. In my free time at night, I studied G.R.E. words in my bunk. For the most part, my knowledge of life in the States came from the movies I watched to improve my English, from books, and from the news stories on the Internet and state-run TV, all of which I strongly suspected would be miles away from reality. In a strange way, I now think that I was able to approach a change of this magnitude headlong partly because my life had taught me how to work toward a goal without looking too far into the future. Writing fiction in the U.S. was a sweet fantasy. I resolved to strive for it, but did not dare hope it would become reality.
Eventually, I was offered a spot at a program in the American Midwest—crucially, one with funding. By the time my U.S. visa was granted, it was too late to make the start of the first semester. When I asked the school administrators if I could defer my start, I was worried that they would change their minds about having me attend at all. But they did not.
I came to America. At first, if I made a social plan more than a couple of days in advance, I would spend the rest of the week waiting for some unforeseen obstacle to arise. I found internship applications daunting, because they wanted me to submit my application six months ahead of the start date. A year passed, then two, then three, and four. Little by little, as I relented my skepticism of the future, I began to look ahead, the way those around me did. I wrote and translated, knowing that my literary output would not be contingent upon a government permit. I expanded an online literary journal that I had started a year before leaving Iran. I got married, and my wife joined me in South Bend, Indiana. We each applied to Ph.D. programs and were accepted. We moved to St. Louis. I started going to the gym. I imagined buying a house.
Then, on January 27, 2017, the executive order that came to be known as the travel ban barred Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. indefinitely and suspended immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries for a period of ninety days. Travellers from these countries who had boarded a plane with a valid visa arrived hours later to be detained at the border and denied entrance into the U.S. I received an e-mail that warned me that my visa, which would not have expired for another year and a half, had been revoked. My wife and I cancelled a planned trip to see our families, fearing we would not be allowed back. The validity of unexpired student visas was reëstablished within two days, but a fog of uncertainty lingered. I followed the news and fell behind in my school readings.
When the United States announced, in May, 2018, that it was unilaterally withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and reinstating sanctions, I feared it would set off a cycle of escalating tensions between the two countries. I asked my mother over a video chat if she had enough money for daily necessities as prices rose. She reassured me that she did. But I knew that she would hide her hardships from me as long as she could.
In the months that followed, I kept working toward the one thing in the future that seemed definite. My first novel had found a publisher and would be released in 2020; I got a contract, worked with my agent and editor on revisions, approved the cover art, and received a galley I could hold in my hands. There was little doubt in my mind that the book would happen and I would be here to celebrate. I could see it. I looked forward to the future.
On the third day of the new year, I was about to get in bed and read, in preparation for my Ph.D. comprehensive exam. My wife, who had been sitting at her desk, looked up from her phone, her eyes large with fear, and said that the U.S. had killed the Iranian Major General Qassem Suleimani in a drone attack at the Baghdad airport. I jumped from one news outlet to another, and checked Facebook and Twitter, before switching to the messaging app Telegram, where I followed the news in Persian. No one seemed to know what would happen. Iran vowed revenge, and millions took to the streets in mourning. I read reports that some travellers of Iranian heritage, including U.S. citizens, were detained at the border and subjected to questioning, though U.S. Customs and Border Protection has denied those claims. When Iran launched missiles on two U.S. bases in Iraq, five days later, I feared a war would ensue. Then, as abruptly as the conflict had begun, the two countries seemed to pull back from the brink.
Three months have now passed, and, even though a war does not loom as horribly as it did, I worry that the reprieve is temporary. The conflict’s fundamentals have not changed, though both countries, especially Iran, are grappling with how to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Once again, the future seems murky and unknowable. Is it worth studying to take my comprehensive exam, still two months away, when my wife and I could be deported? Will I be here to see my novel be published?
My mother likes to say, “We’ll think about tomorrow tomorrow.” Why waste today on problems we may never have to face? Her faith tells her that God will bring what is best for us in the end. The morning after Iran’s attack, I called her. As ever, she did not talk about politics, threats, or assassinations. She told me that she had asked her friend to knit hats and scarves to send to us for the winter. I told her that it had not been very cold in St. Louis this year, leaving unsaid my fear that deportation or war would uproot me from the city before the package arrived. I did not want to worry her, even though she might have already been worried. She sent the hats and scarves anyway.
First published in The New Yorker. Illustration by Hanieh Ghashghaei.
Ali Araghi is a writer and translator and the winner of Prairie Schooner's Virginia Faulkner Award for excellence in writing. His début novel, “The Immortals of Tehran,” will be published in April.