FROM SHIRAZ TO HAVANA
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FLASH BACK: NOSTALGIA
Tomorrow, February 11th, is the 31st anniversary of the Iranian Revolution. Since 1979, I have been travelling and living in many streets, in many places around the world, including my own city, Shiraz, the City of Secrets. Since leaving Iran, and not counting my eventual immigration to Canada, I’ve moved almost 27 times and I’ve been questioned, over and over again, about my idea of home, displacement, and the emotional effects of being far from the place I used to belong.
It is difficult to give an image, I’ve discovered, to an idea as complicated as the idea of “home”. I have stayed in various streets in many countries but still I have a hard time saying: This one is mine. I still cannot figure out a place of my own where I don’t fear being abandoned by society. Yet, in spite of this feeling, I’ve enjoyed every single moment of my life anywhere I’ve found myself up to this moment.
In September and December, 2009, I flew with the Bulgarian journalist, Diana Ivanova, to Cuba to start the project My Street. Both of us were amazed by the lively interest of the Cuban participants in our proposal, and by their willingness to tell us about the street in which they live. And I have to admit that my involvement in their views, histories and stories stirred up memories that had been buried inside of me for a long time.
Travelling with Ms. Ivanova and our assistant, Ulises Quinta de Armas, from La Havana all the way to Santiago de Cuba gave me the chance to take part in a series of workshops with local people and to hear their very personal stories. We asked each person to describe the street they live on, and to describe it to someone – like us – who had never been there before. Their writings could be about buildings, neighbours, shapes, colours, recollections… Each member of the project was also given a digital camera. We asked them to take 10 to 15 photos that could illustrate their respective stories.
Each group, consisting of no more than five people, returned later on to read their narratives to each another. The idea of my street turned out to be, for the Cubans, an easily accessible topic. The street was a micro-model of the larger society that they had in common, regardless of their external differences. By reading, listening and discovering common points, a space for mutual understanding, questioning and curiosity opened up before us.
“My street is a mirror where nobody wants to see himself, fearful of finding an ugly face,” one participant says in his contribution. Ulises Quinta de Armas (“A Box of Memories Nobody Opens”) remembers the journeys, hopes and sorrows of several generations of his family, and these memories serve to link the street to his history and identity. This strong sense of belonging, of nostalgia even, in Ulises’ account proved to be a common feeling in many of the micro-histories we brought together in Cuba.
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FLASH FORWARD: MY STREET
I spent many hours contemplating the stories and photos that the participants so generously created. And all the time I was thinking about what the metaphor of a street actually is—about its role in stimulating intelligent questions in any society, and in gathering these questions into a whole. A street allows us to consider collective memory in addition to individual memories. It becomes a choir where each individual voice contains its own qualities and power…
Tomorrow, millions of people with different views and backgrounds will celebrate, in the streets, the anniversary of the Iranian Revolution. But I will be thinking about a street that has been completely lost in the events of history.
Ever since 1982, I travelled the world and desperately, right or wrong, couldn’t find a place that I would call home. Thirty one years later, in the crystallized memories that this Cuban experience awoke in me, I saw a forgotten street that was, and still is, a very important part of my family’s life. I hadn’t been there in decades.
My street was about one hundred meters long, muddy in both winter and spring, unpleasant for children to play on. My street, or – as we’d say in Persian – kocheh, consisted of four houses only, and it lay at the outskirts of a small village two hours from the city of Shiraz, in the south of Iran. The village was surrounded by mountains, oaks and wild almond trees, and a river that ran dry at the beginning of autumn. Our house, a big one with a huge wooden gate, sat in front of a garden that belonged to our relatives. This was a favourite spot for me and my three brothers, the place where we enjoyed pomegranates all summer long…
Now I am going through a box of things which I carry around with me, a box full of precious photos from my family album. In a snapshot, I see myself, three other young men, and somebody’s hand that is coming into the frame. The hand belongs to Abbas, my cousin, who was few years younger than us. In the background of the photo (taken by a Russian camera), are the mountains and wild, blossoming almond trees. The photo was taken in spring, the best time of year for celebrating. And indeed, we were celebrating, with our new clothes and our best smiles: March 21st is Nooroz (“new day” in Persian, and the start of the New Year for Iran, Afghanistan, Kurdistan and Tajikistan).
One of the boys in the photo is my younger brother Hadi. Back then, he was a gifted kid. Today, he is no longer here. On January 1st, 1982, my father buried him in the graveyard behind our house, the big house where we were born and raised. Today, my father, too, is gone. I was able to visit Hadi’s grave four long days after he was buried. I, too, am no longer there.
I always think of my brother as being like a butterfly who never dies. Now these crystallized memories, thousands of kilometres away, are coming back to me. On the 31st anniversary of 1979, I would like to pay a visit to my brother. He has been waiting for so many years in a grave only two minutes from the big house on the street that was once ours.
Sofia, February 10, 2010
From Book: My Street Cuban Stories, By Babak Salari And Diana Ivanova