Completing the Past, in the Present
Recently, I was witness to a baby girl being abandoned at birth by her desperate mother. Fortunately, she is saved by a passer-by who picks her up from the rubbish heap she was left to die on, and takes her back to his home. I then witness her tumultuous childhood in the hands of a cruel woman, the wife of her saviour, who resents her presence and beats her relentlessly. The man eventually steps in again, when the little girl goes blind from an eye infection due to severe neglect on the part of her caretaker. I observe him entrusting the girl to another woman, known to take in abandoned children, and who believes in the importance of educating women. Here, I witness her coming alive and meeting, with curiosity and a voracious appetite for life, all the life-circumstances that unfold around her. Soon my heart is heavy and weary again. I hold my breath and my body clenches, as I watch her discover the fragmented cultural reality she is born into. There are so many divides, each one seeming irreconcilable, gender, religious, social, political, economic splits hoeing trenches of separation and disintegration. The backdrop of her story is the turbulent times of the 1950s in Iran until the early days of the revolution of 1979, a landscape of perpetual chaos and disorder, regularly shaken up by seismic upheavals.
How have I been able to witness and take in her story, unfolding within me, as me, and as world?
The narrative is woven into a novel, Aria by Nazanine Hozar, which I am absorbing. Despite being an avid reader, and known to snuggle up in bed for days with a page-turner, I initially seem to struggle to penetrate the book. Not that it is not well-written, nor captivating, quite the contrary, the evocative qualities of the narrative take me on an unexpected inner journey. I come to realise that I am available, in a very different and unknown way, to what is presenting itself to me, begging to be lovingly embraced and witnessed. For instance, I no longer flop down with a book to entertain myself, as I have been doing for years, seeking distraction from the daily weariness or diversion from the waves of anxiety that often pester me. Everything I come in contact with, and accept willingly to absorb, is an awakening experience, further honing my sensitivities and my inner capacities to witness life arising in me, as world. The inner movements are amplified when higher-vibrational qualities are woven into the words and transmitted through the narrative and the prose; more so with poetry and with music. The experience is so strong, at times, that I feel the urge to slow down and savour the inner movements, the imagery flowing fluidly, and my own inner material rising, effortlessly, to the surface.
I read the book slowly until the last part, vividly describing the revolution and the return of Khomeini to Iran, which I need to take in as a whole package, not sliced up into tiny morsels. I witness the torture, the arbitrary executions and imprisonments, various forms of dehumanisation intensified by poverty and illiteracy, economic greed literally fuelled by oil. Does the revolution change anything and free the people from oppression? Is this simply a case of one form of dictatorship leading to another? Who are the good guys and the bad guys here, unless such distinctions simply vanish in the meanders of power games and self-righteousness? Many of these blurry boundaries are brilliantly depicted in the novel and I find myself wondering about my relationship to what happened in 1979.
I remember the Iranian revolution very clearly and followed it closely at the time. It is probably the first international conflict that I feel connected to. I am twenty years-old and live in Geneva where a lot of the rich Iranians, close supporters of the Shah, have sent their children to be educated in the same way that they deposit their assets in the Swiss Banks. My mother is working at the International School of Geneva and when the revolution breaks out, many of the Iranian students are taken in by the teaching staff and other parents since they cannot return to Iran. For me, the revolution is not something happening in a distant country; it is happening where I am living. I am experiencing, in first person, the consequences of the Shah’s regime being overturned. Later in my life, I will come in contact with the diaspora that fled Iran to settle either in Switzerland or in Canada. I meet many Iranian refugees and collaborate with academics in social studies on interculturalism and interdisciplinary approaches. The story of the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and their individual stories are firmly inscribed within me.
I am reminded of another encounter with a young Iranian, shortly after the end of the Shah’s regime, in September 1979. I am travelling back to Geneva from London on the night train, a very bumpy ride due to strikes in France and an absence of berths to accommodate all the passengers wanting to get back home for the beginning of the term. I end up in a stuffy old carriage with seven other fellow travellers; this is where I meet Bashir. Like me he is a student. He has just been to London to sign up at the London School of Economics and sort out his visa. He is on his way back to Geneva where his father lives with his brothers, his mother having been killed in the riots. We get chatting and spend most of the uncomfortable ride talking about our aspirations and our academic ambitions, only too happy to converse in English. When we arrive in Geneva, in the early hours of the morning, Bashir gets his father to drive me back to my flat, insisting that he wants to stay in contact. The father is very attractive, oozing oriental charm, and only too happy to oblige. Bashir presents me as a life-saver because I can speak in French and I have shepherded him over the hurdles of getting across France during a strike.
Bashir phones me almost every day and we spend a lot of time together. I think he is lonely and eager to be able to talk with someone in English who knows something about what has happened to him and his family. There is probably more to this, but I cannot yet grasp it. I begin to feel uneasy in his presence; beyond the initial charm, there is a lot of neediness. Bashir is endlessly speaking of the violence of the revolution he witnessed, the hardships and the losses his family are enduring. He is clinging to me, more desperately than I can bear. He seems stuck, unremittingly, in his narrative of being a victim of circumstances needing compensation. I am young, only 20, and I am not fully aware of the scope of what is happening for him, nor can I grasp the principles of collective trauma rippling out in those who have fled their home country and are now in exile. I can feel, without being able to name them, lower-vibrational energies swirling around us when we come together, spiralling us downwards. And then, of course, I have my own story of exile that I am barely coming to terms with, one that has none of the distressing colouring of Bashir’s story and therefore does not count, at least in his eyes. I have a growing sense of uneasiness in his presence which is now verging on to disgust.
One evening, Bashir drops in, as he has been doing so regularly, and he sits on my bed. I am living in a small room and the only place to entertain guests is for us to sit together on the bed. At this point, this is evidently too close for me and I have no way of setting boundaries and bringing in some spaciousness. Everything is intense and dangerously close, therefore undifferentiated. I feel threatened. I am playing solitary cards and I use the cards lined up on the bed to create a barrier between us. I continue to play as I listen and vaguely respond to him. I am distant and very cold, turning each card slowly and intently so as not to get sucked up in Bashir’s lamentations. Then something snaps in me, and I become very harsh. I don’t know what I am saying, nor what limit I have hit. I know that I am unduly cruel and totally unsympathetic. I push him back violently, saying that I don’t want to see him anymore. I find it difficult to commiserate with people who have loads of money and privileges and feel entitled to everything in the name of their victimhood. I am patronising and awfully arrogant. There is not an ounce of compassion in me. I detect hints of jealousy for his wealth and the fact that he is going to be studying at LSE when I have failed to secure a place at Cambridge. Retrospectively, as I bear witness to this event, I feel shame inundating me. I am cooking and brewing, and heat is burning through the energetic residues churning in my inner combustion chamber. I am violent in my outburst and I am hurting him terribly. I see his sad eyes as he leaves, speechless. I gloat with inner satisfaction at having got rid of someone I am not at ease with and feel threatened by without being able to say why.
This long-suppressed memory comes back to me the night I finish the book, Aria. It is as if something from my past is pleading to be remembered. I hear my inner guides persistently whisper to me the word “self-righteousness”. I wake up in the middle of the night knowing that it is time to retrieve the story of my encounter with Bashir, fortuitously uncovered by my reading of the novel. I am to welcome all the inner movements that I can now presence, with awareness and conscious intent. My inner inquiry takes me closer to the disgust and shame burrowed in me.
It is easy to recall the shame when I remember pushing Bashir away and heartlessly discarding his story, cutting the flow of love between us. The feeling of disgust is more elusive. What is not elusive at all, is what I am experiencing in my body. I feel nauseous and heady, the equivalent of having a hang-over. The sensations are so strong that they catch my attention, in a new way. I have not been drinking, so what is this about? I get up and start to journal to allow more movement between the words and all that is contracted in a traumatic past ready to present itself. I am able to release my individual traumas around exile, and that of Bashir’s most likely, and to acknowledge the collective trauma we are both holding, and that is very much alive and kicking today, 42 years later. Once the inner work is complete, I return to bed and, marvelling at the power of radical presence, enjoy a few hours of restorative sleep.
I have just released a suppressed bundle composed of self-righteousness, disgust and shame, all mine, that is ready to be tenderly unpacked, thereby achieving energetic completion. Maybe my terrible bundle is not only mine, as the personality would like to believe, something to keep well-hidden and out of sight. Maybe, all those years ago, I was picking up on something that was rampant in the field and reverberating within me where it could find resonance within my own traumatic material, those same lower-vibrational energies captured in a novel enabling me to travel back in time and space so that I might presence, again, life arising in me, unfiltered. This is worldling. This is working with energetic residues and clearing lower-vibrational energies.
Bornholm, 22 January 2021