I was living in Harlem.
It was a few weeks after 9/11 and when Mahsah rang and let me know that she would be in New York, I was happy and excited.
Her brother and I had been friends for over ten years.
We always said our meeting was destined.
As the only two kids of color-I am Black American and he is Persian- in an otherwise all-white Women in Religion class at DePaul University, something in my heart knew he would be my friend for life. I’ll never forget the look of agony in his big blue eyes when after opening the door to that crammed classroom he encountered a sea a white faces looking back at him, no one budging to indicate they would make room as he courageously closed the door behind him turned and bared the stark gaze of the tall, lanky, pasty professor with the thick Eastern European accent, intensifying the mood with “Why don’t we wait to continue since some of us don’t know how to get to here on time.”
Somehow in that moment, our eyes locked and I hurriedly moved my bag and beckoned him to come sit next to me. Shaun made his way through the sea of kids, barely letting him through the tight aisles. By the time he sat down, sweat trickling from his brow, he was relieved and I was relieved for him and we both laughed under our breath. When he rifled through his bag looking, for a pen and couldn’t find one-another long pause from our professor- we both laughed again as I handed him one of mine.
We become one in that moment, representing a warm cocoon of support to protect us through the white supremacist death by a thousand cuts that can choke and kill with its vicious silences and pauses that whither you from the inside out and have no balm but the knowing, empathetic understanding that laughter and friendship can heal.
Even though he was born in Iran, me here in America, we had many things in common. He was organized into his understanding of Whiteness in Wilmette and I got my credentials in Fairfield, Connecticut. Different places, same stuff. Our families were the only people of color in extremely affluent communities and the day to day experiences, that remind you every day of how alien and unlovable you are, would leave their mark on our psyches, well after we’d graduated high school and found one another in that classroom at DePaul University.
Getting together was healing. He and his cousins became fixtures at my house whenever there were barbeques, family get-togethers and parties. When I met Shaun I didn’t know much about Persian history and culture, just what I remembered from what became known as the “hostage crisis,” and the Shah of Iran, years before.
I was eight years old when a group of Iranian college students shut down a building in a place called Tehran. They were holding fifty or so Americans inside the embassy and wouldn’t release them until their demands were met. My mother said the students were standing up for themselves because America was “doing them like they do us” and “they know how it is.” My mom and the Iranian kids seemed to be on the same page because at some point, soon after the “crisis” began, the students, released the women and the Black Americans, let them walk right out of the embassy. It made so much sense and I was so impressed with the reasonableness of their actions. “Women hold a special place in our society and Blacks live under American oppression and tyranny.”
Even though the white broadcasters tried to reduce the gesture to a publicity stunt, watching those people march out of the building, the women coming home to their children and the Black Brothers with their afros, coming home to their families, after that the students had my vote. And I got the message, for the first time in my life, that Black people in America, had something in common with Black people and other people of color, all over the world.
We were one.
The students knew it. They said it for everyone to hear and now I knew it too.
Hanging out with Shaun reminded me of that. We had good times together and my mom and dad adored him, treated him like he was one of their own. We danced, partied, ate as much barbeque as we could hold, had great cocktails and just enjoyed life together. My parents taught him how to play Bid Whist, Black Folk’s version of Bridge. Going to Shaun’s place, either his parents house out in Wilmette or his apartment down the street from our place in Lincoln Park was just the same. Just good times. When he cooked, my gosh, the food was magnificent! Well seasoned meats with fresh, delicious herbs, perfectly cooked fluffy rice with these gorgeous, aromatic dips and sauces. The art on his walls was impeccable and the energy in his apartment was always flowing. Like my family, Shaun was hospitable, caring, a lovely conversationalist and knew how to have a good time and he cared about people.
We had so many things in common.
So of course, years later when his baby sister Mahsah came to New York, I was excited to host.
She arrived, smartly dressed like a low key, a genius poet in her well-tailored men’s sports jacket, a black turtleneck, jeans and expensive but understated loafers. Mahsah had always been elegant and gorgeous. We walked down to People’s Choice, the most delicious Home Made Jamaican food in New York City. I think we got Ox Tails with Peas and Rice and cabbage. Neither one of us could get over how extraordinarily delicious the food was. We ate and we talked about her work and mine. We’d all since left Chicago, years ago. Shaun to Los Angeles. Me to New York City and Mahsah to Tehran. She’d done a women’s magazine, Bad Jens, and had become a serious organizer of community over there. On this trip she was working at the UN with Shiran Ebadi, doing translation work for her papers and books and speeches. Even though Mahsah was really humble about it, which was her way, I knew from her proud brother, that her work with Shiran Ebadi was a really big deal.
Since 9/11 had just gone down, and Bush was pushing us to go to war with Iraq, I took the opportunity to make sense of all that had happened in that part of the world. “Why are we always fighting and complaining about Iraq and Iran?” I asked as we chomped away. “And what’s the deal with Afghanistan?” I admitted to her something that I had hidden from myself, that even though I was pretty active in international situations that impacted Black people and people of color globally, Haiti, South Africa, Venezuela, that I knew very little about the Middle East. It just became something that was always already happening...so ongoing that I just tuned out. Mahsah was one of those people, that even though she was crazy smart, brilliant really, you didn’t have to pretend that you knew something that you did not.
She explained about the oil. She explained about the pipelines. She explained the grip of American Imperialism, the destruction of the cities of Middle Eastern antiquity and the pillaging of museums and libraries by American Armed forces throughout the years and the slow, steady march to Iraq that the US was directing to Iran. That seemed outlandish to me, that Iran would ever be treated in that fashion. When she started talking about the incessant bombing, the destruction of Beirut came up and I informed her that back in the early 80’s, that Black folks likened the most cracked out, left behind areas of our own communities to this city, ”South Side of Chicago lookin’ like Beirut,” I’d hear brothers and sisters say.
Mahsah shook her head and smiled slightly and then gave me a glimpse of the history of the beauty and majesty of this gorgeous Lebanese city. She was clearly disturbed by the information, but her gentle, non judgmental telling of these things, in a tone demonstrative of patience and inner peace, her deep intellect and elegance, amplified a sense of what Americans did not know or like to think about, that ours was a young, foolish country...a big, ignorant bully baby and that we had lost our way. Completely. Most of us unaware of what was really happening in our names, and for oil, imperialism and what Bush kept calling “our way of life,” around the world, especially in the Middle East, with people, who like my mother’d said all those years ago “know how it is.”
We do not like to even consider what we have destroyed and in that destruction what has been lost, forever, to the world. What we have lost is friendship, culture, love, peace, endless possibilities and all of the wonderful things that come from life when you are trying to crush, kill, and control. Somewhere along the way, in a quest for assimilation, peace and acceptance, and just probably worn downness, Black Americans forgot too, that we have something in common with our brothers and sisters in the Middle East. The greatest blow from the War Economy is that it separates us. Eventually, it separated Shaun and I...understandably. After all, it is difficult to maintain friendships with folks when your country makes habit of lying, stealing, cheating, murdering and spreading hate, making their lives here and back home, a misery.
America was and still is running around, destructively taking...snatching things... from people, with whom Black folks, Native people, LatinX in the land known as The United States have something in common.
As I look at the bombed-out streets of the countries that the US has attacked, and ripped apart, dusty, dirt heaps where gardens used to grow, I have to look at my own communities, here in the US. Areas with no green spaces or parks and the prisons swollen with human energy relegated to slavery. Flint Michigan with no drinkable water source, Deep East Oakland with nowhere to buy living foods and soil so destroyed by pollution that you can’t grow any...children climbing out of tents in homeless encampments in downtown Oakland, while Tech millionaires look down on them from their sprawling condo apartment windows. The United States is waging the same war on the people of the Middle East, that it is waging here on Black folks, LatinX, Indigenous people and poor Whites, here in our local communities.
This truth takes me back to that look on Mahsah’s face when she told me of the beauty of precious Beirut and the pure glory of what stood there before the dust and the rubble.
I have always had the sense that being reminded of what we have in common, (in addition to being targeted by the most destructive force on the planet...the American government…) would create a solidarity that could truly organize peace on its own, between the people most heavily enslaved, marginalized and victimized by the virus of War Economy which spreads by keeping us fearful of one another and separates us. I have always had the sense that if the Black and Latino children on the South Side of Chicago, understood that the bullets flying by and through their heads and the food deserts in which they reside are a construction of the engineers of the War Economy, which insist death upon all that they cannot control, as they do today to the children of Yemen and Afghanistan, and God forbid, Iran, that they would have a different sense of their possibilities and self-worth in the world. I have always had the sense that if we remembered what the Iranian students were really saying and doing when they released the folks who “suffered under American oppression and tyranny,” just like they did...that we would ALL be unstoppable...together...because knowing that we all have something in common is the first step towards growing and sustaining a local peace economy.
The good news is that we get a chance to start again, everytime we open our eyes and begin a new day.
When I tell people that our government is ramping up to a war with Iran, a glaze comes over their eyes. It’s like yelling fire in a crowded theatre but nobody moves because they’re too busy enjoying their buttered popcorn and watching the movie...so you have to start explaining that fire not only burns...but it can kill you.
Get up and run!!!!
Are we that used to waging war in America that no ones even bats an eye?
Or is it because Iran is this far away place where they’re not like us and...practice a different religion...have different values...a place where the people have nothing in common with us? This glaze over the eyes thing has happened so much that I have to wonder what has happened in my life that makes me understand that loving the Iranian people is as natural as loving my own people...as natural as knowing that they are my people.
Wondering why my fellow countrymen and women do not connect in the same way has shaken me up a little...a lot and had me thinking about why I love Iran.
I want to dedicate this piece to Mahsah Shekarloo, who left our world on September 4, 2014. May all the girls and women, around the world and especially Iran...Persia, know that she organized, loved and sacrificed so that they could be free. And to her dear brother, Arash, aka Shaun, who is my friend...for life.
Learn more and join CODEPINK's We Love Iranians campaign here.