As tensions between the United States and Iran continue to rise, it's important to listen to individual stories and acknowledge the role artistic expression and friendship play in forging solidarity, writes Andréana Lefton. Here she tells the story of Lida Taghinia, a Baha'i from Iran, and her painful experience of exile.
Every day, bluster and threat are unleashed from people in positions of power, in Washington DC and Tehran. These threats can cause real harm – to many people – whether through economic sanctions, diplomatic breakdowns, or military conflict. Worse, these hateful words sow hate in people’s hearts.
So what happens when two ordinary citizens – from Iran and the US – come together, listen to each other, and make art?
I was about seven when Lida entered our lives. She was my parents’ friend, a broad-shouldered, hazel-eyed auntie, with an accented voice I knew as Persian. As an American Baha’i, I had grown up with lots of Iranian friends, so I was familiar with the rich cadences of Persian (Farsi). Lida was so solid, gentle, strong. Like a deep-rooted oak, I was sure nothing could blow her over or rustle her composure.
Little did I know.
Inside the Night, Close to the Sun
Lida’s true story entered me about five years ago. She enlisted me to write about her escape and exile – from Iran, through Baluchistan, Pakistan, and ultimately, to the US. As Baha’is – Iran’s largest non-Muslim religion – her family was under constant threat during the Islamic Revolution. When her brother-in-law Fereydoun was arrested for basically “doing business while being Baha’i,” her parents decided to flee.
As I sat with Lida in her ivory living room in suburban Maryland, the darkness she’d been living with since 1982 unfurled. I could taste the dirt in my mouth as she and her family crouched under metal trucks in the Afghan mountains, hiding from thieves. In her retelling, the Darkness became a vivid presence.
The Darkness of driving through midwinter Iran, a caravan of three cars, carrying 18 souls into freedom – or death...
The Darkness of the pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) trailing them...
The Darkness of the borderlands, where she ran into the waiting trucks of Baluchi smugglers...
The Darkness of being lost for days without food or water in the Afghan mountains.
In contrast, Lida’s home is filled with light. Crystal bowls hold persimmons and pears. Silver picture frames gleam with family treasures – old black-and-white wedding photos of her “Maman and Baba,” a beautiful picture of her grandmother, Sultan.
“I want to tell this story especially for my mother and father. For their sacrifice. They sacrificed everything to leave Iran and seek freedom. And they mostly did it for me, their youngest daughter. As a woman, I would have had fewer opportunities in Iran. I want to thank them for all their hardship. They risked everything – for me.”
Her grandmother, Sultan, died right before Lida’s family left Tehran. But the hospital, the morgue, and the cemeteries rejected her. “Even our dead bodies have no freedom there,” Lida’s voiced flashed with uncharacteristic hurt.
“We kept my grandmother in our bathtub for days, surrounded by ice. We were so afraid – if anyone found a dead body in a Baha’i home, we could have been arrested on false charges. Finally my father found a plot, in the ‘outcasts’ cemetery, where thieves and murderers were buried.”
Sultan is the kind of Iranian woman that rarely had a voice – until now. Lida remembers her as quiet, self-effacing, sweet. She never complained – which is something I constantly hear about Persian women and Iranian Baha’i refugees. Yet in Lida’s retelling, Sultan took on a force and authority that rose, dazzling, beyond death. Her spirit acted as a comfort and guide to Lida, who was only 17 at the time of her escape.
Who can help us?
When I was six, your fingers
looped ruby flowers
into my fresh pierced ears.
You pressed the tender lobes,
with slices of iced cucumber.
Unburying the Music
“I was part of a burning generation, born in mid-60s Iran.” Lida was referring to the same freedom-loving, authority-flouting energy that gripped youth in both Iran and the States in the 1960s. As a girl, she listened to pirated American music – dancing with her sisters, coiling their wrists and mouthing the lyrics to “Greased Lightning.”
Before she left Tehran in 1982, Lida’s father helped bury all her American cassettes in the backyard. This act of burying the music she loved as a girl was symbolically reversed during our conversations. As we talked, Lida’s buried music began to re-emerge – through my fingers. As poetry.
Maman says each person
carries a flame on their forehead.
This flame grows dim
when we forget who we are.
But if we shine fierce, unashamed
others sometimes grow afraid
not understanding that this fire
does not burn
only warms, gives light.
But in these days of Revolution,
is a yellow star stitched
to your skin,
an invisible sun,
marking life or death.
I wish I had learned
the art of conformity.
But I am too tall,
black hair untamed –
to escape notice.
Love and Devotion
Sadly, the situation for Baha’is in Iran hasn’t altered considerably since the Islamic Revolution. The seven Baha’i leaders, lovingly known as the Yaran (“Friends of Iran”), were only recently released from multi-year prison sentences. University students continue to be harassed and banned from higher education. Baha’i business are shut down on trumped-up charges. Citizens of all ages continue to be abused and arrested.
That said, while official policies of exclusion and harassment of Baha’is continue, the people of Iran are a different story. Public opinion is beginning to change, as more individuals encounter Baha’is, and realize that, contrary to propaganda, they are kind, hard-working, devoted citizens – many of whom choose to stay in Iran despite the danger. If they leave, they spend their lives establishing Iranian culture in other parts of the world.
The power of interfaith friendship is apparent in Lida’s story too. In Iran, it is not unusual to employ a housekeeper, typically a lady who helps manage daily chores. For Lida, this housekeeper was Salimeh, a Muslim woman, who became, over the years, part of the family.
Salimeh had many health issues, and Lida’s mother, Shokouh, took care of her. In Islam, it is considered “unclean” to touch the bodily fluids of another person. Yet Shokouh washed Salimeh’s garments – even her soiled laundry.
Shokouh’s actions – literally rolling up her sleeves, and helping to bathe and care for another woman – proved that Baha’is, who are considered “unclean” by many Shia Muslims, are not afraid of confronting social norms. Purity is a state of heart and mind – not a matter of what faith or race you belong to.
These intimate act of love and devotion form a glimmering weft that pierce the darkness of Lida’s journey. She spoke of her father Shojadin’s haggard face, which seemed to grow older with every jolt in the road. She told me of her mother, who later in life learned to paint.
“She painted scenes of beautiful homes and gardens,” Lida told me. And I imagined her mother’s voice, reveling in her ability to create havens out of thin air:
I dip the brush in paint, trace a few strokes,
then swirl it in water. The water turns red.
Another color, new strokes. Swirl.
The water turns purple.
Moods are like that,
red one minute, purple the next.
But the picture you are creating, the vision
you are shading and coaxing, little by little,
that will last.
What No One Sees or Speaks
Through Lida, I found the voices of four other women who accompanied her, in different ways, during her exile: her mother, Shokouh; her adopted auntie, Salimeh; her seven year-old niece, Kati; and Sultan, her deceased grandmother. A book began to take shape. A book of poetry.
Lida, who now works for the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), not only opened up to me about the outer hazards of being a refugee. She also spoke of the physical and emotional toll – as a woman. I was stunned when Lida revealed that for some time following their desperate escape from Tehran, she lost her period (a condition called amenorrhea). Menstruation stops during times of malnutrition and extreme stress – which makes sense. The body is wise, and halts any potential for conception when a mother’s life is under threat.
This had actually happened to me, for many years – the results of living in conflict zones (Israel/Palestine) and developing insomnia, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress. I can’t describe the sense of amazement and relief when Lida shared that she too had lost her period. Of course, I wish this hadn’t happened to us. But somehow, Lida’s suffering made my own experiences more real and legitimate too.
You have to understand: In current Baha’i culture, the raw, inner wounds of trauma are rarely shared openly. There is plenty of talk about justice, service, and resilience. We speak of those who have been imprisoned and died for their faith. But the cellular and spiritual effects of pain and perseverance – on the survivors – are often hidden away. Lida lifted this invisible veil.
Her courage stoked my own fire. I decided to write this experience into her story, to emblazon it in poetry: This is what women hold inside. Our blood has been sacrificed just as often, and with fewer medals and honors and victory parades.
In her original message to me, asking my help to write her story, Lida wrote:
“I love your family very much and your mom Jackie was very dear to me. She is in the same cemetery where my mom, dad and nephew are buried. Whenever I visit my family I visit your mom too and read a prayer for all of them.”
Contrast this pure love and friendship to the hateful, tension-filled words being flung from Washington DC and Tehran.
Lida proved her love for my family with more than words. In 2010, my mother, Jacqueline, was dying from a recurrence of ovarian cancer. Many people came to visit her in hospice. But on that last night, I thought it would be only my father and myself.
I was wrong.
Lida was there, along with Hoda and Hala, two Palestinian sisters. Here were women from war zones, women in exile, standing with us, warrior spirits glowing – golden – in the corners of my eyes.
Since then, more refugees than ever have flooded our world. More than 70 million and counting. Lida keeps reminding me, “Now is the time. Tell my story. I want others to know they are not alone. And there is hope – and even happiness – waiting close by.”
I join the line of refugees,
I can smell their sour breath,
their burning fatigue.
A cold hand brushes my arm.
Eyes the color of Persian tea smile in greeting.
I smile back.
Andréana Lefton is a poet, writer, traveler, and teaching artist, currently based in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She is working on a book of poetry, The Wild and Generous One, based on Lida Taghinia’s exile from Iran
Copyright Andréana Lefton