Roya Hakakian is an American writer from Iran who commands a distinctive ability to speak about large and horrific events in a chipper tone that appears to underplay the horrific quality and, by apparently underplaying, ends up subtly underlining. It is an artful tone. It is cagey, charming, disarming, and, then again, alarming. An example of this might have caught a reader’s eye some months ago, in August 2021, in the New York Review of Books. She published an essay in those pages explaining that two officious personages whom she described as conservatively dressed “federal employees” knocked on her door in the woodsy precincts of lush Connecticut. “Mom, it’s the FBI!” said her 13-year old.
The agents informed her that she had become a target of Iranian government operatives in the United States. “Like a pair of fortune-tellers reading tea leaves, they said that they knew nothing concrete or specific beyond a vague danger; they relied on me, with my knowledge of Iran’s past dealings with dissidents, to surmise that it could mean an assassination plot.” She was breezy. “I laughed.” She professed incredulity to the agents, made jokes, pointed out the absurdity of being regarded as a danger to the Iranian regime, there amidst the Connecticut idylls. “I tried to reassure my children, however falsely, that I was not worried—to which one of them, having inherited his mother’s penchant for untimely humor, said he wasn’t either, because the killers were only after me, not them.”
But she did point out the worrisome aspect. She alerted her readers to the news, quietly announced a month earlier, in July 2021, that Iranian agents had plotted to abduct another Iranian-American, the journalist Masih Alinejad, from her home in Brooklyn, with the intention of smuggling her by speedboat to Venezuela and presumably to her death. Masih Alinejad is the high-spirited animator of a social-media campaign among women back in Iran to post photos of themselves with their mandatory headscarves scandalously removed and their hair exposed to the free play of the open air—which she has described in an up-from-village-life Iranian memoir obligingly titled The Wind in My Hair. And because control of women’s clothing has always been the first and unalterable demand of Islamist movements, and because, on the other hand, Islamist demands are not always as popular or autochthonously authentic as they are said to be, Alinejad’s social-media campaign has aroused a visible enthusiasm among women in the Islamic Republic.
The enthusiasm has transformed her into what the Islamic Republic evidently deems to be a subversive menace. Roya Hakakian and Masih Alinejad happen to be friends, as Hakakian noted in the New York Review, and the combined threats against them suggest a broader policy of violence and intimidation on the part of the Islamic Republic and its operatives in the United States. This is a policy aimed not just at a couple of inconveniently articulate emigrés, but at the larger circles of the Iranian emigration in America and everywhere else, whose members are bound to pause an additional thoughtful moment before piping up in public about life and oppression back home in far-away Iran. The policy is a display of power. It terrorizes. It succeeds at doing this even if any given plot is foiled, or is suspended, or is merely intimated. And it succeeds at something else as well, which bears on the question of prose tone and verbal strategies.
It erects an obstacle to speaking in clear and simple language. This is the sort of obstacle that a classics scholar might describe as rhetorical, or a journalist might describe as journalistic, or, with Roya Hakakian in mind, might be described as literary. Pretty much everyone who writes even occasionally about the violence or oppressive nature of Islamist movements around the world runs into the obstacle, sooner or later. Not everybody finds it especially vexing. But it is bound to be more than vexing to writers who, like Hakakian, discover themselves to be personally or potentially in danger. Those writers, the ones at risk, feel an urgent internal pressure to recount their experiences and vent their emotions and proclaim their insights. They ascend to the podium. They gaze at their expectant audience, which is the general public. And the obstacle to clear and simple language becomes obvious to them at once.
The audience turns out to be divided into ideological sectors. And one sector after another turns out to be averse to hearing certain words or phrasings or tonalities, each sector for reasons of its own. In the Western countries—in the United States, surely—one of the principal sectors starts with the assumption that, if anybody poses a serious danger to the freedoms and well-being of the Western world, it can only be the bigots and xenophobes at home, and not so much the agents of decrepit despotisms or radical political movements on the other side of the world. The assumption leads to a suspicion that anyone who insists on speaking about violent dangers from abroad might possibly be one of the bigots and xenophobes, or might have cynically elected to stir up the bigots and xenophobes. And the suspicion leads to the conclusion that, if violence from the Islamists does need to be discussed, the discussion ought to be muted, and the danger ought to be attributed, if at all possible, to some other group of people, perhaps the mentally ill, in order to keep the bigots and xenophobes from getting out of control.
Another sector of the audience consists precisely of bigots and xenophobes, who are eager to believe, bug-eyed, every terrible story they hear, so long as it can be made to cast an enjoyably scary light on whole nations or detested ethnicities and religions, unto half the human race—which adds up to one more way to avoid listening. Still another sector consists of people who pride themselves on a dour and sophisticated appreciation of human nature, and who, on that basis, choose to think of violent plots from abroad and massacres in far-away lands as a normal machination of friends and foes alike, akin to espionage or bribery—something to be regarded phlegmatically, even when the little world of the Washington, DC gilded foreign-policy elite comes under murderous attack. We have seen that response in the Jamal Khashoggi case.
And all of this leaves the writers who wish to speak up in a quandary—the writers who know something about the plots and attacks and the larger movements that engender them. If they speak bluntly and passionately, their words will arouse the high-minded animosity of some people and the mob fervors of other people. If they speak quietly and dispassionately, they will succeed in expressing only a sliver of what they mean. If they speak subtly and in code, only the initiates will hear them.
But that is only half the problem. The plots and attacks occupy a zone of the not-quite-seen and the inferred, where nothing simply is, and everything merely seems to be, and the conditional tense is king of the verbs—which puts reality itself at odds with the simplicities of language. And the writers run into a final mystery, which cries out to be discussed, but resists being discussed. This is the meaning of the violence that radiates outward from the Islamist movement. Meaning depends on motivation. Only, what is the motivation? There ought to be a simple language for speaking about it. A simple language does sometimes apply to political violence, which draws on the assumption that violence obeys a logic of rational political calculation. In the case of covert state violence, the logic of rational calculation is called raison d’état, which amounts to a diabolical logic, indifferent to considerations of morality and law. No one doubts that, in the long-ago time of the Shah, raison d’état governed the violence of the Iranian state and its fearsome police, the SAVAK.
But in what degree can the language of raison d’état or any of the conventional political rhetorics explain the violence of the Islamic Republic against, say, writers—among other designated victims? It is argued that, back in 1989, when Ayatollah Khomeini issued his historic fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the publishers of his novel, The Satanic Verses, the fatwa served to advance the Islamic Republic’s standing in the Muslim world, and, in that respect, answered to a conventional political logic. And yet, the ayatollah’s fatwa, in order to advance the state interest of Iran, needed to answer, as well, to a theological reasoning, which was not at all conventional or even political. Islamist tradition may have been a factor, too, in generating the fatwa. Khomeini’s very first theological tract, back in 1942, called for the murder of an Islamic reformist writer, who, after a few years, was duly assassinated. But theocratic tradition is not the same as conventional political calculation.
And what use is a conventional political language for interpreting the Islamic Republic’s history of plots and attacks against Israel, Israelis, and Jews, not just along the borders of Israel, but worldwide? The history is strangely enormous, and strange in other ways as well. One of the most successful of those plots and attacks, judged from the perspective of the Islamic Republic, took place in Buenos Aires, where a suicide bomber attacked a crowd of people at the Israeli consulate in 1992, and another attacked a crowd at the Buenos Aires Jewish community center in 1994, followed a day later by still another suicide bombing that blew up a Panamanian plane with a large number of Jewish passengers, followed a few days later by non-suicidal bombings of the Israeli embassy and of a Jewish community center in London. All of which was a great success because, apart from slaughtering entire crowds, and apart from generating a lasting fear among Jews around the world, the attacks deepened a vogue for suicide that has always figured among Iranian Islamism’s most distinctive and dreadful contributions to the modern political climate.
Iranian plots over the years have aimed at Israeli diplomats, and, then again, at Israeli tourists, as in Bulgaria. The plots and attacks have been remarkably persistent. I have been reading Roya Hakakian’s books and essays on Iranian themes intermittently over the last few months; and as I turn the pages, I keep noticing out of the corner of my eye that Iranian plots against Israel and the Jews have all the while kept up an intermittent presence of their own, now reported in Cyprus, now in Colombia in South America, now in Turkey. And here, just now as I am writing, is one of the major figures behind the massacres in Buenos Aires of 30 years ago, Mohsen Rezaee, turning up in Managua, Nicaragua, to represent the Islamic Republic at yet another investiture of Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista dictator, as if to proclaim to all of Latin America that Iran’s Islamic Republic is unbowed. And let the Jews go on cowering, as they have been doing for three decades!
But how much of this, the history of plots and attacks against Jews around the world, lends itself to explanation in a language of conventional political calculation—the language of raison d’état or international-relations theory and that sort of thing? Even if some of it does, we are left with the question of how to speak about the rest of it. With what vocabulary and phrasing, and what kinds of historical references and analogies? Alternative rhetorics do exist. But it is worth asking if the alternative rhetorics have proved to be any more successful in communicating to the general public.
Matthias Küntzel, the German scholar, showed one of those alternatives in a volume that was translated into English in 2014 under the title Germany and Iran: From the Aryan Axis to the Nuclear Threshold. Küntzel belongs to what has by now become a school of historians, several of them his fellow Germans, together with Jeffrey Herf, the American historian of Germany (in Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World and other books), and a variety of scholars and writers from other parts of the world, myself among them, who have arrived at a similar view on one significant point. This is the belief that, in order to speak intelligently about the motivations of the Islamist movement, attention should be paid to the provenance of the movement’s ideas, most of which trace back, as the Islamists claim, into the theological past. But, because Islamism is nonetheless a modern movement, some of those ideas trace back, as well, to Europe.
In Germany and Iran, Küntzel reminded us that German state doctrine of the 1930s and ’40s rested on the fantastical belief that Germans were Aryans, which they were not, and Jews were cosmically evil, which they were not, requiring extermination. And Küntzel observed that, in Iran, among the authentic Aryans, the Germans and their imaginary Aryan identity and their crazy ideas aroused a fascination. The Shah in those days sympathized with the Nazi project, though for some reason he did not feel attracted to the part about the Jews.
But the Islamists picked up on precisely that part. They recycled the Nazi paranoia into a theological anti-Zionism, with each of the global and frightening traits that Nazis ascribed to Jews (minus the biological traits, which have never been an Islamist concern) ascribed anew to Zionists, who in turn were conflated with Jews (albeit with a slogan of Khomeini’s to the contrary: “We recognize our Jews as separate from those godless Zionists”). And the Islamists stipulated the same annihilationist goal, except with phrasing drawn from the sacred texts of Islam and with the proposed victim being the godless Zionist state that did not exist in Nazi times. In this way, the Iranian Islamists took a madness from Europe and refashioned it into a piety of Shiism. Here was “westoxification,” in the clever Iranian phrase, which the Islamists embraced in the deluded belief that they were fending off westoxification. And the doctrines and delusions can account for something that a language of raison d’état and related concepts can never quite explain.
This is the determination on the part of the leaders of the Islamic Republic to subject their own citizens to never-ending sacrifices in pursuit of a struggle-to-the-death against another people who are, in the case of the Zionist state, more than 600 miles from Iran’s border, or are scattered around the world, unto the remotest regions of South America, 8,000 miles away—an incomprehensible determination, until you remind yourself of the larger analysis and its fantastical notions. The leaders are determined to sacrifice everything in this struggle because they want to rescue the word of God and ultimately the entire world from what Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former distinguished and voluble president of the Islamic Republic, vividly described (in a letter to Angela Merkel, whose reaction can be imagined) as “the greatest enemy of mankind.”
And the leaders have acted on a basis of chiliastic expectation, in the belief that, by erasing the greatest enemy of mankind someday soon from the pages of history, the Islamic Republic will be able to advance to the next stage of the global project. This is to confront and defeat Christendom in the West and thereby bring about the worldwide triumph of Islam (in the Islamic Republic’s version of it, to be sure) and world peace. The leaders of the Islamic Republic have subjected the Iranian people to endless sacrifices for reasons, in short, of ideological insanity—all of which is easy enough to see if you allow yourself to ruminate over what Küntzel and Herf and other scholars have been pointing out for many years now, which is the transcultural history of ideological lunacy, a large and identifiable factor in world events.
And yet—this is my point about vocal tone and the difficulty of addressing the general public in its sectors of opinion—observations like Küntzel’s arouse a scoffing response among certain readers and even among some equally scholarly writers. In emphasizing a dreadful ideological influence from Europe, Küntzel and his fellow-thinkers appear, from the standpoint of their critics, to have adopted a rhetoric that fails to appreciate Europe’s dreadful influence, and therefore fails to appreciate the anti-imperialist nature of the Islamist revolution. Their rhetoric ascribes central significance to matters that are marginal, in token of their own European prejudices. Their rhetoric fails to concede that the Islamic Republic would never dream of doing such a terrible thing as to annihilate a Jewish state; or, conversely, their rhetoric fails to recognize that, in the end, the Islamic Republic has good reason to dream of such an annihilation.
There is a worry that a rhetoric like Küntzel’s conjures a pornography of Islamist horrors, which, by dwelling on the bizarre and the barbarous (e.g., in regard to the rights of woman, as shown by, say, Küntzel’s taking note of Ayatollah Khomeini’s marriage to a 10-year-old), might obscure or demean the otherwise obvious grandeurs of Iranian culture in its non-Islamist forms. There is, in short, a visceral aversion to the rhetoric that Küntzel and his fellow-thinkers have employed, given that, any time a Nazi or Nazi-like intellectual provenance is invoked, or any time the seventh century is dragged into a discussion of an Islamism whose entire purpose is to resurrect the seventh century, conversation necessarily takes on a sharper tone than peaceable proponents of deconfliction would prefer.
And so, for every analysis like Küntzel’s, some other analysis has arisen, devoted to the task of eliding the inconvenient. Elision is its own school of thought among the academics. Elision may be the principal school. Certainly it is a prominent tendency among the journalists. I began jotting notes for this essay at the end of November 2021, amidst daily reports of the politics and maneuverings of the international nuclear negotiations with Iran in Vienna. And even at that moment, when the leaders of the Islamic Republic needed to persuade the world of their reasonable nature, the Iranian military took to repeatedly announcing its goal of—I draw these quotations from statements reported during just a few days in November—“erasing” Israel, in the phrase of a top military spokesman. Or, as the spokesman continued, “We will not back off from the annihilation of Israel, even one millimeter.” Also more than Israel: “We want to destroy Zionism in the world.”
Or, as Iran’s Aerospace Force Commander said, addressing an audience of Iranian university students, “Rest assured that you young people will see the day when this regime is annihilated”—with all of this neatly confirmed by the foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, in the early days of 2022 with his confident observation, “Zionism has no place in the future world.” And yet, somehow these remarkable quotations tended not to appear in the mainstream press in the Western countries—not in the United States, anyway. In the United States the quotations appeared, instead, in the tiny and sometimes overheated and often overlooked ethnic corner of the press that dedicates itself to reporting sympathetically on the political entity whose impending destruction is so exuberantly and relentlessly announced.
The annihilationist rhetoric is exactly what has prompted Küntzel and his fellow scholars to rap their knuckles on the table, asking permission to interrupt the too-genial general conversation with a pointed discussion of what does not lend itself to geniality. But since pointed discussions are precisely what other people wish to avoid, and since, even so, these matters do have to be discussed, the quandary remains. And the vexing question about rhetorical strategies and vocal tone and the right way to speak still begs to be addressed.
Roya Hakakian has written two volumes of poetry in Persian and three books of non-fiction in English, the first of which was Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran, which came out in 2004. Already in that book she demonstrated an adventurous spirit in matters of vocal tone, which allows her to shift from the intimate and the complex to the declamatory, in accord with the complexities of her message. The book is a memoir of her teenage years in Tehran. Those were the last years of the Shah and the first years of the Islamic Republic and the Iran-Iraq War—years of revolutionary lyricism, of appalling medievalism, and of suffering. The opening words are a trumpet-blast dedication in capital letters, which make clear that she does not belong to the school of discreet elision:
BETWEEN 1982 AND 1990 AN UNKNOWN NUMBER OF IRANIAN WOMEN POLITICAL PRISONERS WERE RAPED ON THE EVE OF THEIR EXECUTIONS BY GUARDS WHO ALLEGED THAT KILLING A VIRGIN WAS A SIN IN ISLAM
This book is dedicated to the memory of those women.
But mostly she speaks in a quiet voice, sometimes in a tender voice. She contemplates the particulars of life at home in Tehran and at school, where the problems and challenges conform, in the beginning, to a normal universe of the familiar and the everyday. The family is Jewish, and the gravest of those problems, as little Roya observes them, bear on her beautiful and grown-up cousin Farah and her lively young uncle Ardi, and their separate marital prospects. The family wants the beautiful cousin to marry a wealthy businessman who is pursuing her, which the cousin does not want to do. The family presses. The cousin bends to the pressure—and the marriage turns out to be a disaster. The lively uncle wants to marry a woman who happens to be Muslim. The grandmother is apoplectic. The lively uncle responds by threatening to convert to Islam. The grandmother threatens suicide. The lively uncle races off in his car, distraught. He accidentally runs over someone in the street. He is arrested—and flees to a new existence in Israel, without his Muslim beloved and without the grandmother, either. Little Roya and her best friend next door, a Muslim girl, meanwhile wonder what life will be like when they themselves have grown into womanhood.
What is a revolution, compared to matters as vast as those? The revolution at hand is, at first, a rumor. The neighbors take to dimming their lights and shouting “Allahu akbar!” at a certain time every evening, in order to participate in a larger Tehran protest against the Shah. In the Hakakian household, “Allahu akbar” makes everyone a little nervous. Then again, not shouting “Allahu akbar” likewise makes everyone a little nervous. Young Roya takes her place within the Jewish Iranian Students Organization. The Jewish students, a solid number of them, are the intrepid enemies of oppression across the board. They are the champions of Palestinian freedom. Ardently they burn for the Iranian revolutionary cause.
She recalls that, during the moments of revolutionary euphoria, poets became the voice of the uprising, which was thrilling. Ahmad Shamlou was all the rage. It was a golden dawn of literature-and-social justice (unless Stendhal had it right and the prominence of poets in the revolution signified a golden dawn of madness). But she says not too much about the doctrines of the Islamists who were hiding for the moment behind the poets and the secular revolutionaries and the slogan-chanting neighbors, and she says nothing at all about the provenance and meaning of some of those doctrines. The history of ideas is not her theme.
She recalls her experiences at the Raah-e Danesh Hebrew Day School for girls in Tehran. The school benefactor is a Jewish industrialist, Habib Elghanian, whose achievement was to bring plastic manufacturing to Iran. As soon as the revolution comes to power, the wealthy Elghanian is arrested, tried on charges of “friendship with the enemies of God, warring with God and His emissaries, and economic imperialism,” and executed forthwith. The next day at school, a new principal introduces herself to the students. The new principal sports a proper revolutionary hijab, and she explains that she is a descendant of the Prophet Muhammed. She launches into what becomes an extended series of lectures on the necessity of sexual modesty and self-repression. She invites the girls at the Hebrew Day School to consider a conversion to Islam. The principal meets young Roya and asks her, “Why do Jewish fathers take it upon themselves to deflower their daughters?”
Young Roya moves along to a high school with a mixed student population and a more congenial principal:
Adjusting to my new surroundings went smoothly at first. But a few days into the new school year, non-Muslim students were ordered to leave the class for the Koran and religious studies hours. When we all returned, a certain strangeness had set in. Immediately after those periods, a bit of warmth had dissipated from our midst. The easiness of our conversations, our playful tugs at one another’s scarves, our indiscriminate horseplay, had diminished. Our Muslim classmates hesitated to share in our lunches. And I began to feel that something the class was being taught in our absence was poisoning our friendships.
Her father warns her against succumbing to paranoid fantasies.
But two months into the academic year, the principal summoned the student body to the schoolyard for an urgent announcement. There, our principal, looking crestfallen, said that according to a new regulation, non-Muslim students could only use designated water fountains and bathrooms.
She does not darken the scene by glancing, as Küntzel’s Germany and Iran advises us to do, in European directions. She and her father go on bantering in their humorous and bitter way. Sardonic wisecracking appears to be genetic among the Hakakians. She speaks to her father about the school principal and the designated water fountains and bathrooms:
“Aha, Father! What do you say to that?” And he who had once lived through such a time and made an art of circumventing segregation said only this: “Eh, they come and go, these lunatics!”
Her parents empty young Roya’s bookshelves and burn the books, except for a few that seem uncontroversial, in case someone comes to inspect the house. But burning the book collection is not going to suffice, and the Hakakian family eventually arrives at the grave decision that most Jewish families in Iran arrived at during those years, which is to flee the country. The flight took her to Europe and then, after a few months, to the United States, the imperialist center: a shocking turn of events for an erstwhile member of the anti-imperialist Jewish Iranian Students Organization. To be sure, Jews were hardly the only ones to go streaming out of Iran. The emigration consisted by 1992 of a million people, which swelled to two million by 10 years ago, according to Hakakian in one of her later books. By now it is said to consist of some four million or more, out of a total of 80 million Iranians, with nearly half of the emigrés in the United States and Canada, a large number of Jews either in Israel or California, the persecuted Bahais scattered to the United States and Europe and Israel, and perhaps more than a quarter-million Iranians of all sorts in Germany. A great many people, in sum, with a history of their own.
Hakakian recounts an episode from that history in the second of her books in English, Assassins of the Turquoise Palace, which came out in 2011. This time her tale is German. In September 1992, a delegation from a Kurdish Iranian opposition party came to Berlin at the invitation of the German Social Democratic Party to participate in meetings of the Socialist International. Three of the Kurdish Iranians dined at the Mykonos Greek restaurant with their Kurdish-Iranian-German interpreter. And a team of assassins gunned them down, gangland style. The assassins were Lebanese, guided by an Iranian operative and a local Iranian-German collaborator, acting under directions from the top leaders of the Islamic Republic itself.
Only, the German Federal Republic was in those days in the hands of Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the Christian Democrats, and Kohl’s government preferred not to believe any of that. The Federal Republic was pursuing something called “critical dialogue” with Iran. And the government leaders recognized that, if criminal charges were brought in Germany against Iran, “critical dialogue” was going to expire on the spot. Better, then, to believe that someone else, and not the Islamic Republic, was responsible for the Mykonos massacre. The proposed someone else was a rival faction among the Kurds, which seemed plausible enough in the eyes of people who knew nothing about it. But the Iranian emigrés knew everything, if only by intuition. The murdered interpreter’s wife was certain. But it was not obvious how she or anyone else among the emigration could make anyone else listen to them.
They managed to do it. This is Hakakian’s tale. She presents it in copious journalistic detail, salted with sardonic remarks drawn from a famous and exiled Iranian humorist (who, having fallen under a fatwa while living in Britain, came under protection from Scotland Yard: “Their best advice was never to be on time for an appointment. ‘A half hour delay is one Iranian tradition I always observe,’ I said. The Yard man shook his head. ‘Then God help you, because your killers are Iranian, too.’”). Hakakian’s tale has amusing incidents of its own. One of the emigré Iranians figured out how, at last, to get the rest of Germany to listen to the emigrés, which was by unscrupulously deceiving a mainstream journalist into publishing a report that made Germany itself appear to be responsible for supplying the weapons.
Germany was not, in fact, responsible. The report was untrue. But it caused an uproar, and the uproar allowed a German federal prosecutor to brush aside the political pressures and pursue the case more vigorously. A witness stepped forward with damning testimony. The Islamic Republic’s authentic role was revealed. The chief judge in Berlin made it explicit: “The orders for the crime that took place on September 17, 1992, in Berlin came from Iran’s Supreme Leader.” The lead assassin fled Germany, but five other participants were convicted and jailed—though all of them were eventually released, mostly to Lebanon, and in one case to a hero’s welcome in Iran.
Here was a victory in the war between speech-that-no-one-wants-to-hear and the wish not to hear it. The fog of wishful thinking that had always concealed the Islamic Republic began to evaporate. The countries of the European Union, Hakakian tells us, recalled their ambassadors from Iran. “A unified and resolute West finally stood against Tehran,” she writes. The resolute West dealt “the most crippling blow ever delivered to the sinister men who snuffed out the lives of the best and the brightest of their nation.”
The Iranian emigration enjoyed a victory of its own. The trial judges, in declining to plug their ears, allowed the Iranian emigrants to feel that, at last, they had been welcomed into their new German home. “For so many years, the expatriates in the courtroom, refugees in an unknown country, had knocked on Berlin’s doors, breathed Berlin’s air, walked upon Berlin’s pavements, slept in Berlin’s nights. But belonging, ever mercurial, had never taken hold of them, for without justice, belonging never does.”
Hakakian’s finest talent is the ability to conjure large developments with tiny delicate details, tossed off so lightly you could almost fail to notice—which she does in this instance by telling us that, after the restaurant massacre, the murdered interpreter’s daughter, aged seven, attended her father’s funeral dressed in hot pink and clutching a stuffed rabbit, as “The Internationale” was intoned. And more than 200 pages later, the same girl, Hakakian tells us, is currently “pursuing a doctoral degree in political science”—which indicates that, among the Iranians in Germany, a feeling of belonging did begin to take hold.
Or does the celebratory tone in Assassins of the Turquoise Palace go too far? Hakakian’s search for a light and humane voice, the chipper air, the mordant jokes—do these end up indulging a sentimental naïveté? Matthias Küntzel devoted a small chapter of his Germany and Iran to the Mykonos restaurant massacre, and his own response was not so chipper. Küntzel observed that, having withdrawn their ambassadors from Iran, the European Union sent them back 19 days later. As for the antisemitism of the Islamic Republic, which Küntzel considered central to the revolutionary Islamist doctrine (and central to the unfortunate Iranian-German ideological nexus in the 1930s and ’40s), no one at all among the prominent figures of the German Federal Republic saw fit to comment on it during the five years of controversy aroused by the massacre and the trial, apart from a lonely and marginal politician from the ex-Communist far-Left.
But nobody can doubt that feelings of belonging have taken hold of Roya Hakakian, who has made herself at home in America. She expresses those feelings generously and even gleefully in the third of her books in English, A Beginner’s Guide to America: For the Immigrant and the Curious, which has just now come out in paperback. She considers that, having undergone her own transition from victim of theocratic tyranny to a difficult new life as frightened refugee to a still newer and better life as a full-fledged and well-adjusted inhabitant of the Connecticut woods, she is now in a position to stand at the international arrivals gate. And graciously she holds the door open for everyone else seeking an American future—not just her fellow harried Iranians but people arriving from anywhere at all, costumed in the folkloric regalia of wherever. To those people, as they pass through the gate, she offers everything she has learned about her new home, which is about to be theirs: knowledgeable warnings, good-humored solidarity, warm reassurances, rueful ironies, and solid insights.
She identifies the emotions to come:
At the reception hall of the terminal, there will be lots of activity, and great, exhausted crowds will teem about you. But there will be none of the alarming chaos that had come with the crowds of the past. When it is your turn in line, you will be called to a booth. There are more forms to fill out. You will present your pleasantest self through the glass, while anxiety boils inside. If you are lucky, the officer will look up with a smile and say, “Welcome to America!” Then the floodgates of tears you had worked so hard to push back will open again, and you will weep.
She feels comfortable addressing a generic “you” because, as she views it, the new arrivals at the fateful booth share one immense and soul-shaping experience, which, outweighing their every difference, gives them a shared identity. The new people are entering a society that, in one enormous particular, looks nothing like anything they have known in whatever country may have been their home. They see this at once, the American idiosyncrasy. It is on display at the airport, among the customs officials and the workforce. The officials and workers, not much different from the new arrivals themselves, appear to have come from all points of the map, as revealed by their body shapes and flesh tones and their marvelous surnames. “Pinned on the chest pockets of the officers guiding everyone are name tags—‘Sanchez,’ ‘McWilliams,’ ‘Cho,’ ‘Al-Hamed’—and, by God, all of them Americans!”
The generic new arrival exits the terminal into the American streets, where Hakakian’s advice becomes still more excited and stirring. And yet, something in her comments begins to be puzzling:
You will find the air thick with noises you have not heard in a long time, or have simply never heard before. In the past when you thought of freedom, you thought of free speech as its only sound. But sometimes freedom’s best trace is not in words but in silence. It is in the absence of the whispers that fear spreads. It rings in the humming of a teenage boy, standing in the bus line, swaying to the uncensored music in his ear; in the swishing of a carefree teenage girl, gliding past on roller skates; in the unafraid laughter of two women chattering; in the whistling of a dreamy security guard; in the unprohibited tunes that waft out of passing cars; in the barking of full-bellied pet dogs, not banned by any edicts, cockily walking at the side of their owners; or in the stilted yet civil uttering of the shopkeepers’ “Can I help you?” (for business is the daytime god and must go on despite all else); in every tapping foot or clapping hand that does as instinct commands; in all the ways that a people who have not been cowed into silence exercise their sonorous existence.
Only, who is this “you” who finds the air “thick with noises you have not heard in a long time”? Latin Americans amount to 40 percent of the immigrant population in the United States, which makes them easily the largest of the immigrant groups. But the problems back home that drive the Spanish-speakers to the arrivals gate at the airport do not typically include an all-encompassing tyranny of the kind that might prevent boys from humming uncensored music, or girls from roller-skating. Nor do terrible oppressions weigh upon the freedom of Latin American dogs to be dogs.
She addresses her newly arriving generic immigrant on the topic of comparative literature, America’s and “yours,” which is the Old Country’s. About America’s poetry, she says: “It is only a few hundred years old, whereas yours might date back a millennium or more. Yet, whereas your nation has a more ancient poetic tradition, American poetry surpasses, in themes and fullness of expression, all the poetry in your literature.” But, no, this cannot be the Latin Americans. Latin Americans have no reason to look up reverentially at the literature of the United States. They rather enjoy looking down, I would say.
Hakakian advises: “One of the knottiest predicaments that living in diaspora may present is America threatening war with your former homeland.” The fear is vivid: “One night, you go to sleep a lawful resident or even a citizen. In the morning, you wake up an outlaw.” And not just in the eyes of the authorities:
You may have left your country because you were opposed to its regime. Or you may have no interest in politics at all. It will matter little. You will always be asked if you are, say, North Korean what you think of the current standoff between our two nations. Those who ask this think themselves wily for trying to ferret out your allegiances through “inconspicuous” inquiries.
But she has got to be kidding, yes? North Korean immigration to the United States the year before last amounted to one person! Two persons, the year before that. She is teasing us, then. She has her fellow Iranians in mind, and prefers to call them North Koreans or anything at all, except what they are. The Iranian immigrants, yes—those are the people with memories of worrying about persecutions for roller-skating and perfume and dogs, and maybe with ambivalent feelings about poetry traditions, too, given the disastrous role of the Iranian poets in the 1978–79 revolution.
Her fear expands:
You may might conclude that there is nothing worse than America declaring war against your former homeland. But, alas, there is. It is for America to do nothing when a war breaks out in that homeland. Your nation might be torn in two, violence raging in its every corner. Yet, in the name of peace and respecting the sovereignty of other countries, America will stand by and watch.
It can still get worse. And this is how it will come about: You wake up one morning and see on the news the tyrant you fled from standing beside the American president, shaking his hand. You rub your eyes. You have had bad dreams before. You look again and the two are joined in a handshake, flashing their media grins for the reporters.
Finally she does acknowledge that she has Iranians in mind, but only by recounting in a small-font aside to her main text an anecdote about a Persian traveller in the 1870s who met President Ulysses S. Grant, was promised favors, and was badly let down. Perhaps it is delicacy that prompts her to express herself so elliptically. She does not want to coarsen the conversation by adverting to disagreeable political themes, and she does not want to hector the readers by shouting “Me! Me!” There is a charm in the delicacy, and maybe a touch of mystery, and, then again, a suggestion of terror, as if she is worried that, were a poorly chosen phrase ever to creep into her pages, she might discover that she was gazing straight-on at the head of Medusa.
Hakakian is blunt, though, about her love for the English language and the experience of acquiring it for oneself. In American English she sees a liberation from the world of whatever used to be your old language. In matters of male-female relations, for instance, she wonders if maybe the culture in your old homeland accorded less respect to women than to men. “English, on the other hand, will liberate you, for it comes with the bold American attitude in tow. A simple switch from your language to English will have miraculous effects.” Some of those effects might emerge even from the language’s lowest form, which is the bedroom version. Her sense of humor does not abandon her:
The English erotic terms may not be all that appealing, but at least they are utterable. If you happen to find the right partner, lending an ear to them can set your imagination, and much else, on fire. This bedroom English will not be of much use elsewhere. Still, practice is practice, and what better training than one-on-one, and what more conducive a classroom than a warm and plush setting? In short, this is cultural immersion at its best.
She advises finding such a partner, if not for marriage, at least for love. “While marriage to an American can be complicated,” she says, “a love affair with an American can be worth the trouble. To begin with, there are genuine ‘I love yous’ in America.” Commentary follows:
You will grow fond of “I love you.” You will eventually know its buttery glide on the tongue. “I love you” comes so effortlessly to Americans of all stripes and in every context—from the printed patterns on panties in lingerie shops to finger-painted artwork made at daycare—that you could say the words are perennially in vogue. The abbreviated version of it can sound perfunctory, but with a simple tweak of the tone, you can fine-tune it. Say it as you stare into the eyes of another, holding each other’s hands, and there can be no mistaking its romantic charge. Say it as you laugh heartily after hearing a friend’s joke, and it no doubt captures the spirit of fraternal gaiety. Say it toward the end of a long telephone conversation and it stands for the gentlest of sign-offs. Speak the words with enough suppleness and you could pass for an American.
A twinge of regret hovers over these observations. She tells us that, in the Old Country, the constraints on love have the effect of intensifying its passion into what she calls a “tornado, wild and all-consuming.” But freedom in the Land of the Free has the effect of reducing the intensity to a “lovely rain.” Still, lovely rain has its virtues. “An American lover could help give you wings.”
American neighborliness appeals to her. She admires the American habit of giving to charity, which seems to her fundamentally different from the charitable habits that you, the generic immigrant, will have known in the Old Country (though she also wonders how the American spirit of generous charity can go along with the penny-counting spirit of “going Dutch” in American dating). She observes that Americans come together in their service to other people. “Serving others is to an American what celebrating the Leader was to your former countrymen. It is an act of patriotism.”
There is joy in these accumulated observations. Hakakian is a Tocqueville, who was likewise joyful in drawing up his catalogue of American customs and peculiarities. And, like Tocqueville, she sees that American traits of neighborliness, generosity, democracy, and everyday freedom exercise a worldwide attraction, even if American power (which barely existed in Tocqueville’s day) also arouses a worldwide resentment or loathing. “No nation has ever held so much allure for others, was so secretly coveted yet overtly despised, or instilled so much hope and expectation along with fear and confusion at once.” She relishes the delicious fact that even some of the most ardent of revolutionary anti-Americans in other parts of the world—for instance, the unnamed revolutionaries from an unnamed country in an unspecified 1979 who, after its unnamed Shah was overthrown, took American diplomats hostage—have ended up applying for American visas.
She puts her finger on America’s foreign-policy conundrum. About the Americans, she says:
Everything is expected of them at all times, including things that are contradictory. They meddle in the affairs of other countries and are rightly criticized for it. But when a war breaks out and they do not intervene, they are criticized for being cruel and self-interested isolationists.
So she, too, is ardent—in her case, for America, instead of against it. The “I love you” in her Beginner’s Guide to America is for America. The love is not blind. An American frostiness is not to her taste. She understands that frostiness will break your heart. “You must brace yourself to be sold out by America at any moment. She has many virtues, but patience and steadfastness are not among them.” But the love is true, which means that sometimes it is, in fact, blind. “Nowhere but here do so many people live side by side in such perfectly imperfect harmony. Which is why at no time in history has a people ever been so mighty”—though perhaps in making that remark her blindness consists mostly of nostalgia for an American consensus that hardly anyone can remember anymore.
She proposes to her fellow immigrants a civic spirit accompanied by song. And, with that idea in mind, she updates “America the Beautiful” into a multi-culturally virtuous “Americans the Beautiful,” in which she surgically excises melodious archaicisms like “spacious skies” and “fruited plane” in favor of these lines:
Oh beautiful for every voice and faces of all shades
and promises of dignity for people of all faiths
Americans, Americans, how fortunate are we!
To have the right to live the kind of life we choose to lead.
This, from the Jewish daughter of Emerson’s adored poets, the Persian mystics Hafez and Saadi? But then, goofiness is still another sign of love.
She likens a naturalization ceremony to a wedding, in which the highpoint consists of receiving, instead of a ring, a naturalization certificate, together with a brochure from US Citizenship and Immigrant Services, enumerating “Your Rights” and “Your Responsibilities.” Your rights include the right to express yourself, to worship as you will, to be tried promptly and fairly by a jury, to vote, and a few other elements of republican reasonableness, summarized by an invocation of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Your responsibilities are to support and defend the Constitution; to remain informed on public issues; to participate in the democratic process; to pay taxes; to serve on a jury; and to defend the country “if the need should arise.”
America, thus, chooses you. Naturalization—the new marriage that came on the heels of a long, drawn-out divorce—is here. It was not you; it was that other. The certificate vindicates you. The certificate is proof that you were not permanently broken and deserved to belong again. You have been renewed, validated, and recycled back into society, to be visible among others once more. That is what America has always done. That is what America knows how to do.
She tells us that reading the document about “Your Rights” and “Your Responsibilities” will bring tears to your eyes. A Beginner’s Guide to America is a weepy book. Sometimes weepiness and goofiness merge: “Despite the many years, you remain spellbound by the grandeur of America, above all by the mammoth one-story wholesale stores—the warehouses of her abundance.”
But this may be the excellence of her Beginner’s Guide. In the miserable present era, nobody who was born American could possibly have composed a chest-heaving love letter to America. Only an immigrant could do it. She sees America’s grandeurs, even if, for the moment, we, the native sons and daughters, cannot. America has reason in this one respect to say to the rulers of the Islamic Republic of Iran, “Thank you, mullahs! Just as you send oil to the Chinese, which they lack, you have sent us what we, too, lack, which is self-esteem.”
The weepy emotionalism raises a last question, though. How can it be that, when it comes to America, Hakakian expresses herself directly, and yet, when it comes to her former homeland, her instinct is to veil herself in hints and wisecracks? I notice in this regard a few remarks in the Beginner’s Guide on the challenge of learning not only to speak in a new language, but to write in it as well. In her early years in the United States, she took classes on how to write. She had the opportunity, as she has explained in an interview that you can find online, to study poetry at Brooklyn College under Allen Ginsberg, no less (and she quotes Ginsberg’s little jewel of goofy patriotism, the poem “America,” in one of the epigraphs of A Beginner’s Guide to America).
And, with these literary studies under her belt, she takes up, at last, the question of verbal tone. She analyzes it in regard to one particular, which turns out to be a deeper particular than the question of how to speak about the Islamists. This is the question of how to speak for oneself. She puts the question from a writer’s technical standpoint by contemplating the first-person pronoun, the “I,” and its proper usage.
Americans lead with “I.” Lean in, they say, in praise of self-assurance. You learned not to be overt about your wishes and leave them for the reader to glean and interpret. But in American prose or conversation, vagueness has no place. It will only cost you dearly here. You must learn to say what you want, not shyly stand by and pray that others might be charmed by your demure hints at it. No one will dislike you for asking for what you want, but they may well find your hints mystifying and think you inept for not speaking up.
I take this to be Hakakian’s self-reflection. She herself writes with two versions of “I,” as if endowed with a double personality. One of her versions is strong and confident, fortified by the brochure on citizen rights and responsibilities; and the other version is delicately averse to revealing too much of her inner wishes and thoughts. Henry James would recognize this sort of doubleness. It is the double-“I” phenomenon of someone who grows up in one culture, and ends up inhabiting another. James did this by growing up mostly in America, before making his escape to the refinements of Europe, and the experience left him with an unusual theme for his novels and other writings. This was a conflict of two kinds of selfhood—the outspokenly confident (which might mean a bracing forthrightness, or else an exasperating naïveté) and the quietly demure (which might mean a subtle sophistication, or else a tyrannized diffidence).
But it may be that, in our present world, nothing is unusual about conflicts of this sort. The scholars of international-relations theory ought to look into those conflicts, the “I” in its American versions versus the “I” in its rest-of-the-world versions. They might find in those conflicts still another source of tension in world affairs, along with economic trends and national interests. But chiefly those conflicts, the ones about subjectivity, offer an insight into the inner soul.
The conflicts break out repeatedly in Hakakian’s books, where Roya Hakakian and her variable prose tone turn out to be time and again in confrontation with a second Roya Hakakian and her own variable prose tone—the direct and the hinted, the angry and the bemused, the forceful and the shy. The conflicts in her versions conform to Henry James’s lines pretty closely, too, as adapted to the circumstances of our own era and the need for protective attention from the FBI. The conflicts are illuminating. If the illuminations were gathered into a light beam and pointed in Hakakian’s direction, they would reveal her to be the modern world incarnate: globalized, terrorized, resistant, angry, sardonic, ironic, not averse to weeping in gratitude, and ineluctably drawn, in spite of every terrible thing, to the United States of America.