Looking for My Past in a Country That Had Rewritten History

Finally, to the chagrin of Tom Cotton and Israel hawks, and the delight of Iranians, who reportedly launched firecrackers into the Tehran sky last week, a deal on Iran's controversial nuclear program has emerged. I for one am relieved.
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Finally, to the chagrin of Tom Cotton and Israel hawks, and the delight of Iranians, who reportedly launched firecrackers into the Tehran sky last week, a deal on Iran's controversial nuclear program has emerged. I for one am relieved.

As an Iranian-American, I grew up watching my homelands demonize each other. My family had lived at the nexus of one of the most iconic disruptions of our times, the Islamic revolution. But for us it was personal. In 1979, my American father was arrested in Iran and accused of being a CIA agent. Back then Iran was in the grip of an anti-American frenzy, and the hostage crisis had electrified the country. Because my Iranian mother couldn't find a single lawyer to represent her husband before the revolutionary tribunals, she did so herself. She memorized the Quran and took on the prosecutor, a mullah with an enviable string of convictions. In the process she became the first female lawyer in the Islamic republic.

A couple years ago, I set out to discover if the charges against my father were true. Had he really been a CIA agent? My quest took me through official and unofficial channels -- and eventually back to Iran last year. Traveling there as the son of an alleged spy wasn't the safest idea. But when I arrived in Tehran on Valentine's Day, I was pleasantly surprised to find the capital full of young couples en route to posh restaurants, toting flowers and small gifts. "What, did you think a day of love was only for the west"" my cousin Morteza said.

A lot had changed. When I left in 1980, the streets were crowded with outraged citizenry, shouting themselves hoarse. Today the crowds are gone, replaced by casual citizens too young to recall the Islamic revolution their parents had foisted on an unready world. Searching for my childhood markers -- the Ice Palace, the Pizzeria, the koocheh store whose cheese curls stained my fingers orange -- I found instead huge congested freeways, coffee shops, and gated houses in Northern Tehran that evoked Beverly Hills. Our own house was now the Sudanese Embassy. A couple days into my stay, I was beginning to suspect I was on a fool's errand, looking for my past in a country that had rewritten history. "Iranians have two different story lines -- the story and the truth," Morteza told me. We were in a restaurant hunched over his 110-year-old photo album. It was a lovely fossil, frayed and spotted and alive with history -- mostly focusing on his uncle, who had a wonderful sense of humor. Here he is, posing as a painter. A hunter. A Cossack. "People ask me why I collect and catalog the past. I tell them it's because the truth is important to me. It offends me when people lie about history. After the revolution, the government effectively turned Iran's clock back to Year Zero, and rewrote her history. Text books. Street names. Everything." Sometimes I think the Iranian revolutionaries and Americans both have a static view of Iran. The revolutionaries want to excise 2,500 years of recorded history and place the birth of the nation in 1979. Americans, with their movies and TV shows featuring robed mullahs and seething anti-American mobs, are also stuck in 1979. Those events started the downward spiral in U.S.-Iran relations, but this is not the Iran of my childhood. Astonishingly, Iran is the only country in the Middle East with a reliably pro-American population -- even as the hardliners in government continue their age-old chants. One day, I burned my foot in the hotel sauna and was treated by a revolutionary nurse. I knew he was a revolutionary because the poster-sized portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini in his office gave him away. Nurse Jafari returned to my hotel room the following day to check on the wound. He would not take money. During this visit, I learned he had served in the Iran-Iraq war. "The chemical warfare was horrible," he said. "Mustard gas. Men with severed limbs and burnt faces. Tents of injured soldiers from here to the horizon. It went on for years, and all the time everyone was wondering: Why isn't the world saying anything?" Mr. Jafari looked humbly to the ground. "The chemical weapons were furnished by America. Sold through a clandestine network to Argentina, then Germany, then finally Iraq." "And here you are dressing my wounds," I replied. "I have no problem with Americans. Your foreign policy, yes -- but your people are decent." When I offered him money again, he refused it. It seemed like he was grappling with something. Having heard of the atrocities of America, he was now faced with one of its wounded. It helped that I was wounded. It helped that I spoke Farsi. We took a picture together, and he told me I was like his brother. "Not in features, but in feeling," he said thumping his heart. Limping around the capital in days following, I had a thought. If a revolutionary who treated soldiers burnt by American-supplied chemicals on the battlefield can extend a healing hand, maybe there's hope for the rest of us? "Give this time to heal," Mr. Jafari had advised, bandaging my foot."It will feel itchy for a while, but you mustn't pick at it." As the final framework for a nuclear deal is established, and we set the stage for our future with Iran, we would do well to remember his words. In relationships gone sour -- personal and international -- we tell the same old break-up stories about being hurt and wronged. But in retelling, we ourselves remain stuck in the muck and mire. It's only when we stop focusing on our wounds that they do what comes naturally. They heal.

______________ Cyrus Copeland is the author of OFF THE RADAR: A Father's Secret, A Mother's Heroism and a Son's Quest. (Penguin/Blue Rider) Library Journal: "This brilliant, touching tale of espionage, discovering family, and balancing cultures is recommended for fans of memoir, spy stories, and Iranian culture." (starred review)