I left Iran early last time. Not because I wanted to, but because I couldn't breathe. It was mid-December 1999, and the air was heavy with a thick black smog. My father and I, visiting from Ohio, weren't used to it. On the streets, those with surgical masks wore them to block the pollution while the rest just used their headscarves, hands or shirts. Everyone's greatest hope was rain -- the thought being that the rain would somehow magically "wash away" the pollution, as opposed to simply spread it onto our gardens, rivers, lakes and playgrounds.
But it didn't rain, and wimps that we were, my father and I left Tehran early, with my grandmother in tow. It would be the last time she saw her homeland, before coming to America and ultimately succumbing to Alzheimer's eight years later, thousands of miles from home. So too, that was the last time I stepped foot in my ancestral homeland, not knowing that my increasingly public critique of the Iranian government would soon make me persona non grata for all intents and purposes.
In total, that smog stole two precious days from us. Days that my grandmother will never get back and days that I stand to recover only after the birth of a new Iran: one that no longer imprisons writers, activists and artists as a matter of course.
To say the issue of Iran's air quality strikes close to home would be a lie. It strikes in my home, like a lightning rod tearing through a ramshackle roof. And since I last left, it's only gotten worse.
In its first global survey of outdoor air pollution, the World Health Organization recently reported that several Iranian cities contain the worst levels of air pollution in the world. The southwestern city of Ahvaz features the highest level of airborne particles smaller than 10 micrometers. On a human level, this translates into an increased risk of asthma, lung cancer, heart disease, birth defects and premature death. Many other Iranian cities grace the bottom of the list as well, including Qom, Mashhad, Tabriz, Isfahan, Shiraz and Tehran.
What makes matters worse is that it's already hard enough to breathe in Iran these days. The regime's brutal crackdowns on political opposition -- particularly since the 2009 presidential election and resulting protests -- have also done a bang-up job of suffocating the Iranian people. Widespread intimidation, torture, and countless unlawful arrests, detentions and executions have left many Iranians gasping for air. Suicide, drug abuse, unemployment and general discontent are all growing problems that the regime has failed to remedy.
While the WHO may be able to measure fine particulate matter to tell us how polluted the atmosphere has become, no one can measure the stench of tyranny and injustice that weighs just as heavily in the air. No one can calculate the oppression and indignities that Iranians have suffered at the hands of the so-called Islamic Republic. No one can quantify the grief and longing so many of us in exile feel for our friends, families and memories left behind. And not even the most brilliant scientists can calculate the aguish of emotional (and sometimes literal) captivity choking Iranians at home.
With all this sorrow and political suppression, not to mention Iran's dismal economy, it's often hard to remember the role of environmental devastation and the toll it takes on everyday Iranians. Still, it cannot be ignored. Iran would be wise to take a lesson from a seemingly unlikely source today, one lost too soon, but whose voice can and should echo throughout the world: Wangari Maathai. While Iran certainly has its own environmental activists, we need more Wangari Maathais to win this fight. Still, despite a lack of leadership, increasing environmental awareness and environmental protests in Iran today highlight the potential for change.
But the people can't do it alone, and they shouldn't have to. The regime also must make efforts to combat air pollution -- because this is one noxious reality that affects everyone, regardless of political position or economic circumstance. And it's a rare issue that Iran can get behind with the full support of its populace. If the regime has the sense to do so, it may very well win back an ounce of public confidence as Iranians begin to breathe easier.