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Yearning for Iran: An elegy for my other homeland

A homeland is not a piece of cultivated land, nor the object of a war for pride. Homeland is not nationalism. Love has no place where land is a tool for control. Homeland is an idea through which we mold our hopes and our most secret fears. It is an unconditional love.

By Avraham H. Muthada

Khaju Bridge in Isfahan, Iran (Photo: Hamed Saber/CC)

I often find myself yearning for Iran. Despite the fact that my feet have never stepped there, my mouth has never tasted its water, my lips have not sipped from its goblet. There, in the diaspora, where the dream of the promised land still burned and echoed. The longing that was part of us even before man met women, a longing for what does not exist – for a borderless purity amongst humans. The mullah (rabbi) stands at the gate of the city during every holiday with complete devotion, his face tilted toward the West – toward the sea – mourning a hill of stones and broken memories, quietly praising and calling for Zion. In his mind’s eye he sees the tribes of Israel and the Land of Judea and the Mediterranean – there he shall not pass.

My father shrinks into the blue, fur arm chair and sinks into a song of homesickness for a homeland left behind. “My Iran, my life and soul.” He glances upward, imagining the pathways of his childhood, weaving together notes and letters to form a pearl necklace of suffering. He is motionless. Like a national monument, he collects remnants of moments and gives them vitality. Soon his eyes will open and a sigh will leave his mouth.

“I am like a victim of your land / and helpless without you / every beat of my heart is the whispering of Iran,” the singer eulogizes the homeland, and my father continues, “Without you my home is full of sorrow / every moment is grief, the distance drives me mad / God knows that this world is a prison without you / life is dark and cold.” Indeed, Iran is the homeland of many expatriates, not all of them Muslims. Different religions, tribes and cultures are tied together to the forgotten homeland which has been painted black and white.

No other homeland

The task of wandering to a distant homeland was commanded of us, even before we became a nation, in one sentence that changed our fate: “Go from your homeland and the homeland of your father to a country that I shall reveal to you.” And here, thousands of years later, I wonder to myself, as Jews who returned to our homeland, aren’t we supposed to feel an even stronger connection to nature, to humans, to the living and the air around us? Our hearts have been filled with songs of the homeland and love for the Land of Israel, built by the fearless pioneers who sought to redeem the land of the swamps, ever since we were little. Are not the history and literature books full of songs of praise such as “Ein Li Eretz Aheret” (“I Have No Other Country”) and the famous “El Artzi” (“To My Land”), in which the Hebrew poet Rachel confesses that she did not do enough for her country.

Yoram Taharlev nicknamed it a “homeland with no shirt, a barefoot homeland.” Uzi Chitman called for “Eretz Ha’Tzabar,” (Land of the Tzabar) and even Aviv Geffen called it “Uri Ur.” But no, the promised land disappointed. Friends of mine who up until recently claimed “I love the country, not the state,” can now be found waiting in endless lines for a foreign passport, or at the very least a long-term visa. And like a beggar at the gates, divested of my memories and of the images of my forefather’s land, I am forced to bear a burden that is not my own. Creating a love for the homeland out of nothing, instead of creating new meaning for living in my country, Israel, through the eyes of my forefathers.

A letter of longing from Zion to Iran

Pain is the father of creation. It is woven into our being, into books, songs and prayers. Often I find myself incessantly switching stations on the radio, until I find an Arabic station and sink into the trills of the muezzin. Quarter tones, the deeply layered singing, carved out of a deep place of pain, remind me of the songs of my home.

“My heart wants to return to Isfahan…
I am still here, but my heart is there / all my prayers and desires are there.”

As a boy I loved the elegy for Isfahan, the birthplace of my parents, but I never wondered why. It is possible that I considered the city as holy as Jerusalem, where belief and holiness move us to a memory we have never experienced. I sit and stare into my father’s eyes. I am filled with jealousy as those eyes yearn for a homeland that was taken away, for the sounds that arise from the oblivion and fill the room. The glory of a faraway kingdom, stories of bravery about giants and ghosts who walk among humans. Stories about simple people and their simple lives. That same yearning for a homeland that prevails in my family excites me to the point that it seems as if it is inherited. Or perhaps they borrowed this trait from their Shi’ite neighbors, another persecuted minority who will one day reach salvation. Persian is a holy language to me – it empowers my mind and stimulates my creativity. Songs for Iran, which are sung by Iranian expats, those same songs I grew up on, penetrate my body and strum into my soul, despite not understanding most of the words.

MK Hanin Zoabi, with whom I do not see eye to eye, once claimed that Jews in Israel do not understand the love for a homeland. “Loving the homeland means loving and respecting its history and that of its indigenous people. One who loves his homeland does not cut down trees nor build ugly fences and does not ruin the natural view. This is not love, this is a project that says ‘we are the masters and we want to erase the other group that exists here’.” This is true. A homeland is not a piece of cultivated land, nor the object of a war for pride. Homeland is not nationalism. Love has no place where land is a tool for control. Homeland is an idea through which we mold our hopes and our most secret fears. It is an unconditional love.

My love for Zion and Jerusalem has nothing to do with blue and white and is not based in the history books of my childhood. Its origins lay in adopting the love for a homeland from my father. From Iran to Zion. From Isfahan to Jerusalem. There is an uncertainty about a father instilling forgotten love and continuity to his son. Like the poet Khalil Gibran wrote:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

This is the legacy I inherited from my father.

It is ironic that the land Abraham left for the Promised Land is the same land he misses while being in the Promised Land. Zion is my homeland, and I will love it forever. But every time that I direct my desire toward Jerusalem, the holiest of holies, I will slightly divert my eyes to Iran and tilt my head to hear the echoes of the mullah praying for the Land of Israel, that which he will never see.

Avraham H. Muthada is a writer and student of communications and journalism. This post first appeared in Hebrew on Café Gibraltar

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    1. XYZ

      Many Jews find the responsibility of having a state and building up the land a difficult mission to carry out. It goes back to the TANACH (Bible). In the Torah portion read next Shabbat, “Shlach”, we see the entire people were overcome with despair and decided, almost entirely en masse, that it was better to go back to slavery in Egypt. This is nothing new. The writer’s friends who are queueing up for exit visas are merely the modern version of this. For many years, many on the MAPAM and Communist Left in Israel referred to the USSR as their second socialist homeland. One group, on an kibbutz, finally decided to go back to what they viewed was as their “true” homeland, theirw Isfahan. Within a few years, Stalin had killed half of them, and a few years later, Hitler finished off the rest History, whether Jews like it or not, has the final say. That is why we are here in Israel, even if some are not comfortable with this.

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    2. Molana

      The 1st video posted (which shows images from across Iran) is sung by a popular Persian singer called “Omid,” who is of Muslim background but married a Jewish Iranian-Israeli and moved to Israel for a few years. There are videos of him performing in Israel on YT. After he became very popular among Iranians, he moved to Los Angeles.
      Historically, the Jews of Iran spoke in dialects referred to as Judeo-Persian, roughly analogous to Judeo-Spanish or Ladino. I believe the dialects differed based on their locality in Iran, but don’t know the details. The one spoken by Isfahani Jews used an older version of Hebrew/Aramaic alphabet and was mostly based on an ancient version of Persian. So Hebrew speakers may understand the alphabet but not the language, and modern Persian speakers may only partially understand the language but not the alphabet. Around 70 or 80 years ago, when Iranian Jews were mostly moving out of ghettos & getting integrated into the general Iranian society, their dialect was not passed on to future generations anymore. So if your father is in his 70s or older, he may understand the following Isfahani Judeo-Persian song which is sung by the Iranian-Israeli Jeanette Rotstain Yehudayan:
      Speaking of visiting the homeland, I heard rumors about 6 or 7 years ago, during the 1st Ahmadinejad presidency, that his gov’t was allowing Iranian expatriates in Israel to temporarily visit their homeland under certain conditions. But I dunno if this was true or whether it’s still going on.

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