Love will tear us apart ... or not

On Friday, March 15, 2019, we wake up to the news of the white supremacist attack on Muslims in New Zealand. Kamran and I find ourselves one in anger and in grief, connected to people far away from us, but not far away from our own experiences of the world.

Kamran with his siblings

Kamran was born into a Muslim family in small-town Iran, and I was born into a Jewish family in small-town US. Revolution, refuge, art, and New York brought us together.

Me with my siblings

Pre 9/11 New York, of course. Today’s USA would prevent us
from meeting. Today’s Muslim ban would have altered his life forever. Mine? Who
knows what I would have become?

With all the forces trying to tear us apart, including our own personal idiosyncrasies, it is a testament to our incredible hardheadedness that Kamran and I remain together.

We are torn at by history, culture, and war. From our very different starting points, and our very different world views.

Kamran and I are torn at by the way the world sees us: as victim, perpetrator, pitiable, terrorist, threat, Muslim, Jew, man, woman, hateful, powerful, refugee, atheist, immigrant, revolutionary, and impossible.

We are torn about by the way the world treats us. We are torn at by the ways that treatment has been invisible to each of us.

Over the years, I have been slow to see the patterns that discriminate.

I have dismissed Kamran's experiences of being treated worse in the Netherlands because of his background. This is true even though I saw a letter from a potential employer telling him that they already had "too many foreigners" on staff.

For his part, Kamran has been slow to accept my fears that our current times rhyme with the rise of Nazi Germany. When I told him that I saw signs of growing violence that echoed the rise of the Nazis, he told me I was too worried. “The Holocaust was unique,” he told me. “Nothing can be compared to it.”

Now he says, "I was naive. I believed in western democracy. I believed in the strength of checks and balances. I was a naive immigrant."

On Friday, March 15, 2019, we share our fears. We cry as though tears matter. Kamran tells me that he is afraid that the violence will spread like a contagion.

...routine bites hard

Map of concentration camp and death camp locations
Map of concentration camp and death camp locations. Photo by Kamran Ashtary

Over the past ten years, Kamran has been researching the Holocaust, visiting sites of violence and suffering both in documents and in physical spaces.

He did not grow up in Europe. The Holocaust did not erase his history or have much of an impact on his society. Yet studying its history opened a vein of grief in him that allowed me to honor my own.

His witnessing gave me permission to unmute my generational pain. It had been bottled for so long. I felt I didn't have a right to it, that I was imagining it, that I should be grateful to have so many living relatives made safe by their good fortune.

Society says, Get Over It. And when you listen, you pack away your rage and sadness in a container too small to hold it. Eventually it breaks out. My childhood Rabbi, a Holocaust survivor, told Kamran that he built a cement wall inside his brain to keep the memories at bay. Even that didn't help. But it was the only way life was possible.

Love, love...

On Friday, March 15, 2019, Kamran whispers that he has so much reason to be optimistic. He sees the Jewish and Muslim communities in the US and New Zealand reaching out to one another in solidarity and compassion. He sees students marching for the climate, eager to make the changes we need to continue our lives on this planet. He sees love from others. Oh love...

A statue honoring the dock workers who shut Amsterdam down shortly after the Nazi occupation of the city. This was the only public protest against Nazi occupation anywhere.
A statue honoring the dock workers who shut Amsterdam down shortly after the Nazi occupation of the city. This was the only public protest against Nazi occupation anywhere.

I whisper back, Love is not enough, and think back to the dockworker strike that brought Amsterdam to a halt just after the Nazi occupation. At the time, one Jewish woman wrote in her diary that her heart sang with joy at the thought of the support of Amsterdam’s citizens.

I think back to a testimonial from a woman who survived Kristallnacht. She remembered going to school the next morning because she did not want to cower at home. She wanted to show her face. When she arrived, the other children formed a circle of protection around her and the other Jewish classmates.

This broke my heart. It somehow would have been easier to hear that the other children shunned her.

Love is what will be remembered by survivors of our hateful times. But it is not enough to stop what’s coming. It's not enough to stop what's already here.

Love is a gesture. A gesture we need. Don't stop loving.

And don't empty that gesture of meaning like Amsterdam did by projecting a flag of New Zealand on Central Station and calling it solidarity. That just hides our own complicity in platitudes. It won't stop the next attack. It won't change the gleeful cruelty we see around us. It doesn't help name the condition: supremacism.

As 16-year old climate activist Greta Thunberg says: we need to panic. We are in a burning building, and we are so afraid of naming our condition that we ignore the flames.

This is not fine by KC Green: https://thenib.com/this-is-not-fine

Tear us apart

It is so easy to destroy. Anyone who has slung a sledgehammer at a wall can tell you that it can fill you with power. It can be such fun.

Kamran and my other Iranian friends taught me the perils of revolution. How it eats its children. How using violence gives power to the violent.

And here we are. With violence in power.

...we're changin our ways...

These are the times my elders warned me of.

Unknowingly and knowingly they taught me the omens. They taught me the signs of dehumanization and the patterns in "disorganized" violence.

They taught me how easy it is to destroy. They taught me that home can betray you.

And then they fed me chocolate cake and kugel and filled me with love.

Love, love will...

For comfort, I remind myself of the notion of Tikkun Olam: repairing the world. Imagine the big bang as a universe inside a vessel. When the vessel breaks the light of that universe goes everywhere, even into our souls. It is love, love that is torn apart. And now that love and that light lives inside us. We use it to repair what is broken. No light is too small. No repair too insignificant.

When I need to remember things can heal, I remind myself that my childhood included rivers on fire and so much pollution that we thought we'd all be walking around with oxygen tanks by now. The rivers were cleaned. The lakes were cleaned. We can repair our world. We must repair our world.

As recently as last year, I would ask my friends to imagine this Europe from the midst of World War I. It is unimaginable. Now I am not so confident in that analogy.

We must never forget how broken the world is and has been. And then we must repair our world.

The repairs will take generations. We make them. We don't finish them.

That's the best hope I can give.

Love will tear us apart

https://youtu.be/674KGKRQBPE

Unveiling Iran

In 1978 and 1979, life in Iran drastically changed. This was especially true for women and girls, who once again found themselves and their bodies the focus of revolutionary change. Decades earlier they'd been forced to give up the veil in the name of modernity. Now they were forced to put it back on. They could no longer sing or dance in public. Iranian photographers Newsha Tavakolian and Kamran Asthary use their work to respond to a world fundamentally changed...

Originially published in Neuland Magazin.

Text by Tori Egherman, Guest Curator

Dear Viewers,

Some days ago, I listened to the Dutch chief of police discuss the proposed ban on the burka. Would police arrest women who covered up? he was asked. It depends, he answered, explaining that the police rarely stopped people who weren’t carrying identifications, so why should they stop women in burkas? It seems the battle for change is waged on the body of women, whether it’s in the Netherlands or Iran.

Kamran Ashtary’s series Chador was created as a way for him to make sense of a world forever changed by revolution and exile. He was a teenager during the revolution against the rule of the Shah in Iran. When Islamists gained the upper hand, his sisters were forced to wear veils. Friends were arrested. Relatives and acquaintances disappeared, some were executed, some never heard of again. Kamran left Iran in the early 80s and found refuge in the Netherlands. The photographs taken for Chador are part of a larger series examining exile, separation, and the photographer’s relationship to home and family. In Chador, which begins with an image of his own mother, Kamran photographed men and woman wearing the veil. He contrasts these images with objects: a rock, a knife, a whip.

With the exception of his mother, none of those photographed had ever worn a veil. He photographed each person as though they were a member of his own family facing the unfamiliar for the first time. The results were surprising. The portraits show a range of emotions from fear and sadness to amusement and frailty.

Newsha Tavakolian’s series Listen visualizes the silencing of women’s singing voices through a series of portraits of Iranian singers and imagined CD covers. The images for those CD covers feature a young woman in a veil in a variety of situations and characters. She’s a boxer and a princess, caged and cosmopolitan. She is demanding and confrontational and decidedly not to be pitied.

More than ten years separates the work of Newsha Tavakolian and Kamran Ashtary. Newsha’s series is recent. Kamran’s was done in the late 1990s. Kamran grew up without ever seeing his sisters in a chador until forced after Islamic law became the rule in Iran. Newsha was born after the revolution. Her relationship to the veil is different. It’s taken for granted, even fashion. Older women in Iran often speak of the veil as a kind of humiliation. (Younger women rarely if ever speak of the veil in those terms.)

When I look at Kamran’s mother, with her direct gaze and the graphic line of the chador cutting across her lined face, I see the same strength as when I look at Newsha’s boxer, with her oversized red gloves, and her insistence on claiming her space. One stands in the middle of the road, ready for anything, demanding to be seen. The other meets our gaze, fully aware of the image she presents the viewer.

I love the photos of these two photographers. I love the challenge they present, the daring of the two series of images. I hope you enjoy them too.

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