‘I still have grief inside me, no matter how long my people’s been gone. I still have that grief, and tear, and rip in my heart like it happened yesterday ... Even alherntere, non-Indigenous people can feel it.’
Margaret Kemarre Turner,
Iwenhe Tyerrtye: What It Means to Be an Aboriginal Person (2010)
Tehran, April 1987: Going Under
Descending in a stream of arpeggio broken chords: as we moved through night and the vernal air down into the green earth, my mother thought she heard a children’s song on the stairs as the bombs fell cascading. Like bells, bells of Hades sounding out inverted intervals, the bombs fell interminably. The sirens that were singing sang us downward to the damp islands of the underground shelter, a honeycomb under the Tehran metropolis, buzzing with heat-maddened, with death-maddened men and women. My mother was quick with child and as she ran barefoot down the spiralling stairs she was engulfed by the yawning mouth of the desecrated earth. It was two months shy of my birth. All was opaque and suffocating. Concrete shards broke and fell from the ceiling, missiles rained down in deluge. As a whale yawning wide, trenches on the battle-front split and men were dragged into the void. Later, as I came up out of the waters, I knew this sorrow would abide. I tasted a fruit with an ashen core and I saw over all the earth ashes and soot spread abroad, veiling the stars, this shroud.
Vaslav Nijinsky, before going mad, wrote in his diaries that he felt the tremendous presence of god without fear: ‘I do not want to crack,’ he insisted, ‘but to say the truth.’ Decades later, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, driven to express his moral vision of humanity charged with responsibilities of compassion, might have said the same. Undergoing extraordinary anguish, Solzhenitsyn testified to our responses to life’s beauty and harshness. He sank into a hell but found there the possibility to realising a kind of heaven, fulfilling the desire expressed by Greek poet Odysseus Elytis: ‘I want to descend the steps, to fall into this verdant fire and then to ascend like an angel of the Lord ...’
It is little wonder that I crave depths, catacombs, the belly of the whale; that I seek nourishment like the heart-roots of Tehran’s old sycamore trees. My life began with my mother’s descent into underground bomb shelters during the ‘War of the Cities’, late in the Iran–Iraq War, when Saddam Hussein, deploying Soviet missiles, rained death on Iranian cities. Thousands of civilians, like hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Iranian conscripts, were killed. The world watched, did nothing, and finally gave Saddam more weapons, including poison gas.