As the television was broadcasting the images of the terrorist plane attacks on the New York skyscrapers, I was sitting beside my mother. She had just arrived from Iran and had, with great difficulty, brought my sick father with her for this long-awaited reunion.
We were sitting together and talking, and after all the years of separation I could not take my eyes off them. I had turned down the volume on the television to listen to my mother, but the images were so shocking that she said, ‘Tell me, has something happened?’ I laughed, ‘No, that must be the trailer for a new movie.’ ‘But this is already the third time they’ve shown this scene. I think that something has happened.’
I turned up the volume and heard, ‘A disaster… a disaster…’ And the pictures, which they kept showing over and over again, have engraved themselves on my memory for ever: the aeroplanes hurtling towards the heart of the two skyscrapers, causing them to collapse, signified the end of an era in history.
My mother said: ‘The world has become uncertain and dangerous. I hope we’ll be able to fly back.’
And that visit was the first and the last in which I saw my father again, after years in exile. Today he is no longer with us, but his voice still rings in my ears: the last time we spoke to each other on the phone he said, ‘It is hard for me to bear being separated from you, but as long as they are here, it’s better if you don’t come back.’ And each time I ask my mother to come to Germany she says, ‘The world has become uncertain and dangerous; what would I do there?’
I miss my mother. I haven’t seen her for ten years. My father died and I was not able to be there. It feels as if I missed the flight and am now stuck behind the Wall. I see that certain people want the world to be uncertain and dangerous. They have surrendered people’s destiny and their well-being to a hazardous adventure. The first perceptible consequences of terrorism for me were the restriction of travel and the severing of relations with others.
The disaster brought great sorrow not only to the people of New York. People all over the world have paid the price. Gone are the days when the events and tragedies of individual countries belonged only to those people and in which the news, insofar as it reached other countries at all, elicited a certain sympathy and commiseration. Today everyone is both a participant and a victim in every event that takes place, all over the world. In 2006 a literary institute in London invited me to give a reading and a lecture. The event had already been announced and advertised and I was already on my way when I was refused entry to the country at the airport. They told me that I needed a visa. And I had thought that, with a refugee’s passport, it was at least not a problem to travel within Europe. But it became clear to me that a refugee’s passport is an identity card for second-class citizens. Likewise, it became just as clear to me that the passport itself is also a wall.
At the same time, I see that it is possible for terrorists with forged passports to travel and settle all over the world. An intellectual who is, nonetheless, a political refugee, especially if he comes from the Middle East, will always carry with him his black hair and his foreign accent.
We have become accustomed to tolerating many things, but we still cannot get used to being seen as second-class citizens. Perhaps in the near future all people will be subjected to an official classification system, who knows? How did this terrible state of affairs descend upon us?
The invisible wall
One of the enduring consequences of the Second World War – besides murder and destruction – was the Berlin Wall. A consequence that came into being out of fear of fresh wars, and which forced itself between people in order to drive them apart. The result of the disaster of 11th September 2001 is an invisible wall that was erected between peoples. A large part of this wall remains unseen, but we encounter it at airports. It is everywhere. I can feel it.
Trust and mutual respect have collapsed. This situation has developed into a new habit: life between impenetrable walls.
Since time immemorial fear has driven people to create walls, as if there were no alternative. One day, out of fear of Communism, the West created the Taliban, and for this it paid a high price. Yet the wall of the Taliban could do nothing against Communism. To Communism it meant nothing; it was of no significance whether it existed or not. All it did was break the back of the Afghans, in the truest sense of the word, and destroy many of their unique cultural treasures. It brought the culture, literature and art of the country to their knees and torched countless lives and treasures.
The Taliban were supposed to serve as a wall against Communism, but they evolved into a threat to humanity. The wall grew legs and began to run; then it spread its wings and took off into the air, and in the moment when it became a danger and a terror to its creators, in which tragedy overstepped every mark and smoke ascended from the crown of New York, what they thought of was a new wall.
For more than twelve years the Taliban massacred the Afghan and Pakistani people, yet no one came to those peoples’ aid. Only when a spark from this conflagration leaped across into its own house did the West take matters in hand. The Taliban deployed against it, and once again the familiar situation was played out: the building of a wall.
Out of fear of the Taliban and under the pretext of September 11th a wall of fire arose. But let us not deceive ourselves: in reality this was a wall of flesh and blood and highly charged emotions. This time, American and European soldiers served as a wall against the Taliban. What we have there now is the theatre of a misguided war that, ten years on, still offers no hope that the old walls will be torn down. Afghan souls quake whenever the West talks about withdrawing its troops. For years their lives have been in the hands of American and European soldiers; they have been unable to take the reins themselves in the fight against blind attacks by the old walls.
For eight years the Iran-Iraq War wore both peoples out; it wounded and exhausted them. For years the Middle East was just a dusty storage room. But when the West sensed the looming danger from Saddam Hussein it was, once again, a wall that came to mind. And once again a wall appeared, a wall of flesh and blood and emotion. Thousands of soldiers perished in a swamp of war, blood and terror. The Iraqis fought the Iranian regime for years and both sides tried to flaunt their power without ever achieving a desirable result. If walls were the answer, why then were walls and borders abolished in Europe? After years of work and striving for democracy, Europe has learned that borders and walls beget nothing but distance and alienation, and that the peaceful and respectful coexistence of cultures frees society from monotony and stagnation. Furthermore, mutual respect among neighbours encourages the people to have invaluable trust in one another.
The war is passed on to the next generation
Yet for years now the Middle East has been handed an old prescription, because there is still a market there for wall-building. What, incidentally, is the aim of the walls and wars? Are they fighting for peace? Is war, then, the best and most obvious route to peace? Do you know of a war that cleared a path for peace?
The Balkan War was a perfect mirror of everything concerning war and peace. Those who had impaled people during the First World War had not reckoned that one day their own children and grandchildren would suffer the same fate. One could almost suppose that this generation had told its children about the atrocities so many times that, later, these children had no option but to imitate their forebears.
We are making a mistake if we believe that wars will ultimately result in peace. Besides murder, destruction and darkness, wars always also bring walls with them. The consequences of the Balkan wars can be seen in the many walls between people and in the eternal hostilities that hardened their hearts. And so they were divided into two camps: the camp of the conquered, and the camp of the conquerors.
The Iran-Iraq War has been over for many years, and with it the fire has been extinguished. However, many things from this war are still alive and immanent in the memories of both countries: thousands and thousands of victims and thousands and thousands of invalids, economic damage and deficit, limitless destruction and permanent enmity. And just as firmly anchored in memory are the countries that supported both sides by supplying them with chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. These memories cannot be erased from people’s minds. A new phenomenon of this war was that the leaders of both regimes glorified the war and sanctified it. Never before had I heard of or read about such a war being glorified in such a way. Ayatollah Khomeini used to say: ‘The war is a gift.’ But was it really a gift that we are now denied permission to publish our works of art? Only because we are tired of war? Twenty years have passed, and still our work cannot be published. You would think that artists were chosen solely in order to bang the drum of war.
The documentary film Ultra-Zionism shows how children are trained for war from a very early age. You see hostilities and the desire for revenge being instilled into them. There, on that land, the very stones seem to have been created only for Palestinian children to throw at the cars of Jews, and bullets only to be fired at Palestinian children.
Confronted with danger and fear, the West benevolently and foolishly places bombs, weapons of war and soldiers at people’s disposal, but unfortunately it has never once tried backing the power of art and the cultural potential of these countries.
I have lived in Germany for fifteen years and can testify each day anew that the German state always cringes with fear whenever the subject of financial support for the arts is raised. Yet this very state sends soldiers and weapons to the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. Why? So that, on the one hand, its weapons will find their way onto the stalls in the bazaars? Or perhaps so that, on the other, it can build roads and bridges in these countries once the war is over?
Books instead of bombs
If the US had dropped books, films and music onto Afghanistan for twelve years instead of bombs, it would today already be in a position to harvest the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. And if Iran had devoted itself to cultural endeavour for the past thirty years instead of clinging to the atom bomb and nuclear power, the whole of the Middle East, and thus part of the world, would today be under its wing. Instead, it has fearfully taken refuge behind nuclear power and erected a wall to try and overcome this fear. Yet the wall is already starting to do its damage.
Experience has shown that wherever there is fear, the scenario of wall-building follows close on its heels. Experience also shows us that the logic of war and aggression leads only to war and aggression. Terror leads to terror, whether it be the terror of an Afghan child, or the terror of a Palestinian family, or the terror in the London Underground. What difference does it make? A small number of people want to use this logic of the moment to render life intolerable, but we must not answer them in the same language. We should plant trees wherever we can. The world is thirsty for cultural and artistic action. And art is the only cure for this apparently incurable disease.
was born in Tehran in 1957. He became well-known in the West for his book Symphony of the Dead. Following political persecution in his homeland he came to Germany, where he has lived in exile since 1996. He runs an Iranian cultural centre in Berlin.
Translated by Charlotte Collins