June 20, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
From the perspective of a chil, Aria Minu-Sepehr's We Heard the Heavens Then: A Memoir of Iran astutely recalls Iran before, during, and after its revolution.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Written with the honesty and humor representative of childhood mixed with the longing and acceptance of an adult separated from his homeland, this memoir offers an insider’s perspective on a country and a people that often remains a mystery to Western people. "
Hook Me Up a New Revolution
A Playlist for We Heard the Heavens Then: A Memoir of Iran
We Heard the Heavens Then, my memoir, takes us back to the 1970s, to Iran, to the explosive clash between modernity and tradition. Fifty years of breakneck change had brought the country to a defining moment: how to make sense of hippies, miniskirts, women paratroopers, and gay marriage? Was anything left of our past? My fighter-pilot father embodied the new. He commanded a high-tech base, held immense faith in human potential, and credited modernity with running water, paved streets, hospitals, public schools, and all the other mundane features of a twentieth-century life. On the other side were skeptical traditionalists who saw nothing but "Westoxication." We were infatuated with the West, they said; enslaved by America's cultural, political, and economic influence. It wasn't just that we could make a slight correction: our hippies were the hairiest; our miniskirts were the shortest around. No, we either had to accept what was happening or throw out the baby with the bathwater. My soundtrack tries to capture this tension, the eventual collision, and the tragic fallout.
All the faith in the new couldn't erase a certain feeling in the air that maybe modernity wasn't all it was cut out to be. Ironically, the most biting critique of the West came from the West. When it was released, "Hotel California" was a huge hit in Iran and primarily among the very class that harbored the greatest sympathy for America. It seemed The Eagles weren't shedding light simply on a diseased California experience, but on America as a whole. The song held a mirror up to the "Tiffany-twisted," the ones with the "Mercedes bends," and instilled the sobering doubt that America "could be Heaven or it could be Hell." But was there hope? Well, after all, "we were all just prisoners here, of our own device." For the Iranian revolution to have gained enough momentum to topple the king and modernity altogether, faith in the West would have to be weakened first. To this end, "Hotel California" was indispensible.
If you experienced the 70s, you'll remember saying "man" a lot. Or maybe it's the bellbottoms and floppy collars that come to mind. Brown was never so in. All of this had a corollary in Iran as well, but there was more. Because the West was purely imported and no one really had any idea what the real 1970s looked like in America, many other goofy things were taken as true zeitgebers when in fact they hardly blipped in discoland. Swedish Abba was as strangely popular in America as it was in the heart of the Middle East, but West German Boney M. roamed in American marginalia at a time when it was a sensation in Iran. And what a shame, "Ma Baker" and "Daddy Cool" were classics, especially when you thought you were being yeah, man straight from America when you sang, "This is the story of Ma Baker, the meanest cat from old Chicago town"—in a German accent!
This is not to say we were so hopelessly lost as to not recognize that infernal divide in America that demarcated the Barry Manilow camp from the Neil Diamond stronghold. If you blared "Mandy" from your eight-track or grooved to "Copacabana" you were into theatrics. You were fond of Vegas and the cancan and were hip to the disco scene in Cannes. Instead, "Solitary Man" put you in Texas, on a dusty lone road in a Cadillac. If you were ten like me, you watered down your Pepsi to a whiskey amber and pretended to suffer love on the rocks. You would grimace with each awful sip, look up at your villager nanny, and say, "Cracklin' rose, you're a store bought woman," and neither you nor she would have any idea what that meant, just like no one in America had any idea what Neil sometimes said.
There is a certain hip gyration particular to Persians. Elvis tried it, but his was too low; it got into his knees. The Persian version is localized in the hips. It's subtle, somewhat circular, and for the uninitiated it's shockingly suggestive. We call it gherr, and contrary to what you might think, the routine is not limited to the shapely gender. Our women and men have the wherewithal to put their chiseled roles on hold for this singular national talent. Anything can set it off: Prince's "Kiss" is supremely gherr worthy; Franz Ferdinand's "No You Girls" has the requisite sultry playfulness; and the one that unfailingly stirs the Persian in me, gets me to do embarrassing things in the kitchen is "Pa' Bailar" by Bajofondo. I don't understand a single word of it, but somehow I feel I've known the song all my life.
Much of my memoir is told from the perspective of a boy who had an extraordinary relationship with his air force general father. I'd just turned ten, and he'd given me my first stereo. It was a flat thing that hovered waist high on a slender pedestal. Lift its smoke Lucite cover and you could see a record player on the left, a tape deck on the right, and a panel of dials in the middle. Saturday Night Fever, the album, was all the rage and my first ever vinyl. My first crush was raging on too, but I'd yet to say two words to the girl of my dreams. Instead, I imagined singing to her. I slid the big disc out of its paper sleeve, carefully placed it on the turntable, and skipped right to "How Deep Is Your Love." "You're the light in my deepest, darkest hour" rekindled a lost marble match at recess, but "we belong to you and me" was plucked straight from my heart. Was it too soon to get married? I contemplated asking my father, and I knew he'd give it some serious thought.
The revolution came out of nowhere and ignited the whole nation. Millions of people poured out onto the streets—rich and poor, Western and traditional, urban and rural—and shouted buzzwords like resistance, brotherhood, martyrdom. It didn't really matter that no two utopias looked the same; they screamed and shouted till they brought the house down. "Killing in the Name" by Rage Against the Machine has always captured the visceral call of that revolution for me. Pump enough energy into a movement (or song), and it starts a chain reaction. By the end of the song, I imagine myself standing on my street. My neighbors have also emerged, and we clump up and head downtown. By the time we get there half the city is in tow and we're roaring, surging rhythmically, "F you, I won't do what you tell me. F you, I won't do what you tell me…" "What the hell is going on?" a newcomer asks. "Who knows?" I say, "Get in."
The romance of revolution ended quickly. In the first few months, half of my father's colleagues were killed and pictured in the paper with bullet holes. It was only a matter of time before they'd come for him, too, but he wasn't the hiding kind. He kept a loaded revolver in his chest of drawers, and it was as plain as day for me that he would never accept being tied up and taken. I was finishing fifth grade, and everyday, on the way back home, I imagined returning to a bloodbath. What then? How would I carry on? In Tehran, in the department store down the street from us, Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" played nonstop. One day I woke up to the lyrics. This was no love song; it was about the anger I felt toward the hero who couldn't stay alive: "weren't you the one who tried to hurt me with goodbye? Did you think I'd crumble? Did you think I'd lay down and die?" In turn, the song opened my eyes to the idea that survival meant betrayal: "I'm not that chained up little person still in love with you, I've got all my life to live, I've got all my love to give, I'll survive, I will survive (hey, hey)." Welcome to the world of adult emotional complexity.
Granted, I never used to rule the world, not even the playground, but through my family I experienced a fall that is at the heart of Coldplay's "Viva la Vida." Take out the Roman Cavalry choirs, and Chris Martin's could be the voice of any number of deplumed Iranians once flying high on the grandiose promise of modernity, now "sweeping the streets [they] used to own." The lyrics resonate deeply. On the eve of the revolution, a mob swarmed our house, threatening to burn us down—"one minute I held the key, next the walls were closed on me"—and as my social class soon discovered, our "castles stood among pillars of salt and pillars of sand." The song is a chilling reminder for anyone who has ended up on the wrong side of a revolution. But it's also a hidden anthem: up or down, revolution or no revolution, be who you are. Viva la vida, live your life.
I'll end my soundtrack with the Foo Fighters score "Learning to Fly." Back in the timespan covered in my memoir, my father's favorite mode of transport was a Beechcraft Bonanza. Evidently, what he liked even more than flying was flying and sleeping. With tight instructions on the heading and altitude, he would start to snore as soon as we got off the ground, leaving the controls to me. It was a prescient lesson: there were massive challenges to rise up to in just the next few years. In retrospect, the three decades that followed the revolution feel like an interminable traffic pattern. What "Learning to Fly" represents for me is a restlessness with the way it turned out, a pining for that life I knew as a child in which we imagined huge advances and delved right in. "Hook me up a new revolution ‘cause this one is a lie… Lookin' for somethin' to help me burn out bright." Here's to the next revolution.
Aria Minu-Sepehr and We Heard the Heavens Then: A Memoir of Iran links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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