The Father of a Revolution
A short story about how to measure yourself.
It’s February 1979, exactly 35 years before someone writes a memoir about your decisions today.
You’re still youthful, save a couple of white hairs you trim in secret. In your small office, you turn on the light and it embraces the room. Its power source is a dam that you built early in your career. The room is full of large engineering blueprints that you’ve hand-drawn over the years. You sit at the table and open your suitcase. It’s emergency cash; savings from the company’s last project that you keep on hand for payroll and expenses. You’re my age as I’m writing these words. And the emergency lurks behind the doors.
You’re inside your own house. One in which you’ve lived and been respected by the community around for years. But there are now mobs of armed people roaming the streets outside. You know some of them. Your friendly disagreements with them for many of the recent years are fresh in your mind; but in a sea of zealous ideologies, boring pragmatism is no longer good for impatient ears. You could as well be full of hope and joy; others are. But you know better. You helped rebuild this country from the ashes of its former glory. And now, once more, it’s burning itself down to ruins and tearing its children apart.
You’re a civil engineer; the first engineer in your family. And you happen to be the CEO of a large capitalist corporation in one of the richest countries in the world, at the exact moment in history when it decides to shake off all of its international relations in an act of independence from superpower hegemony.
Revolution is brewing right on your front door.
Past success will be seen, in the popular black and white colors these days, as supportive of past status quo. And you no longer belong in the country you helped build, and call home. You have a wife -- no kids -- and relatives you care about. Your friends and partners have already fled the country at the first signs of instability months ago. They weren’t sure whether communism is coming or theocracy. But they were sure, unlike the uneducated masses, that capitalism is going to be witch-hunted.
The progressive monarch of the country, the Shah of Iran, left the scene on a plane with goodbyes, tears and rumors of cancer. This was just three weeks ago. Law and order left with him. You are surrounded by absolute chaos, dressed up in the utmost black and white glory of a human ocean. You’re in the middle of one of the epochal events of the twentieth century, and your good deeds will not go unpunished. You look at the suitcase one more time. Depending on the way the chips fall, this may be your last and only hope.
In this coming avalanche, which snowflake do you trust to act responsibly?
The black and white world was not forged today. If I’m being honest, I blame the Great Depression of the 1930s. And how becoming, it is of these words, to stumble upon that historic event. Because I owe the inspiration behind writing them to a bout of personal depression not two decades ago. It forced me to seek introspection and formulate lessons from half a life spent in fear. Memorize "False Dilemma" as lesson #1! But what transformation can be conferred in a single phrase? Let’s take yet another walk down the memory lane. Can you remember these past cognitively distorted decades?
When you sat me down and taught me history, it always began with the glories of a defiant world at war: the battleships, carriers and warplanes; the courage of Charles du Gaulle to stand in the face of tyranny and walk the ruins of his homeland, in the same way you would walk the ruins of Persepolis and curse Alexander the Great who set them on fire. You’d think of Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill’s strategy meeting in the Tehran Conference of 1943 and The Big Three’s signed protocol in recognition of Iran’s independence. 'What a shrewd meeting!’ you’d exclaim. "It takes great men to turn the wheels of the world" — left as the blank to be filled in that sentence, was always, who arranged that meeting and forced their hands on the extra protocol. You were an underdog who liked other underdogs, and wanted me to become one.
Though in all of our lessons together, you never actually mentioned the Great Depression; perhaps because it happened a decade before you were born. But I researched it for you. I had to. If my own introspections in a decade of solitude hadn’t led me there, my 2008 visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps would. That’s where I finally found myself.
I walked into the gas chambers, sat on the ground and talked to the spirit sitting next to me. I saw the brick walls and the ironic “work shall set you free” writing on the gate. I walked down the short pathway of the firing squad. I walked to the end of it, stood against the wall and closed my eyes, and counted. Three. Two. Fire!
This place, with all its green grass and brown bricks painting a black and white image of the lives of its former residents, felt like the fate I was warned of and raised to endure: A black and white world; A world full of fear and misguided men; A fear that was born when men found themselves in uncontrollable circumstances; And men who would rather hear what would please them, otherwise who knows which god’s “will" their next transportation train was destined to serve.
When I walked down Auschwitz, I finally found the fate from which I’ve always been trained to escape.
Did I mention that I eventually made it to the Acropolis in Athens? What a beautiful place. It must have been even more glorious in the Hellenic world of 500 BC, before it was burned by the Persians. This in theory led to the burning down of the Persepolis. So if I’m being completely honest, maybe I should blame the Greco-Persian Wars ending in 449 BC for the black and white world that we live in today. Though the burning of the Acropolis, itself, was revenge for the burning of the 7th century BC Persian city of Sardis by the Athenians. It seems like history is full of misguided men who don’t learn that burning the colorful world into black and white ashes will not restore the color to the pale of their revengeful hearts.
You never told me that economists still to this day are analyzing the Great Depression and don’t fully understand its causes. But it led to whole societies and countries defaulting on their obligations and resorting to war to settle the score. It led to a world where one had to take sides with black or white, or be trampled on by both. Your great men and mighty armies lived in a treacherous world, where even Huckleberry Finn couldn’t figure out who started the feud.
The Germans after the depression and previous battles got the short end of the stick and headed for a default. They elected a madman to deliver the news. His black and white life of fears led to an All or Nothing (Us vs. Them) view of the world. The fascists wanted to be the new black in this monochromic reality. The communists couldn’t stand for that, and soon the democrats and liberals followed suit. But what does all this have to do with your moment in 1979 and my thoughts in 2014?
When WWII was over, two of the three colors, Capitalism and Communism, had defeated the third color, Fascism. In the fearful minds of men from both sides, there could only be one color. So we all put on smiles in public while drawing borders, walls, and plans for more wars, in hiding. The borders were sensitive. The walls were concrete. And the plans for war required resources.
I don’t blame you for not knowing this history, although I learned most of my history from you. You listened to the Korean War of 1950 on AM radio between the North and the South. You watched the Vietnam War in 1956 on black and white television between its North and South; and marveled both at the American might and the Vietnamese resilience. You read the news about the Berlin Wall in 1961 in a black and white newspaper and admired the power of Khrushchev with the same level of awe as the proud speech of Kennedy in 1963 to protect the West against the East.
As you’re sitting now in your 1979 office in Tehran, you don’t know about the movie Apocalypse Now, displaying the atrocities that you admired about this fearful and black and white world. The avalanche outside your door is made of people angry at the dictator (Shah) re-installed by the United States and the West as a strongman against the spread of communism from the Soviet north. 1951 was the year Iran elected democracy. It wasn’t a good year to want democracy, as the UK needed its oil resources and the US needed its strongman. So in a 1953 CIA coup, the US overthrew democracy and brought back a progressive visionary that our people had accepted for decades, under force. Things were never going to be the same again. The black and white world had reached our colorful and neutral home.
And as you sit here and then stand there in your office, you wonder which color will tear the gates of your house down first, and how will that color judge yours.
The revolution succeeds outside your door. Weeks go by. You watch as the peaceful protesters of weeks ago disappear and armed men on motorbikes with automatic guns roam the city, chanting theocratic slogans. The very liberty-seeking voices that brought on the revolution are now quiet. A dark cloud hangs in the air, as fear and terror conquers the city. Page after page in daily newspapers are full of thumbnails of hundreds of men, executed for the sin of having lived well under the previous regime. The turban-wearing black and white god of revenge is sitting on the seat of power and purifying his world.
You are utterly alone. There are no clear paths to survival.
One morning, conquered by the insanity of survival mode, you dress yourself well and grab the emergency suitcase. You put on a smile and ask your wife to follow you to the airport, as "you’re expecting a guest". Oblivious, she follows. At the airport, surrounded by self-appointed and armed revolutionary guards, you ask her to follow your every action with a 10 second delay. With full confidence of a businessman-in-suit, which is not yet forced out of the culture’s consciousness, and a steely serious face, you walk across every armed person. As if you are sent there on the authority of the new government to inspect their actions. Suitcase in hand, you walk past the last line of security and board the plane. Your wife follows. The curtains close. A few hours later, you’re in Germany, West Berlin to be exact, and greeted by your business partner.
Six months go by. It’s late Summer of 1979 in Berlin. You have no personal or social identity. Your wife cries everyday, missing her parents. The fervor of the revolution has subsided. You have nothing meaningful left in life under your name, save relatives that you’ve left behind, in a culture that relatives and not society are the backbone of your moral support. On a final visit in Fall 1979 to Switzerland, you decide to settle down and have a child. With the child conceived and no purpose in life but to live quietly past your prime days in your own home and among your own kind, you return to your country. The grass back home looks greener from the “outside world”, when your whole world is black and white.
A few weeks after your return, in the same Fall that your child is conceived, a few half-wit revolution-minded students independently invade the United States embassy in the same city you live in, and take all the personnel hostage. They do so in a violent act of revenge against the US-backed coup d’etat that overthrew their democracy 26 years earlier, and demand that the US return their dictator. The interim government at first distances itself from the students, but in reaction to their lack of leverage with the US on multiple fronts, make a 180 degree diplomatic shift and take credit for the spontaneous act, leading to the 444 day “Iran Hostage Crisis”. 33 years later, Ben Affleck directs a movie about these events called “Argo”. But you don’t know anything about Argo. In fact, Ben Affleck is only seven years old right now. This is October 1979.
A few months later, they finally “find" you.
One of those dark days when you’re sitting in your room, you hear a knock on your door. You knew a street beggar well. Perhaps you helped him once or twice. He is now appointed to the treasury. He knows a former pimp really well, who is now conducting the “Friday prayers” and leading the masses. The beggar tells the pimp about your past economic success. The pimp tells a few thugs. And the thugs are at the door, in personal clothes, with guns and handcuffs.
Hours later, you’re attached, limbs and all, to a tractor that used to provide your employees with a living. You have 10 minutes to contemplate your fate or be executed. You have a wife, a child on the way and a lifetime of savings. You confess your “sins” on a piece of paper, signing away your lifetime of savings. You buy your freedom by parting with the fruits of your labor in youth, and walk away. You get home with a new identity. You are now dirt poor, and you’re soon a father.
Waves of angst and wrath take a toll on you everyday as you contemplate your fate and the fate of your newborn. The suitcase from the airport incident is the last thing standing between today and absolute social abandonment and starvation.
That's not all that the black and white world had in store for you.
The United States government, after a failed hostage rescue attempt, starts a close relationship with Saddam Hussein and arms him with enough weapons to feel courageous against Iran, then the fifth most powerful military in the world. To the uneducated majority around you, Uncle Sam is some individual asshole sitting somewhere far beyond the oceans who took their elected leader away 26 years ago and tortured their youth under coup-based dictatorship ever since. To you, it’s the superpower in charge of the black and white world. You know what’s coming. War is brewing. War. There is no substitute word for describing the magnitude of the destruction that's about to happen.
That Spring in 1980, your son is born in the house that you built.
That Summer of 1980, the Shah of Iran, dies with cancer in a Cairo, Egypt safe-house. The US, his “puppet master”, loses its leverage in the hostage crisis. The Iranian revolutionary government succeeds in punishing President Carter for giving the Shah a safe-house, by costing him the US election. Republican Ronald Reagan succeeds Carter. Reagan sends Donald Rumsfeld to Iraq to meet Saddam Hussein in 1983. Rumsfeld and Saddam shake hands, as you’re holding your three year old in your arms and watching TV in black and white.
You decide, in that moment, to just survive.
There’s another six years left for Reagan to compel Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall on color television. But right now, in black and white, he’s funding Rumsfeld to fund Saddam to turn Iran, the former US ally, into a pile of manure fortifying its position against the Soviet expansion. A million people are about to lose their lives in your country. And you have a son in your arms.
To survive, you finally decide to consciously look at the world in black and white colors. You decide that there are no intelligent and pragmatic ears in the world. There are only those who voted “Yes” and those who voted “No” in this fervor where only one choice was given. And according to the media, 99% said “Yes" to it. You decide that people are either saints or corrupt. Why bother with the shades in between? The pages in the “executed” section of the newspaper are full of them.
And thus it was that, you, my father, learned to look at the world from behind a lens of distorted All or Nothing Thinking.
You endured watching a million of your countrymen walk to their own demise in a country you helped build, under the uncertainty for our next meal. You stayed the course for another 17 years, never seizing to offer bitter and cynical laughter to corrupt theocratic pretenses, and gentle support to any young man who wanted to make something of himself. You never -- and I say Never, with the same conviction of an All-or-Nothing Thinker -- never worked with others in your new world, even to make ends meet. All this, in front of your children. And when the time came for you to assume a new identity again, after years of struggling for one, you simply embraced the word “baba” (“Dad”)
The prisoner's dilemma is that he has to cooperate with other prisoners, for the optimal outcome, as long as their term is indefinite. I suppose you never bought the indefinite terms of your taken-away liberty. To you, the prison of the black-and-white world was an inconvenient mistake on someone else's part. You picked us up, despite all the difficulties of old age, and moved us to Canada: to see us educated and empowered in a colorful world. Education! The same antidote, which, had it existed in more abundance during the transition of your society, would have achieved wonders (as it finally started to, 30 years later with the next generation of people in 2009)
You, my industrious father who once kneeled and sighed before the atrocities of time, taught me how to stay hungry when comfortable, and decide with the conviction of clear choices in chaos. Shoot, Aim, Ready: you taught me to live by that, or stay behind as chaos would take over.
You've lived an anxious, worried and distorted reality. But that’s alright. I forgive all the passionate and angry rhetorics and uncontrollable out-lashes of emotion. "If you wish to experience peace, provide peace for another”, said a Dalai Lama. And you did that for your family. And for me.
Today, I embrace fear. I seek it willingly. I walk away from comfort and seek avenues to create peace and livelihood for another generation. That’s your gift to the world, not mine. I write this rather simplistic memoir as tribute to a life of complex ironies, just to prove to you one thing in return for all the things that you have proven to me:
No matter how convinced you are of thinking that you have nothing to show for your life of industry, for once, I disagree with you in all color.
With sincere love,
Your Son representing 35 years of your decisions
February 2014, San Francisco, California
Amin Ariana is a software entrepreneur in San Francisco.
Readers shared their thoughts on this essay:
Giridhar Raju N M
Incredible to be a human, to be alive, when everything around you is a mob.
Giridhar, I'm writing these scenes from the past because I've learned that they repeat. On the chess board of life, Bishop takes King and lives in his Castle. The Liberator calls the opponent "Great Satan", and to defeat him, becomes Great Satan. And fear stands in the way of music. I've lived long enough to see a generation of millions destroyed in war and forgotten. And now I live in Silicon Valley, where the same fear, of unfairness and financial inequality, gives rise to new Kings. Humanity is a theatrical play on immortal repeat; we live only to watch.
Giridhar Raju N M
Good morning Amin,
Reading your essay, I could relate to so many instances of mob frenzy in my own country in the recent past and it pains me to no bounds to see how people can use people against people and I don't mean strangers, I mean the ones in the same community, growing up together. Yet I so wished that the above was not true :( and often times letting me think irrespective of all the science and technology we have, we might still be slaves to our primate urges of power, control and greed. Year after year, one place after the other, for any motivation conceivable, people have twisted facts, either due their own lack of understanding or to mislead the mob and then used the raw, raging, heard instincts within that to get rid of opponents. As Ayn Rand would have said, the crowds are so afraid of breakout thinkers. I put my faith in universal education and empowerment.
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