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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 5, No. 1, 2006
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Robert J. Lewis
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Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward




Tehran Metro Map

You’ll see it sometimes on a television news report, and while they usually use the same footage -- angry chanting students, hand-lettered anti-American signs -- the backdrop doesn’t change. Although the brick walls still stand of what once was the American Embassy in Tehran, Iran, the video never quite captures its deep red: burnt cherry, like crayon that stays sharp in the box, too dark for anyone’s taste.

Senses are arbitrarily selective: three decades later, prompted only by a glimpse of the wall on TV, Tehran’s dusty, diesel fumes can still, like a city-sized gas station, pollute and perfume the air in my living room. That wall kept the Iranians out, yes, but Iran still found its way in: calls to prayer shrieked five times a day, an alien cacophony to a nine-year-old’s ears; double-decker buses -- only the top deck appearing to glide by -- peered over the wall’s grey concrete top. Honking taxis above a constant rumble of traffic. Steel cranes whining and turning, accompanied by pounding jackhammers, relentless construction in an ancient city determined by its leader to be made new. Between all that and me the wall stood, an ivy-festooned border.

You’re out there, it decreed. The United States is in here.

Behind the front gate’s black metal bars, guarded by clean-faced young marines, the embassy was figuratively and legally a piece of America, redolent with spies and privilege: an ambassador represented our president. Bell helicopters, thudding over Tehran without respite, represented our industry. Even the embassy’s buildings and streets were American; familiar -- comforting, even -- to me. It was quiet. It was orderly. It looked nothing like the bazaar that was downtown Tehran. The signs were in English, the cars were American. Between the swimming pool and the supermarket were fields, trimmed shrubbery, people who looked like my parents.

People who looked like me.

How easy, then, it was to look at those deep red bricks with relief, as they kept out the dark and scary Iranians, foreign to me in their own country. Strangers whose alien language made as much sense as the barks of the stray dogs who ran in packs near my school, whose mosques and minarets seemed to have fallen from Mars. Whose signs curlicued and lied to me in indecipherable calligraphy. Fear charged with resentment turned a nine-year-old into a budding imperialist. No, I knew that wall kept me safe. I worried about unguarded gates in back, spots where the wall could be bounded, breached. That wall, after all, stood between me and the natives, between Wonder Bread and noon, between American steaks and goat, goat often sacrificed in the streets annually at the Eid.

There were interlopers inside. Iranian drivers and janitors who drank tea the way their ancestors in desert caravansaries did -- dipping sugar cubes in tea and chewing the crunchy, sweetened mess. They were part of the embassy, true, but not of it. The wall for them was something that contained them for a day. They could leave in the evening, but I was there, trapped in Iran, becoming, against the will of a boorish child, gradually steeped in its culture, its history. Iranian politics were real, its politics were lived. While Nixon’s photo was replaced by Ford’s, and later by Carter’s, the oil paintings of Reza Shah Pahlavi, Shahanshah -- King of Kings, His Imperial Highness, remained.

But when the angry new met the entrenched old -- the way two storm fronts meet on the Great Plains, leaving tornadoes and floods in their wake -- and when the Iranians tired of His Imperial Highness, of his secret SAVAK police, of Bell helicopter, of the CIA, of the red brick walls of the embassy itself, and they took to the streets, the world changed for me. Martial law. Gunshot staccato at night. Sleeping under bed frames, listening to no news save what we could pick up on the BBC over short-wave. Revolution. Finally an early-morning 747 evacuation as Iran fell into pieces.

Memories are arbitrary; perspectives change. Thirty years later, I still see the wall -- whether on the television or in my mind’s unsteady photographs -- but it seems to have changed its purpose. No longer is it keeping out the foreign. Now it’s encircling me, holding me among the sheltered, the familiar, all as certain and as secure as my middle-aged gut.

True, I’m looking back through a sentimental haze, of course. Most of us remember childhood wistfully. Who wouldn’t like a second chance? But that wall is still there, taunting me. On its other side is another world, one lost to me, perhaps forever. Another language, an architecture and a people reminiscent of A Thousand and One Nights. Far from condescension, I envy it. I crave signs that can’t be read, an atonal music heard as if hearing song for the first time, a language to which I have to strive to listen, to understand.

People who look nothing like me.

As reports of strife in the Middle East change to another topic on the nightly news, and the video footage shows new hot spots and more important politicians, the wall and its deep red bricks disappear from my television screen. I am comforted. I know that I am safe, I know I am protected from the alien and strange, and, thus reassured, I think about that wall and examine it closely for cracks, chinks -- those gaps through which I once feared the outsiders would invade, and I look for a way out.

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