Letter From Tehran: On the Pain of Others, Once Again

24 October, 2022

Sara Mokhavat

Translated from the Persian by Salar Abdoh


I’m 37 years old. From my late teens-early 20s, I’ve mostly known an endless scuffle with a regime that won’t leave me in peace. It’s been 40 odd years of various states of emergency in this country. We came of age during crises, we fell in love during crises, we went to work during crises and we lost our jobs during crises. And each time they expected us to put up and shut up.

Lately, though, the crises have gotten worse and they come more and more frequently. There’s hardly enough time to get up in the morning, look at yourself in the mirror, take a breath, and try to fathom the source of those bloodshot eyes before some new emergency is hurled your way.

Apparently, the world has heard our voice this time around. At least that’s what we’re told. We ourselves are too exhausted, too anxious, to sift the truth from the propaganda. In other countries they are now repeating our refrain from the streets of Iran: Woman, Life, Freedom. This naturally makes us happy. At least for a few minutes it does. Then again, the world is always advertising itself, isn’t it? I believe that in English they call it offering a gesture or some kind of a statement – the one-upmanship of the haves of this earth in their postures of sympathy with a victim, or victims of the same planet whose heart-rending videos happen to have gone viral.

Lately, for instance, a lot of celebrities seem to want to post stories about our protests. I happened to see a video of several well-known French actresses cutting bits and pieces of their hair to demonstrate their sympathy for the women of Iran. In one video Juliette Binoche — who is especially beloved by Iranians because she’s worked with the late great Iranian filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami — cuts off a piece of her hair, holds it up to the camera, and declares, “For freedom.” She is smiling and there is something sweetly mischievous in that smile of hers. Other actresses follow — Marion Cotillard, Isabelle Adjani, Isabelle Huppert ….

I swallow the lump in my throat as I watch all of this. I laugh uneasily. The first thought that comes to my mind is, I wish I had these ladies’ lives.

With my friend Elham, we watch the avalanche of videos again and again and we are laughing together now. Elham says, “How happy they seem. How satisfied.” After a pause she adds, “I despise how complicated our lives are compared to theirs.”

“They look so free, don’t they? So cheerful. Go ahead, ladies. Go ahead and cut off a bit of your precious hair for the women of Iran.”

I wish I could be thankful. Instead, these days more than ever, I think about the divide between us and them. A divide that isn’t really measurable. Somehow there is perfection to every display that they grace the world with. Ours on the other hand (here in Tehran and the rest of the cities of this ill-fated geography) is out of focus, muffled, and inundated by the background noise of everything that is bound to crush us. I would like to call Juliette Binoche on the phone and say to her, “You are not going to heal our broken bones with a few strands of your hair. It is not possible.”

I really do want to be more appreciative of these sympathetic gestures, however. But what good is sympathy to me when the times make it so easy to witness pain from a safe distance and on online? How do I respond to compassion when it is too much about some famous actress in Paris or Los Angeles rather than about young women, girls really, thrown to the dogs in the streets and alleyways of the Middle East?

My own empathy therefore escapes me at my worst moments and I imagine the mornings of many of these perfect ladies going something like this: Darling, bring your cellphone and let me cut some hair for the sake of the women of Iran. Can you believe it? They killed a 22-year-old girl because of her hijab. How I hate these fascists! Anyways, what’s new with you? Did you and that piece of garbage film director make an agreement at last? And these almond croissants today, aren’t they devilishly good?

I want to scream like many have screamed before me: I am George Floyd, that black man that men in uniform killed in America. It may sound too easy, but there it is: I am George Floyd and I am dying under a four-decade-and-counting chokehold, telling the world that I cannot breathe.

And what does the world do? It makes a hashtag for me before moving on:

Dear Sara, we honor your courage. Hang in there. You’re strong. During our morning jogs and when we are at the gym and when we are on vacation with our lovers, we do remember you. Honestly, we do. We remember that it’s been days and months and years that your neck was pinned under somebody’s boots and you couldn’t breathe. Poor you! Unbelievable, your endurance. Your courage. You may be a punching bag, but you sure can take a lot of hits. Bravo!

Last time one of us was walking by you, you were giving us a different look though. It felt as if you wanted us to cross the street and give a shove to the guy who was strangling you. You wanted us to scream at him and punch him hard. But … my dear, you know that this is simply impossible. Truth be told, your pain is not our pain and we’re kind of busy, you know. But we’re glad to do another hashtag for you, how’s that? Hopefully one day they’ll let go of your neck too. We look forward to that day and we send you many kisses. We kiss your bruised neck, and your bruised back, and your bruised life. And, yes, we may cut off a bit more hair for the sake of the cameras so you won’t feel totally alone.


Sara Mokhavat studied Film at the University of Art in Tehran. Her novel, The Woman Who was Found at the Lost & Found, was published in 2016 in Iran. She also wrote and directed the play, Goodbye My Cherry Orchard, and her short film, Private, was shown at the 57th Chicago Film Festival. Currently she’s working on a book regarding the Iran-Iraq war.

Abbas KiarostamihairIranJuliette BinochemullahsTehranWoman Life Freedom

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