Guest post: Saïd Sayrafiezadeh on Iran, Michael Jackson, and his father
By far the most compelling moment for me during the Michael Jackson memorial service, of which I watched every minute, was when Reverend Al Sharpton, addressing Michael’s three little children directly, declared for all the world to hear, “Wasn’t nothing strange about your daddy.” This, of course, despite all evidence to the contrary. The sustained ovation that followed, however, suggested he was not alone in his judgment.
Frankly, I was appalled. Had I been at the Staples Center I can assure you I would have remained seated. Such an egregious statement by Sharpton, so willfully dismissive of reality, is no doubt a measure of how easy it is for people to succumb to blindness. In the case of the thousands applauding it is collective blindness. I could well argue that this is the necessary first step towards the wholesale rewriting of history. Or perhaps it’s the first step after. Either way, it’s a cause for concern.
But sitting on my couch in New York City, I was also desirous of Sharpton’s pronouncement, and his avuncular concern for those three children in the front row. I could have certainly benefited from similar words when I was a child. (I probably could still benefit.) My father was someone who, like Michael Jackson, was always on the precipice of being considered strange. He was a communist for one thing. He was also Iranian. Moreover, he left my mother and me when I was a baby. So in some ways he managed to be the complete embodiment of the concept of strange: unusual, unfamiliar, foreign.
Since he was my father, though, I chose to believe that he was normal. Or actually beyond normal, i.e., extraordinary. This was not easy for me to do. Especially growing up in Pittsburgh where everything tends toward homogeneity. For obvious reasons I fell into the habit as a child of equating my father with Iran. In fact, the two were interchangeable. This might have proven beneficial for me if my father had been from some other country like, say, Peru or Iceland, or for that matter any other country in the world—with the possible exception of Russia. But since there has been almost nothing but abhorrence towards Iran for the last three decades, with much of that abhorrence informed by xenophobia (see the Iran hostage crisis), I have lived a somewhat antagonized existence where any criticism of Iran has always been perceived as criticism of my father.
This is far from rational, of course. After all, even comments about Ayatollah Khomeini, who imprisoned my father in 1982, have made me bristle. As do comments about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who, more often than not, appears to be saying something wincingly absurd, like there are no homosexuals living in Iran. Despite disagreeing, I feel an obligation to defend him. Which brings me to the recent protests in Iran over the disputed election and how most friends of mine, understandably, thought that I would be enthusiastic. I was enthusiastic for the first day or two. But then American condemnation began to overwhelm all else. And so did the cartoons of Iranian officials with bulbous noses and bushy eyebrows behaving either like sadists or idiots. All of it so simplistic and sanctimonious, and all of it coming to a head for me when Obama issued his delayed but celebrated statement in which he quoted Martin Luther King, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I spent days fuming about how it was an uninformed analogy at best, considering that Dr. King was fighting for civil rights around the same time the United States was overthrowing the democratically-elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh. In short, I’ve wanted to run through the streets for the last month screaming, “Don’t say anything bad about the clerics! Don’t say anything bad about Iran!” (Herewith an example of my own wish for blindness.)
Just a few days ago, with news of both the election and Michael Jackson thankfully beginning to fade away, I happened to be sitting with a group friends at a restaurant in the West Village. Midway through our meal “Billie Jean” came on the stereo and all of us immediately took up the subject of Michael Jackson once again, reminiscing fondly about Off the Wall and Thriller and how we had all tried and failed at moonwalking… There were six of us at the table on that Saturday afternoon, one of whom was black, and at some point in the conversation I remarked on how Jackson’s life should ultimately be regarded as an obvious and unmitigated tragedy. “Look at his face,” I said, “that tells the story.” Yes, yes, yes, everyone agreed, look at his face!
Everyone, that is, except for the lone black woman sitting with us.
“Michael,” she spoke up, “was a man who knew who he was.”
“Knew who he was?” someone said in disbelief. “He had no idea who he was.”
I could see my black friend’s mouth tense, her posture go rigid. Wasn’t nothing strange about your daddy! How could she ever begin to explain to us what was unexplainable?
So I did for her what I’ve always wanted done for me: I changed the subject.
Saïd Sayrafiezadeh is the author, most recently, of the critically acclaimed memoir When Skateboards Will Be Free, which Dwight Garner in The New York Times called “exacting and finely made… [written] with extraordinary power and restraint.” Other stories and essays have appeared in The Paris Review, Granta, Open City, and elsewhere. “Being Saïd,” an excerpt from his play “Autobiography of a Terrorist,” appears in PEN America 10: Fear Itself.