PEPSI. Flickr/Mike Mozart. Some rights reserved.In 1979, I was almost seven years old when the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan and my father decided to move the family from Herat, my home town in the west of the country, to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Once we crossed the border, my father unloaded a few household things we had managed to bring in the truck and waited in a long queue for the Iranian border police to search us and let us in. The bearded officers emptied our suitcases and used knives to rip through pillows and mattresses. At this point, my father got angry and shouted at them: “Not even a Jew would do this to a Muslim!”
If those police officers hadn’t pushed my father hard and handcuffed him, what he said probably wouldn’t have stuck in my mind. But children never forget the reason their dads are humiliated before their eyes. My father had to kneel there, beneath the scorching sun with his hands tied behind him, for hours until they decided that he’d learned his lesson and set him free, allowing us to continue our way into a new life in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
It is only fair to mention here that the experience of my father being harassed and restrained at the Iranian border was just the beginning of the discrimination my family and I, like many other Afghan refugees, had to go through. But it is also true that when I was eleven years old and had to leave school in order to work and support my family, an Iranian teacher of mine offered me a part time job in his shop for full time pay, only to help me continue my education while supporting my family. After all, we human beings are not perfect: but neither are we as bad as we may assume.
I loved my school in the city of Mashhad, where we settled for the first few years. I wonder how the kids in Israel start their school every morning, but this is how I began in mine: I happily engaged in a noisy contest of shouting slogans against Israel, the cancer of the earth, the USA, the leader of the world’s expansionists and Saddam Hussein, the Infidel who’d attacked Iran. We also prayed wholeheartedly that God would subtract years from our lives and add to the years that Ayatollah Khomeini would live. In the Religious Education class, our teacher read verses of the Quran, which said Jews are the arch-enemy of Muslims. Those who believe in Allah, said these verses, are not supposed to trust Jews or Christians and must never take them as their friends.
For the next ten years of my life in Iran, I never met a Jew or an Israeli, and yet I was made to believe beyond any doubt that Jews were treacherous and that Israel, the nucleus of all corruption, as Ayatollah Khomeini famously put it, was not supposed to exist in the first place.
And I wasn’t the only one believing in endless conspiracy theories: from the Jews being in control of all the media in the world, to PEPSI being an acronym for Pay Every Penny to Save Israel and more recently, that the Jews knew about 9/11 in advance and those of them working at the World Trade Centre called in sick and didn’t go to work on that day.
It wasn’t until I left Iran at the age of eighteen, that I realised what kind of evil spell I’d been under. Like millions of other teenagers, I had grown up mesmerised by the beliefs perpetuated by the government-owned media, leaving one no choice to think for oneself. It was after I left Iran that I read books banned in Iran due to their so-called blasphemous nature and met people, including Iranians, who thought differently.
I even met Jews finally, when I moved to London in 2003 to work for the BBC World Service as a Journalist. By then I knew that religious and political extremists existed everywhere and that they did not represent the nations (or the religions for that matter) they claimed to represent. But it was reading Etgar’s stories that made realise how for us, the people of the Middle East, including Israelis and Iranians, it is not enough just to be able to distinguish between the people of a country and the policies of its state, which, in the case of the Israel government, just like the Islamic Republic, have had no less a significant role in feeding this vicious circle of spite and resentment.
That’s why spreading Etgar’s words is important in the Middle East and even more so in Iran and Afghanistan. His stories, apart from being creative, are honest and open the door to the lives of ordinary Israeli citizens.
A non-Middle Eastern may find it hard to believe how surprising it is for many readers in our part of the world to know that people in Tel Aviv and Haifa too get worried about being late to work and stress about paying their bills and that not all Israelis support the policies of their government. Strangest of all, even their fear of being bombed by one another is uncannily similar.
What Etgar’s stories remind us is that war is war, no matter where it happens. Of course the bombs and rockets and suicide attackers kill Afghan and Palestinian and Israeli citizens the same way, we may say to ourselves. Of course we all feel brokenhearted and weep over the tragic death of our beloved in the same way. These are simple truths we all think we know. But reading Etgar’s The Seven Good Years and his other stories, I was amazed to realise how the obviousness of these simple facts often get so tainted by political antagonism and conspiracy theories and it is these that pull nations apart and make us forget no one’s blood is darker than the other.
I am not saying that stories can change everything for good, but they humanise our enmities; they let us walk into the lives of those we may think of as our foes, listen to what they have to say and see life through their eyes. And that can help us recognise that what we all have in common is incomparably bigger than the trifling grudges and resentments we hold against one another.
As the Swiss Guy in Etgar’s memoir, The Seven Good Years told him, ‘this world perhaps is full of lizards, and even though there’s nothing we can do about it, it is always helpful to at least find out if they are as big as we think they are.
Aziz Hakimi is the Persian Translator of Etgar Keret’s memoir, “The Seven Good Years”, which will be released on 1 November 2015.