I’d get up at six a.m. every Saturday, to be at the drugstore by seven. There I could fill my father’s chemotherapy prescription.
My baba died and the AC died with him. It had been the one thing that worked in our house. Each night, drenched in sweat, we lay in bed counting away the hours until morning, intermittently passing out to the buzzing sound of that one hallway fan. Our grief, raw and tender, like a freshly slaughtered lamb, bled even more profusely in the heat, soaking our clothes, the carpet beneath us, the entire house.
My brother visited the superintendent almost daily for updates. He was told that the central air conditioning unit had collapsed: But “ensha-Allah” the system could be repaired, if sufficient resources were allocated. The super let it quietly slip that management had no such resources. Our building maintenance accounts for its monthly costs in USD, since the price of most items, valves, pipes, and knobs, changes with the rate of the dollar. The German packaged central cooling system cost as much as forty times to maintain after the UN Security Council imposed a new round of sanctions on Iran in 2010, with parts available only on the black market. Management thus tried to come up with ineffective alternatives to keep the system running, eventually leading to its collapse altogether, within months of baba’s death, in 2014.
Now four years later, just as in 2010, the economy has been in free fall since the US announced it would be pulling out of the Iran Nuclear Deal, and imposing further sanctions. My brother regularly visits the boiler room, where the building’s central mechanical and electronic equipment are installed. Drops of sweat lining his forehead and his honey brown eyes widening in bewilderment, he reports that the boiler room is in a state of “near emergency”. Since the announcement, the Iranian currency, the Rial, has rapidly depreciated, leaving management few options for purchasing parts. “It’s a miracle that the building doesn’t collapse,” my brother adds. That is what Iran feels like year after year: miraculously standing, surviving in a world in which the obstacles against it are too many, and too costly, to endure.
Our country has lived under sanctions since 1979, the year of the Islamic Revolution. Anti-American sentiment, steeped in resentment at decades of American meddling in Iranian affairs, hardened into permanent animosity between Iran, a former satellite state, and America, a superpower. Iran had become hostile and would not be tolerated. Sanctions, the imposition of an economic embargo, would be the result. At first, Iranian assets in the US were frozen following the US embassy takeover in Tehran. Gradually, sanctions were imposed and intensified, even at times when the relationship between Iran and the US seemed to be on a calmer path and business between them was once again growing: President Bill Clinton suddenly signed Executive Order 12957 prohibiting all US trade with Iran.
If one wonders to what end, Iran’s neighbors are living examples. We children of the 1980s were raised during an eight-year war between Iran and Iraq in which the US sanctioned Iran and backed Iraq. Within a year of the end of that war, relations between Iraq and the United States soured and Iraq was put under crippling sanctions, then occupied in 2003. It took nearly a decade after the occupation for the sanctions against Iraq to be removed. Sanctions are the silent war, bringing with them the permanent threat of confrontation.
When earthquakes struck western Iran, international donations could not be made to the Iranian Red Crescent, the most active aid organization helping victims on the ground. Facebook closed down a page that set out to collect donations, to which more than $200,000 USD had been contributed. Other crowdfunding campaigns were also shut “because the country you provided is part of an embargoed region.” Our cities, villages, and hospitals have become embargoed regions, as our bodies are sealed in slab after slab of red tape. By adopting the seemingly neutral language of economics and law, sanctions legitimize dehumanization. It becomes acceptable to deny a people technology, medicine and aid.
As sanctions have grown harsher over the years, those suffering from rare or complicated diseases have been the first to bear the consequences. After 2010, the Iranian Blood Transfusion Organization (IBTO) which had purchased Hemophilia testing kits from European companies, had to close testing centers across the country. Europe was no longer willing to supply Iran, and IBTO could not meet demand. Nurses and hospital staff still tell stories of drug scarcity between 2010 and 2014, as if recalling a nightmare. They’d send out parents of cancer stricken children to purchase medicine, knowing full well that they would return empty-handed. In theory, sanctions were to be waived for humanitarian aid. But in reality, as financial transactions with Iran were restricted, it became impossible to purchase pharmaceuticals and other goods. Drugs were only available on the black market at sky high prices. One aging caretaker at the hospital told me in 2012 that he had stressed to his wife that if he ever had an illness, she should lay him down in a corner of the house and let him die. That the costs and burden of treatment were too high to be worth it: “She should only have to pay for my burial.”
My father was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, after President Rouhani had won his first term and another round of negotiations over Iran’s Nuclear Program had begun. By then, some vital medicine, like his chemotherapy drugs, had been imported to Iran as a goodwill measure by European powers, although in very limited quantities. His prescription could be purchased through one government-run drugstore in downtown Tehran, with a slew of hospital and doctor authorization notes. I’d get up at six a.m. every Saturday morning, the start of the work week, to be at the store by seven, a binder of paperwork in hand. Families from across Iran were there, their papers in plastic bags, envelopes or folders. We’d be asked to go from one station, to the next, and back again. Our documents were checked and rechecked. Often I would get sent home because a signature was missing, or a date was incorrectly stamped. If all was well, I could expect to be done by noon. At times it took days of going to the drugstore. Other, less critical, medicines were routinely unavailable, like supplements and injections for joint pain. The doctor would shrug and say that it would not “make a difference to the final outcome”—it would not determine my father’s living or dying.
With tightening sanctions after 2010, the daily pollution indicators in Tehran and other major urban centers spiked. Air quality in major cities was directly impacted by restrictions on the import of refined gasoline, and low-quality domestic gas was substituted. For weeks on end, grey smog covered the horizon. That was the sky baba saw on his car ride from chemo: dense and weary, its particles landing in our eyes, sinking all the way down to our toes. And then one day, in late November, it snowed. On our last car ride home, baba looked out curiously at the fresh blue sky and the frothy clouds. “I’d forgotten the blue,” he hummed, not taking his eyes off the window. He would take with him memories of a clean horizon, unsoiled by smog or sanctions.
Baba died from his illness within months, content that Iran had never bowed down to the pressure imposed by sanctions. To him, America was the reason that men and women of his generation had risen to rid Iran of a monarch, seen as an American stooge, in the revolution of 1979. Moving on after the revolution would be difficult and he expected nothing less. Even as Iranian airplanes fell, as we faced the repercussions of oil embargoes, as we were denied diapers and vitamins at the drugstore, we had to do one thing, baba believed—resist. But under the weight of this resistance, bodies shattered, as baba’s did.
He claimed to have made peace with this war, but I am convinced baba was one of its victims. My father was a university professor. He had spent his adult life building a prestigious research laboratory, finding ways to collaborate internationally and maintain his research facilities despite the embargoes on Iran. His intention in all he did was to show younger generations that Iran could make it despite the odds. But in the last year of his life, before diagnosis, everything he had worked for broke down. He was no longer able to purchase books or manuals, much less participate in a high tech industry that required communication and cooperation with fabrication facilities around the world. Part by part, research projects had to be terminated. Conference rejection letters had to be stomached. The dream my father had worked for was in shambles. As work deteriorated, so did his health. Then his body stopped altogether.
Unlike my father, I came into a world already confined to the fortress of sanctions. Born with a rare blood condition, doctors prescribed that I only be given hypoallergenic formula. I was first fed water buffalo milk as an unsuccessful substitute, until my parents found the necessary formula on war rations. Standing in long lines every week, in the early 1980s, they looked, I imagine, as I did waiting for my father’s prescription at the drugstore thirty years later. When I was a baby, diapers were unavailable, so mom turned to the old ways: diaper cloths, but not of the kind that trendy moms show off on Instagram. A good part of her twenties involved washing poop covered cloth in the yard next to the pear tree.
As a fifteen-year-old I spent hours every week exploring the underground bookstores of Enghelab Street —Iran’s book hub—searching for back issues of the New Yorker magazine and English language novels. I couldn’t just subscribe to the publication, or order books online. Nothing could be delivered to Tehran, including ideas and literature. What made Tehran different from Brussels, or Johannesburg or Delhi? I knew the answer: tahrim, “sanctions”, but to my young mind, sanctions were both present and unreal. For most of my teenage life, talks of nuclear negotiations between Iran and ‘world powers’ played out on the news as a backdrop to our nightly dinners. We anticipated a day when sanctions against Iran would be removed. One day . . . and the day came and went. To us, the Nuclear Deal was a sign of rapprochement with America, and its failure, a signal that there can be no such thing.
It is 2018. I am no longer fifteen. I still want to read English language magazines but my Kindle and magazine apps like the New Yorker’s are inaccessible in Iran. Special formulas are still rationed, and medicines—Madopar for Parkinson’s disease, supplements, and vitamins for newborns—have gone off the market again since the announcement by the Trump administration. From baby formula to pills for the ailing body: Generation after generation has been born into this conflict, and shall now restlessly age into it. We fight for our dignity, baba would say, even if we must fight in silence. But in the heat of the night in which my family still sleeps, certain now that AC repairs will never be done, our dignity and suffering lose their borders. Inheritors of an unending conflict, we are the standing army, always in full armor, alert and listening, but hoping that there will not be a call to war.
From the only point left on the Axis of Evil