Life is a Bridge

I saw something this morning that at first confused me, then hit me in the guts.

I opened my New Yorker, turned to “Letter from Tehran: With the Marchers,” and noticed right away that there was no byline. I flipped ahead a few pages — was it at the end of the piece? — then back to the contributor’s page. The author of every other article was listed, along with a brief bio, but not this one.

Odd, I thought. In a magazine like the New Yorker, the author — what they do; what they’ve written — is almost always part of the point.

As I started reading, it became clear that the author was Iranian — knew it intimately enough to make observations like this, about two protesters:

Everything I have seen of Reza and Hengameh tells me that they are true democrats—for example, the relaxed way they have brought up their teen-age son, Mohsen. “We never obliged him to say his prayers or observe the Ramadan fast,” Reza told me once, “and now he does both, of his own accord.”

And it quickly became clear why the article was written anonymously:

On June 14th, two days after the election that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is alleged to have stolen from his main challenger, the reformist Mir-Hossein Moussavi, I hurried back to Iran from a trip abroad. The next day, the day of the AzadiStreet march, I had lunch with a journalist friend. In view of the election fiasco and the coverage that it had received abroad, my friend told me, the authorities were now trying to curtail the activities of the Western media. “If you want to write for a foreign magazine,” he said, “do it without a byline.” The authorities were refusing to extend the visas of most visiting foreign journalists; several Iranian journalists had been thrown in jail.

I blogged yesterday that “I (HEART) the Media“; this New Yorker article is another demonstration of why. Among other things, it contains the first anecdotal accounts I’ve seen that expose the election results as a sham. Who needs British think tanks, international monitors, or statisticians when you have this:

A change had also come over Mohsen, their son. The last time we met, he had been a typical teen-ager, sulky and monosyllabic. Now Mohsen seemed fully grown, an adult, and he participated enthusiastically in our conversation, which inevitably revolved around politics and the marches. Mohsenhad been active in Yussefabad on behalf of the local Moussavi campaign, standing on street corners and handing out leaflets. He had also run the Basiji gantlet, and had the bruises on his knees to prove it.

“Are you sure the election was a fraud?” I asked him.

Mohsen smiled ruefully. “Some of the boys from the campaign headquarters were at the local count, and when they came back that evening they were laughing and saying it was all over—Ahmadinejad had no chance. Then . . .” Mohsen shrugged, and his father said, “You should have seen this neighborhood. There was hardly a single Ahmadinejad poster. Only green. Only green! Of course it was a fraud. They stole the vote.”

The article makes the point that the protestors are not, as Ahmadinejad seems to want people to believe, limited to students and the educated class. Protestors are cut from a broad swath of society.

But to my mind, one of the most powerful moments in the piece is this one, near the end:

Ever since I’d known Reza, he’d made a point of not having a satellite dish on his roof. He distrusted the foreign television channels, and was content to watch Iranian state TV. During the recent election campaign, however, as state television praised Ahmadinejad endlessly, he had found it difficult to watch; it made him feel physically sick. He bought a satellite dish, so that the family can now watch the BBC’s Persian channel—or, at least, when it isn’t jammed. “It has shown us that everything we have been watching here, most of our lives, is full of lies,” he said.

“Give me an example,” I said, and he replied, “You know what they said on TV about yesterday’s march? They could hardly pretend it never happened, because it was all over the foreign channels and the Internet. So they announced that the rally had been organized by all four Presidential candidates, including Ahmadinejad, in the name of national unity!”

He said, “You can imagine what all this is doing to my father.” Reza’s father was a mid-level bureaucrat before his retirement, a few years ago. He adored Khomeini. He would have given his life for the Iranian Revolution. “You know what he said to me after he heard about the seven people who were shot last night? He said, ‘I regret everything I’ve done in my life.’ ”

Imagine, having such a misguided view of the world.

And yet …

I blogged the other day about how one remarkable aspect of this revolution for me, personally, is that it has — in one mighty swoop — transformed Iran from a nation of Jew hating evil-doers, into a nation of people. I’ve obviously never met Mohsen, but the description of him — its uncanny — it reminds me of my cousin Nate (“standing on street corners and handing out leaflets”), who worked his tail off in and around the streets of Philadelphia to elect Barack Obama.

I know I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Jon Stewart, for instance, sent Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones to Iran, prior to the election. Jones met a an elderly gentleman who knew the U.S. presidents, going back to Carter. He played American football on a grassy lawn with a group of kids. He interviewed a fashionista wearing Dolce & Gabbana and Adidas sneakers. (“Ah-dee-das?” Jones deadpanned.) A good-looking, flirty young couple admitted they were Daily Show watchers. (“Heh heh heh,” the guy said, imitating Jon Stewart’s imitation of George Bush.)

As it ended last night, Jason Jones — who went to cover the election, and wound up covering a revolution — said this:

“But as I watch what’s happening there now, I know that somewhere in that sea of faces are the same people I met. People who were gracious enough to take me into their homes, and schools, and coffee shops. People who indulge my asinine questions. People I hope will be safe, and not be harmed or arrested for the simple act of wearing green and wanting a voice.”

I watched, waiting for the punch line. But there was none. Not a trace of irony or sarcasm or mockery to be found. This, from the least sentimental reporter on the least sentimental television show in history.

“[You] spent ten days in Iran,” Jon Stewart told him, in studio, “and came back with amazing work and amazing pictures that revealed a certain part of Iran that I think many of us had never seen before.”

Last night, on my way home from a class about the Jewish thinker Soloveitchik, I called my dad to see how he was doing with my mom, who is recovering from a stroke.

“She’s a tiger,” he said, speaking about her will to get better.

One of the things my dad has always told us, in the tough times, is: “Life zigs and zags.” Last night, I told my dad that near the end of one of Soloveitchik’s works, one of the most brilliant theologians of our time concludes: “Man moves toward the fulfillment of his destiny along a zig-zag line.”

“All those years,” I told him. “You were really onto something.”

“Yeah,” he said, laughing, then quickly added: “And also, ‘Life is a bridge.'”

“Life is a bridge?” I said.

“”You don’t remember?”

“No,” I said.

So he began again:

Once upon a time, he said, there was a very wealthy man, determined to understand the meaning of life. He travelled far and wide, spending down his fortune, trying to figure out the answer. And then, one day, he learned of a Seer, a recluse, living high in the Mongolian Hills. The man began a long journey, spending his every last dime, searching for this wisest of men, until one day, high on the top of a mountain overlooking the whole of China, weak and hungry and depleted from his trek, the man finally found the Seer.

“Sir,” he said, “I’ve journeyed for months, spent my last dime to find you. Can you please tell me the meaning of life?”

The Seer looked out at the snow-capped peaks, closed his eyes. “Life,” he said, “is a bridge.”

“That’s it?” the man said. “Life’s a bridge?”

The Seer opened his eyes, looked up at the man, and said: “Life isn’t a bridge?”

Tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of Iranians have learned this in the past few weeks.

And so have we.

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4 Responses to “Life is a Bridge”

  1. Half Sister Sue says:

    I remember the seer story. Funny, I was taken by that Daily Show episode as well. When Jason Jones made his commentary, the silence was deafening, almost uncomfortable. Not even a peep from the audience. But the brevity of the remark… who knows what could happen to those innocent people who showed up on The Daily Show over the previous week? Really not funny. Of course the Cheney stuff. Now that was funny.

  2. Becky says:

    hey j – the story you are quoting at the end sounds like it’s from one of the most incredible books i’ve ever read. it’s called “siddhartha” and ever since i read it about 6 years ago, i have been known to quote a similar tract. i found this old email blurb i wrote to you in sept 05: “in the forward of the book, it says it was inspiration to guys like jack kearoac. the book, in case you haven’t read it, basically follows the changing and evolving philosophies of one man, siddhartha, as he journies through his life as, at times, a religious man, an indulgent man, an introspective man … until he finally realizes the thing that life is all about – that is, love. a larger love, though. a love that is selfless and completely selfish at the same time. and by the end, the book is really about the quest for a soul at peace. at peace with not ever knowing the answers. and there is one passage i want to send to you which particualrly struck me last night. the set-up is that the main character, siddhartha, spends a long time living on a ferry, apprenticing under a ferryman who takes passengers from one bank to the other day in and day out. one of siddhartha’s childhood friends, who became a monk and spent his life looking for the meaning of life while studying under a spiritual leader, came to siddhartha. you see, the friend had heard of siddhartha’s great wisdom and insight, and came to the ferry to find out the meaning of life. at first he did not recognize siddhartha, and siddhartha bestowed this bit of wisdom: “When someone seeks,” Siddhartha said, “it is all too easy for his eyes to see nothing but the thing he seeks, so that he is unable to find anything or absorb anything because he is always thinking exclusively about what he seeks, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed by that goal. Seeking means having a goal. But finding means being free, remaining accessible, having no goal. You, venerable one, are perhaps really one who seeks, because, pressing after your goal, you fail to see many a thing that is right before your eyes.”

    anyway, the book is an incredible journay of aha moments liek the one you describe – that sometimes we just have to be at peace with not knowing the answers, or knowing that our answers, our life’s journies, are perhaps sometimes misguided as in the case of siddhartha’s friend. or maybe that sometimes we just have to be ok with knowing our own truths, and open to learning the actual truths. whatever the case, i thought you’d also want to know that when i wrote you that email, we were both kvelling over the “six feet under” finale. part of your email response to me: “last night, when the show ended, and both me and marcella were crying, i told her what it reminded me of. when marsha put minimun to sleep. i remember coming into 221 grant that day, and dad was sitting there in his chair as he always was in the early evening. and he looked at me — he must have known i was stricken, and kind of fighting to keep it in — i mean, minimun was just a dog, right? and dad said: “it’s okay josh. you can cry. you just lost a friend.” and i did — that just gave me the permission to let go. that’s how i felt last night, after 6 ft. that i had just lost a friend. a few of them.
    what amazing symmetry, you know? the last show starts with a birth and ends with death — everyone’s death — as claire is driving out to new york. it’s not a happy ending. not even close. nate is dead. ruth doesn’t have maia. george doesn’t have ruth. rico still cheated on vanessa. brenda’s brother is alone. brenda is fearful about raising two kids with no support. none of them live happily ever after. and yet — how did they do this? — it was still a happy ending, anyway.”

    ok, maybe i’ve gone off track a bit … and have been a bit long-winded. but somehow, well, when i read the odl email exchange it just felt right to share. our dad may be of few words, but there’s a lot of wisdom in them.

    love you j

  3. Karen says:

    Doug and I watched that Daily Show also. We were quite surprised to find ourselves getting choked up. What kind of sad commentary is it on our media, when you get the best, most moving news coverage from a professional commedian on Comedy Central!
    Dad still has the best folk wisdom around. I remember the “Life’s a Bridge” story, as well as “We’re here because we’re here because we’re here” etc. Quite profound when you think about it!

  4. Neurotic Dem says:

    Hey guys,
    Thanks for these amazing posts. Kar — that “we’re here because we’re here” song is timeless — I’ve started singing it with my kids, who, of course, love it.
    It’s cool that the Daily Show episode moved you guys, too. It was just so unexpected, which was part of the power. I remember Spingsteen talking about the Daily show during the last election and saying: “jon stewart is trying to do something really important.” that is, expose the hypocrisy all around us. of course, springsteen said it a helluva lot better. and it was probably an intro to the rising or something, so, i can’t really compete. (doesn’t it always come back to Bruce?)
    beck — love the comparison to siddhartha. i love the idea of being truly free only when you stop the search for answers. there’s great wisdom in that. one of the things i love about talking to dad is that he’s seen so much, and he’s got so much wisdom, but it comes out in such simple ways. like that post i wrote during the election, when i was sure obama would lose, after dad told me: “josh, we’ve been through world wars and recession. we’ll be okay.” it’s that breath — that pause for reality — that lets you keep plowing ahead.
    and thanks for the 6 ft memories! i think about that last show all the time!

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