“Obsessions” is our web-only essay series that asks emerging West Coast writers to examine the books, poems, songs, television shows, images, or whatever else that has been dominating their attentions lately. We begin with “Liked to Date: 2,836 Posts,” a piece from Shokoofeh Rajabzadeh, a Ph.D. candidate in English Language & Literature at the University of California at Berkeley. Rajabzadeh’s poetry has appeared in Poetry Northwest and Modern Poetry in Translation, and she is currently working on a series of essays about immigrating to the United States and growing up Muslim, post-9/11.
She’s closed her Instagram account again. I’ve checked three times in the past hour. I always forget how obsessed I am with her until she closes her account. Last time she shut us out, she had broken up with her fiance. For just a few days before she left, after she had posted the photo of her slender finger with the simple, diamond ring, I thought to myself, “Finally, someone has brought this woman well-deserved happiness.” But then, when she reopened her account, I was met with a slew of photos, self-portraits—sometimes close-ups, sometimes of her solemn face in the mirror—with captions about the darkness that had consumed her. And at nights, I wondered, “Did she end things? Is she just that broken? Or did he end them? Why would he do that to her? Hasn’t she already been through enough?”
I am spellbound by her account—the story of a poet, humanities PhD in exile. I generally do not like following lives. The practice overwhelms me, frustrates me, injects me with envy when photos portray extreme happiness; and when they are melancholy, they surround me in despair. For this reason, I do not have a Facebook account. I am, however, arrested, engrossed, mesmerized by her life.
I’ve heard she fell in love at the University of Tehran. That was when she was religious and observed hijab. She and the man who would become her future spouse both studied Social Sciences. His father was a political figure in the Iranian government, and she was interested in studying the social fabric of Iran. They both returned to Iran from Oxford during the 2009 presidential election. He had become involved in Mousavi’s—the reformist candidate’s—campaign, while she returned to participate in the election and do research on Iran. Then one night, Iranian officials stormed into her home, took her husband, along with her laptop and phone. She came back to the UK where she was studying, knowing she could never return to Iran without risking imprisonment. She started writing for newspapers, trying to raise international awareness about his imprisonment. They didn’t release him. She wrote in her already well-known and well-read blog about him. She wrote poems and long posts about what it means to lose someone who you know is still alive. Still, they didn’t release him.
They finally gave him the option: give up your Iranian passport and we will release you. Everyone who knows this version of the story also knows she begged him to give up the passport and come back “home” to her. But he didn’t. He wasn’t willing to give it up. And so, after years and years of waiting, the two of them “separated.” The day she officially signed divorce papers, they released him. It must have been intentional—a process crafted to defecate on an international love story. And it worked: the day he was released, he got a ticket to the UK and showed up at her door. He knocked and knocked but she refused to let him in. At some point, she wrote a long piece on chopping all her hair off, watching her curls wander in the air, floating and gliding along the floor. After that, she no longer observed hijab.
Most likely the story is all bullshit, a kernel of truth that’s been engorged and ornamented with the breath and gossip of middle-aged Persian women with tattooed lip liner, smoking cigarettes. But that didn’t prevent every two Iranians from meeting up and discussing the “details” over tea. It didn’t stop any of us—even those of us who consider ourselves morally superior to gossip-mongering Persian women—from deliberating over, examining , and judging every decision either of them had supposedly made. It didn’t stop us from asking each other over and over again: Should he have accepted exile for her? Is it right to love a country more than a spouse?
While I was completing my MPhil at Oxford, I contacted her. She met me in the lobby of the Oriental Studies Department. She had a pixie cut and it was dyed a dark, eggplant purple. As soon as we stepped out onto the misty, narrow cobbled streets, she pulled out a tobacco pipe from her bag, lit it, and offered me a puff. I politely declined, but made sure to add that, “I, too, have a pipe.” I like to think she appreciated that. I was captivated by her presence. I did not have an Instagram yet, but had looked at her photo on CNN hundreds of times. In it, she is covered, and is resting her head on her husband’s shoulder. Both of them are looking at the camera. She is smiling.
Despite what her writing had led me to imagine, she was everything but meek, quiet, and sentimental. She reminded me of the sky just before a storm—unapologetic, resilient, definitely tortured, but tough, beautiful because of it. When we sat at a table in a coffee shop, I pretended I knew very little about her, slipped in that I write poetry, and was surprised when she told me she is a poet and has a blog. “What? Really? A blog? That’s amazing.” My feigned ignorance was embarrassing, and I am sure she saw right through it. After all, I contacted her through her blog’s contact page. I quickly realized she was not the type to indulge mine or anyone’s fascinations with her. She changed the subject, and asked me whether I would recommend the U.S. I said, “Yeah. I mean, I live in California. I would recommend California, but why would you want to move? London is incredible.” In response, she asked me, “Why is it that whenever I meet an American in Europe, they always talk shit about the U.S.? It’s strange.” “Really?” I kept thinking, Did what I just say count as “shit”? “Yeah. I mean, there are so many of you who come to the UK to study and just never want to go back. Not to say that you don’t want to go back, but in general. That’s why I’m asking. Is America that bad?”
So many of you? Of me? Me? An American? Why would she read me as an American? Not just any American, but the kind that fits into a generic stereotype? Does that mean I am not Iranian enough for her? It was my turn to change the subject. The rest of the time we talked about the upcoming Persian New Year and festivities happening in and around Oxford. I went home and Googled her again, considered opening a Facebook account, and then found her on Instagram. I created an Instagram account. Her’s was public, and I subscribed to her page.
* * *
Her father is very ill today. She re-opened her Instagram account earlier this morning, probably between 7-9, California time. That must have been why she had closed her account. She posts a photo of him, seated at a dining table, smiling. Before him, there are the remnants of a lamb shank and an aluminum-foil serving tray of rice. He has his hands in the air, as if saying, “Why are you taking a photo of me with this?” She writes, “Baba! I miss you! I am sorry I am not there for you. You can’t even see this…Baba…:(” Still, when I read this, and I have read it more than ten times in the past hour, I hold back tears.
* * *
Two days have passed. Today, she posts a photo of her father’s photo framed on her bookshelf. “Fuck exile,” she writes.
Exile. I think that is why I follow her. For a while, I did not understand why I insisted on subscribing to her page. She takes up my feed, posting four to eleven photos a day. And God knows, most days I feel fucking sick of seeing strings of photos of her cat. I used to think I follow her because she is an Iranian woman who studies literature, like me. There are very few of us. Then I thought it was because she used to be religious but no longer is, or seems to be. But I have realized over the past few months that it is because she is in exile. Something about her experience—about exile, about her—triangulates my relationship to Iran, or is it to California?
She yearns to remain put where I visit fleetingly, so casually, only when I can’t find cheaper tickets to other countries on my list. I move through Iran as one does an encyclopedia. Never breaking the surface, indulging in kabob here, and sour plums there, shopping in one city, and smoking shisha in the sides of mountains in another. She pines for none of the things I travel to Iran for. Everything she longs for in Iran I already have in California. Her photos, the captions, the self-portraits that capture her eyes, pictures of a displaced and banished woman—they all make me realize, remind me every day, I could move to Iran anytime I want. I don’t have to live in California or be an American. This is all a choice I’ve made, and one I make every day. I can dissociate, or associate, myself with California, with America, with Iran whenever and for as long as I like. California is home when I travel, but Iran is home when I’m in California.
I need her, and this haunts me. Because caging Iran from her has somehow liberated my sense of place.