In this essay, Poupeh Missaghi details her experience of isolation on a solitary Persian New Year as the COVID-19 pandemic swept through New York City.
A few days after the new Persian year began on March 20, Dad called from Tehran. He was sobbing. “Your grandfather passed away,” he said. The first thing that struck me was his choice of “your grandfather” over “my father.” He spoke very shortly, unlike most times, when he wants to stay online even when he is distracted by his radio or television.
After the burial of my grandfather next to my grandmother in San Francisco, close family members came together for a virtual Zoom memorial. Under different circumstances, we could have flown in to visit him during his last days in the nursing home in LA and said our goodbyes, and attended the funeral in San Francisco. Now, three of my cousins and my aunt in San Francisco, one cousin in LA, another cousin and my uncle in San Diego, my brother in Orange County, and I in Brooklyn sat at our computers. I FaceTimed Dad, who was unable to download Zoom, and held my phone up so he could also join. My grandfather had lived to be more than a hundred, so we knew this day was coming. We managed to share memories, pictures, and videos, to remember him and ourselves in Tehran and then in the US. Still, it was strange, to say the least, to see our family already scattered by immigration further separated due to pandemic travel and gathering restrictions; each of us in our own household, not able to embrace one another or mourn together. A screenshot I took of that Zoom session, with the rectangular frames next to one another, mine including the smaller FaceTime ones on my phone, with our faces staring into our devices’ cameras, looks eerie and sad, but there is also something familiar about it; it reminds me of the photo collages my grandparents had created of our parents and us, in different stages of our lives, and put in frames all around their house.
Meanwhile, in my apartment in Brooklyn, I was noticing that the sound of ambulance sirens had gradually grown so much that it had now become almost constant, accompanied by sorrowful church bells from time to time. I’m not even in Queens or the Bronx, the two areas hit hardest by the virus, which tells you something about the fucked-up inequality of this city that has so much money and yet is always short on money when it comes to basic human needs. One day I was video chatting with a friend, a Brooklyn resident who had gone upstate for a job interview and, with the lockdown announced, had gotten stuck there, and I was telling her about the nonstop sound of the sirens. She asked me whether they felt particularly traumatic because they dredged up old memories. It took me a moment to realize she was referring to the Iran-Iraq war. Her theory made sense: I was likely to be more sensitive to the sound because I had grown up with constant sirens on the radio announcing missile attacks on Tehran, sending us to hide under the staircase or to leave the city only to soon come back because my grandfather on my mother’s side, who had been a gastroenterologist, had not wanted to leave his patients and had stayed behind.
That night, though, I downplayed the connection; I did not believe the discomfort with the sirens had much to do with the past but rather with the updates about New York and the daily statistics revealing the devastating situation of the city as the epicenter of COVID-19 in the world. Despite the extent of the impact in Iran, and even as someone aware of the failures of the US system in caring for its citizens, I had been unable to imagine the same thing happening right here to such an extent, had imagined a more coordinated, science-led handling of the situation, only to be exposed to a system collapsing even further upon itself and its people.
Several days later, as I lay in bed watching the new German Netflix miniseries Freud, I heard a droning that I at first thought was part of the weirdness of what was going on on TV. The scene changed, but the noise didn’t stop. I paused the video and, looking outside the window, noticed a light suspended in the air, which I realized was a helicopter, static at first but then creeping around, its light flooding a not-too-distant area on the ground.
Only a few minutes into the constant presence of the helicopter sound, I felt a severe spasm in my stomach. This was not particularly worrisome, as my stomach has a habit of responding to distressing situations this way. But that night, the spasms were followed by something else. I began to feel pins and needles in my right arm and hand, which then gradually went numb; a bit later I felt a similar sensation in my left foot. All this was followed by a heavy chest, and finally sobbing; I couldn’t even tell why I was crying.
“That night I saw my father’s face after weeks of audio calls.”
I always remembered my first spasms to have happened during my last year of high school. I was studying intensely for Iran’s national university entrance exams, and the doctors, after running all kinds of tests and not finding any physical reasons, decided the spasms were caused by the stress of the exams. It took years of psychoanalysis for me to realize they also had to do with the loss of my mother’s father, with whom we lived all our lives, in my junior year.
Around the time the latest episode of the spasms happened, I discovered another layer to this pain while writing my first email to my students after the shutdown of our campus. I shared with them what I had learned from having spent part of my elementary school education under war conditions and how that experience could be helpful to us as we figured out our priorities and ways to reorient ourselves in online spaces at this unprecedented time. Writing to them, I realized that the first time my spasms had happened was actually during those years of war. We were in the countryside, and my parents had decided that my brother and I had to go to the local school so as not to be left behind in our studies. On the first day of school there, anxious to set foot inside, I had had my first pains and had thrown up in front of the whole school.
The day I heard the helicopter in Brooklyn, I thought it, like the sirens, was bringing out traumas from that time of war. I remembered Mom telling us how it began. War had broken out while my parents were on a trip abroad. They had left my brother and me with my mother’s father and our nanny. Soon, Iranian airspace was closed down. She and Dad had had to fly into Turkey and continue the rest of the journey on the ground to get back to us in Tehran.
After the helicopter disappeared from my window frame, I searched Twitter to find out if others had tweeted about the sound. Everyone had questions; but a few nights earlier, similar questions had been asked and answered. Videos showed a group of Orthodox Jews in a Brooklyn neighborhood defying the stay-at-home guidelines to take part in the funeral of a rabbi who had passed away. The images of the participants and the sound of the prayers echoing in the street felt dreadful and heavy in my body.
It was only a few days later, talking about the spasms, the numbness, and the sobbing on FaceTime audio with my psychoanalyst in Tehran, that I had another realization. I started with the helicopter in Brooklyn, only to go back to that last year in high school and then to that elementary school year, meandering in the labyrinth of my conscious and unconscious mind, all the time wondering why the helicopter had been a trigger—helicopters had played no role in these previous moments of pain. It took stepping into many interconnected and not-so-interconnected winding memory alleys for me to arrive at the memory of a very loud helicopter sound buried deep within me, and I suddenly mouthed, “The sound you hear is the sound of the carrier of death.” It was as if I was simply repeating what I heard clearly and loudly right then and there, as if someone at a microphone were announcing this in a dramatic, ominous tone at that very moment inside me.
Suddenly a surge of images. A mass of thousands of people, all in black, walking toward a particular spot or already standing close by and waiting. Waiting for the body of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Khomeini, to arrive in a helicopter and be displayed in a glass cooler container so people could say their goodbyes before his body was transferred to Behesht-e Zahra Cemetery for burial. That ominous phrase had been mouthed by the TV reporter when the helicopter had appeared. His tone so foreboding, so inconsolable. And then a mass of bodies pulling and pushing. A mass of bodies weeping and howling. A distraught chaos. A collective lamentation. Everything felt so fresh in my body. The death of Khomeini, that official funeral and mourning and the TV broadcasts and how they had impacted our lives even when we were not disciples or supporters, had never before appeared in any of my memories, and I had never considered them events that had any influence on me and my life. But here I was thirty years later, on the other side of the world, noticing how my body had carried them with it all along, only to release them at the time of a collective mourning that didn’t seem to be directly related to them at all.
The morning of March 20, hours before the beginning of the Persian New Year at exactly ten minutes to midnight, I had hesitated for a while before going out to get hyacinths and tulips for the traditional haft-seen spread. That day there were still no official “stay at home” measures in place in New York, but the anxiety of life under coronavirus had started in my household several weeks earlier, before it arrived in Brooklyn. With the news coming out of Iran, I was already beginning to feel the weight of the ongoing disaster in my body. Hospitals lacking resources, beds, ventilators, and masks; nurses and doctors overworked; politicians failing to do their jobs; an economy already in dire condition due to sanctions and incompetent officials not being able to keep up; people confused and desperate.
I did eventually go get the flowers. In the afternoon, however, I realized I didn’t have the necessary fresh apple and garlic either. I knew I was not going back out. I dug a half-dried apple out of the last handful of dried fruit I had brought in my suitcase on my last visit home in the summer. I found one clove of garlic in my vegetable drawer in the fridge. Luckily I had bought everything else I needed several days before. My wheat sprouts, though, had not grown green as expected, so I had no sabzeh either. In previous years, I had always made it to a tiny, gorgeous corner flower shop in the East Village that did carry sabzeh and all the Persian New Year flowers. This year I just plucked a small batch of green grass from the plant pot on the balcony. The haft-seen wouldn’t be perfect, but that was OK; I had still managed to put it together.
The author's haft-seen.
After the arrival of the Persian New Year was officially announced, with the sound of a fake cannonball on the internet, echoing the age-old tradition, I FaceTimed Dad, who at the time had been all by himself in Tehran for some six months. Mom was visiting my brother and his family, and was supposed to go back to Tehran before the Persian New Year. Then the pandemic broke out in Iran, making the country the second after China with the highest numbers of infections. Her flight got canceled.
This was the second time. Her first flight back had been canceled a few months before, right after the Ukrainian passenger flight was shot down by Iranian forces amid the chaos of a possible war with the US. More than a hundred Iranians and dozens of non-Iranians were killed. Airlines stopped their flights to and from Iran, even rerouted their other flights since the airspace was deemed unsafe. From that collective trauma, which was preceded by November protests and killings, to the current one in the making, only a few months had passed, but to most of us it had felt like ages.
That night I saw my father’s face after weeks of audio calls. He had not shaved. His hair had grown, was disheveled. It had been weeks since he had last left the apartment to go for his daily walks or for grocery shopping. After the usual congratulatory chitchat, he broke down into tears, said his father had stopped eating food in the nursing home in LA, said he was not allowed to receive visitors because of the virus. “This is the beginning of the end. He’s all by himself, in this other city, none of his family there with him,” he said. He added something about me making the right choice not to have children. “What’s the use when none of us, his children, can be with him right now?” I watched him as he cleared his tears, touched his cheek, only half of his face visible in the frame because he rarely figures out the camera lens on his iPad correctly.
“Don’t mention any of this to Mom. She sounded happy today when I talked to her,” he reminded me.
I told him not to cry, to go shave, take a shower, that it would do him good.
“Why bother?” he said, then said goodbye and hung up.
“We never thought we would be away for so long that all our office plants would die.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has raised not only practical questions with regard to our public health, environment, education, and sociopolitical systems, but also concerns about our ability to cope psychologically. Many experts have been warning about the mental health impacts of the disaster. They have discussed how the pandemic has been a trigger for a lot of old suppressed emotions, causing them to rise to the surface. It has also raised many philosophical questions about what it means to be a human being in this world.
Undeterred by the pandemic, all the other human-made miseries in the world continue to take their own toll: the war in Syria, the war in Yemen, global displacement and the conditions under which refugees have been kept, ICE and its detention centers, lack of access to basic resources such as water and food in so many places around the world, natural disasters, and the most recent cases of police violence against Black people and protestors asking for justice and reform here in the US. The list keeps going on. The pandemic and its impacts are not separate from any of that.
Mom has a ticket to go back to Tehran in two weeks, but it is still unclear whether that flight is even happening. Today Dad posted something on his Facebook page about missing his father. The sound of ambulance sirens has begun to diminish in Brooklyn, but the press conferences remind us that the pandemic is far from over. As of mid-July, New York City has lost more than twenty-two thousand people to COVID-19, and this number does not even include those who died at home or before official records began to be kept. In Tehran, the numbers are even less reliable, and the second peak seems to have already arrived.
The evening of March 11, when my colleagues and I at the Baruch Writing Center in Manhattan said goodbye after being informed that the campus was shutting down the following day, we never thought we would be away for so long that all our office plants would die. After I left the building, even though I was too tired, I decided to walk to the international market around the corner from campus to get some of the provisions for the Persian New Year I could not find elsewhere. I bought several types of Persian sweets. I bought samanoo and senjed and somagh. The day after, classes at Pratt Institute, my other campus in Brooklyn, got canceled as well. We academics all migrated inside and online, and life officially changed for us in New York. It now seems paradoxically symbolic to me that the last non-virus related things I did outside in our good old world—a world that was not even that good but felt really human here in New York, where it is naked to the bone and revealing of all its beauty and brutality—were to prepare to celebrate the arrival of spring and the Persian New Year, to usher in a new beginning, to say the prayer of the Persian New Year, حول حالنا الی احسن الحال, and ask a higher power to transform our conditions to better ones. It surely doesn’t feel like that right now. The coronavirus continues to take lives in Iran, the US, and elsewhere, as does systematic injustice and the brutality of those who hoard money and weapons. These past few months have definitely brought us face to face with a lot of our demons. We need to ask the hard questions and do whatever we can to transform the conditions of our humanity, and we need to force the old systems and politicians to change as well, because it seems that they still have no desire to do so themselves.
© 2020 by Poupeh Missaghi. All rights reserved.