Monday, June 22, 2009

A person, not a symbol

She is famous today, for her death.

It seemed like a perfect symbol of the turmoil and unrest in Iran following the "landslide" victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad--a suspicious victory, a mistrusted regime, in a nation whose young people had expected, if not a change, at least a closer election. A young woman with a meaningful name, shot in the street, and dying for anyone with access to YouTube to watch--how could her death not have been seized upon as something significant, representative, larger than the young woman herself?

But every human life has its own story, and hers is here:
TEHRAN, June 22 — It was hot in the car, so the young woman and her singing instructor got out for a breath of fresh air on a quiet side street not far from the anti-government protests they had ventured out to attend. A gunshot rang out, and the woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, fell to the ground. “It burnt me,” she said before she died. [...]

Only scraps of information are known about Ms. Ahga-Soltan — her friends and relatives were mostly afraid to speak and the government broke up public attempts to mourn her. She studied philosophy and took underground singing lessons — women are banned from singing publicly in Iran. Her name means “voice” in Persian, and many are now calling her the voice of Iran.

Her fiance, Caspian Makan, contributed to a Persian Wikipedia entry. He said she never supported any particular presidential candidate. “She wanted freedom, freedom for everybody, ” the entry said.

Her singing instructor, Hamid Panahi, offered a glimpseof her last moments. He said the two of them decided to head home after being caught in a clash with club-wielding forces in central Tehran. They stepped out of the car. “We heard one gunshot and the bullet came and hit Neda right in the chest,” he said. He said the bullet came from the rooftop of a private house across the street, perhaps a sniper. On a YouTube posting along with the video, an anonymous doctor said he tried to save her but failed because the bullet hit her heart.

“She was so full of life,” said a relative who spoke on condition of anonymity. “She sang pop music.” He said the government ordered the family to bury her immediately and banned them from holding a memorial service.
It is perhaps an inevitable progression in the annals of modern conflicts: first our ancestors read press dispatches from the front which seemed, to them, to pour out at lightening speed; then war was broadcast on the radio and featured on newsreels; then a generation witnessed a conflict unfold on television; then almost two decades ago college students huddled in common lounges and saw a war, live, on CNN--and now, a violent conflict that may yet lead to a bloody civil war is streaming its anguish on Twitter and YouTube. With each step technology takes the world seems smaller, and wars seem closer; we can watch weapons firing in the morning, read the Twittered names of the deceased in the afternoon, and see the shaky web-cam images of the funerals at night, illuminated by a thousand candles in the hands of protesters who gather at the funeral not only to mourn, but to summon resolve to continue the fight.

Yet the very things that bring us closer to the fury and mayhem of conflicts and wars may end up distancing us from their reality, when all is said and done. We see protesters forever caught in the act of preparing to throw a handful of stones; we recall a silent figure standing alone in front of a line of tanks; and now we see a girl collapse and die, covered with blood, as an iconic image of struggle and violence, of the clash between power and the powerless.

But Neda Agha-Soltan was a person, not a symbol. She had a family, a fiance, a voice instructor willing to teach her to sing in a country where women aren't supposed to want to do such a thing. She was, as her anonymous relative said, full of life. And we have to take the relative's word--we know so little about her, we who watched in horror as she died.

And because she died the way she did, and because her death was filmed by someone who was watching, the voices arise, arguing about the meaning of the death of this girl whose name meant "voice." It is, perhaps, inevitable that we, the onlookers, should do this. Like every conflict or war, the situation in Iran is in the process of framing its narrative: is it a courageous struggle for freedom against a powerful and dangerous regime, or is it a foolish and self-serving attempt at a power-grab by someone capable of being an almost indistinguishable--to Western eyes--tyrant himself, or is it one of dozens of other possibilities put out for our consideration by the talking heads that digest the news for our convenience, to save us the heartburn? To each of these narratives the story of Neda is an invaluable "human-interest" focal point: here we see, perhaps, the courage and the longing, or here we see the tragedy and the cost, or here we see...and the pools of her blood become a Rorschach test of our own ideology superimposed upon a conflict taking place a world away.

Instead of doing this, though, we can remember that Neda, and the others who have died in Iran, were people--children of God, fashioned in His image and likeness, and in need of our fervent prayers for the repose of their souls. We can also ask Him to help those whose lives are torn apart by violence and conflict in Iran and everywhere in the world where we, the fallen, enter again into the sin of Cain. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't form ideas about the political realities of these conflicts; but it does mean that we should remember that the victims of the violence had lives and realities which far transcended the moment of their deaths--that they also have an eternal destiny, and that even now they are not beyond the help of our sincere and sorrowful prayers.


Dawn said...

Yes, yes, and yes. thank you.

Anonymous said...

I remember as a child seeing a color photo in Time of a small naked vietnamese child backdropped against jungle war savagery clutching a very pink plastic american doll much like my own unclothed, moveable arms albeit unidirectional joints a thatch of blonde hair. For many years after, I could not stand others wearing pink, thinking it was too hypocritical to think of artificial pinkness of humanity associated with atrocities of human activity. It's moments like these wherein the young woman full of life, metaphorically, those of an oppressed people, are gunned down in sight of all, to still a 'voice', yet, not still in death.

eutychus said...

amen and amen. Thanks for this.

Francisco said...

"A person, not a symbol". Beautifully put.