“We are all exiles, Harry”.
He says this with solemn certainty. He is my friend and roommate, a Jewish Persian American whose family fled Iran when he was 10.
“We are all exiles”.
We are sitting on the balcony overlooking the stage. The lead singer begins the next song. His Farsi is a low, soft rumble in the microphone, the sound of distant thunder in the desert awaiting the rain. He is a large man with curly hair. When he is not leading Iran’s most famous outlaw rock band, he is an architect. The drummer wears black and is balding. He has glasses and looks like he just completed a great novel. The violinist is young, thin, and beautiful, with characteristic large Persian eyes. She wears dark jeans and a tight blue sweater. She is a bundle of compressed energy gracefully channeled into her strings. The back-up singer, another beautiful woman with short hair caressing her face, has a shy but endearing stage presence. She gives a gentle smile when the lead singer introduces her. The guitarists, all men, hold their guitars with poise, caressing their instruments until the music brings them to furious life. The piano and accordion player is in a corner, a man with a full head of curls that bob and wave with the music.
There are no veils, no hijabs. In the audience men and women hold hands. Muslims and Jews share tables.
They sing in metaphors, of buses that make no progress because each passenger demands to go their own route, of love and freedom and struggle and revolution. The lead singer makes jokes and the audience erupts in laughter. He invites many guest musicians onto the stage to perform, and personally thanks members of the audience for their support. It is a family reunion.
This family of beautiful women in black dresses and proud men in jeans and sports jackets sit drinking cocktails and eating sushi in a club in San Francisco. It is July 4th,, 2010. This family was vomited out of their home country of Iran. They are members of the Persian exile, Jews and Muslims, doctors, lawyers, architects, businessmen and talented musicians, all proud heirs to a cultural fortune built over millennia.
They are here to celebrate, and to mourn.
The band is called Kiosk, and its members left Iran in 2005. Finding it increasingly difficult to perform, living a life haunted by the secret police and stifled by the religious police, they named their band Kiosk after the small storefronts that hosted their clandestine and impromptu performances. They would play at any kiosk at anytime, but never the same kiosk twice, in order to evade the police. Their albums are illegal in Iran.
This band has what so many American bands lack but try so hard to achieve – they are cool. Not because they wear make-up, or smash their guitars, or yell with rage, but because they are just cool. There is no acting on this stage. Acting is a temporary refuge for those who fall prey to an interrogator. There are no fireworks. Fireworks are for those caught in the crossfire at a protest. There is no rage. Rage is in a prison cell in Iran. But, there is composure. There is joy. And there is sadness.
Outside there are fireworks to mark the birth of a new country.
Later that night, we arrive at a party 15 floors above the city. An older woman opens the door and invites us in. It is packed, and the dance floor is filled with young men and women. The men shake their shoulders and writhe their arms back and forth in the air. The women shake their hips and make graceful turns with their hands. The music is loud and hits you like the heat of an oven. Shouted conversations are in Farsi with scattered English.
Our group adds the following to the party: two American Jews, two Persian American Jews, one Persian American Israeli, and one Persian American Muslim who has driven us to the concert and to the party. Discrete questions are asked among the Jews in our group soon after we arrive. We are the only Jews at the party.
I have four shots and start to dance.
I shake my shoulders back and forth and my arms are writhing snakes. My hips keep the beat and my body rides the music. A girl starts to dance with me.
“Do you speak Farsi?”
Yes is the only word I know. It does not take long before she discovers this, but we have made a connection. We dance for a while.
“What is that bracelet for?”
She asks, pointing at a blue bracelet on my wrist.
“You don’t want to know.”
“No, I do. Please tell me.”
“I have two brothers who served in the Israeli army. One of them started an organization to support soldiers who serve without their family.”
Pause. We stop dancing.
“I told you that you didn’t want to know. Does this mean you can’t dance with me?”
I smile as I say this. She smiles and we keep on dancing.
Later that night we are talking in the kitchen. I notice that she too has a bracelet. It is green and says: “Free Iran”.
“I want your bracelet. Lets trade.”
“I will never wear yours. You know that I attended all the free Gaza protests?”
“I also want a free Gaza, though by different means. I also want a free Iran.”
She pauses for a second, as if to take this in.
“Did you vote for Obama?” she asks.
I laugh; “Yes, I did.”
“Well, at least you have that going for you.”
She examines my bracelet. There are no markings that betray its identity as supporting Israel. It says, simply: “Lone Soldier Center”.
She agrees to trade. We pour shots and I toast:
“To a free Gaza, and a free Iran!”
For the rest of the night, I wear a green bracelet and she wears a blue bracelet.
A few hours later and we are returning from the city to Palo Alto. Most of the car is drunk, with the important exception of our driver, our friend the Persian American Muslim Doctor who is driving a car overloaded with inebriated Jews.
When we return to Palo Alto, I think:
In Israel my brothers are awakening. Their guns are stored under their beds and their uniforms hang in their closet. In Iran, the first call to prayer is heard. The Ayatollah prepares another sermon denouncing Jews, Israel and the United States.
We may be exiles. But for tonight, at least, we were all Americans.