The Day We Moved: Director Tara Aghdashloo reflects on nostalgia and her childhood home in Tehran
WRITING: TARA AGHDASHLOO
The day we moved out of my childhood home in Tehran, I kissed every single wall goodbye. The old house was soon to be demolished, and I thought my kisses would provide solace to the place my dad once built, lived in with his mother, and where my mom moved as his wife at the age of 20, shortly before she became pregnant with my brother. It was where I was born. I wanted the house, which was on a slithering narrow street with a little stream flowing through the middle, to know it was loved. I was around 8 or 9, and understood that inanimate objects didn’t feel anything.
But nostalgia has no concern for logic. It is a sense of attachment to things that are no longer there or never were. Nostalgia has no concern for time, either. And when it does, time is the enemy: the big dissolver, the dissipater of memories, of touch, of voices, of scents that are as much a part of you as your hair or nails or toes. These memories stretch through time, coalescing into the narrative of who we are. They are faint and unreachable, though painfully tangible.
Nostalgia wishes for time to stop — to be suspended between the past and the future. We watch as things, like the doomed walls of my childhood home, decay, moulder and deteriorate, and desperately try to preserve them; as if with a kiss.
"Nostalgia is loss, even if you never had it in the first place."
Even before I needed to be, I was nostalgic. I’d spend hours peering through my grandmother’s albums. I was obsessed with old photos of her house, which she designed with my grandpa for their three sons and one daughter (my mom). I’d examine the ways it looked different before, in black and white. The pool’s sky-blue paint was once fresh and unscathed. The cherry and Platycladus trees short and prim, cobblestones not yet overtaken by grass and foliage, and no etchings of names or political slogans on the red brick walls. Even the sky was brighter, before the skyscrapers had cast their imposing shadows. The photos captured an era that ended violently and abruptly with the Islamic Revolution of 1979; a revolution concerned with a new aesthetic as much as it was with an ideological rebirth. This meant that, at least visually, the country was going to be renewed: mandatory hijab for women, mosques in every corner, no royal palaces or names, and fresh murals… lots and lots of revolutionary murals.
And so a photo I came across from 1974 when my uncle visited with his hippie German girlfriend after a long hitch-hike through Europe, was not just a photo, it was code for a completely different realm. So were the shots of my grandmother in her Jackie Kennedy numbers (she always matched her purse and shoes and wore gloves outside), the ones of my handsome grandfather surrounded by his kids in the garden where he spent most of his time, a picture of my mom as a young student of architecture, and the photos of my dad as a young artist.
These images became part of my fantasy, and endless combinations of a world that was not just affected by time but also by an entire new cultural structure. I studied them closely: the people in the background, the skyline, the fabric of their clothes. I tried to imagine myself there, decades before I was born. I longed for a time I had never experienced, which was inevitably more glorious in my imagination.
Nostalgia is loss, even if you never had it in the first place.
This photo-examination ritual used to be a solitary, weird habit of mine. Today, the internet, humanity’s biggest collector of images, feeds our common nostalgic tendencies fiercely. Entire websites dedicated to recreating childhood photos popped up, and I was an early fan circa 2007. In the Iranian context, while some like me tried mapping out our collective historical narrative before the devastating Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), there was a bigger force rewriting its own version of history. The new regime and its constructed identity, like all new systems or regimes, relied on erasure of any ‘good’ associations to the time before its entrance, to solidify their legitimacy and the cost everyone paid or was expected to pay. There are tens of Instagram accounts dedicated to this lost Iranian aesthetic: @CafeNostal is a popular one and @Khatere.Bazi2 (which means memory play in Persian).
"This wasn’t a sudden new reality or an overnight event, it came gradually and dressed in denial."
Amy Malek, in her essay “Memory Studies,” writes about this sense of memory-construction and nostalgia, referencing the idea of ‘postmemory’ It refers to how future generations are attached to the collective cultural trauma and experiences of those who came before, usually through stories and images that they grew up with. There are many examples. The children of Holocaust survivors, Armenian genocide, partition of India and Pakistan, the descendents of African slavery. On a smaller scale, I would think that our personal family trauma is also re-lived and reconstructed for us daily.
My sense of loss and detachment from the past (and present) was amplified by leaving Iran. I got to Toronto as a hopeful 14-year-old who’d watch MTV, listened to Dido, Nelly, and Guns N’ Roses, and read Dostoyevsky and Harry Potter in between classes. You could say my taste was not typically cool or Canadian. Toronto, and more specifically the North York area of the city, did not look like the shows on MTV and my Russian and Eastern European classmates at Newtonbrook High School were not thrilled, like me, by the ways in which Raskolnikov evaded punishment and was psychologically punished for eternity. Most of my classmates smoked pot and skipped class and discussed blowjob techniques. I was disappointed. I wanted to be recognized as an Iranian, correctly, and as the person that I was trying to be in that moment. Language was the only tool bridging this gap of communicating who I was and who I wanted to be. But it always felt like an extracurricular activity. I didn’t feel like I belonged to Canada, as much as Canada told me that I did: multiculturalism, egalitarianism, the cultural mosaic… all concepts that were meant to make me Canadian without losing my otherness. But I still felt homesick. To the point of being physically sick.
My sense of identity was stretched between two different realities and was exasperated by the common attitude towards my previous home; Iran, or the Middle East, and its “backwards,” “suppressive” ways that everyone was eager to escape. Without dismissing the very real oppression of a system I was raised in, it is reductive at best and dangerously ignorant otherwise, to sweep an entire complex, contemporary society under the arrogance of such a false dichotomy. I once got into a fight in an Ossington Avenue bar washroom because I overheard someone refer to me as “The Persian.” It felt offensively cavalier. As if my name, what I do, who I am everyday is peripheral to where I was from.
My new home was inevitably shaping me. I had crushes on Canadian boys and met friends I liked in university and moved downtown where the city had more to offer. But I still spent my summers in Tehran. For the first few years I’d stay at my grandma’s house and when I got older I would takeover our old family home. I would throw parties, camp around the country’s wild landscapes, play tennis, and take literature and theatre classes. I would attend my father’s art history classes. I was proud to be there, and suspended my nostalgia for a momentary illusion of being at home. On the first day of every visit, I would spend a day in the back of a cab (we had cheap as-Uber-service years before Uber), and ask them to drive me around. I would visit my old school, my old boyfriend’s street, my grandparent’s old house (the house with the pool, which they eventually sold and moved into an apartment, where my grandma lives alone now.) It was a music video in my head: I relished being the in-between. I would hang out with my childhood friends, who every year would change a little but not too much, and always thought I would one day go back. You know, to make things better.
University was where I grew up and grew into my profession, fuelled by the dream of “making things better” as a journalist, which ironically created problems for my return home. I refuse the terminology of exile to define my current state of being. I prefer to see it as being temporarily adrift, in limbo, a ghost. As Dan Fox would describe it in his book Limbo, refusing an experience to be part of your past, is what haunting means. This wasn’t a sudden new reality or an overnight event, it came gradually and dressed in denial.
"Like unrequited love, this nostalgia is a disease that lives in your heart forever. It is anguish of loss, of never returning to your beloved."
Now, after 10 years of not being home, my nostalgia has never been more real, or painful. Like unrequited love, this nostalgia is a disease that lives in your heart forever. It is anguish of loss, of never returning to your beloved. Of having to watch from afar as my grandparents, cousins, and friends aged, married, divorced, lived, and died. It’s almost funny that this happened (nothing just happens, I made some decisions) to me, the girl who kissed the walls, and the woman tethered to the locality of emotions, hovering between who she was, and where she is.
When I go to pubs on Sundays in London, where I now live, and see families together around a table sharing a meal, looking bored with each other, or siblings fighting, grandparents dozing off, mothers and fathers sipping a few more glasses of wine than they think they should, I get nostalgic not for the past but for a future that may never be mine. A future where I can get a taxi to my grandmother’s house and take her fresh flowers and some fruit and make her some juice and sit for tea and cigarettes and ask her a million questions about what it was like to be a little girl in Iran 70 years ago. A future where all my cousins and I can get together and joke about our games in my backyard. I resent a future where I can’t attend my best friend’s wedding. Where I’ll miss the birth of her child. And I can’t walk down the street and eavesdrop on Persian whispers, or ask for directions to a new cafe that’s opened in the part of Tehran that is now gentrified into a trendy gallery hub. It’s cruel how the thing I feared most is my reality, and how this reality is perhaps the thing that defines me most.
I dream about Tehran all the time.
Tehran never terminated in Tehran, much like how Toronto has followed me to London, and the way I maintain all these places in my accent and my mind and taste for food and commentary on life. There is an enrichment I would have never had without these markers of time and place that have given me so much material to be sad or happy about. Stuart Hall, who I discovered late but since have cherished, writes in his book, Familiar Stranger, about his dual identity as a Jamaican British person: “The idea that, because I moved — irrevocably as it turned out — from one world to the other, from colony to metropole, there were no connections between them has always seemed inconceivable to me. But others have tended to see these worlds as much more compartmentalized.”
For the first time, a few months ago I dreamt of the house I lived in Toronto. And I realized that as transitory as it felt once, it has seeped into my consciousness and is a definitive part of who I am. There is a point where instead of nostalgia for the past I have to redefine a future that would suit me best. Instead of looking at the family in the pub with melancholy I have to remind myself that not-moving was ever really an option for me. And by moving I don’t mean immigration, but moving in all directions, pushing and filling in the contours of my imagination and sense of self. And the reality that I will never know how my life would have been better or worse otherwise, just that it is the way it is now.
While researching for my new documentary film about my father a few months back, I enlisted my brother’s help to source homevideos of the family in Tehran. This was a particular feat since we barely have any. (One side effect of migration is the displacement and scarcity of archives.) In a dusty storage space somewhere, my brother discovered two video tapes and one Super 8 reel. He sent them to London, and I found a guy in Sussex to convert them. Days passed, I waited anxiously. Finally, I found myself sitting in a dark East London edit suite with my editor as we played the grainy footage for the first time. The Super 8 turned out to be the only remaining video of my parents’ wedding. There they were: my grandmother, her sister, my grandfather who is dead now, cheerful around my parents, champagne flutes in hand and sweat on their foreheads in the hot afternoon. The second tape showed the 10-year-old me running around with long, unkempt hair, and my bespectacled pre-teen brother rapping to Coolio’s “Gangster Paradise.” The third was on the last day of us leaving my childhood home in 1997. I cried, weightless in a wormhole. Brecht says we carry the “afflictions which were lodged in our inner lives.”
My inner life is a demolished house in Northern Tehran.