Monday, May 11, 2015

Rachim: My Friend, My Brother:

How can you hate people you know? When you get to know the supposed enemy – by breaking bread, sharing stories, helping one another, it becomes difficult to hate. I wrote the following several years ago, but shared it with only a few friends. With the constant and ongoing rattling of sabers about Iran, I think it might now be appropriate to share with a larger audience.

In Memoriam: Mohammed Rachim Rezaizadeh

On my road to Islam, there have been many influences.  Some have come from simply meeting and getting to know people from Muslim countries, interacting with them, seeing that they were good people, that we shared a common humanity, that we want and desire the same things, be it a reasonably comfortable life or social justice – or both.  One of those was a friend from my days at the University of Arkansas in the mid-1970s: Mohammed Rachim Rezaizadeh.

When I met Rachim, he introduced himself as “Ray”, assuming that, like most Americans, it would be easier for me than using his real name.  I insisted on learning his real name – the one given him by his mother and his father. When I successfully pronounced “Rachim”, he smiled and we instantly became friends.  Even though he has long since departed this life, I still think of him often.  Because of him I developed an unending love of his country and his people and a much deeper appreciation of what family means and does not mean.  From him, I learned... well, let me tell you the story.

In order to truly write about Rachim and why he is so important to me, I will also have to delve into my background and into what was happening in my life at that time.  It was 1976 and I was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in political science at the U of A.  I had been extremely active politically, working with both the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) and the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the early 1970s.  As a result, I had been expelled from the United States Air Force Academy, where I had been a cadet.  I later went on to participate in the siege at Wounded Knee in 1973, where I had been fingerprinted and photographed upon our surrender.  I also had spent some jail time, about six weeks, due to my two convictions for trespassing on a military installation and subsequently failure to appear for sentencing on the second conviction.  (I had chosen to go back to Wounded Knee instead of to federal court.)  Consequently, I was under fairly close surveillance by the FBI and would soon flee to Mexico, with the approval of my attorney.  At this point, enter Rachim.

At the time I met Rachim, I was feeling very isolated.  I had been working with a (very) small Marxist group for about a year before, but they had shunned me because I was “hot”. They were afraid I would bring unwelcome attention from the local Feds.  I got along well enough with and had many acquaintances among non-political students, but very few if any real friends.  I honestly no longer remember how I met Rachim.  I was involved with a young women, Pam, and he began dating her twin sister, Patti.  (I’m not sure if he began dating her before or after we met.)  Rachim saw himself as secular Iranian, but, given his name – Mohammed Rachim – his family obviously was not.  He was vocal in his opposition to the Shah (This was 1976), but understood that the SAVAK (the Shah’s secret police) had long tentacles.  I had only a vague idea about what was happening in Iran and the rest of the Middle East.  I knew virtually nothing about the culture and history of Iran and very little about that of other countries in the region.  That, however, was about to change.

Rachim introduced me to this new and exciting world.  Through him, I began to meet and make friends with Iranian and Arab students from a variety of countries.  There was not talk of Persian or Arab superiority, no Shi’a-Sunni split, only brotherhood and sharing.  These were young men who saw themselves as anti-imperialists, who spoke of social justice and equality, who seemed to be longing for the same things I was.  We spent many long hours – Iranians, Arabs and myself – seated around the hookah, smoking, sharing, talking.  It did not matter to them that I did not speak their language – they all spoke excellent English, which they spoke to me.  Speaking among themselves, they reverted to Farsi or Arabic, unless, of course, they did not speak the same language.  They also knew that I was not uncomfortable around people who spoke different languages.  As for my being the subject of unwanted attention from the authorities, that was par for the course for them.  They also were.

Theirs was a brotherhood and I was welcomed into it with open arms.  I would not know for some time how important this was.  I only knew that, because Rachim knew and trusted me, they came to know and trust me.  Rachim, like all of them – the Iranians, the Arabs from various countries, everyone within this circle of friendship, spoke of each other as brothers – me included.  I had never heard the expression, “My brother and I against our cousin, my cousin and I against the world.”  We were all brothers, cousins.  Rather than go on, let me relate one incident, which also marked the last time I saw Rachim.  It speaks volumes about who he was.  It also speaks volumes about his world, his people and his culture.  It also speaks of a debt that I now have with him, with all Iranians and, by extensions, all people from the Middle East and all Muslims.

In the fall of 1976, my position in the US had become untenable.  The Federal harassment had increased and I made the decision to flee the United States.  Pam and I packed an old car and drove it to Brownsville, Texas, accompanied by her sister’s three year old daughter Bianca.  They would serve as a “cover”, giving us the appearance of a family, albeit a hippy family, driving down to the coast.  Patti and Rachim would join us in a couple of days, which they did.  After we arrived, things did not go well for us (the details are not important.).  Our money soon ran out and Rachim had to return to Arkansas.  He knew that I had a brother living in Dallas and suggested that I go with him, so I could ask my brother for help. We pooled our money and, calculating how much we needed for gas to get to Dallas, we gave the rest to Pam and Patti.  We then proceeded to Dallas, where we spent the night with some of his friends.  The next morning, I called my brother and made arrangements to meet him at the DFW Airport, where he worked,   Rachim took me there and agreed to pick me up in about an hour. To make a long story short, the only help my brother offered was to find me a matchbook so I could light my cigarettes.  Other than that, he was unwilling to do anything.  When Rachim picked me up, I was extremely depressed.  Here I was, facing the prospect of leaving the country, perhaps forever, with no money, not knowing where to go or what to do, and my brother, my flesh and blood, had been unwilling to help me, just as my father had refused a couple of weeks before.  (That story need not be told here.)
Noticing my state, Rachim went into action.  He told me that he needed to visit some cousins in Weatherford, about sixty miles to the west.  He also mentioned that one of them was a fairly good barber.  As my hair was well below my shoulders, he thought it would be a good idea for me to “clean my act up” before crossing the border, so as not to arouse any suspicion on anyone’s part.  What I did not realize until later is that this was merely a pretext for me to accompany him.  
We drove to Weatherford in relative silence.  (I am not very talkative when experiencing a serious case of the mulligrubs.)  Upon arriving at his cousin’s apartment, we found him and another half dozen or so Iranians in a rather heated discussion with their landlord.  I do not remember exactly what the discussion was about, but always enjoying a good verbal fray, I jumped right in, citing municipal codes and tentants’ rights, much to everyone’s delight – with the obvious exception of the landlord.  (It’s probably not necessary to say that I was citing codes from Fayetteville, Arkansas – not Weatherford, Texas.)  After the landlord left, Rachim introduced me to everyone as his friend.  We visited and, a short time later, I noticed that everyone had disappeared into a back room.  Rachim soon came out, took me out onto the walkway in front of the apartment and put fifty dollars in my hand, saying that this was all he and his friends had on them and that, if I could wait until the morning to leave, they could come up with at least $200 more.  I was stunned at their generosity.  They did not know me, had never seen me before but, based upon Rachim’s word and friendship, everyone had delved deeply into their pockets.  “My cousin and I against the world...”  I was a friend; thus, I was family – and family had nothing to do with blood, but everything to do with human solidarity.  This was their way.

I was anxious to leave, so I asked Rachim to take me to out to the highway, where I would begin hitchhiking back to Brownsville and then cross the border.  When he let me out, we said our goodbyes.  I was never to see Rachim again.

Fast forwarding, when the Iranian Hostage Crisis started in 1979, I began to read in the Mexican press rumors of an impending crackdown on and deportations of Iranian students in retaliation for the seizure of the embassy compound in Tehran.  I went to the embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Mexico City where I, the supposed enemy, was graciously received.  They were unable to give me any information on the impending deportations in general, much less on Rachim’s case in particular.  (One must remember that at that time, Iran and the United States did not – and still do not – maintain diplomatic relations.)  Several years later, after returning to the United States and reencountering Pam, I learned that Rachim had left the US voluntarily.  (He and Patti had gotten married, in a vain attempt to forestall his eventual deportation.)  After the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War, Rachim was drafted, sent to the front and disappeared.  Presumably, he was killed and his body was never recovered.  Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji'un.

It has been thirty-five years since I have seen Rachim and I only knew him for a relatively short period of time and, yet, I think of him often.  Today, I realize that I really knew – and still know – very little about him.  His mother was still alive back then, but he hadn’t talked to her in three years (until I told him to call her on my telephone just before I left – I had no intention of paying the bill.  They talked for over two hours.)  He was from a city three hundred miles to the south of Tehran whose name I do not remember, if memory serves me correctly (which it probably does not).  I have no photos of him and today cannot even remember his face.  He was about my height (I’m short for an American male raised in the “Heartland”) and he had black hair, a dark complexion and dark eyes – but I just managed to describe the vast majority of Iranians.  I do not know anything about the rest of his family, save the cousins that I met so long ago.  What I do know is that Rachim introduced me to a sense of family and human solidarity that I so desperately needed, because my own family and my own society had failed miserably in that regard.  He showed me the human face of another region of the world and of other peoples, societies that my own country would come to vilify and paint in the most brutal terms.  He was raised in a religion that would be demonized, but that I would come to love and accept.  He showed me that those future characterizations were lies before they became so commonplace in our country.  He also showed me that his ethos was not his alone, but belonged to many other peoples, peoples that time has taught me to love and respect.  He taught me that, if I were to see him today, the correct greeting would be “Assalamu Alaikum”.  He also taught me, perhaps unintentionally, that every time I meet people from his country or from his region, I would be encountering people with whom I had much in common.  I am, after all, a member of the same community.  I, like Rachim and all others, am a human. We would all do well to remember that.

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