I don’t know about you, but the end of years always gets me feeling a bit more morbid than my usual. I think it was this blogger who astutely characterized Iranians a while back as a people who can boast not so much of stiff upper lips as “quivering lower lips.” Another enigma with Iranians, I suppose. For a country that cultivated hundreds of thousands of “martyrs,” Iranian families hardly ever make their peace with the death of their loved ones.
As if families ever do in any culture.
Anyhow, there is short story I experimented with quite a while back that I didn’t think had made it out on time. But apparently it had. So here is another one of mine I never linked to here, A Lonely Passing. And also the Spanish version.
If you go to funerals in Iran—and when you are Iranian, of course, there is no escaping them; above average participation in funerals and memorial services always—you’d notice quite a touching practice by women that we also encounter in Homer’s Iliad. At least it always reminds me of women’s lamentations in the Iliad. That’s what I tried to highlight in my story. Sort of like some pandemonium of calls and answers.
Let’s go back to my favorite book for a moment and start first with one of the more moving passages--the description of Achilles’ grief in Book 18 upon hearing of the death of his friend and companion Patroclus:
black cloud of grief swallowed up Achilles.
With both hands he scooped up soot and dust and poured it
on his head, covering his handsome face with dirt,
covering his sweet-smelling tunic with black ash.
He lay sprawling—his mighty warrior's massive body
fell down and stretched out in the dust. With his own hands,
he tugged at his own hair, disfiguring himself…
…Achilles gave a huge cry of grief.
My Iranian readers will be intimately familiar with the above scene which is close to the type of reaction you would expect from someone upon hearing the news of a loved one’s passing. Then there is lamentation or conversation with the corpse later on. But the conversation itself is a continuation of the earlier dialogue with the living.
A lot akin, again, to what we encounter in the astonishingly poignant, famous scene between Hector and his wife Andromache in book 6. The following words from Andromache:
My dear husband, your warlike spirit
will be your death. You've no compassion
for your infant child, for me, your sad wife,
who before long will be your widow.
For soon the Achaeans will attack you,
all together, and cut you down. As for me,
it would be better, if I'm to lose you,
to be buried in the ground. For then I'll have
no other comfort, once you meet your death,
except my sorrow. I have no father,
no dear mother. For lord Achilles killed
my father, when he wiped out Thebe,
city with high gates, slaying Eëtion.
But he didn't strip his corpse—his heart
felt too much shame for that. So he burned him
in his finely decorated armour
and raised a burial mound above the ashes.
Mountain nymphs, daughters of aegis-bearing Zeus,
planted elm trees all around his body.
I had seven brothers in my home.
All went down to Hades in one day,
for swift-footed lord Achilles killed them all,
while they were guarding their shambling oxen
and their white shining sheep. As for my mother,
who ruled wooded Thebe-under-Placus,
he brought her here with all his other spoils.
Then he released her for a massive ransom.
But archer goddess Artemis then killed her
in her father's house. So, Hector, you are now
my father, noble mother, brother,
and my protecting husband. So pity me.
Stay here in this tower. Don't orphan your child
and make your wife a widow. Place men by the fig tree,
where the city is most vulnerable,
the wall most easily scaled. Three times
their best men have come there to attack,
led by the two Ajaxes, the sons of Atreus,
famous Idomeneus, and Diomedes,
Tydeus' courageous son, incited to it
by someone well versed in prophecy
or by their own hearts' inclination."
Again, most of the elements and even some of the constructs themselves present will be familiar to most Iranians who have grown up hearing almost identical speeches. And now a narrative in book 24 of what happens when our old Priam manages to bring back the body of the fallen Hector to his besieged city:
At Cassandra's shout,
no man or woman was left unaffected.
There in the city all were overcome with grief
beyond anyone's control. Close to the gates,
they met Priam bringing home the body.
First Hector's dear wife and his noble mother,
tearing their hair, ran to the sturdy wagon,
trying to touch Hector's head. People crowded round,
all weeping. They would have stayed there by the gates,
shedding tears for Hector the entire day
until the sun went down…
And the following return to the original conversation but this time with the corpse
Then the women,
began their wailing, led by white-armed Andromache,
who held in her arms the head of man-killing Hector.
"My husband—you've lost your life so young,
leaving me a widow in our home,
with our son still an infant, the child
born to you and me in our wretchedness.
I don't think he'll grow up to adulthood.
Before that, our city will all be destroyed.
For you, who kept watch over for us, are dead.
You used to protect our city, keeping
its noble wives and little children safe.
Now, soon enough, they'll all be carried off
in hollow ships. I'll be there among them.
And you, my child, you'll follow with me,
to some place where you'll be put to work
at menial tasks, slaving for a cruel master.
Or else some Achaean man will grab your arm
and throw you from the wall—a dreadful death—
in his anger that Hector killed his brother,
or his father, or his son. For Hector's hands
made great numbers of Achaeans sink their teeth
into the broad earth. In wretched warfare,
your father was not gentle. So in our city
they now weep for him. O Hector, what sorrow,
what untold grief you've laid upon your parents.
What painful sorrows will remain for me,
especially for me. As you were dying,
you didn't reach your hand out from the bed,
or give me some final words of wisdom,
something I could remember always,
night and day, as I continue my lament."
Now let’s see what happened earlier in Book 19 when it was the turn of a grieving Briseis:
Briseis, looking like golden Aphrodite,
then saw Patroclus mutilated by sharp bronze.
With a cry, she threw herself on him, hands tearing
at her breast, her tender neck, her lovely face,
fair as a goddess, lamenting:
you who brought the utmost joy to my sad heart,
I left you here alive, when I went off,
taken from these huts. But now, at my return,
I find you dead, you, the people's leader.
Again for me, as always, evil follows evil.
I saw the husband I was given to
by my father and my noble mother killed
by sharp bronze before our city. My brothers,
three of them, whom my own mother bore,
whom I loved, have all met their fatal day.
But when swift Achilles killed my husband,
you wouldn't let me weep. You told me then
you'd make me lord Achilles' wedded wife,
he'd take me in his ships to Phthia,
for a marriage feast among the Myrmidons.
You were always gentle. That's the reason
I'll never stop this grieving for your death."
As Briseis said this, she wept. The women joined her
in wailing for Patroclus, though each of them
had her own private sorrows.
Isn’t the Iliad simply amazing? Greek literature gives me hope. The Greeks give me hope. For the same reasons the Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda is such an absolute joy for me. From what I’ve seen of his handiworks, Wajda communicates hope without the customary rah rah of misplaced optimism.
And I find myself trying to think daily about how we should remember the myriad possibilities in our more distressed moments.
The astonishment of the ongoing saga of our collective endeavor might actually lie in the possibilities for the emergence of that “unbounded vitality,” and “appetite for life,” out of terribly dreary, suffocating, muddy and cruel milieus.