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Jul/Aug 2007 Nonfiction

The World and I

by Monika Lange

Photography by Kawika Chetron


On this lovely Saturday, the sun shines just as bright as it did on Tuesday, September 11. In front of our San Francisco Bay Area house, my teenage daughter Anahita (Ana) and my husband Bei install a new American flag they somehow managed to procure. This was a task next to impossible after the WTC and Pentagon terrorist attacks. As the flag blows in the breeze from the lagoon, the wind seems to play Chopin's Mazurka.

"Mom!" Ana's voice brings me back from my reverie. "Where are you?"

Where indeed? In Poland, in Warsaw, where in my dad's study I began to discover the world.

Poland, a small country in Europe, sandwiched between her potent neighbors, forever occupied, cut, and divided, as if it were a piece of cake. Chopin's music in the willows--the constantly weeping, eternal sadness of freedom lost. Among all this, at the end of the 1950s, my father's study provides a safe haven, where I can sit under the desk, or find a book on one of the floor-to-ceiling black shelves holding many languages, countries, and religions in their wooden embrace. I can sit on a black lion adorning the Danzig sofa, or on Dad's lap, which I obviously prefer, and read or listen to him telling me about distant lands, different cultures, and religions. From the wall, a South American mask with black horns looks upon us with bloody eyes. From the table, a serene Buddha sitting in the lotus position guards us, and a dancing Shiva engaged in his eternal cosmic prance, offers his protection. And so my little country grows, embracing the world.

My mother supplements father's tales about foreign lands and people with the story close to home. She reminisces about her best friend, Roma, a Jewish girl who "went to an oven" in Auschwitz. Mom tells me how she used to visit Roma in the ghetto, before its liquidation, and how my grandfather, the only doctor in Tomaszow, their small town, also made many clandestine trips from the "Aryan side" to treat the sick. They had risked their lives and survived.

At nine, I broaden my little world, when we visit Italy. I fall in love with the history of the Roman Empire, immediately deciding to become an archeologist. Every day I run to the Coliseum, where I almost can hear cheers of the spectators, the roar of lions and tigers, and sounds of gladiators' deadly battles. I pick up a black piece of a mosaic and hide it in my pocket. I keep this ancient relic for many years, to remind me of human history.

A year later chemistry casts its spell, so even while writing historical novels for my friends, I decide to become chemistry major. Many years later, I will. However, different things have to happen in the meantime. My beloved father dies when I am only 12, and mother and I are suddenly alone. Living in England, my half-brother Christopher invites me there for the summer vacation. It becomes a custom, and every summer I travel to London, Manchester, Wales, and Cornwall... I love it. I meet so many different people--Indian, Jewish, Oriental, Black, American, and South African; people from distant countries I know, or have to learn about. My friend Patsy from South Africa tells me, "During the apartheid I filled in questionnaires, "race: human, color: pink."

Meanwhile, my own country prepares to give me a hard lesson in history and life. In March of 1968 I am in 9th grade. Unexpectedly, a Star of David appears on my best friend Ela's desk. Until that time I never think of Ela as being Jewish. What does it matter, anyway? Now I learn that for many people it makes a great difference! Friends from my boy and girl scouts troop are leaving Poland. How is it possible? It seems just yesterday, we all took a pledge at the Warsaw Citadel, the symbol of Poland's struggle for independence. A hundred years ago, during the Tsarist Russian occupation, kibitkas, or horse wagons, were leaving the Citadel's gallows filled with Polish political prisoners. Horses' hoofs clicked on cobblestone streets in the rhythm of the Polish national anthem: "Poland shall not die, as long as we live..." The journey and the lives of the freedom fighters' from the Citadel, ended in Siberian lagers. Now, a century later, my friends' journeys result in exile. I still see the surreal image of the empty train station, the hugs and the tears, and the train for Vienna, reluctantly pulling away. My lips emit no sound as I sing in my mind, "Poland shall not die, as long as we live..."

Another shock comes at the end of the school year, when our principle that is also my beloved history teacher, gets kicked out from our high school. Ela and I visit him sometime later, only to learn that he too will be leaving Poland. Meanwhile, we feel discriminated against by most teachers-- I for sticking to my friends and my values, Ela also for not having left when all other Jews did.

"Do you want to change schools?" my mom asks after one particularly unpleasant day.

I refuse. So does Ela. We don't want to give in to anti-Semitic bigots.

The Vietnam War, the year of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan's "Where have all the flowers gone?" I arrive in the US, which in 1974 is at war and on the verge of president Nixon's impeachment. When I come to Washington DC, the White House is closed for visitors. People gather in front of the gates.

"Do you know why it's closed today?" I ask a female tourist.

"President Nixon resigned last night, and we are waiting for President Ford's arrival," explains a young woman, her face shaded by a straw hat.

I decide not to wait, and I visit the city instead. Again I come invited by my brother, who this time lives in Rochester, NY. Greyhound provides me with a tour of Canada and the States. I love it, but even on a Hopi and Navaho reservation I miss history that in Europe surrounded me everywhere.

Back in Europe, visiting Paris, I meet Jamshid, an Iranian who'll become my first husband. I reach further back into the history of humanity, all the way to ancient Persia. With my new husband, we travel to Iran in August 1977. The country stands at the brink of an Islamic revolution, but we don't realize it yet.

Next eight years are sometimes difficult, sometimes happy, sometimes just uneventful, but always fascinating. I meet with Islam, this time not in a book, but in real life. I discover a compassionate religion of giving and sharing with the less fortunate, of helping fellow human beings, the qualities almost forgotten in the Western World I come from. Iranians are hospitable, caring, and fun-loving people. They embrace me like one of their own.

A few years later, I'll also meet with Islamic extremists who call for girls to marry at nine and who send little boys into war as minesweepers. The fanatics will fight the Jihad, the holy war against the Arab invader, Iraq. A horrifying picture emerges. Little children become instant martyrs who are to open Heaven's gates with a plastic key that each carries around his neck. A man on a white stallion, dressed in white robes and white turban, walks his horse toward the minefield. "It's the Imam, the Spirit of Saint Ali," the children are told and they run, to become martyrs forever. Their small bodies torn in half, decapitated, little limbs scatter across the minefield. Mothers will never see their young sons again. Tired, the horse rider returns to camp. Tomorrow, he will play his role again. Such religious fanaticism teaches me a bitter lesson.

In 1980s Poland, great things are happening, but they are too far removed from me, as I have given Iran my heart. Yet, eventually, the fanatics will drive me away from the country of Saadi and Hafez, the country that will change its "roses and nightingales" into guns and martyrs.

America turns out to be my destiny after all. A weary traveler, I reach the East coast running away from the holy war, the Jihad. A gypsy, a vagabond, I travel from New York, to Texas, and to California, planting my roots temporarily in each home and in each state, until a few years later I get grounded by an enemy, the biggest of allóMultiple Sclerosis. The illness comes upon me unexpectedly, in the midst of a Mexican rainforest, and enslaves me, chains me, cuts my wings. Revenge of Montezuma? Ahriman? Some god I have offended?

Fate has been so unforgiving. As if I have not been punished enough, today I face another, brand new Jihad, this time against my new country. New York is burning. America bleeds. Terror shows its ugly head. My heart aches for all lives that are lost and the people who will perish in senseless wars. Have human nations forgotten that they are one, that their humble creation lies with common ancestors who originated somewhere deep in the heart of Africa?

Sometimes I feel that the world and I are alone in this endless fight for common sense, understanding, and love of mankind. Yet, I have moments of glory. On a Saturday in September, I, a Polish woman, watch my Moslem-born daughter Ana, a typical American teenager in denim shorts and a tiny, white tank top. Her long blond hair blows in the breeze. My Chinese husband Bei, her step-father, usually stern and disapproving of Ana's skimpy outfits, silently shakes his black mane and works with her in unity to install a new American flag on the lagoon in front of our house. The sun reflects on the water and bounces off the surface, creating tiny disks of light. As Ana and Bei hoist the flag in the air, I recall my small country in Europe, and my father's study, where among thousands of books I learned that all people are equal. I believe that I have understood this lesson well. The flag flutters in the breeze, and I hear Chopin's Mazurka playing in the weeping willows on the other side of the water. Slender poplars, so much like the ones that flanked the driveway of my grandparents' house in Tomaszow, join in the Chopin concert. The world and I have come a full circle, and we still have hope.

 

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