My thoughts on Ali-Reza’s suicide…

I thought I would put my thoughts in written form, and also consolidate the many responses to friends who are asking the same question: “why? Why would someone with so much potential, who had survived so much already, choose to take his own life?” Having dealt with the suicide of a good friend before, at a much younger age, I have to try to rationalize it, at least in my own way.

The news of Ali-Reza’s suicide was very sad. My first thought was, “what a tragedy, what a waste of a vivid, deep, and complex, human life”. But I guess I wasn’t too surprised. His younger sister took her life in 2001, and what I am about to write applied to her just as much as it applied to Ali-Reza.

I had known Ali-Reza since I was 16. We finished high school together and attended the same university. We were also in the same “eating” club there, which meant we shared many meals and social events. To say I really knew him is of course an overstatement. Ali-Reza was a very reserved individual, to put it mildly, for reasons that I’ll try to state. (He was not introverted though. He was equally adept at staying quiet and absorbing his surroundings as he was at interjecting his thoughts into discussions and being a lively participant at any event).

While I first met him in history class (when Mr. Murray asked him, referring to me, why his countrymen were all flocking to Williamstown), I felt like I had known him all my life, as every single text book from my 1st grade through 7th opened to a picture of Ali-Reza alongside his parents and brother and sisters.

Ali-Reza and I had many long, late night, chats. The sort of chats two people have once they’ve had a few drinks (and there aren’t girls around to preen for) and discussions just flow effortlessly. These were not chats we ever had during the day, in mixed company or even over a light lunch. As I mentioned, he was very reserved. I can only imagine that he was brought up, at least for the first 12 years of his life, to be protective, cautious and calculating, so as to never misstep, and to be very proper. I actually remember that the first time I saw him drinking, he tried his hardest to keep me from seeing the beer cup he was holding and tried to act sober. In addition, I think he lived much of his early life, most likely without the kind of friendships that we all develop when we have none of the worries that royalty have. While some of us made friends with the kids we played pick-up soccer with in the park or classmates we had sleepovers with, or the kids on a school bus, I imagine those opportunities were unavailable or quite different for Ali-Reza and his siblings. Even something as simple as smiling, seemed trained and sanitized. If you ever got him to really smile, not just a polite smile, but a grin or a laugh, it was an accomplishment.

Now, let me ask you to focus on him as a young boy, and a young man, and forget for a second who his dad was, and any notions you may have of his dad, good or bad. After all, Ali-Reza was 12 when he and his family were exiled, so one can’t really associate him with any of the events that led to the family seeking political asylum. A life of opulence he may have had, yet that hardly made him a relevant actor during his father’s rule.

Here was this young man, attending school in the US, after his father had passed away. In addition to the culture shock that afflicts any teen moving from the Middle East to the US, he also had the burden of having to deal with an uncomfortable dichotomy of a royal person living in a town where few recognized or acknowledged his previously held stature, while simultaneously being treated royally at home and among many ex-patriots.

It was tough to be adored by some, almost to a godly level, while others treated him indifferently, and yet another group despised him for who his father was. He once commented to me that it was hard to know whether someone being friendly was attracted to the royal aura or whether they were trying to get close to eventually harm him or his family. (In case you are wondering, during these late-night sessions, his guards would be seated in the foyer of our club, just as one or two always remained close, whether he was in class or dining out).

Ali-Reza kept a lot inside him. I easily sensed cynicism and bitterness when he spoke of “Americans”, and I and many others initially assumed that he just had a superiority complex. A complex that could easily be linked to royalty, one in which others are regarded as mere subjects. It was during one our late night talks when I realized that the bitterness was not a superiority complex… at least not as we had imagined it.

Initially what I learned was that he had disdain for so-called “educated” Americans for their ignorance, as opposed to the illiterates in Iran who were expected not to be well-read, well-traveled or politically astute. Here we were in a country where getting your high school diploma is unremarkable, and getting a college degree rather common. Yet he saw that while these Americans could rattle off names and stats of sports stars as if their life depended on that information, they could not name heads of state or place countries or regions of import, that were all instrumental to the well being and security of the US. He thought it was funny that most Americans couldn’t understand or accept the undue influence of the US over the internal governance of countries around the globe, and how virtually all Americans were happy just believing that governments toppled on their own and countries just happened to hate the US for no reason at all.

Of course, one reason we wouldn’t discuss this freely was because he felt uncomfortable stating some of these thoughts in front of our American friends; after all, we were guests in this country and many of the people we dealt with on a daily basis didn’t deserve this stereotyping and generalization. There were moments when he’d switch to speak Farsi, to make a snide remark about a situation, like the time when a younger student walked up to us and politely but incorrectly wanted to talk about our “A-rab” background.

These days there is a term bandied about that would have fit him somewhat: “elitism”, or more specifically “intellectual elitism” – but that term wouldn’t quite capture him completely. It wasn’t just a disdain for ignorants that defined Ali-Reza. He was also bitter, and jaded. Bitter because of how America treated his dad, and jaded because he saw (some?) friendships as being only as strong as were convenient.

It is well known that Iran in the decades leading up to 1980 was a friend of America. Ali-Reza thought that his dad had paid a great price to ally himself with the US (of course, I never delved into whether he felt that his dad owed it to the US after being restored to power in the early 1950s. Actually, these discussions were pretty one-sided, with me doing most of the listening, since at that age 18-21, I was politically naive, much like the Americans he bemoaned). Given how difficult it had been for his father to maintain the relationship with the US, Ali-Reza felt that it was quite the betrayal when the US, fearing a communist take-over of Iran (remember Afghanistan had only recently fallen into Soviet hands and a similar thing in Iran could open up resource riches and access to southern oceans to USSR) had indirectly supported Khomeini and pulled the rug out from under the Shah. I think Ali-Reza even mentioned promises made to restore the Shah to power if he would leave early and easily, but I have to admit that much of these details are lost in the decades since I had these talks. Suffice it to say that Ali-Reza’s view, about ten years after the events, was that the US betrayed his dad and family in the events that led up to the 1979 revolution.

This betrayal, in his eye, actually paled in comparison to the “stab-in-the-back” that his dad got when the US expelled the Shah, who was in need of medical treatments, to Panama (this was done as a way to bargain for the safe return of the US hostages held in Iran). I believe this is one event that severely jaded Ali-Reza.

I won’t even mention how scarring the loss of his sister would have been – especially to commit suicide. No doubt he felt that he failed her, and that he could have saved her, if only…  I recall that even a couple of years later he mentioned how those years after her death had been a “living hell” and he had had to take some time off from graduate school. Was this tragedy the straw on the camel’s back?

Over the years my contact with Ali-Reza grew more and more sparse. An e-mail here, a call there, and a forwarded joke or article to follow-up. I heard through the Iranian-ex-patriat rumor mills that he was engaged, and I was happy for him. I wrote and congratulated him, only to be told that he had put off the wedding. Too bad as I felt that he needed a reason to be; he seemed to be a bit lost, pursuing degrees yet without a goal of how to put that education to good use. At least his older brother’s pursuit of regime change in Iran gives him a strong raison-d’etre, one that Ali-Reza was lacking. A family of his own may have given him that. Although I can also picture him not wanting to bring any children into a world that he viewed as being treacherous and deceitful.

For me, the saddest part is that I didn’t realize that his tortured and tormented soul would throw in the towel. One always thinks, “if only I had known, maybe I could have made a difference, given him a reason to continue, opened his eyes to happier things in life…”. Sadly, depression doesn’t work that way. I had assumed that he had full control of the demons and lived a life that he had chosen, in a stalemate of sorts.  The reality, of course, was that the depression has won.

My thoughts are with his mother, brother and sister, who now have yet another terrible tragedy to mourn.

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~ by mz on January 6, 2011.

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