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JewishJournal.com

April 4, 2013

Iconoclast

http://www.jewishjournal.com/gina_nahai/article/iconoclast

This may be just another useless explanation, the kind of futile attempt at finding meaning and logic that we all resort to in response to grief, but sometimes it seems life has it in for you in a very personal way. You go along for years feeling spared and protected, taking credit, even, for your relatively undamaged life. You go to bed feeling lucky one night and wake up cursed the next day. You tell yourself this is just a glitch in the road, the worst thing that’s ever going to happen to you, a deviation from the normal course of things. But then the pieces start to fall out in the most random, unexpected ways; the single crack in your once-gleaming good fortune grows branches and spread roots, and, before you know it, the litany of hard knocks has become a permanent soundtrack. 

So you try to make sense of it, and when you can’t, you sit up late at night and trace the long road  to despair back to its place of origin. When, exactly, did the bad stuff start to happen? 

We all know that no life is entirely charmed, no doorpost really painted with lamb’s blood. But we also know that the Pharaoh was doing just fine until he was sent the Ten Plagues. It wasn’t a random thing, the boils and locusts and death of the firstborn; something out there really had it in for the guy. There was that moment when his luck turned sour and, after which, nothing went quite his way anymore. I haven’t followed up of late, but I’m willing to bet the frogs have come back every year, dependable as the tide, centuries after he let the Hebrews go. 

I asked my cousin-by-marriage once if he believed that a single loss, however great, can alter a person’s luck. It was a Sunday afternoon during Passover, in one of those houses in Holmby Hills where you need a bus to get from one end of the dining room to the other in a reasonable amount of time. Our hosts were a young couple with a pair of beautiful children, the kind of family you think should be posing for pictures all the time. This was in the late ’80s, when many Iranians still lamented the losses they had incurred during the revolution. For some, the loss was mostly financial; for others, like this cousin, it cut much deeper. 

Before the revolution, my cousin-by-marriage, Farhad Nahai, was an English major at UCLA and just about the kindest, most authentic, innocent and funny young man you ever met. He was a writer and a poet and a genuine, reliable friend. He never forgot a birthday or closed his door on a stray, and he deserved all the love and attention he received because he gave it all back in spades. He had a house in Encino and a shiny new Trans Am, three very successful brothers and parents who would have looked out for him, stood between him and any of fate’s perfidies, to the last breath.

Before the revolution, Farhad survived a horrific car accident without major injury, drank cognac and told stories as rainwater rose above his ankles during a storm that flooded the house he was staying in with his best friend and cousin, Homayoun. The worst thing that happened to him was getting arrested for an unpaid jaywalking ticket in Los Angeles. There was no death or illness, no major loss, no reason to think they would ever occur. You could just see him going on like that — loud shirts and D.H. Lawrence novels and a Richard Pryor humor that made the ugliest reality somewhat palatable — for another hundred years.

In the heyday of the revolution, Farhad lost his 54-year-old mother to sudden illness. For him, something big and essential tore in the fabric of the universe and remained beyond repair. One Passover a few years later, he lost his 32-year-old best friend and cousin, Homayoun, to a long illness. Last Sunday, again during Passover, Farhad himself died after a long illness, at age 58. He had suffered more than anyone should, left behind a lovely, devoted and still-young wife, a delightful 14-year-old son, three caring brothers and their families, many a tender friend. 

We sat around last Sunday afternoon at Farhad’s aunt’s house in Los Angeles — “City of Cars and Creeps” is what he called it — and read aloud from his old essays and poems. We talked about him before and after the revolution, about his youth and middle age, how cruel fate had been to him at times, how lucky he was in marriage and fatherhood. I remembered that day in Holmby Hills, how he was convinced that his life would have been different had the revolution not happened. It occurred to me now that I had asked the wrong question that time: Instead of asking if he thought the revolution had changed his life forever, I should have asked if he thought he had changed because of the revolution. 

The one thing I can say about Farhad is that he was not — ever — like anyone else I’ve known. His English professor at UCLA once defined him as an “iconoclast.” To Farhad, this meant “a person who does things in his own way,” and he was very pleased with this, so fond of the title, he would write it into a video he made of his life for his 40th birthday party. He did do everything in his own, sometimes inexplicable, way. That’s how he was throughout, regardless of circumstances. It’s what made him so lovable most of the time, so difficult to understand at others, the one thing that remained constant in the midst of the storm. In the long run, I suspect it’s what will make him so uniquely memorable, the kind of person who never really dies because he never quite complies. 

In his 40th birthday video, Farhad appears in a yellow-and-white silk Versace shirt, next to a shiny new sports car, while the word ICONOCLAST flashes in giant letters on the screen. I’ve always found that image enthralling, but after last Sunday, I think I’ve found new meaning in it: Maybe there really is no purpose, nor a beginning or end, for all the bad things that happen to us; maybe life is just a series of disappointments that happen at random times to random people, and all we can hope for is to have the courage and forbearance to go through it with grace and humanity. 

Maybe defiance is our only hope, intransigence our best revenge.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in the Journal.

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