Jewish Journal

Watching Elie

by Mojdeh Sionit

Posted on May. 30, 2002 at 8:00 pm

I have been here less than two months, from Iran by way of Washington, D.C., and my very first days in Los Angeles are strange and lonely.

I gravitate toward a nearby public library. In a strange city, it is water in the wilderness. I glance around, and spot something familiar, not in appearance but in nature. It is just a word that draws my attention. The word is Jewish. I walk close to it. "The Jewish Journal," reads the cover page of a newspaper laying on the stand alongside other papers. I would like to take a look at it, but another feeling runs through me: I am a little bit unsure whether to touch it. Again I am in a new place, in a new situation and concerned with not doing anything against the rules; I look around to find a person in charge to ask some questions. I find someone standing not far, looking at me.

"Can I take a look at this paper?....How much is it?....Free? Great!"

I cannot wait to go home and go carefully through The Jewish Journal in the privacy of my own room. Lying on my bed, I start reading from the beginning. I follow word by word, enjoy the style of the writing and also find it a very easy and complete way of contacting the American Jewish community of Los Angeles.

Then a familiar name catches my eye: Elie Wiesel: "University Synagogue Honors Rabbi Allen Freehling With Special Guest, Elie Wiesel."

The name Elie Wiesel takes my mind back seven years, and the memory is sweet. 1995. Iran. Tehran. Not far from the big traditional bazaar of Tehran.

In the big building which belongs to the oldest and biggest news group in Iran. I work for the weekly. I am seated at the fourth floor, at my desk. I am desperate to find something to write for the coming Wednesday. I flip the pages of different English and American magazines I have on my desk. In the international edition of Newsweek, the word Jew catches my eye. It is a story about the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Oh God, how much I would like to write about these things. The world out there is celebrating the liberation, why not us in Iran? I would like the Jews in Iran who read this weekly to know that they are also a part of the Jewish world. A Jewish reader loves to read something about his people in an Iranian public paper, since the presence of Jews in the Islamic society is barely noticeable. The article I find in Newsweek is a story about Wiesel, who tells the story of himself and his father in the death camp and the adventure of his survival. He is now a Nobel Peace Prize-winner, and one of his books, "Night," is translated and published in Farsi. I have read his book.

Happy to have found material to fill my column, I start translating the article into Farsi. It is a bit scary to write about these kinds of things in the Iranian press, but I am determined to do it, no matter what will happen. The article, after being carefully revised by several editors, gets the publishing permit. On Wednesday the article is published under the title: "One Night in the Kingdom of Death," accompanied by a big picture of the teenage Wiesel in his last days in the concentration camp.

And now years have passed, I am in Los Angeles and accidentally read in The Jewish Journal that Wiesel is here. I am delighted; I never imagined that one day I would be able to see that Jewish hero of my story face to face.

On April 23, I walk to one of the ballrooms of The Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel. I see hundreds of guests seated at round tables, applauding Wiesel as he walks to the podium. His words are so impressive, the room stays absolutely silent as he speaks.

At the end of the program, I rush to find him. My heart beats fast. A woman with a camera in her hand is in a hurry to find him, too. I move through the crowd, find him, catch him, and, with my eyes glittering, I try to tell him that in a faraway world, in Iran, I dared write about him in a widely read public paper. I tell him that I could never imagine meeting him face to face.

That night is like a dream. But the woman with the camera snapped a picture, of me and Wiesel -- and that is my evidence that our meeting had not been a dream. In the picture I see his innocent and friendly face, and the memories of my past now mingle with the words he spoke that night. "Jews have been suffering from fanaticism all the time," he said, regarding the situation in the Middle East.

"Terrorism is the result of hatred. Hatred is like cancer, goes cell to cell, rib to rib and then people to people and generation to generation....Hope. So we need to be hopeful and there is hope. Even in despair there is hope. As a mind cannot live without dreams, a soul cannot live without hope."

Mojdeh Sionit worked for 10 years at the print media of Ettela'at, Iran's premier media conglomerate. She moved to the United States eight months ago.

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