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Amir. Your name is so simple. “The Commander.” But, in fact, it’s more complicated than that. Your father changed it from Omar to Amir conscious that you would be in a Shi’a land at the University of Tehran for your undergraduate studies. In fact, there was nothing simple about you at all.
Born on November 17, 1943 in Mahabad, Iran, you reached your seventy-third birthday this year, dear friend, and your life has been full of accomplishment. We all sat at your hospital bed standing watch as you slipped away in your long struggle with cancer, eyes closed and breathing heavy though stable and calm through it all. Then, at 5:49 on Saturday morning on June 24 of this year, you quietly left us weeping by your side motionless with blinding grief and shaken by the thought that you were no longer on this planet earth. May the angels conduct you into Paradise. Oh yes, I know how you would dislike these words, but you know that the Persian word, pardiis, is the root of our English word. When I first met you, I heard your name was “Kaka Amir,” a Kurdish version. Then, as time went on, we all began to call you “Amir Khan,” in a reference to your faux military status which you scorned. You got even with me in naming me, a Peace Corps volunteer of all things, “Tom Khan.”
I met you on one of those frigid Zagros mountain days in December 1964. You were comfortably ensconced in your home reading, just down the alleyway from the bazaar. Bob Abramson, the other Peace Corps English teacher, led me to that heavy wooden door of your house and banged the knocker loudly. We had tea and cookies that day according to polite society customs, just Bob, you and me. We came to your house a few more times again, but usually met in our second floor apartment in the old bank building on main street After introductions and brief mention about what I was going to do in Mahabad, you corrected me about the town’s name. “Tom, we actually call this place “Cool Spring” or soujboolak in Kurdish.” This was just the beginning of the avalanche of information on a myriad of subjects from Amir.
From these early days of our brotherhood, there began a long list of historical and archaeological discussions about the writings of British, Australian, French, and Italian historians with Communist Party or Socialist activist backgrounds, such as your all-time favorite work, the Australian born-scholar, V. Gordon Childe and his classic, Man Makes Himself. We spoke about that one and several other of Childe’s works on Labor and Civilization. All these and more were new to me as I had studied philosophy and French literature at Notre Dame in Indiana. You had asked me if I had read much fiction and I had said some American and French as school requirements. I had then asked you the same question, and you said very little except in school And so, for the next fifty-two years, we tended to discuss a range of topics in history, anthropology, philosophy and archaeology, and any number of social sciences debating their virtues and failings. Religion did not figure high in these discourses so when I told you that I had been in Mashhad for the previous eight months, and that my Persian friends had called me “Mashti Tom,” you had looked disapprovingly on such mirth, and announced that for you, I was only “Tom Khan.” We never spoke again about Mashhad or pilgrimage sites focusing instead on civilizations, dialectical materialism and class struggle. We also talked a lot about socialism and the communist party of Iran, the Tudeh Party.
Bob was amused by our exchanges and debates interjecting his questions and comments about the present Kurdish conditions, society and economy, and the doings of the Pahlavis in Tehran and the countryside or rusta. Together, Bob and I recalled the beginnings of Peace Corps, our training programs in Oregon and Michigan respectively, and our own unpreparedness about anything Iranian, much less Kurdish. We both had had our brief introduction to the linguistics of second language learning, but that did not count for much. We were Bachelors of Arts and Sciences, or, as Peace Corps dubbed us, “AB generalists” thrown into developing societies of the Third World. We were witnesses, as Amir observed, of the modernity process of global outreach of industrial countries, and if we looked closely, we might observe various forms of resistance to this process. These discussions and others with Amir made him our main source of information about “Modern Iran” and the Kurdish resistance movement in Iran and in the Middle East, particularly in northern Iraq and eastern Turkey, countries that bordered northwestern Iran. It was Amir who introduced us to the fairly recent history of Mahabad and its singular Mahabad Republic of Kurdistan of 1946, and its leaders. He took us to the grave site of Ghazi Mohammad who was executed by the Pahlavi forces in the winter of that year.
Throughout the spring and summer of ’65, Bob and I saw Amir almost daily. As one of our colleagues and an increasingly close friend, he was introducing us to his perspective on the limited rights of Kurdish people as a minority under Pahlavi rule, the issues of US and Iran relations and military advisors, the Vietnam War, the role of women and families in Iranian society, the daily forms of resistance to modernity, and the complicated gender and family relations in Iran. In fact, these discussions were both instructive and amusing at the same time. My first encounters in Mahabad were with some of Bob’s friends whom he had befriended in evening get-togethers in their homes over the previous fall term before I had arrived. On nearly my second or third day in Mahabad, I met a Kurdish banker friend of Bob’s who began our conversation with “the rules of the street.” I was told that there are two languages spoken in Mahabad, “Kurdish and English.” The second rule was politics was everything – he wanted to know why the CIA killed President Kennedy. Stunned by both “rules” as no one had broached such matters to me while I was in Mashhad, I answered that I was willing to learn Kurdish though I had been studying Persian for nearly a year by then, and had no idea how to get Kurdish language materials, and secondly had a few notions about Kennedy’s death none of which included the CIA! From these early days in Mahabad, I had learned some important lessons about Kurdish nationalism, and Iran-US politics. Bob and I had met our first Kurdish scholar, companion, and teacher, dear Amir. It was over time that Amir and I became brothers in many ways.
Amir had just completed his BA degree in English from the University of Tehran, and following those four years, had completed his basic military training required of all young Iranian males. Now, he was assigned to teach in Mahabad’s secondary schools or at the dabirestan level. In short, we and Amir had become colleagues in teaching English as a second or third language to the young Kurdish and few Azeri and Armenian adventuresome high school students in that remote mountain town comprised of 90% Kurdish Mokri and Debokri Sorani-speaking clans of Kurdistan. Proud of his town’s historical role in the on-going Kurdish national struggle for self-determination, Amir’s home was stocked with Persian, Kurdish and English works on a wide spectrum of topics, he had an unquenchable thirst for books.
It was Amir Khan who led us to a summer excursion into the Zagros plateau north of Mahabad in search of ancient caves with some Peace Corps friends from distant Rezayeh who were also engaged in English training. During the summer months, we also spent time in picnics with our Kurdish, Gilaki, and Persian teacher and professional friends in the valleys and dells of the surrounding mountain streams in laughter-filled story-telling and mountain-naming mixed babble of English and Kurdish according to the “rules.” In more somber moments, Amir related some of his experiences during his Tehran stay at the university, such as the time when he and several other Kurdish undergrads asked to be included in the underground students’ socialist club mainly followers of the forbidden Tudeh party – they were accepted immediately with another kind of “rule” or understanding about their use of Kurdish. They were told by the Persian-speaking students that if they spoke Kurdish, “we will cut your tongues out!” So much for socialist ideals in that student movement in Tehran.
By the fall of 1965, Amir and I were deep into our discussions about Marx, and Marxist theories of historical change and historical generalizations with a growing list of new works for me. I had already discovered Eric Hobsbawm and George Rude, part of the British “social historians” in their eye-opening work on the threshing machine protest by workers of Sussex near Kent, England. They had based their research mainly on the police records of the striking peasants in their co-authored work, Captain Swing – the mysterious signature found on the warnings of possible burning of local wheat fields using threshing machines and not workers that appeared on local parsons’ doors. Before the year was out, he and I had read and discussed other works, such as E. H. Carr’s seminal work on What Is History? E. P. Thompson’s recently published The Making of the English Working Class , and the equally criticall work of Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft. We promised each other to continue reading the English Social Historians and the French Annales school historians after I left Mahabad at the end of my two-year obligation that had begun in February 1964. We also completed a translation project of a Kurdish romance story in the midst of our school work that included Bob and me conducting Friday (a holiday) classes in acquired language learning with all the English teachers of Mahabad and nearly free evening Adult English classes in one of the high schools for anyone interested in the subject. As with everything else, Amir was a fellow teacher in both Teacher and Adult Evening classes.
The English translation project from Kurdish and Persian texts undertaken by Amir and me was his idea. The story, Khadj va Siamand (Khaj and Suleiman), was based on a favorite Kurdish ballad concerning the youth of Kurdistan in Sorani Kurdish. Khadj was the attractive young daughter of a wealthy Kurdish merchant who had forty sons from his four wives as well as several daughters. Khadj was the most beautiful of them all. Siamand, on the other hand, was a strapping young and good-looking shepherd from a neighboring village who watched Khadj and other young Kurdish girls come to the communal well on the outskirts of the town. In the midst of the collective spring flower gathering, and the summer harvests from nearby fields by boys across the way from the girls, Khadj and Siamand became more acquainted, falling in love with each other. They then planned to run away to the mountains to live together, fearing in part her father’s outrage and the forty brothers of Khadj who would be close behind. In the confrontation soon after in the mountains, first Siamand fell in combat and then, in despair, Khadj leapt to her death in the end. We translated the text into polished English and ran off copies of the ballad in Persian and English for the advanced students in the high schools – we were forbidden to use Kurdish. The mimeographed story was a hit, needless to say.
By February 1966/1345, I was getting ready to leave Mahabad and then Tehran for the States. Before doing so, Amir and I had decided to translate small parts of E. H. Carr’s What is History? and V.Gordon Childe’s Man Makes Himself into Persian over the next year. We wanted the social studies teachers and advanced students to benefit from these authors. Amir was to do most of the translations, while I was to work on some bibliographic information. We planned for a translation into Kurdish but it was never attempted. We did finish the two translations, however.
Little did I realize how important we would become to each other in the next three decades. I had married Janice and completed my doctorate at Indiana University in Middle East history with a minor in Persian Studies with a US grant by 1975 while Amir came to the University of Illinois in the mid-1970s on an Iranian – US affiliation grant to an university town close to Indiana U. I was soon hired first by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and then by Georgetown University in DC. while Amir was completing a Master degree in Communication. We met a couple of times first in Chicago at the 1975 American Historical Association meeting, and then again at Illinois University as the Iranian Revolution was beginning in 1977/1356. I was the guest of the Confederation of Iranian Students – US to their campus-wide conference on Iran.
By 1979/1358, Amir had returned to his family in Iran with his MA in hand and hopes for a better Iran in his mind and heart. Earlier, I had discovered that he had an interest in a young attractive Shirazi co-ed in Education graduate studies at Illinois University. So, it was no real surprise that Jan and I soon learned that Amir and Shahrzad were married in Tehran in 1980/1359. Soon afterwards, we lost touch with them until we learned that they had left Iran in 1983/1362 with their new-born son, Salah, for Pakistan on route to France to stay with friends in the Paris region.
When Jan and I learned of their flight from Iran to France, and that I had just made arrangements for a two-year appointment as a visiting professor at Birzeit University in Occupied Palestinian territory of the West Bank, we gathered some funds from Amir’s friends and ourselves to take to them to Paris. With some slight changes in my flight to Amman Jordan via Paris, Amir and I met at the airport, and then left the funds with them but not before he and I had begun to figure out how he and Shahrzad could complete their academic doctoral studies at the University of Illnois. With wholehearted support from their respective departments of Education and Communication, Amir, Shahrzad and Salah arrived in Arlington, Virginia at our residence as I had arrived in Ramallah, Occupied Palestine. Four months later, in December 1983, I took a Christmas holiday temporary leave from Birzeit and, at last, was again with my dear brother, his bride and son after an absence of five years only to find that my entire collection of Persian journals and books had been systematically organized into appropriate groupings by Amir and Shahrzad living in our basement apartment for those four months. In that spring of 1984/ 1363, they had arranged transportation to Illinois and both Shahrzad and Amir were welcomed back to Champagne-Urbana, Illinois by their departments to continue their studies towards their doctoral degrees with graduate housing included in their new scholarships.
Sometime in 1985, I got an emergency call from Shahrzad about Amir. Oh, he was healthy and physically well all right. The problems was his slow progress in completing his writing of his doctoral thesis on “The Kurdish Language and Nation-State Building”, an historical linguistic study of how state formations assist in the development of a national language, such as Kurdish. After hours and hours of research in the University of Illinois’s largest journal collection in the United States that accompanied its equally large Middle East studies collection, Amir had yet to put pen to paper. He was being “too thorough” reading endlessly from English, French and Persian all that was written on the subject. My job, according to Shahrzad, was to find a way to expedite Amir’s writing so that they could move on to Canada where they decided to live the rest of their earthly lives. There was an odyssean quality about this job in the sense that Amir and I agreed on comprehensive research on any historical work particularly on a Middle East/Iranian/Kurdish topic. Yet, time was of the essence, so before leaving for Illinois, Janice and I laid out a plan for Amir that included an incremental step-by-step process for him to follow along with the possibility of purchasing a desk top computer for our eminent “commander.” Amir and I spent some time surveying his process to date, and then laying out an incremental plan for completion of his research over the next year. I then suggested to Shahrzad and Amir that they invest in a computer with some support from us. And so it came to pass that Amir did complete his thesis within the next year of 1986/1365, and then Amir, Shahrzad with 6-year old Salah made their way to the middle of the Ambassador Bridge connecting Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Ontario to meet their Iranian friend and a lawyer allowing them to enter Canada as political refugees from Iran.
The next two years were quasi-tumultuous as both had to seek employment and a residence in Toronto, Ontario according to the Canadian immigration authorities which they did – Shahrzad’s successfully used her people skills with Iranian immigrants to Canada and received a public service award from the Canadian government for her extraordinary work. It would not be the last such award for her Canadian public service. Amir, in the meantime, was hired by the University of Windsor in Communication and History while Shahrzad was employed at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec in Education and Women’s Studies. It was not long before they both back again in Toronto hired as faculty at the University of Toronto – Amir in the humanities and history, and Shahrzad at the prestigious Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, or OISE and in Women’s Studies.
On reflection, Amir was my brother, colleague and closest and dearest life companion. We had left the level of normal friendship long ago in our continued conversations, debates and discussions. Amir had radicalized me in both my politics and historical research. Many of my American Peace Corps volunteer companions had remarked rightfully that Peace Corps and Iran had “changed their lives.” For me, Amir and my Iranian experiences had changed my life. My dear mother took about three seconds upon my return to our Lafayette, Indiana home to say “Tom, you’ve changed.” She was absolutely correct. It took take me several years to add to that statement that “Yes, Mom, I’ve changed because my Kurdish brother and Iran.”
His death has left a “hallow in the land” according to the Southern African adage. I would add that his departure has now left a deep hallow in all the hearts and minds of those who knew Amir Hassanpour Aghdam. His many intellectual feats, his own radical perspective of this world and its affairs, a Marxist perspective at that, and his amazing historical imagination and humor will not pass as quickly as he did physically in Princess Margaret Hospital, Toronto, Ontario. He more than any of my life friends and acquaintances has fulfilled Samad-e Behrangi’s famous dictum in his international literary work, Mahi Siyah-ye Kuchulu, (The Little Black Fish) when the Little Black Fish says towards the end of the story, “Living or dying is not that important. What is important are the influences on the lives of others that you may have had.”
So, beduwa and khoda hafez, Kaka Amir for now. I long to be with you again some day, my dear, dear Kurdish friend, colleague, and companion. I am bowed from grief for Shahrzad and Salah, and all of Amir’s fine students.
July 7, 2017