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Hesam

A Guide to the Self Portrait

By Hesam

I have always looked at my past not like a bunch of memories but rather like a collection of experiments that I have done in my life. When a chemist does a new experiment, for example combining two different matters, the outcome will be informative. The chemist will learn regardless of what the ultimate outcome turns to be. If the final substance turns to be blue or red, either way he knows something new now. He can use this information in future and deduce a new theory or law. I always look at my life like that. Of course I might get emotional initially, but eventually I look at my life to learn about myself. That is how my self portrait will appear to you. I've tried to show you how I learned by studying my actions and their consequences, my feelings and their properties, the world surrounding me and its effects on me. Every day is a new experience for me. Regardless of what we might call victory or defeat in life, one can learn from one's actions, because the outcome of each action gives one new information about oneself. With such an outlook the word "defeat" will lose its meaning, because either way we are going to learn something.

 

I've divided my self portrait into two parts, a mental part and an emotional part. The reason for this division was the different sources of information available to me. One source was my reason. I could analyze my actions and their consequences and learn from them. At the same time, this method was not a self-analysis but rather a method of analogies. In other words, I observed myself as well as other people. I found many similarities between these observations and finally deduced conclusions from them. Analogies made this method a universal one. Therefore, I wasn't just getting to know myself but rather getting to know everybody. Eventually, I was able to connect to the surrounding world better. I could understand people and empathize with them.

 

The emotional part was quite different. There were feelings in me which I didn't have any control over. There were emotions that were triggered by an external event and feelings that were internally stimulated. To explain the matter more, I'll give you an example. I remember when I was just a kid, I used to sit in my father's car and look at the streets. I remember once we were trapped in a heavy traffic. I could see other people being irritated by the traffic. I could see that they had lost their patience and were quite angry. Suddenly, my father turned on the radio. There was a very touching song on the air. I was listening to the song and at the same time looking at the street. The traffic didn't appear irritating anymore. The song was beautiful and had brought up a very strange and good feeling in me. In fact, that song had changed the circumstances for me. I was happy to be there listening to that song. I found out that there are feelings in us which are not usually accessible, but if triggered correctly, we can use them to change our lives in a good way. If you are driving and listening to hard-beat music, it is normal that you go faster than usual. If you listen to a very relaxing music, it is expected that you drive smoothly and calm. In both cases, you are the same person, but the emotions in you have affected your decisions.

 

In the emotional part, I tried to note the properties of my emotions. I began to have a record of what triggered them- and of what was the effect of a specific emotion on my actions. After awhile, I was able to control my anger using past references. What seems to be relevant to my self portrait is not exactly this emotional study. The main concern in the emotional part of my self portrait is not only what I mentioned, but also the discovery of new emotions and feelings by having direct contact with the world. It has happened a lot to me that I have visited a place and felt something very good or very bad without a specific reason. Just being in that place for the first time had made me feel good or bad. These feelings were not the usual happiness or sadness that I had experience in everyday life. If failed to do something, I would be sad. The sadness caused by a failure was different than the sadness mentioned above. In other words, it was not sadness I was feeling, but rather a new feeling that I hadn't experienced before.

 

I again tried to write these things down. I wrote what caused them. For example, one day I might have woken up and felt strangely good and calm without a reason. I wrote these things down, because these feelings were part of me that I did not know before. In fact the collection of these feelings and emotions would make my personality and self. To achieve this goal, nothing was better than art in general. If I felt a new feeling in a garden, I would take a picture of the garden to save that feeling. To my surprise, that actually worked. Anytime I looked at the photo, I could feel the same emotion again. I was not able to describe these emotions in words, but I was able to show them to other people and to myself.

 

The mental part, collection of short stories from the earliest to the latest:

 

The War

 

 

My childhood was full of smells, scents, scenes and colors. I carry all of them every day. A small familiar scent takes me back to strong emotions in my childhood, a world that can't happen again. When I was a kid, my parents used to take me shopping. I remember everything was simpler back then. My world was quite different than others. In what way, you might ask? Well, my world was a lot lower than the world of others. It was from my father's knees down. I was that tall at the moment, a little bit higher than my father's knees. The world was different at that height. The pavements, roads, tiles, trees and plants meant differently. The people were just legs to me. I used to stare at their legs and guess which pair of legs was the happiest. I used to make an L shape on the street tiles, and it was to be the most important matter to me at the time. I remember so many times that I made my mother change her way because the tiles were broken or damaged on the sidewalk she was walking on. I remember I did not pay much attention to people's faces, simply because I was not that tall to see their faces. That gave me a chance to see the world. I used to stare at the reflection of the street in windows of the shops. The world was so surreal back then....

 

I was born in Iran. My mother had just come back to Iran from United States. She was living in United States with my father while he was doing his masters degree. As she says, she wanted her child to be born in Iran. I was born in a nostalgic way. My father was not there. My mother had just came back and lived with her parents for awhile, then with her in laws and after that rented a flat of her own. We were changing places frequently. I was almost one year old when I first saw my father. This start was a simple metaphor for the rest of my life, homeless, yet free. That wasn't the only odd thing in the first few years of my life. The Islamic revolution happened at the same time. It was a big change in every possible way. Instabilities, worries and difficulties began to emerge in everybody's life. Families tried to protect their loved ones against harms. Well, there were guns, smokes and blasts everywhere for awhile. As if that wasn't enough already, a bloody war happened a year later, between Iran and Iraq. My school days were passed witnessing the silhouettes of flames, explosions, missiles and bombs. It was part of our normal life to hear the air strike alarm, to go to shelters and to see the nearby school on fire. I did not see anything strange and wrong with that. It had been always like that around me. Anything but that was to be strange for me. My parents were trying their best to protect me. They did everything for me to feel safe and comfortable. I witnessed their sacrifice and digested it. Children understand a lot. They play dumb to fool grownups some times, but they understand very well. I could understand that the life my parents had provided me was rare among others. They had given up a lot to give me the bests.

 

I was never scared at those days. My mother used to run to me and take me inside, away from open space, but I loved to see the anti air bullets in the night sky. They use to illuminate the sky, like little red stars. These things were the source of my imagination back then. The first few years of war were very difficult for people, although I never felt that. The war lasted about eight years. A few years after my father's return, our life began to improve a lot. My sister was born 8 years after me. She and her generation never experienced what we went through. My generation and I were children of the war.

 

I never felt sorry for myself. I had the opportunity to experience what few had experienced before as children. I understand the children in Darfur and Iraq, the children in Somalia, Cambodia, the children of the war.

 

I am in a hospital to see a friend of mine who is a doctor. The hospital is one of the best hospitals in Iran, may be even in the Middle East. He is shaking his head in sorrow. He asks me to accompany him to see a patient. The patient is a girl around 18 or 19, more than ten years younger than me. She has delivered a baby a few days ago. She wants to give her up, her own baby. I ask her where her parents are. They live in Sweden she answers. She tells me that she is a student of medicine in the University of Tehran, the best university in the country. That's why she is living in Iran. She hasn't seen her parents for two years. It seems that she is from a wealthy family. Her parents have given her a house, a car and enough money to live a luxurious life. Her parents don't know about her baby. She hasn't told them. "It was mistake "she says." I didn't even know him. I saw him in a party. He was cute. Everything happened so fast. We didn't mean for this to happen. I can't keep this child with me. She will ruin my life, and I can't be a good mother for her either." She is talking to me with a face without any expression on it. She's had a few connections to keep it quiet; otherwise, no hospital in the country would've accepted her. Her case is off the record. How she managed to keep it quiet from officials, I don't know, and I don't care. I remember my own mother. How ironic! The life was hard when I was a child, but even in the worst conditions never my parents gave up on me. My mother use to cover me with her body and block my ears with her hands at the time of air raids. I also remember the faces of orphans of the war. I open my mouth to tell the girl about it, to tell her to keep her baby no matter what, but her cold eyes make me silent again. She has never seen the war. She won't understand a word of what I want to tell her. I look at her baby, such a beautiful face. I bring my lips to the baby's ear: "Don't hate motherhood, dear.

 

At school

 

I still remember that fateful day very well. I was just a kid, a 6th grader. I've forgotten a lot of things about my childhood, but there was something about that day, something eternal that kept the feeling alive for me. Still to this day, I can remember it with all the details.

 

The day started in the usual way, with everything rotating around me. I tried to picture the day. I imagined my day from the start to end. I pictured everything I was probably going to do, the friends I was going to meet, the things I was going to say, even the way I was going to treat each friend. I had them all in my mind. I was the center of my thoughts. Everything else could enter my head if only they had something to do with me. It was always about my day, not the day itself. I was walking from home to school. Each step that I took was carrying a lot of thoughts with it. The journey from home to school was the most productive period of the day. I used to dream at that time. I used to sink into my thoughts. I don't remember most of those dreams, but still it was the only time during a very busy day when I was alone with myself. It was just me and myself. It was during this time that I learned how to communicate with myself, how to become my own friend. The rest of the times, I was trapped in crowded world of people.

 

As soon as I got to school and saw the other kids, I forgot about all my thoughts. I joined my friends and became part of them. The joy of being with them was enough to bring me out of my shell. All the children were running in the school yard. There was barely anybody standing still. You could only hear the cries of joy and pleasure. I didn't pay that much attention at that time, but there was part of me that hid from everyone. It would come out whenever I was totally alone with myself. Eventually, that was about to change.

 

History class was the first class in the morning. History classes are famous for being boring, but our history class was not. Our history class was the best class of the day. Our teacher was the kind that you never forget. He was the best teacher at school. Nobody was bored in his class. It was the only class where all students really listened. It was a class of fantasies, a class in which everyone had a chance to have a dream. I used to sit at the back of the class. I could see everybody from back there. Sometimes when I was bored in class, I tried to watch other kids and see if there was anything odd about any of them. But in history class I didn't care about anybody else. In that class there was only me and a world full of adventures and new fantasies.

 

Well, the class that day was even more interesting. The teacher asked us a question, a very difficult question. From my bench I could see that everyone was trying to come up with the answer. I knew the answer, so I raised my hand. There was another student who raised his hands. Well, teacher didn't notice me and asked the other student to answer the question. He answered the question correctly. The teacher was surprised that he knew the answer to such a difficult question. I could see the excitement on the face of that student. Everybody was looking at him in admiration and he knew it. He seemed so proud of himself and his face showed it. It was then that my life changed.

 

It seemed like a very common event, but to me it was like an earthquake that day. I had seen my friend answering a question, his pride by answering that question and the way others looked at him at that moment. Why did I raise my hand? Why did I want to answer the question? These were the questions I asked myself right away.

 

I certainly did not want to enlighten the class with the answer, because I knew that the teacher was going to tell us the answer eventually. Yes, my purpose was not to help the class to know more. I wanted to get noticed, to be admired and to get some attention. I noticed the pride in the eyes of the student who answered the question. I saw the joy on his face. I suddenly felt stupid, then ashamed. Was I really such a person who wanted to do everything to get noticed, to be admired or to show off? It seemed to me that most of things that I had done for others were eventually to show off. I couldn't remember anything that I had done for somebody just out of my sincere humanity without selfishness. I had to be sure. I wanted to make sure that I was right. I had to test myself.

 

I came up with an idea. I decided not to answer any question even if I knew the answer. It was a very hard experience. There were times that nobody knew the answer to teacher's questions except me. Everything was ready for me to be the center of attention, but I had decided not to answer them. I could barely keep myself from raising my hand. There was a war inside me. Part of me wanted to answer the questions, another part wanted not to. I was sure now. I was doing most of the good things to show off. At the beginning I was so disappointed in myself, but at least now I knew myself better than before. The funny thing was that I achieved that by observing someone else, by putting myself in his shoes. Yes, the world around me had helped me to know more about myself. I was now a different person.

 

That day at school I went to the yard and watched other kids. I tried to imagine how their world looked to them. I already knew how to use my imagination from my walks home from school. The only difference was that my imagination was not all about me anymore. I stood in the yard, trying to be someone else. I tried to be the kid who was playing football. He had just scored and seemed to be the happiest kid alive. His teammates hugged him. I tried to feel what he was feeling.

 

Now I could go into people's lives, into their character. It wasn't important if my imagination was right or wrong. I was experiencing new things. I could feel the pain and contempt that the boy who was bullied felt. I could feel the hardship that the school janitor was going through. I suddenly found myself a kinder person. I was happy since I had found a treasure. I could relate to the world better now. It was as if I was born to a new world. I knew that if I wanted to help somebody my intentions should've been to help him/her not to make myself look like a better person. With that kind of thought, I knew I was able to help people even if I had to remain anonymous. I began to feel much closer to people, even to the guy who had just passed me in the road whom I knew nothing about.

 

I was going home. I walked down the same road that I always did. It seemed different now. Everything was different. Everything was new to me. It was like I was seeing for the first time. But I had passed the same road every day. How could it look so different? It seemed that I was free now. I could see freely now. Everything was not about me anymore. I had my share, but it wasn't just about me. Now it was about everything. It was about the mother who was smiling at her kid while playing with her in the park near my way. I could see everything now. I could understand everyone. I hesitated for a moment. I stopped in front of the park. I went near the playground. I found an empty bench, and I sat. The mother was still playing with her daughter. It seemed that there was no other thing in the world that they wanted to do at that moment. I found the happiness in the little girl's eyes, and love in the mother's smile. I could feel their feelings now. I knew how it felt to have a kid. I knew how a mother would come home from her work, very tired, and still very eager to take her kid to park. I looked around. I saw different people, different lives and different experiences. It was time for me to experience them, feel them and learn.

 

My life had changed, but there was still a lot to come yet. I was freed from my prison and tasted the ecstasy of freedom. Yes, I was partly free from selfishness and self-centered imagination. It began that day but never stopped. Over years, I found out a lot about myself I hadn't before. That was only made possible by observing the world and people around me. I got to know the world better and myself too, but there was still a long way to go. I was just a 6th grader.

 

Music, the way I talk to myself

 

Playing! I am playing. I am playing something called "Tar". It's a traditional music instrument. I've never played anything for anybody to hear except myself. In fact, I can just play for myself. I don't know how I should play for others. As soon as I find out that somebody is listening, I lose it. It's not like I forget how I should play, but rather what I should play. I'm alone right now. I am playing. I can hear myself. There is something in the notes that makes me calm. When I'm playing, I forget who I am outside. I just remember who I always wanted to be. The notes sound like that old desire.

 

I was around 10 when I heard the music for the first time. Don't get me wrong. I had heard lots of songs before that, but that was the first time I heard what I now call music. It was different from what I had heard up to that date. There are songs that make you so happy, or so energetic, or sad or... sometimes when you hear some songs you can't control the way you act. You do things that you normally don't do. Music affects the way you drive a car. It might make you drive madly fast, or awfully slow. In normal conditions, you would have driven the way you normally do, but if your favorite song is on, you react differently. People dance. They usually dance with music. They don't dance with silence. Music can make people move in a way they don't move normally. In short, music makes people somebody they are not normally. When I was 10, I heard a different kind of music. It made me be more of myself. Yes, it didn't make me happy, or sad. It did not make me regret or dance. It didn't have any outside effect. It made me forget who I was, but rather reminded me who I wanted to be. I was with a music master at that day. There were other people as well. When he played, it seemed that it wasn't him who was playing. Yes, it seemed that I was playing. I just wanted to be on my own at that moment. I did not want anything. I did not want to dance, or to drive fast, or be famous or.... I just wanted to be myself.

 

That was the kind of music I went after. I went to learn music, but I learned how to talk to myself, and after that I learned how to talk to others as well. Listen and feel:

 

The Astronaut

 

How does an astronaut feel when he's looking at earth from space? Does it look like the place he's been born and grown up in? Does it look as big as all his memories? Is it the place that had surrounded his existence, imaginations and emotions? When his first love was gone, when it seemed like the end of the world, was it this little ball that seemed to contain it all? Does it look like home?

 

I've been traveling most of my life. I've been with so many people. When you travel a lot you do not have a home. The home is where ever you are. To many people, it seems like an unstable life, a life without future. It might be true, but it has its own advantages. I get a short time to get to know people around me. It seems impossible to have lifetime friends or relationships. That, however, is not true. Yes, time is short, but my seconds, minutes and hours are longer.

 

There are people who plan for their lives and they follow the plan till they get what they want. There also other people who plans, but never get the chance to make them real. They plan carefully, but the fate has something else in its mind for them. No matter how hard they try, they go in a different direction, different from what they had planned. I am the second type. When I turned eighteen, I went to university. I studied four years, away from my family. During those four years, I lived in different places, with different people. Regardless of what I had planned or wanted, I was forced to live with people I didn't like very much, people with totally different points of view. That seemed very unfair to me at the time, but in fact it taught me the art of communication and tolerance.

 

By starting my independent life, I had actually started to live again. Not that I didn't have enough freedom when I lived at my parents, but because I started to take responsibilities. Now there wasn't anyone to rescue me when I happened to mess up something. At home my parents used to compromise a lot to make me and my sister happy. Now there wasn't any compromise with others. It was like torture to live with someone who would've done the things which I hated the most. I had to live, so I began to compromise and change. That was something that taught me to be tolerant.

 

In addition to that, I began to notice the differences between people. It's a fact to me that experiencing something is different from just knowing about it. Up to that time, I knew there were depressed, happy, religious, or rebellious people, but I had never lived with them. Now I had the chance to have a close contact with them. I began to understand them and respect different people regardless of what I believed in. Here was a communication skill that had come with my unstable life condition.

 

After four years in the university, I left the country. I went to UAE and began to start over again. I entered another university. This time the instability and mobility were inseparable from my everyday life. It was at this point that I found out people come in and out of my life so fast. Yes, it was so fast that I couldn't build a long-term relationship at all. At least, I couldn't have a conventional relationship that other people could have. Again everything seemed to be inconvenient but turned out for the best. This kind of life taught me to look for things in people that would stay with me for a lifetime.

 

I was reading Chekov's "Cherry's Orchard" yesterday. I felt I'd known him all my life. What he had written was what I've been feeling all my life. It's strange! I feel like a stranger with people I have lived with, but I feel I've known a guy whom I've never met, only read his plays. That's how I try to know people. I believe that I know Tarkovski (the Russian film director) better than many who actually met him, because I understand him through his movies where he has put all his effort to present the bests of his experience. I can communicate with a writer, an artist or a poet without even needing to be physically with them. Their real self is reflected in their works, the self that can not normally appear in everyday life. You normally don't expect an artist to explain his works to everybody he meets every day, because if he could explain it, he wouldn't need the art to present it. All I mean is that we can look into someone's creation, someone's artwork, diary or book to find out their most intimate thoughts and feelings. Even through a meaningful conversation, you can get these things out of their hidden character.

 

That's how I started to build my relationship with others. I tried to go beyond the usual everyday communication forms. I started to ask them questions which could result in knowing them better, rather than asking superficial questions. I tried to care about them. They were important to me. So they deserved my attention. Now, if I have to leave again, I know my friends will always remain with me, as Chekov and Tarkovski have.

 

I put myself in others' shoes (and try to be them in my imagination), and also as I explained in the previous paragraph, I try to know them by their own imaginations and feelings. These two techniques make it possible for me to communicate with everybody. It makes me empathize (and sometimes sympathize) with people. Every human being is an opportunity for me to experience a new life I've never had.

 

Travelling and moving around frequently gave me a tool for better communication, but that's not all. Independence, that's a word that gained a new meaning to me. Whenever I move from a place, I know by experience that I'm not going to visit it again. It's like that part of my life is over. I used to be sad, but after awhile the sadness left too. Now I don't depend on anybody or anywhere anymore, because I know soon I have to leave again. I try to get the best out of the present, but when it is over, I don't suffer. That might be the reason I feel happy wherever I am. I doesn't matter where I am next year, because there will be people there too.

 

I know how an astronaut feels. I know how home looks to him. There will be no home any more. There will be no yesterday or tomorrow, just today. It feels like home when I have no home.

 

An Example:

 

A new life:

 

To do this part of self portrait, I decided to travel to somewhere very remote and unknown to me. I wanted to see a new life, new people, and a new world. I went to a village, a remote village in the Middle East, Somewhere with shadows of war over the walls of every house, but life still going on.

 

 

 

I'm from cities with skyscrapers and towers, subways and trains and airports; I'm from complicated city life where even sunsets seem to be complicated. Sunsets that are mixed with modern manmade objects make modern sunsets. An odd combination but we are used to it.

 

 

Even sunsets are not natural in cities. In that village, everything was natural. Although I was a stranger and did not know their language, I was well received. They were the best hosts. There was peace in their faces.

 

 

 

 

Emotional part. Art as representation of emotions:

 

I felt different that day. There was no reason to be sad. I had never felt like that. I did not want anything at that moment. I wanted to be alone, by myself. Actually, it felt good in a way. Time had lost its meaning. There was a kind of happiness in that sadness. Whenever I see an empty bench or chair I get the same feeling again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It seemed that I was lost in a limitless world. There were no boundaries, no limits. Such tranquility! There was serenity, and silence. I wanted to be lost in that feeling forever. I felt I was part of a great harmony.