On the morning of November 16, 2019, we, the exiled Iranians, woke up and like billions of other internet addicts in the world immediately checked our phones, only to realize that Iran had been cut off from the global internet.
Many of us are members of family group chats on WhatsApp and Telegram, used to receiving a “good morning to my children” from a parent, a “did you finally go to the doctor?” from the other parent, a picture of the overdue first snow in Tehran from an aunt, and a joke about the president from an uncle. Over the years, these short messages have served as daily reminders of where we come from and who our people are. Above all, they have been our daily reassurance that our families were fine. The internet had functioned as the umbilical cord that kept alive the part of our soul still dependent on the motherland. That morning, the cord was cut.
The internet blackout, we learned, was the Iranian government’s response to the protests that broke out after it announced a 300 percent increase in the price of gas. The decision was made and implemented at midnight, with no advance warning given.
Thanks to the state of Iran under sanctions, the news of the price hike was like a lit match in a barrel of dynamite. Protests spread very wide, very fast. The protesters moved beyond the gas price issue to target the entire status quo. The Iranian government let loose its police and militia. The crisis became so deep and so serious, the bloodshed so vast and the heap of corpses so high, that the government cut off the internet to keep people from organizing and to stifle the distribution of videos of its brutality, which included numerous instances of indiscriminate shooting at unarmed protesters.
For us, the Iranians abroad, desperate and in the dark, the savagery was nothing new. Everyone who has paid attention to Iran, a country beleaguered by ruthlessness of sanctions and brutalized by its own vicious, paranoid government, expected an explosion of violence. But the internet blackout came out of nowhere. None of us had ever thought that one day Iran would become a digital black hole, a dark void on the blindingly glittering map of the global network. We found ourselves locked out of the house whose windows, we had thought, we would always be able to look through.
Because of what I have published in this hemisphere, I might be persona non grata in my own country. Not that anybody has bothered to notify me. On this matter, the government in Iran takes pains to deny you the pleasure of certainty. But a rule-of-thumb assessment of my situation suggests that, at this point, the risk of being arrested upon reentry would far outweigh the benefits of going home. Like thousands of other Iranians, I have come to terms with my status as an exiled person.
When I was first coming to terms with this, one chilly spring morning I biked down to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. It had rained the night before, and the dew on the grass formed a vast, sparkling gossamer web over the cemetery hills. I trudged up an incline past some graves, reading a date here, a name there, sometimes conjuring up a little biography for the bones lying under the stone.
I had gone there because I had felt the need to think through all the potential tragedies and disasters that might transpire during my absence from Iran: deaths in the family, deaths of close friends in jail, deaths in accidents, from cancer, in protests. I thought of the faces of those who would die and imagined the circumstances of their deaths, masochistically exaggerating the amount of pain or shock they would have to endure. Then I imagined myself in the moment of receiving the news, what I would say on the other end of the phone, what I would do after hanging up, two hours later, two days later. When you are an exiled person, you have to think up methods of mourning from afar, strategies for dealing with the crushing loneliness of grieving a soul no one around you has ever met.
I left the cemetery drained and distressed, but at least I thought that I had covered all the grounds. At no point during those macabre few hours did the notion of an internet blackout cross my mind. I could never imagine that one morning everybody would disappear from the screen, as though a richly detailed hallucination had come to an end, and that I might never be told of their deaths at all.
And yet, what I experienced as nothing less than apocalyptic was in fact the norm for people until very recently. Throughout history, billions of people have left their homelands and have been cut off from family and friends for months, sometimes years at a time. Maddening as it was, the blackout confronted me with how the internet has hooked me. Even in that time of distress, I pledged to chip away at that dependence.
The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard generated a great deal of controversy over the course of his career, in part because he was writing about the internet before it existed. In his book Simulacra and Simulation (1981), he declared the arrival of a new era of representation. He believed that the new media, by which he primarily meant cable TV, had ceased to care about reality. Rather, equipped with new technologies, it engaged in “generation by the models of real without origin of reality: a hyperreal.” Which is to say, the TV could create an image of reality more real than reality itself. This hyperreality, in its two-dimensional display of lights, was so compelling, he contended, that people would choose it over what they could feel and perceive in the world. “The map precedes the territory,” Baudrillard wrote. Or perhaps more accurately, the map creates the territory while pretending to be a representation of the territory.
Baudrillard’s theory might have seemed too bleak to be plausible for the pre-internet world, hence the backlash from old-school humanists like the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. At the end of Baudrillard’s famous talk about the Iraq war, Vargas Llosa thought of approaching his old friend, but he changed his mind: “I didn’t go up to say hello or to remind him of the bygone days of our youth, when ideas and books excited us and he still believed we existed.”
And yet for us, two decades into the new millennium, living on this warming, crisis-ridden planet at the mercy of tech billionaires, the notion of hyperreality sounds perfectly commonsense. It is a fairly accurate description of how our realities are constructed online.
Probably no one in this world is more susceptible to hyperreality than the exiled. In their yearning for the homeland, they plunge into the country they find on their phones. Many displaced people, especially if they are from tumultuous places like Iran, spend an inordinate amount of time with their devices. Their bodies move around in American space, their feet traverse American asphalt, yet their soul is in the tiny computer they carry in their pockets. They follow every single conversation on Twitter, look at every picture on Instagram, check out the trends, constantly engage in the comments sections. The hyperreality is so thorough that it is easy to forget where you actually are.
On my social media, the response from the Iranian diaspora during the blackout reflected this disconnect from the bodily experience. My timeline was filled with “We miss you! Please come back!” tweets, as if those 280 characters could substitute for flesh and warmth. In the ‘real” world, those 280 characters provide new data points for the surveillance of our lives while making the Marks and Jeffs of the world wealthier. When the internet was finally reconnected, the exiled Iranians used a popular hashtag, roughly translated as #WhenYouWereNotHere, to tell their former countrymen what had happened online in their absence. And yet we were the ones who were not there. While we whined on Twitter, the difficult reality of our friends and family on the ground continued on without us.
Monitoring your homeland from afar is like watching a live broadcast of a surgery. You can grasp all the details, absorb all the information, take notes, and then talk through it with others for hours, but none of that makes you a surgeon. When you haven’t cut open skin with your hands, touched the organs, soaked your plastic gloves in blood, it is a joke to think you know the first thing about surgery.
In 2019, living off the grid seems like a naive fantasy. Especially for us, citizens of fragile states like Iran, to remain in the dark would be too painful. But, as we learned in mid-November, the internet can be shut down in a blink. We are dependent on a system that functions at the whim of unaccountable private companies and governments.
Is there a way to strike a balance? If there is, I can’t find it. I am incapable of separating my life in exile from the hyperreality of my homeland. I continue to look at the map, even though I know my feet never touch the soil of the real terrain. The map will not show me a way home, but at least I can make sure, every morning, that those I love are still alive.
Amir Ahmadi Arian’s essays and short stories have appeared in Guernica, Literary Hub, and elsewhere. His novel, Then the Fish Swallowed Him, is forthcoming from HarperVia in March 2020.