Issue #145 Cleansing Personal Archives and the Birth of the Black Hole of Collective Memory

Cleansing Personal Archives and the Birth of the Black Hole of Collective Memory


Issue #145
May 2024

For ع،ش،ن،غ،خ،س, that the silences between our words of love may not disappear.1

I am cold and I know nothing will remain

of the red delusions of a wild poppy

but a few drops of blood.2

I Wrote You This Letter in My Own Red Blood Standing on the Cold Street So That Laughter Should Spring from Pain3

A month after my last letter, I wanted to respond to N’s recent letter, N being among those I regularly write to. I’d deleted my last letter due to the daily practice of cleansing all emails and other accounts, and I found myself wondering whether I’d already written what I was then on the verge of writing. What had I said to N? I couldn’t remember the content or particulars of my emails and messages, of our conversations from these past weeks and months. What had we even talked about? What exists between us that’s worth referencing and from which I can take my cue? An undated, decontextualized sentence of hers flashed in my mind for the thousandth time. She’d been describing a dead friend: “She’d wrap a simple shawl so tightly around her that …” That’s all. The rest of the sentence becomes murky and escapes me in my incertitude, but every few days an image of that dead woman I never saw flashes before my eyes. An image that subsequently summons an image of N next to it. N, who’d watched that now dead woman with such precision and relayed such clear memories of her to me. For me, really, that dead woman’s willowy figure, her way of wrapping that shawl around herself so tightly, evokes my relationship with N, and likely for N, watching her evoked something else. An image of that eternal sparkle in N’s eyes and then a string of images is summoned in eternal repetition, which travels through history without my being able to discern the logic of the temporal dimensions of this evocation. Like every time I’ve wanted to write a few words in response to N’s letter, I now arrive back at the night we suddenly became close after years of knowing each other, struck by the strange overlaps and similarities between our pasts that correspond to the larger narrative that might be said to characterize the progressive academic milieu of the early 2000s in Iran.4 I remembered our exchange about the revolutionary calendar, the fortieth day of mourning5 the deaths of Jina and Hadis,6 gazing at the cemetery in Saqqez7 together, and listening to the Mahabad mosque’s loudspeaker together on the night of Fayegh Mam Qadiri’s funeral.8 Our shock and passion in the winter of 2017—all this clear and present, and N who always speaks so quickly and excitedly; our first encounter years ago in front of the city theater on a winter night, and other ghosts that remain suspended in the post-2009 climate. Watching N smoke in the faculty of Social Sciences before knowing her on a “night … that glided on the window panes,”9 so alive that it’s like N is about to flick her cigarette again right now.

Still from a video of Shouresh Niknam’s mother singing laments over her son’s grave in Mahabad. Shouresh Niknam was shot dead during the first month of Jina protests in Kurdistan.

My irretrievable memory-wiped DMs in the face of N’s letter and my doubt as to what I previously wrote her describe my overall state of being these days. The messages and sentences at times, out of urgency and necessity, due to the circumstances, disappear and get unsent before our eyes, as if the conversation never happened. A perpetual return to the moment before sentences coalesced. Setting the messages to self-destruct, annihilating the most quotidian daily interactions; at the end of the night cleansing the expressions of love and terms of endearment that you’d have liked to go back through and savor throughout the day, the group chats, the jokes. The daily reminders to one another, insisting that you must not keep anything on your devices. Any insignificant thing might be used to build a case against you. You might have to undergo hours of interrogation on account of the most ordinary sentence. Due to the sensitive security situation that’s arisen after the uprising, we have and will have deleted and lost entire histories and archives of our personal networks, and at the moment of recalling the history of our personal relationships, this loss and lack of a personal archive will send us into a black hole of collective images and memory that exists for everyone on a vast and accessible platform. A shared platform of relations and emotions. Losing the personal archive to take refuge in the collective archive. What a strange loss, what a paradoxical poverty. I no longer have any of the emails N and I exchanged, but I do know how, at so many points in the Jina uprising, following every image, slogan, and protest, together we shared our awe and joy and trained our eyes on a collective image.

At times, we may have paused for a while before deleting some insignificant line in a private message. Gazed awhile at the shapes of the words, those simple words, just as N once gazed at that dead woman wrapping her shawl around herself and then disappearing. So that one day they could testify about the lines on her face and fingertips and her passion for spring.

Today Is Which Day of the Revolution?

I will let go of lines,

of counting numbers too,

and from among the limits of geometry,

seek refuge in the soul of infinity.10

He asked me, “How long have I loved you?” My memory and my phone’s and my accounts’ memories have been wiped so those early days can’t be recovered and all I know is that I’ve loved him since the first few weeks of the revolution. Personal archives have been cleared in these times of terror and insecurity, in an ongoing uprising that’s subdued the daily exchanges between friends and lovers and replaced them with the uprising’s collective memory. A grand volume of images, sentences, moments, and videos we collectively sat down to watch and which impacted us with a rare intensity. Together we rehearse the words and stories11 of those who were killed; together we watch the maddening and heartrending videos. We want to show our loved ones what we’ve seen. We publish our experiences and encounters as anonymous pieces and add weight to this dense mass of collective memory. Becoming anonymous in this collective archive and finding once more an individual connection to this collective memory. All those instances of “look at this.” One day S and I cried along with Shouresh Niknam’s mother’s laments and spoke of our mothers12: “It’s as if in the laments of Shouresh Niknam’s mother I find my own mother and recognize something I hadn’t noticed before, despite being Kurdish, even that way of wearing her scarf is so familiar to me. I miss my mother so much.” Crying. Rewatching the laments of Shouresh Niknam’s mother, I could again and again evoke that moment of closeness with S, and our mothers, and the history of our friendship, without having a single record, photo, or letter from that history at my disposal. Our private lives and relationships are signposted in the various moments of the Jina uprising: “Look at this woman.” Crying. Watch “Hasanak’s mother was a real brave woman.”13 Crying. Look, look at this body full of rubber bullets. Bewilderment. Look, look at these young schoolgirls, smiling with tears. Look at this crowd, look at them before the execution, look at us, look at ourselves, look at our executed teacher, look at our twenty-two-year-old youth,14 and that is how we evoke our collective youth.

Among those arrested in the early days of the Jina uprising and freed after a few months, someone who, for the first time, was seeing that famous photo of the flood of people and that girl on top of the car on the fortieth day of mourning Jina’s death asked on Twitter in shock and delight: “Do you know when and where this photo was taken?”15 This simple question asked in cyberspace was absolutely shocking. They hadn’t seen our collective experience of life over these past few months. For someone released from prison it isn’t the necessity of relating private affairs that matters, but rather, the joy of relating and showing these collective-private-emotional experiences and impressions. We want to show our captive friends these shared moments. We show them the post-Jina world the same way we like to show and introduce the world to children, the same way we show a child a river and forest and butterfly and flower and say: Look! Look:

The sparrows’ language means: spring, leaves, spring.

The sparrows’ language means: breeze, fragrance, breeze.

The sparrows’ language dies at the factory.16

We show the anthems and slogans, the scorched marks, the mourning wails, the floods of people, and that place where we’ve constructed our fluid private-collective archive to our friends in captivity who haven’t experienced the new world and say: “Look.”

In the early days when the uprising was in its passionate phase (if we consider its current stage as the depressive phase), a strange thing would happen to the protestors. We devotees of the revolution were all dreaming of love and love-making. Dead or unknown lovers came to us in our dreams so we could make love to them. We would wake up in the morning, and by that night, based on our respective time zones, narratives of our dreams would surface. An analyst said to one of the dreamers: “Dreaming of love signals hope.”

“Hope means that while you’re sitting in the depths of darkness, just as something suddenly takes form, hope should be revealed to you—all at once, like lightning, such that it deprives you of your ability to analyze.”17

How does dreaming about love during a revolution become an epidemic? How does one’s regular menstruation cycle get disrupted? How does a revolution intervene in the most intimate aspects of life and change absolutely everything?

The Sinister Echoes of “Cleansing”

I was chatting with a group of friends. Conversation had turned to a friend of ours who’d been arrested without “cleansing” their devices. Someone said, “They hadn’t ‘even’ erased their diary—who has a diary18 in the Islamic Republic?” and we were reminded of the mistake of keeping a personal diary under the Islamic Republic’s regime of security. What was poignant about this declaration was how much it took for granted that all personal archives and diaries of the protesting citizenry subject to the Islamic Republic should be “cleansed.” The horror was recreated in echoing the term “cleansing,” which has a long history in the Islamic Republic: the comprehensive cleansing of universities and the humanities that the government carried out during the cultural revolution throughout the eighties, and which it has continued to carry out to this day in various forms, such that we are today witnessing the same comprehensive cleansing of universities in the waves of expulsion of students and professors who protest the government.

When it comes to personal diaries/memories, is it also the government who’s doing the cleansing? Or is this cleansing an ironic act of naming a core political principle in a suppressed security state? We erase our own names in our documents, messages, and personal records so that they might cost us less and we might endure longer as a force in the struggle. Erasing tracks and fingerprints and thwarting the police, while simultaneously chasing, constructing, and recollecting these personal histories by tethering to the archive of collective memory. Finding one another at the various coordinates of a movement and waiting for the occurrence of a memory from the future among the twists and turns of a movement that continues to go on.

This intervention is mutual. Individuals personally intervene in the construction of this collective archive. We no longer have an archive from which to recite personal memories; I no longer have a letter from which to describe N’s dead friend as N described her. Memory no longer remains confined to the past but rather assumes an everlasting form. Indeed, every time our collective trauma or collective joy draws us into conversation, it’s N’s dead friend wrapping her shawl around herself. A memory from the future that is, like the uprising, ever unending and ever reviving. Our personal memory-archive will no longer accumulate somewhere but nowhere, in a negative space. In a black hole born of erased personal memories. Our terminated archives have been absorbed into the great black hole of collective memory and will remain there forever. Without knowing exactly what we said to each other, we’re sure that we’ve said much; the movement’s history is the evidence of our personal histories. Each personal history densifies this black hole and strengthens its gravity field, while that strengthened gravity affects personal circumstances more and more, thus necessarily tying the unconscious of politics to collective emotions, traumas, desires, and fantasies.

And this is how one can guess a slogan erased from a wall from the shape and outline of the paint that’s been poured over it, just as one can remember a conversation from a blank screen and memorize the missing parts of a diary’s pages.

And there are still silences amidst the fields to which we must listen. Conversations at the margins, the sound of black holes. That whisper that is so frightening to the oppressors. Can you hear it?


Trans. note: This dedication is adapted from the following lines of the poem “Let Us Believe in the Dawn of the Cold Season” (1974) by Forugh Farrokhzad, trans. Sholeh Wolpé, in Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad (University of Arkansas Press, 2007), 88: “I am naked, / naked, naked. Naked / as the hush between words of love.” The Farsi letters are, from right to left as Farsi is read: ‘ain, shin, nūn, ghain, khih, and sīn. In the text I’ve used the following necessarily unsatisfying approximations (or in some cases, simply swaps) in English, relying on only the simple alphabet rather than any system of phonetic transliteration: A, Z, N, G, K, and S. This was done in order to better create the simplicity and anonymity of the original essay.


All the poetry quoted in this piece is by Forugh Farrokhzad, lines that, while writing, suddenly came to me by association. Connecting with Forugh’s poetry, which is part of our collective memory in Iran, allows anyone to recall their youth or adolescence. These verses, which are linked to all of our lives, link us all to one another as well. Trans. note: from “Let Us Believe in the Dawn of the Cold Season,” 87.


I laughed when quoting this part of the revolutionary slogan. The circumstances in which N and I write to each other aren’t quite so revolutionary and urgent. I haven’t written anything in my own blood. That’s too epic and hyperbolic for the present situation. But this slogan encapsulates the history that our generation lived between the 2009 protests and the Jina uprising. This slogan recalls a Green movement slogan, and only certain words have been changed—keywords that evoke the sociopolitical circumstances of that movement and this one, and the path that our generation has trodden to get here from the 2009 protests. Words that bring back to life the ghosts of the friends we’ve lost.


Trans. note: Or the eighties (1380s), according to the Iranian calendar, as it is put in the original. Subsequent dates have simply been converted to the Gregorian without further comment.


Trans. note: the fortieth day after a person’s death is commemorated as their “fortieth.”


Trans. note: that is, Mahsa Jina Amini and Hadis Nafisi.


Trans. note: Mahsa Jina Amini’s hometown in the Iranian province of Kurdistan, where she is buried.


See (in Farsi).


From Farrokhzad. Trans. note: from “Let Us Believe in the Dawn of the Cold Season,” 90.


Trans. note: Farrokhzad, from “Let Us Believe in the Dawn of the Cold Season,” 87–88.


Trans. note: The word “stories” was transliterated into Farsi. The author possibly intended for two meanings of “story”—as “narrative” (in English) and as the Instagram feature (in its Farsi transliteration).


Trans. note: a video clip that went viral.


Refers to the story of Amir Hasanak, a vizier in Tarikh-e Beyhaghi, an important history book written by Abul-Fazl Bayhaqi in the eleventh century CE. Also a line from an Instagram post by Kamelia Sajadian, the mother of Mohammad Hassan Torkaman, who was among the martyrs of the Jina uprising. Trans. note: Farrokhzad, from “Let Us Believe in the Dawn of the Cold Season,” 87–88.


An allusion to the famous poem by Ezzat Ebrahim-Nejad, who was killed in the attack on the University of Tehran in 1999: “Remember us! We who were youths of only twenty-two with love and passion in our hearts and who, before we could fall in love, died face down on the soft ground.”


See .


Trans. note: Farrokhzad, from “Let Us Believe in the Dawn of the Cold Season,” 92.


See (in Farsi).


Trans. note: the word in Farsi is “khatereh” which can also mean “a memory.”

Iran, Middle East, Protests & Demonstrations, Social Media
Return to Issue #145

Translated from the Farsi by ZQ.

Elaheh is a feminist activist and researcher.


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