Monday, October 15, 2012

Yousef Akhlaghi: A Celebration of Decency; A Tribute, by Payman Akhlaghi, 2007

Preface: The following is the text of a tribute which I wrote at the time of my uncle's passing. As I recently came across it, I felt that it could be worth being shared with a larger public, both for the sincerity of the sentiments expressed therein, and for it might be one of the better pieces of writing that I've produced in English over the years. -- P.A.

Yousef Akhlaghi: A Celebration of Decency

By: Payman Akhlaghi

March 21, 2007
Los Angeles
 © 2007, 2012, Payman Akhlaghi. All rights reserved.

It was amazing enough to see how he made life look so simple, living so easy. His real magic, however, was that he made living decently look so easy. And when he left us this past weekend, he showed all of us yet another miracle: he made not only living decently, but coming out the winner, look as easy.

He lived life the same way that he played backgammon. To the end, he remained hard to be beat at the game. He always played it with a kind smile, with no show-off of emotions, intelligently, quietly. He would hide his focus under a casual gaze. His eyes would study the entire board. He would pause, think, analyze the situation, consider all of the possible options. Then would come the move, which you could be certain was the best, the wisest. He never complained about the dice. Instead, you could see that he was thinking forward, concentrating his mind on finding the best solution for the given hand. He managed to do all of this with a serene demeanor, in an almost total silence. There were few words exchanged, and there were no cries. But you well knew he was thinking very fast, and that at the end, he was quite likely to win. He was a true master of the game, and still, he never gambled. Such matters didn’t seem to appeal to him. Clearly, he didn’t want to taint the joy of the game with such petty concerns. Winner or not, you could never find him boast or groan. Actually, he was so shy that he could not even look you in the eyes. But as he was looking away, you could still catch it on his lips—there it was: that ever-present, contagious smile.

He was the best living argument I knew around me for peace and moderation. He was a Gandhi without the fame, a Khayyam without the poetry—and certainly without the wine. People go half-way around the globe to find inspiration in the presence of a guru, and yet every time I had dinner with him and his family, it was pure serenity and peace that was emanating from the man, right there, so close—as he walked, talked, or simply sat at the table and listened. Once you asked him a question, his face would open up, his smile would expand, and he would talk eagerly about what he was thinking, or what he had learned. He had a great memory and he remained an ardent reader, as much as his life would permit. Even in Los Angeles, he tried his best to stay up-to-date, and often enough, he would beat everyone to the latest news. But more importantly, it was the wisdom in his voice, words and manners that would strike you the most. Once he talked, you would feel guilty inside why you hadn’t allowed him to speak more. He had so much to say, and yet he often opted to be the listener. He was so curious, so wise, and yet he was devoid of any pretensions. He concealed his intelligence in a guise of simplicity, and there lied the secret of his magic. He was a truly modest man.

He had everyone’s respect, so effortlessly, and received it so naturally. Yet he was too modest to acknowledge it.

Maybe he had everyone’s respect for the fact that he respected everyone, child or adult, and never expected anything in return. I remember that as a norm,  he addressed people, often including the children, with the prefix of Mr. or Ms. Coming from him, it was not just a word—he meant it. And for a kid as I was, you’d feel it was too much, too soon of a responsibility to handle! Deep inside your heart, however, you enjoyed it.
Or maybe it was for the fact that he was not judgmental about people. Certainly, he could criticize you, but you never got a feeling that he was judging you as a person. When he criticized, it was usually in the form of a suggestion, always constructive. He was so open-minded, so liberal, so tolerant, yet he carried no banners.
Maybe it was his sense of moderation that gained him the respect of all parties, sometimes in the most casual moments. Often when driving, I still remember an exchange that took place years ago in Tehran. My mother was asking me to promise her not to speed, ever, once I got my licence, and I kept refusing to make such a promise. Then he intervened with a smile: ‘instead, tell him to drive with caution’. And just like that, everyone was happy! 
Or perhaps it was because he was one of the few people who don’t forget but readily forgive. The man could not hold a grudge against anyone. He did all he could to avoid conflicts of any sort, all throughout his life. He was so happy and always so encouraging. Greed, jealousy, hatred, envy or vengeance— these were alien words to his emotional vocabulary. He just loved peace and exuded peace. He walked the roads of life as best as he could, but never lost his eagle’s point of view. It kept things in perspective for him, seeing the moment in the context of life as a whole. It gave him a rare sense of optimism, a positive outlook on life, a sense that no matter what had gone before, tomorrow was still more important. He took life as it was, and tried to make the best of it. I am convinced that for him, the single most constant of life remained life itself—a life of peace, harmony, honesty, love, and dignity. But above all, a decent life. And it was a lesson earned hard.

In a way, he was who he was despite all the odds. He was born about 1924 in Iran, in the small town of Malayer, the third child of a family that would expand to 5 brothers and 5 sisters. Choosing a name for him must have not been so difficult: in an early photo, the young Yousef appears with a full, thick hair and the most beautiful face. And there it is: that angelic smile. Poverty ruled in those times, but from all accounts, whatever the family lacked in the material life, they made up in unconditional love, hope and kinship. I think Uncle Yousef was the first of the children to stand up on his own, paving the way for the rest of the family, making a foot-hold for the younger brothers to move on into the larger society. Thereafter, as each of them grew and became more independent, none of them would leave the others behind.

My father, Aziz, and uncle Yousef were very close in so many ways, although they had very different personalities. One thing they certainly shared, however, was the fact that they both worked hard but looked down at the material life. The love, respect and trust between them was a matter of fact; it was so real as the air you’d breathe. They communicated volumes with a few words. In such moments, you would get a glimpse of their earlier days, the years of hardship, the happy times of childhood, but more importantly, of how good they were. The way they lived and handled matters of life made the law seem useless. If everyone was like them, judges would be out of their jobs, armies would be sent home to grow crops. And they were just like that, so close, so silently bound, so naturally trusting, all the way to the end. When he was our guest or we went on a trip, he was the such a sweet presence that you didn’t want him to leave. He truly inspired peace where he was. And he could be so humorous.

On Saturday, March the 17th, a heart that had beaten in love and joy, at the marriage of children and at the birth of grandchildren, a heart that had served Yousef for about 82 years, stopped beating. But this heart had also had more than its share of sadness. Among them, I think none ever came close to a weekend in 1990, when Yousef learned of the tragic death of his brother and his sister-in-law, Aziz and Pouran, my parents. In those days of confusion, for the first time, I saw the man shaken. The air of optimism around him was missing. The tragedy was just too much to be processed easily. And yet his pride, years of a simple discipline, and his power of intellect were miraculously helping him stride with dignity.

Of those days, I have the memory of a moment when our eyes locked: you could see the horror of the events on his look, and you realized all anew what had happened. But I could also see how his mind was searching for a way to console me, to help. It was as if he was trying to find the best move in the most impossible of hands. And it was so difficult for him. He couldn’t find the words. No one could. Yet his eyes and actions spoke volumes. The selfless care in his eyes, his mere presence, reminded you that life had to go on. And as long as he was around, he reinforced the belief that not even justice would be an excuse for a life of vengeance. Now that he is gone so gracefully, I like to think that his death just put the final seal of approval on this belief.

Strange is this family of Akhlaghi. Once you were born into it, you would receive love with such abundance from all corners that you would be bound to end up taking it for granted. As I grew up, I received a most selfless love from my parents, a love so intense that would leave room for little more. But now that they were gone, I saw how the whole family was trying to do the impossible, to fill their gap in my life. To date, I take solace in their efforts, in the mere fact that they tried, so selflessly. For the 9 months following the event, Uncle Yousef and his wife, Mrs. M. Akhlaghi, hosted me at their home, gave up so much comfort to fit my habits, even changed their diet, to help me get through those difficult times. Today, I find it hard to understand how these two sweet people could put up with so much of me and yet never complain. Once he saw the pain on my face, Uncle Yousef would do all he could to make me forget. A few years ago, I gave myself the courage to thank him publicly for those days, but his innocent and sincere reaction only added to my sense of debt. I knew then that I could never thank him enough. But I also know that he would probably shrug it off as another thing that one Akhlaghi had done for another.

When I miss him, I will look no further than his family, because I see the best of him in each and every one of them. For the past 15 years hardly a week went by without my Uncle [E.] and his wife, [Mrs. F.], inviting me over to their home, hardly a moment that they let me feel I was alone. More directly, are his sons and daughters. For the past 15 years, there has not been one single Rosh Hashanah that Mrs. [S....] and her husband, [Mr. P.] forgot to call me over. [Her brothers] are the most honest people I know in the whole world. And [her sister] has the kindest of hearts you could imagine. I am truly glad that today, I have the chance to thank Mrs. M. Akhlaghi for her caring hospitality and presence all these years. They are all so good, and yet so true. And so goes for the rest of my aunts and my cousins, each to a different degree. I hope that each and every one of this family will live truly long and healthy lives. Because through you, Yousef will go on living. [Some names suppressed for privacy concerns.]

For me, who had recently lost another uncle on my mother’s side, another loving and innocent man, to another untimely death, Uncle Yousef’s departure was a sudden and terrible shock. He was another piece of my history now gone missing. But Yousef was more. He would keep your faith in humanity aflame. The last time that I talkd to him, he was as encouraging as ever. He was still doing one hour of aerobics everyday, which he had done all his life, and he still tried to go out for daily walks on his own. His voice and mind was young. But he said he had pain in the knees. All his life, he had a slight limp. It was amazing, because on him, it had always added up to his dingity of demeanor. But now it had grown into a painful condition. He said it most casually, but I knew it must be a lot of pain, otherwise he wouldn’t complain. I felt sad. I thought it was so unfair for him, a man who had lived so proudly, so independently, to ever become bound to bed. In his voice, I sensed the same fear. As it turned out, he never came close to that sad fate. He died while walking among those who loved him, as he had always wished. I also find it most remarkable that the man who could not see anyone cry, left us at a time of annual celebrities. Surely, this Passover will not be the same without him, but I also know that from now on, every year, at the time of Norouz and at Seder, he will be remembered with the most loving memories.

A precious man was taken from the treasury of the Akhlaghi brothers and sisters. I feel so sad, because I am well aware that this family cannot be repeated. The Akhlghi brothers and sisters have long made a strong, unique but quiet case for pure love and decency. I think that is the genius of their being; that is what they are here for. For once, I thought their innocence must be given a louder voice. I wish Yousef, too, was still here to hear it.

Mr. Yousef Akhlaghi was a true man of peace, a master of optimism. He was a quiet hero, and as such, he shall always be remembered.

© 2007, 2012, Payman Akhlaghi. All rights reserved.
یوسف اخلاقی، پوران اخلاقی، عزیز اخلاقی

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