article

12.16.11

Christopher Hitchens Eulogized by Roya Hakakian

His charm, his way with words and his brilliant contentiousness have all been well cataloged, but Christopher Hitchens’s key quality was his ability to make common cause with the oppressed wherever he found them.

In 1984, the year that, for those of us in Tehran, had every Orwellian quality, I befriended a Marxist activist who was on the run from the regime. I knew none of his coordinates, not even his name—on cloudy days, I called him “Gray,” on stormy ones, “Rain.” What drove me to brave the dangers of seeing him, aside from the heedlessness of adolescence, was the way his circumstances had chiseled away at every sign of the tiresome or inconsequential from him. The hour we spent was always deliriously dense, and as such, draining, our conversation more a distillation of days of ordinary chatter with others. He never squandered anything, not even a gesture, and when he accidentally cut his finger while cutting into a watermelon, he dipped his finger into his own blood and, on a piece of paper, wrote the word LOVE, a red star above it.

When I think about Iran and what I miss about life there, Gray is what I think of. He was the product of unique circumstances I thought I’d never know again. Never, that is, until I met Christopher.

Even from the tributes of his most ardent admirers whose numbers are lately multiplying, the trace of the Christopher I’ve briefly known is faint. The debater, thinker, charmer, weaver of luminous sentences, though impressive in their own right, strike me as peripheral. Only those who have been persecuted or fallen victim to tyranny know the rare virtue that was the elemental dust of his make up. Only one belonging to a forsaken people or a forgotten cause can know the value of her flag pinned to his highly-visible lapel. He may have been born in England, but the blood that flowed in his veins was Third World blood. The depth of his kinship with the suffering of those with whom he has nothing in common can’t be otherwise explained. He lived in Washington, but his moral time zone was set to Evil Standard Time. Like those from that zone, he operated according to the urgency that dictatorships instill in their subjects. He understood that to be leisurely is to forsake possibilities, even lives. That to be consequential is a question of now or never. I never knew him to take his time, squander words to be merely decorous. He loved or loathed immediately, and he did both as voraciously as he smoked, spoke and drank.

His investment in the opinions that he so elegantly articulated never superseded the austere truth. One never had to brace oneself with Christopher for an onslaught of the quintessentially objective journalese questions—how can you be certain that Ahmadinejad really won the elections? Christopher had the same visceral access to the a priori of the native, the dissidents. For other columnists writing about Iran, I’ve been a “source.” For Christopher, I was, at best and only at times, a conveyor belt of sorts supplying a few translations of Persian lines or terms to be consumed by his inexhaustible machinery. The intensity of his passion against the theocrats in Tehran is only matched by the expatriates who have fled the grip of the Revolutionary Guards. In one e-mail, I forwarded to him the name of a columnist whose writings had sympathetic undertones toward the regime. In response, he wrote that the name already existed in an especially designated file marked FIRI: Friends of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

I never knew him to take his time, squander words to be merely decorous. He loved or loathed immediately, and he did both as voraciously as he smoked, spoke and drank.

In an email last week, en route to address a Washington crowd about Iran, I wrote him that in preparation for my talk, I’d reached deep inside to unleash the Hitch within. He wrote in return, “I think the hour is a good one and the Pasdaran filth have overplayed their hand. We will meet at their funerals.”

Having lived in a theocracy, I learned long ago, that with His frighteningly capricious ways, their God, as Christopher declared a few years ago, is not great. But Hitchens was.