Phantom Limb


by Mahdis Marzooghian

I. I recently read an article about phantom limb syndrome and had a strange thought. I thought about how the trauma of amputation—a limb cut away from one’s body—could, in some ways, parallel immigration trauma—a person cut away from one’s birth country. At times, I find myself losing count of the exact years I’ve been away from my own birth country. 

And that separation has created a feeling similar to what I imagine, on some level, it must be like to experience phantom limb syndrome. Its memory still haunts me, and I feel its weight and pain even though it’s been cut from my life. One may argue that a severed limb can never be regained, whereas a home country can easily be revisited. But does an immigrant ever fully regain her birth country once she leaves it for good?

II. Going back after years away—I did the math, subtracting years in mere seconds, and got fifteen—is like substituting that missing limb with a prosthesis. It’s artificial. It’s not a part of the body, but it’s still there—attached. It belongs and doesn’t belong at the same time. 

III. And yet, when I last visited fifteen years ago, I was welcomed by the Milky Way twinkle of Tehran’s city lights from the airplane window, each one as inviting as the front porch light of my childhood home. When I stepped out of the plane, lightheaded, the air that filled my nostrils and lungs smelled both familiar and unfamiliar, like taking in the scent of a mother who gave me up years ago and has come back to reclaim me.

IV. At the airport, I spotted the smiling faces of relatives who were strangers and old acquaintances all at once. Whose blood I share but hadn’t seen up close in years. I felt so safe and loved when their warm hands shoved bouquets into my arms and pulled me into an embrace. 

V. And when it came time to leave, why did I ache with a sadness that settled in every recess of my body—even the spaces between my teeth? I remember sitting in the backseat of my uncle’s car as he drove us to the airport, crying and singing along to sad Persian songs with my cousins, hugging them close while I could. Just as they started to feel like family, I had to leave again. I then wondered, sitting alone on an airport bench, trying to grind the grief of goodbye out of my teeth, in how many years I’d be back, if ever. I’d still rather have the prosthesis than nothing at all. 

VI. I subtracted again and realized it’s been twenty-six years since I first left my homeland where my mouth formed its ancient language—Farsi, my mother tongue—for America. And no matter how long I live here, it will always feel a little foreign. Like I belong and don’t belong at the same time. So then I wonder, where does an immigrant belong? Perhaps it’s in a lonely place halfway between one’s birth country and adopted country: living with a phantom limb in limbo.

VII. I then think about what it is to be Persian. Or Iranian. Whichever term the occasion calls for. Although most of us prefer “Persian” because it ties us to our ancient past; back to when we once ruled an empire and nearly the whole world was ours. When we could’ve sailed to different continents and perhaps still felt at home.  

VIII. The complex history of my land both ties me to it and unravels me from it. Is it our fate to constantly live with paradoxes? Back in January 2020, I was faced with a possibility I could not accept. My parents had taken a one-month vacation to Iran in mid-December, and I found myself thousands of miles away from them while forty years of tension between my birth country and adopted country escalated. How could my parents come back safely amidst all the political unrest between our two countries, both of which we loved? Perhaps it was best to not really belong to either. Perhaps living in immigrant limbo wasn’t so bad, phantom limb and all. 

IX. I remember listening to the news and checking my phone obsessively, bargaining with God to take years off my life if it meant my parents would come home safely. I made up worst-case scenarios in my head—surely, if I thought it, then it wouldn’t actually happen. 

And when my parents did come home, on the second to last day of a cold January straight from Hell, it didn’t feel real. After all that, this was a little too easy. I stood waiting for them in the airport with my brother and his fiancée, holding a bouquet of flowers to welcome them. When I pulled them into my arms with cold, numb hands that couldn’t feel anything, the moment felt more real than anything else that had happened before it. 

X. On a map, Iran is shaped like a cat, and I think that’s rather fitting. Cats have a reputation for being capricious creatures and to a certain degree, so are Persians. Millions of us have forsaken our land and more are leaving because we’re always restless, searching for something. Even 2,500 years of history can’t keep us bound. 

XI. I was only six when we left, when it wasn’t up to me to decide. I like to think that if it were my decision, I would’ve chosen to stay in my cat-shaped land. My parents, too, would’ve stayed if my father’s side of the family—most of whom were living in America—hadn’t convinced us to leave with the promise of better opportunities in the U.S. 

XII. I packed only six years’ worth of memories from my birth country and flew thousands of miles to a new continent. You don’t realize what you’re giving up in the moment. Little by little, the loss surfaces with each passing year. Piece by piece, it’s cut away from you. Slices so thin you hardly notice. 

XIII. Some of my memories from those six years are still so vivid. Like walking the streets of Tehran at dusk, hand in hand with my father, trying to keep up with his long strides. We’d gone to pick up my school uniform from the tailor’s one rainy evening; I attended first grade for about a month before we left. 

XIV. I remember the smell of rain clinging to the evening air; it smelled different—stronger—than it does here. Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t rain as often there, so that when it does, the soil doubly rejoices. The streetlights and neon store signs reflected in the sidewalk puddles, pulsating with the life of the city. 

XV. I recall my mother trying to fit our lives—even dishes and silverware—into giant black suitcases. We were unsure of what awaited us in this strange land or what it took to create a whole new life from scratch, so we took as many parts of our old one as we could to help. 

XVI. I remember standing in the baggage check-in line at JFK Airport with eleven suitcases sitting in a row between the four of us, ready to burst open with our belongings. I wondered which pieces would fit and which had to be returned to the suitcases, unsuitable for this new life. My mother had also packed my Farsi schoolbooks because my mother was the keeper of my mother tongue and couldn’t allow me to forget it. It’s one of the few things that forever links me to my land. One of the few things that can never be severed. 

XVII. Growing up, my brother and I weren’t allowed to speak English in our home. Just like water erodes land, a second language erodes the mother tongue over time. My mother knew this all too well.  She’d say, “Our home is still an Iranian home no matter where we live, and in an Iranian home, we speak Farsi.” 

So, we spoke Farsi at home and learned its alphabet by writing dictions on the weekends. Slowly, we learned how to form these curved, undulating, dotted letters into words. We learned how to write the first letter, “alef”—which we call “ah with a hat” because of the squiggly accent that sits on top—and the second letter, the big-bellied “beh,” to make the word “ab,” or “water.”

XVIII. Next, our mother taught us how to connect the “beh” to the “ah” to make “ba,” then repeat it so it spelled out the word “baba,” or “father.” The very first sentence you learn in the first grade Farsi schoolbook is, “Baba ab daad,” or “Father gave [me] water.” A simple, yet complex sentence all at once. Simple in its structure and spelling, but complex in its meaning and significance—the fact that it’s one of the first sentences every Farsi speaker learns to sound out and write. The fact that your life-giving source—baba—is offering you a life-giving source—ab—has always struck me with its beautiful generosity.  

XIX. Sometimes, it was hard to remember which letter to use in a certain word because there are some letters in Farsi that sound exactly the same—the s-sounding “seen” and “saad,” for example—but are spelled differently. And it’s not easy to know which words use “seen” and which use “saad,” especially if you only write dictions on the weekends and aren’t exposed to Farsi regularly in school. When you only speak it with three other people at home and then go out into the American world and your American school speaking English with everyone, taking extra care to pronounce everything perfectly—the “w” and “th” sounds are the trickiest—so no one will suspect you speak another tongue. 

I complained to my mother about the woes of Farsi spelling after I received a particularly poor grade on one of my dictions. “How am I supposed to know ‘sobh’ (Farsi for ‘morning’) is spelled with ‘saad’ and not ‘seen’? It’s too hard!My mother just smiled and said, “All it takes is practice.” But even now, hundreds of dictions later, I still have trouble sometimes with my Farsi spelling. 

XX. My favorite thing about Farsi is how the letters have to attach to each other in order to create words—a beautiful tangle of lines and looping shapes making love and birthing words that non-Farsi speakers have often told me sound so melodic when spoken. It’s the language of poets the likes of Rumi, Saadi, and Hafez for a reason.

XXI. Sometimes, when you get swept up in your new life and identity, it gets harder and harder to hold on to those bits and slices from an old life half-lived. Some might not mind this amputation; some are content to live with the residuum. They no longer feel phantom limb pains because they gave up the ghost of their old life long ago.

XXII. They don’t replace it with a prosthesis because they don’t feel the need to go back. To be linked. They try so hard to leave immigrant limbo and shed that old identity. 

XXIII. While I’ve felt isolated and torn from my birth country at times, and have had my share of disappointment and doubt and displacement, I’ll always choose to go back whenever I can. I refuse to wholly lose or give up the Persian part of me, no matter how complicated or contradictory. Why would I ever want to forget or deny the fact that Rumi and I share the same native land and tongue? That some of the world’s most achingly beautiful poems are written in Farsi? These are the only facts that matter, and the only feeling that remains is pride. Paradoxes, politics, and phantom limbs be damned.  

XXIV. Even if my life in my home country has long been severed, I still have a substitute—a prosthesis—in place of what used to be there. And being able to speak Farsi, to read and write it, will keep me forever mother tongue-tied to my birth country. Even if all else is lost, forgotten, or cut away, I’ll always have Farsi in both its spoken and written forms, misspellings and all. Language reflects culture. Lose your language, and you lose your culture. I refuse.

XXV. While it gets lonely in limbo, I will stay there the rest of the time, moored between the two countries that formed me. The place between belonging and not belonging is longing: living with a phantom limb in limbo, longing. If I can’t fully have one or the other, then I’ll settle in this halfway point where I can hold on to fragments of each. Because doesn’t an immigrant exist in fragments? 

XXVI. The article on phantom limb syndrome noted that researchers don’t exactly know what causes phantom limb pain. One possible explanation is that nerves in parts of one’s spinal cord and brain “rewire” when they lose signals from the missing arm or leg. As a result, they send pain signals, which is a typical response when the body senses something is wrong. 

As an immigrant, I’ve had to rewire and readjust my whole life to fit a new setting once I lost touch with my missing home country. As a result, I’ve felt the pangs of longing and displacement, a typical response when one feels as though they’re in the wrong place. But no matter how much my phantom limb pains or haunts me, I refuse to give up the ghost.

Mahdis Marzooghian is cofounder and editor in chief of Five on the Fifth. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Miso for Life anthology, Heartwood Literary Magazine, Welter Literary Journal (print), Mud Season Review, Adirondack Review, BULL Men’s Fiction, and Lunch Ticket. Mahdis’ debut novel, “Death Has None,” is forthcoming from Austin Macauley Publishers.

Image Credit: “Chrysalis” by Cynthia Yatchman