December 23, 2007
Either you will go through this door
or you will not go through.
If you go through
there is always the risk
of remembering your name.
We are living
in paradoxical times, bursting with tribal and national passions
to purify, inoculate and cleanse slats of land, yet ripe with
occasions for peacemaking and hatchet-burying.
To me, both
an outsider and insider, West and East are as much states of mind
as they are geographical designations or cultural entities, ready
to be swayed this way or that, if there is enough zeal either
way. My background has provided me with stereophonic insight into
both and with it a constant source of tension and ambiguity about
my role and the meaning of my life.
I was a tad
under four when President Kennedy was shot by Oswald. My earliest
recollections are blurred images becoming crisp and continuous
round that time. My sharpest memory is of walking with my parents
past the store windows along Elizabeth Boulevard (renamed Keshavarz
after the revolution) and Pahlavi Avenue (renamed Vali-e-Assr).
We found more than half the shops closed in mourning; the entrance
to the ones open festooned with black bunting. Not long afterwards,
five-feet-by-eight portraits of John F. Kennedy, woven entirely
into fine silk carpets, appeared behind the windows of carpet
stores all over Tehran.
In the months
and years that followed Kennedy's assassination, while America
pondered the mysteries of the grassy knoll in Dallas, I came up
with suspicions of my own. The whole affair, which sank my older
sister into a mild depression, did not sit right with me; my four
years on the planet had not prepared me to cope with its shock.
Years later, I was almost glad to stumble upon the realization
that it did not sit right with America, either. Therefore, if
America would not be the same after the assassination, nor would
bond was forged between that faraway land and I. Since then, my
life has been in America's shadow. From Mohammed Ali's bold rejection
of the Vietnam War to the horrible explosion of the tenth flight
of the shuttle Challenger, I have been there with America, mourning
its tragedies and celebrating its triumphs. But truth be told,
nothing ever came close to the memory of JFK's assassination.
I felt responsible for the slain president the way Christians
feel guilty for the Crucifixion, or the surviving Jews feel about
the Holocaust. I have always had intense feelings for the martyred
school in Tehran
education began with a schizophrenic twist. Barely past the age
of five, I was sent off to the Iranian branch of Don Bosco, an
all-boys school run by the Roman Catholic Church. In Tehran, Don
Bosco was under the meticulous care and direction of an Italian
priest named Father Piccioni, and the faculty was both Jesuit
and lay. Unlike other schools in Tehran, Don Bosco had a five-day
week schedule. We were off on Sundays as well as Fridays, the
Moslem Sabbath. On the dangling Saturday in between, classes were
adjourned. We observed Christmas holidays as well as the Iranian
New Year, Noruz; Easter as well as the Shi'ite holy days of Tasua
at Don Bosco was rigorous; the emphasis was stronger on English
than on Farsi. In the first grade we were required to study the
English Reader Series. My bicultural education was thus set off
on a note of irony. I grasped, without a question, the content
of those magic-ridden books, and internalized them as though they
were the culture of my parents. At home I was cheered on for my
progress; every new English word I learned was a cause for celebration.
Too young to notice the deliberate exposure to the other culture,
I was nevertheless pushed by my parents toward the land after
which they themselves secretly lusted. Some children on my father's
side of the family also attended Don Bosco. Naturally, socializing
with them never became a problem.
however, cannot be said about my mother's side of the family.
Sundays to those children meant another day at school, and they
looked upon my schedule with envy. They never observed Christmas,
never learned the words to "Jingle Bells". English did
not find its way into their curriculum until much later in high
school, and even then, it was not taken half as seriously. Almost
all English teachers in the Iranian public schools had rarely,
if ever, been in situations where they had to rely on their second
tongue as a primary means of communication.
Life at Don
Bosco, however, consisted of scientific tours to botanical gardens
and local factories in between a variety of courses, peppered
with music lessons and extra-curricular activities. We were shuttled
to and from children's movie festivals, where cartoons from Japan,
the U. S., Czechoslovakia, Romania, Great Britain, France and
other countries were shown. Also quite a few plays by my elder
schoolmates saw stage in the huge amphitheater adjacent to the
that the rich and indulging educational methods at Don Bosco were
hardly the norm in the country. However, they were real and today
I stand to benefit from them. An entirely new world opened itself
to me in the third grade when I was drawn into a comic - book
trafficking network. It was a channel of communication that went
totally undetected by the school officials and other adults. We
bought, sold, traded or otherwise gave away tens of colored zines
on a weekly basis. Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Spiderman, Ironman,
X-man, the Incredible Hulk and the Daredevil provided just the
sort of fantastic underworld in which any normal kid loved to
roam about, and which was a whole different level of exposure
to the West. The colored cartoons opened new horizons for us,
teaching us what the school books were incapable of teaching:
a way of relating to each other that was, at the same time, only
possible in the English idiom.
By sixth grade
I was so comfortable in my surroundings that not even a hint of
what was ahead entered my mind. My parents suddenly forced me
to switch schools - something to do with my grades having slipped
on a downward slope. The pain of departing my friends and the
world of Don Bosco was so severe that I introverted and fell back
on the only familiar ground available to me: reading. During the
five years at Don Bosco, I had become motivated enough to independently
pursue the course most to my liking. Through a magical blend of
fate, Catholic school training and bad grades, literature became
the single passion of my life.
Little Prince & Hafiz
In my Don
Bosco period, I had owned more than two hundred comic books. I
had also read many of the tall tales of One Thousand and One Nights.
The narratives of Cinderella, Aladdin and the Magic Lamp, The
Little Prince, Jack and the Beanstalk, David and Goliath, Bluebeard
and king of the fairies, King Oberon, all in English, were already
a part of my conscience when I left Don Bosco. At family reunions
and birthday parties, throughout my pre-teen years, I entertained
my friends and relatives by recounting those stories. I was often
surprised that my new friends had not even heard of The Little
Prince or Bluebeard.
In my eleventh
summer, I poured over a shabby translation of The Count of Monte
Cristo, by the elder Duma, and devoured Jules Verne's Mysterious
Island. The latter had such a profound influence on me that on
numerous nights I woke up in the middle of an intense dream with
remnants of audacious deeds on my palate. The next summer, Agatha
Christie came into my life with her captivating yarns. In the
following years I read Dr. Zhivago, The Good Earth, Einstein's
biography and Henryk Sienkiwicz' Quo Vadis. The realization dawned
on me only two decades later that the education I received all
those years was filtering two different cultures into my conscience;
two views of the world not necessarily opposing, but distinct.
never defined Iranianness in ideological terms, not consciously
anyway, I always thought of myself as an Iranian, even when my
school celebrated Christmas. It was the farthest thing from my
mind that some people (i.e. the predecessors of the fundamentalist
movement) might rebuke my education as un-Iranian, adulterated
and Occidentalist. Looking back, I had regarded Don Bosco as much
an Iranian fact of life as a mosque, or the air that I breathed,
and never thought of myself being any different from other less
fortunate kids. Granted, having been exposed to so much of life's
varieties, there had been little room for the old texts, perhaps
I did not study as many Persian classics as my parents had. However,
this deficiency would be compensated in high school where I'd
acquaint myself with Hafiz, Saadi, Firdowsi and Mowlana. In retrospect,
I feel my early education in its entirety was, unbeknownst to
me, directed toward pulling out whatever roots I had in that soil,
toward making me a homeless citizen of the world.
In the sixties
the rumblings of the revolution were already affecting the Iranian
Littérature engage'. In ninth grade, I read a small paperback
by a provincial teacher, Samad Behrangi, who played an enormous
role in the radicalization of the Iran of my youth. The Little
Black Fish was written ostensibly for children but not really.
It praised the values of heroism and martyrdom, thus falling right
into the religious groove of the mass culture. This, in spite
of the fact that the writer himself was on the periphery of an
underground Marxist group. I do not particularly sympathize with
that little fish anymore, but its impact on my younger self I
cannot minimize or deny. Thus, my political awareness was swayed
by the liberal critique of the society.
A banned novel
by Ahmad Mahmood, wrapped in newspaper, surreptitiously found
its way into my hands in high school. The Neighbors was set in
the background of the 40's and early 50's, particularly dealing
with the aftermath of the coup against the popular government
of Dr. Mossadegh. Then I read the subversive poetry of Shamloo,
and the prose of Hedayat. One of my teachers, upon discovering
a copy of Blind Owl among my books, frowned and gave a half-hour
lecture about patriotism. In essence he said there were only two
ways ahead of the book-reading lot: either comply and try to change
things from within the system - which to me was unacceptable if
not impossible - or face the torture-chambers of the security
police, SAVAK. There was no middle ground. It struck me as odd,
even then, that an educator should drive his point home through
I found my surroundings repulsive, looking to get out of all that
violence that threatened my freedom. My high school was two blocks
away from Tehran University, where college students were methodically
mistreated by the police and paratroopers with shoot-to-kill orders.
The anti-riot police units on my way to the bus stop provided
the most surreal backdrop to my growing up. In spite of the tight
security around the campus, however, the news of the riots always
managed to leak outside. Those were the times that you interpreted
everything as a sign of the regime's imminent collapse. It wasn't
a matter of if anymore, only when.
feelings about the West
By the time
I graduated from high school, I had acquired mixed feelings about
the West's relationship to my birthplace. On the one hand, I cherished
all that the West had made possible for me, especially providing
a rich literature that included The Grapes of Wrath and Bread
and Wine. On the other hand, I did not understand how the very
same West would tolerate a regime that mutilated the translation
of those august masterpieces. The puzzle only made me restless.
I was anxious to get out, the cost unimportant. This restlessness
may have been the start of what the Hungarian critic, George Lucas,
named "transcendental homelessness," the modern condition
of feeling at home nowhere, yet everywhere.
I can see
my seventeen year-old self stuck at the intersection of the past
and the future. The nostalgia for the ancient Persian glories
and a bitterness toward the incompetence of the venal political
order had created in me a gnawing alienation with which I was
not equipped to deal. In the Iran of my youth the West had roused
unknown desires. My generation clearly symbolized that desire,
so much so that concern for pressing issues of our immediate environ
paled in comparison. Speaking for myself, I was too eager to know
the intriguing culture on the other side of the globe to notice
that I had become an alien among my own people, a stork, a mantis,
a gawk. I felt ashamed for my obsession with the West - and increasingly
felt I should conceal it - a shame that could not be excised out
of existence, and that soon was to transform to a solid burden
of guilt of which I'm not quite certain I have disposed. I was
a lost soul in search of roots in a world that strove to find
strength in rootlessness. It is as though the revolution was bound
to come and put an end to this schizophrenia that was increasingly
unable to sustain itself at this level.
the 70's most of the Iranian youth of my generation felt like
strangers in their own land. It is important to note that the
present (pseudo-Islamic) official definition of 'Iran' and 'Iranianness'
presumes anything Western as un-Iranian. Since the revolution,
the Iranian intelligentsia has been under constant attack by the
official culture, just as the leaders of the opposition have been
assassinated by the regime's death squads. In all cases, the charge
has been having sided with the West at the expense of (a narrowly-defined)
Islam. Abroad, signs of fragmentation are everywhere within the
Iranian community: of religious confusion, decadent and rigid
sects, revolutionaries without a following, societies of friends
of Iranian culture, monarchists without a monarch, nationalists
without a nation, a laundry list of ad-hoc committees to promote,
to defend and to advance foreign notions such as . . . well, democracy.
let nothing go, lest everything be lost. In the name of keeping
the rituals alive, these get-togethers have a specific function.
They're the reminders that 'home' is still there (where Farsi
is spoken) at the expense of our American selves, of our actual
lives. The west-coast branch of the Iranian community is like
a Jack-in-the-box broken loose from its spring. Through TV networks
and twenty-four-hour radio programming in Farsi, it wishes to
keep a certain Tehran alive, even though the city most of us grew
up in no longer exists except as an abstract idea. There in California,
I'm told, they brood the love of a past that most of us don't
remember anymore at the expense of becoming a truly modern people.
having been raised in a gentler Islamic sphere of existence, I
was not aware of the deeply religious sentiment within my society.
I was not aware of that other "Iran". Some within the
émigré community have argued that prior to the revolution,
that other "Iran" - Iran of the faith we see nowadays
on TV screens the world over - simply did not exist. The Islamic
Republic of Iran, they assert, is a British conspiracy. I neither
share their view, nor the contention that the Iran of my childhood
was a fabricated illusion, that I grew up in a bubble. I cannot
hold my northern Tehrani upbringing responsible for not seeing
that other Iran. Perhaps, I tell myself, the two Irans existed
side by side all along in a grafted mold.
catch myself trying to understand both Irans by juxtaposing the
images of my past with the ones I see in the American media. I
find Hollywood's stereotyping, exemplified in the movie "Not
Without My Daughter", to be gross exaggerations that have
nothing in common with my experience. I do suspect what we see
and hear in these examples are indeed snippets of the prevalent
reality in today's Iran. Yet, I strongly resist the notion that
the Iran of my boyhood never was, or has merely been a figment
of my fantasy. Somewhere within the hefty layers of reports from
the old country, the evidence is overlooked that my generation
- the generation most influenced by the West- had not intended
to subvert the society in favor of this mindless theocracy, that
for us the culture in which we grew up was no less "Iranian"
than what is being proclaimed of late by the interpreters of the
Word. I'd offer an alternative view: the present anomaly simply
grew out of the old one; the old, so to speak, gave way to it,
expatriates subscribe to the notion that their Iranianness is
separate from their humanity. They form consciousness raising
"cultural" groups to reach an understanding about what
constitutes Iranianness. They hold meeting after meeting (with
a stiff, almost un-Iranian regularity) to emphasize an affair
that passed away many years before the revolution. It is worthy
of note that it had been through a similar search for an original
self, sans any foreign impurities, that the old country was pushed
on the path of cultural suicide, cutting itself off from the wellspring
of civilization. Therefore, despite all their posturing, I see
the Iranian intellectuals still bound to the double tyrants of
fundamentalism and inept nationalism. Meanwhile, waiting to be
addressed, lurk the great questions, Who are we? What are we doing
(and I use this term generously) came of age with a flavor for
Western civilization, even though some of us turned our backs
to it during the revolution - an affair that was destined to come
and yet took everyone by surprise. Relating to this flavor in
a personal way, I can say Western civilization was good to me
in that it kindled in me the urge to read and write. It flung
open the doors of my imagination, and allowed me the possibility
of adopting a new self, or rather, new selves. America, as the
bellwether of the West, became a migrant space for me, a place
where you are not marred by your class and background, and have
many chances, as many as you wish, to start anew.
By the time
I graduated from high school, mine was already a migrant mentality.
Naturally, the Western civilization that I cherished set me on
the road to America. First the irreversible journey of the mind,
then, in the summer of 1977, of the body, aboard a 747 jet. In
a superb essay in Granta, titled "Loss", Gunter Grass
spoke of how loss has given him a voice. "Only what is entirely
lost demands to be endlessly named. Without loss there would be
no literature." If we were not that animal that remembers,
the weight of the past would not have been so grave. Our memories
would stop pestering us to remember things that have long perished.
Paradoxically, our memories would not forget either. In order
to remember one has to forget. All cultures are in danger of losing
perspective, as if time has a corroding effect on their sensibilities.
Sometimes a culture can be too achieved, too refined, too restrictive.
Old cultures in particular can saturate with their own echoes
and become, literally, full of themselves. It is rarely that they
embrace the contributions of other civilizations and become global.
For some cultures, this acceptance of the "other" seems
to represent death itself. Not unlike old people, cultures become
more set in their rituals the older they get.
of divine rituals
a people of divine rituals and sacred books. Our culture embodies
a thicket of thoughts, from empty gestures of ta'arof to our convoluted
classical poetry. We have more than our fair share of epics, grand
and opulent narratives that are the sources of our pride. We emphasize
the greatness of our ancestors, their contributions to the world
civilization, their tolerance of other religions, their sense
of poetry and justice. We take special pride in Ferdowsi, Hafiz,
Saadi and Mowlana, but our adherence to the literature of eons
ago, I'm afraid, has not made of us a literary people. Our literature,
our texts, did not commit us to an exploration of the universe.
They were cultural signposts, giving us a sense of the wholeness
of our world and the alienness of what lay outside. For us, the
Iranian culture has accomplished greatness, once and for all.
When we think about our writers and their vocation, by writing
we mean something fundamentally regressive.
composition - what in academic circles in the West is referred
to as 'creative writing' - has little value for most of us. The
kind of writing that we cherish usually tends to elaborate and
explain those existing texts. It is a part of the perfection of
our culture. Salman Rushdie is given credit for saying that every
nation has its own unique brand of obsession by which its character
is stereotyped. The Iranian obsession lies somewhere about the
idea of our superiority. It is as if Iran hides its head in the
sand of its huge beliefs, inside spiral layers of rituals and
conventions. Trapped in a cobweb of musty decorum and ancient
customs we have somehow led ourselves astray, into the dark alleys
of fruitless pursuits. Our constant search for the perfect arrangement
of Hafiz's odes is as futile as my mother's obsession with cooking
the tastiest ghormeh sabzi, and her endless search for the perfect-tasting
is that our history is rich with funny anecdotes and noble characters
who took to mock these vain habits of ours. Yet, we are so busy
being proud of our heritage that we have failed to recognize,
let alone catch up with, the last couple hundred years of development
of the Western mind. To us, the West's huge towers of literature
are of no consequences in themselves, but exist merely to support
our rich nostalgia. Since migrating to America, I have encountered
many an occasion to reflect on these issues and have been cornered
by well-intentioned folks to decide, once and for all, to which
camp I choose to belong.
is relevant as far as it helps me grasp what it means to be American.
My vision of who I am is formed by examining the idea that I was
once an Iranian, and that I will never be an Iranian again; that
I will not be buried in the country of my ancestors.
To be a migrant,
though, is to be of doubtful blood. The migrant is a hybrid always
in the process of becoming, constantly aware of the shape of his
unskilled mouth forming the difficult vowels. By establishing
himself in the host society, he attempts to attain a vacillating
yet firm balance between becoming and being; with the idea of
becoming he becomes a citizen. Thus, by transforming himself into
a normative being of becoming, he surmounts himself. In the words
of George Lukas, "the voyage is completed: the way begins."
a citizen in the strange new world posits an existential danger.
Where morality binds a citizen to carry out his duties within
the society, the naturalized citizen of the new world finds it
still difficult to receive acceptance. He still has to ignore
a part of himself in order to complete the assimilation, because
the melting pot will not accept that part of him which is looking
at the pot from the outside. The naturalized citizen does not
feel quite at home the way he probably did in the old country.
And here lies the danger: since you have to spell your name, the
chances of mutual acceptance that the idea of great melting pot
demands are destroyed. Migrants have to accept and live with their
limitations as necessary conditions of their existence. In Grendel,
John Gardner created a beastly creature indicative of that we
humans are all in some sense or another monsters, trapped in our
language and our deficiencies. And migrants' is scarcely a unique
problem. Czeslaw Milosz has reminded us that language is the only
homeland. Hence, the urge to merge.
to this country, I have been but a most fleeting blip on society's
screen, numerously reminded of my foreignness. I'm aware that
there are times when I make everyone uncomfortable without having
done anything wrong. But this was never new to me. I had the same
strange feeling even in the country of my birth, where I never
had to spell my name, yet easily felt out of place like a square
peg in a round hole. Here I deliberately use the term migration,
instead of immigration, because it refers to the actual condition
of change through movement. Migrants are both immigrants and emigrants,
as much defined by what they leave behind as by what they meet
on arrival. Not only do I feel nothing new in being an outcast,
I see great potential in it here that's missing elsewhere. My
life experience provides excellent proof that in America the holes
are any shape and no peg is amiss. A miraculous land in which
new breeds of people constantly merge and emerge, where lovers
of various descents join together and produce composite souls.
In America one is always two or three things at the same time.
And this quality, more than anything else, is responsible for
breaking down of the racial walls and prejudices.
I feel very
much at peace in this society, more so than in any other. But
migrants do not simply go from one place to another; they vacillate
between the country they left behind, and the country that will
take them in. This swinging back and forth, between the buoyant
reality of present to the dream-like memory of the past, is what
defines them. The world of a migrant is a mosaic of lost past,
untold stories, untransplantable rituals and untranslatable jokes
juxtaposed against the haphazard denigration in a land where he
is a freak of sorts, defined by cultural jetlag and language barrier.
that, I have finally come to the conclusion that in America, one
need not acquire new roots to survive. If the study of the condition
of modern humankind has taught us anything, it's that this rootlessness
can be a source of strength as well. Being a carrier of foreign
germs, the migrant is immune against current social maladies of
sectarianism, prejudice, xenophobia. The migrant's struggle to
cling on to life under inhospitable circumstances ultimately breeds
that essential American thing that is tolerance. His or her triumph
marks the triumph of humanity at the end of the twentieth century.
As I write
these words, mobs of angry Palestinians are burning the most flammable
flag of all, the American. TV screens once again question the
seemingly improbable notion of a civilized dialogue between East
and West. I ask myself, doesn't what we daily witness from the
comfort of our living rooms indicate an inherent inability for
the two worlds to even begin to understand one another? Are my
hopes and the hopes of other outsiders in vain? Whence and on
whose initiation must this serious undertaking begin for history's
most taxing and formidable effort which is the coming together
of civilizations and cultures?
background, my past and present encounters with both camps, can
not help but provide me with the following thought. For America
and everything she stands for to prevail in the sometimes chaotic
world, there has to be a window through which others can take
a gander. We will be judged less arrogant when others come across
us outside of our foreign policy than through it. When the world
experiences us through our smart bombs and air raids and economic
sanctions, the world cannot help but judge us arrogant and ugly.
While our foreign policy machinery represents most of what constitutes
Americanism, there seems to be a void real Americans, average
farmers and homemakers and mechanics, can nicely fill.
good to me then, and she tastes good to me now. There is nothing
imaginary about my American adventure. My only hope is for a way
I can share the taste with the student rioters in Tehran who have
risen to fight the oppression of theocratic rule. They're calling
for democracy, this ultimate and sweetest of Western products.
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