So where are you from?
found that identifying myself as an Iranian in the U.S. was generally
not a good idea
March 30, 2005
I am Iranian. Why is it difficult to utter these three simple words in the United
You can imagine that someone at work, at a party, or a fellow
passenger during a flight asking the innocent question “So,
where are you from?”
As someone who was born in Iran and brought up in the United
Kingdom, I am used to identifying myself as an Iranian. In the
UK, the person asking the question would normally reply with “I
thought so”, and might recount some story about another Iranian
he or she knew many years ago. They would ask about the situation
in Iran, reminisce about their old acquaintance and the conversation
Since I arrived in New York in August 2003 for a three-year work
contract, I have discovered that this type of simple, friendly,
exchange is not the norm for US-based Iranians.
Even before I got to New York, a US-educated Iranian friend advised
me to introduce myself as British (“They like Britain here”)
and avoid any reference to Iran. I was already a frequent visitor
to the US, but this advice still shocked me.
On arrival, from the warm welcome I received in US Immigration
-- we were subjected to the peculiar delights of Special Registration
-- I found that identifying myself as an Iranian was generally
not a good idea, even amongst supposedly educated people. My American
boss’s reaction to me being taken to a back room, photographed
and finger-printed on entry to US was “This is terrible.
You must feel bad. But I guess it does make me feel safer that
they are trying to catch terrorists.”
Compared to Europeans, Americans seem generally less interested
in anyone’s cultural origin. The assumption is that you are
lucky to be here and to have the opportunities offered by this
great nation. Talking about what you consider to be your home country
is treated with suspicion particularly if you come from a “terrorist” country.
Americans distrust their government in terms of domestic policy
but trust it completely with foreign policy. “Everything
that President Bush says about Iran must be true. It is right for
us to treat Iranians with suspicion, particularly after 9/11, and
you are well advised to keep a low profile.” There are, of
course, dissenters, but I am talking about what is undoubtedly
the mainstream opinion in the United States as represented in the
media and contact with ordinary people.
Europeans, by contrast, are much more distrustful of their governments’ foreign
policy. They are aware of their colonial history, and the extent
to which colonies were manipulated for financial gain to the detriment
of the local people. They are also genuinely interested in different
cultures and resent homogeneity. To declare oneself as Iranian,
Turkish, Ghanaian etc. is not an unusual thing. Maintenance of
your national identity is encouraged and the process starts in
schools, unlike the States, where each school day begins with the
children’s pledge to the America flag.
The New York taxi driver who just got off the plane from Karachi
is driving a cab with a US flag and “United We Stand” sticker.
I have no problem if the taxi driver is genuinely stupid, but if
the bad taste in car decoration was the result of fear of retribution,
then this should not acceptable in a supposedly free country. The
same taxi driver would be driving around London displaying a Koranic
script with little or no fear of attack. He would certainly not
need to display the British flag.
Iranians living in America seem to have largely accepted that
they should downplay their identity in order to succeed in their
careers and avoid getting marginalized in their neighbourhoods.
The numbers of Iranians in New York metropolitan area and Greater
London are comparable, but the number of Iranian cultural events,
restaurants, cafes and public forums for celebrating one’s
identity is significantly less. None of the numerous carpet shops
in Madison Avenue even call themselves Persian; they display the
America flag on the screen rather than the Iranian one. In London,
there are around ten public Norouz celebrations with 200-300 attendees
each. In Manhattan, you will be lucky to find one. You are able
to see any Iranian movie of international significance on a London
cinema screen. This is not the case in New York.
On a recent holiday in South America, we arrived at a vineyard
on a bus tour. Everyone was asked his or her country of origin.
As usual we declared ourselves as Iranian, and the guide said that
she had never met anyone from Iran. A few minutes later, we heard ‘Salaam
Alaykom’ and met Mehrdad who had introduced himself as from
LA. We spent the rest of the tour together and had a great dinner
the following night, but it still irked me why he had not introduced
himself as Iranian. He was obviously completely Iranian in terms
of attitude, culture, values, and interests but had been conditioned
to play it safe.
It appears to be much more acceptable to change your first name,
not talk about your identity and generally blend in with the community
in the US. If you are particularly courageous, you may call yourself
Persian in the hope that nobody knows where that is or they think
that you are a direct descendant of Cyrus, and not Ayatollah Khomeini.
This is not in anyway a criticism of the US-Iranian Community,
but is reflective of the power of the US to suppress other cultural
identities and force them into the anglo-saxon mainstream. The
media assault on Iran and the labelling of our country as a pariah
state have been extraordinarily successful here. This has placed
pressure on the Iranians living in the US, forcing many to prefer
to concentrate on their family’s well-being rather than be
involved with other Iranians as part of a wider community.
I am not a great Iranian nationalist. This was not a rant against
America (past or present) or the Iranian community here. I am not
necessarily saying that we should be proud of our history and heritage
- that is a matter of individual opinion and choice. However, I
think it is a basic human right to proclaim your identity -- be
it nationality, race or religion - without fear. I believe this
right is now more secure in Europe for an Iranian.