Persian, Iranian or
I let down my guard, threw away my
defenses and just said it: I am Iranian. Period.
October 16, 2005
Every Iranian-American is ethnocentric. It
is inherent in us to be proud of our rich history, people and
culture. We have read Sadi, Hafiz and the Legend of Siyavash. We can
talk at length about the Persian Empire, Mossadegh and Shah Pahlavi.
We know how much our families sacrificed after the
revolution, the one that led to a lost generation. A generation
striving to give back to its families what was stolen from them.
To recreate the missing ‘thing’ our parents yearn for.
Why then, can we not answer, with ease, that one simple
question... where are you from?
For years I called myself Persian. Those in the know
understood the reference was to Iran and were knowledgeable enough to
embark on a conversation without putting me on the defensive. But
the majority looked confused and ended the conversation with an
In my early twenties, I rebelled and for
shock value, tested the ‘I am American’ card. Yes,
that’s right, from the good old United States of America. The US
is a so-called melting pot, a land that embraces immigration,
multiculturalism and seeks to celebrate differences. Or is it? The
follow-up question that comes only seconds after my reply is the
infamous: ‘I meant originally.’ Oh yes, of
Where did I go wrong? Was it the fact that I have an
American accent, education and citizenship? Yet, with my dark hair and
eyes, my occasional display of so-called ethnic jewelry, and my Ipod
playing Googoosh, there is obviously no way I can be American.
Having pressed on with this tactic for a couple of
years, I made a conscious attempt to understand how people defined a
race? Was it culture, mannerisms, language, or physical
appearances. The latter won! I could not be an American; I simply
failed in that gene pool. Rhetoric was the name of the game.
The struggle did not end there. During my undergrad
days, my American ex-boyfriend, refused to accept that I was Persian,
Iranian or anything that sounded remotely similar. "Yes, Maryam you may
have been born there, but you have lived in America your entire life.
You speak, dress and act like an American." To him, it was that
simple. He believed my reference to being a Persian woman was
some way of highlighting superiority, exoticism and defining
cultural values lacking in a society obsessed with individualism. I
think the strength of my culture and the pride in my people scared him,
made him feel different; made him question himself, his origins and his
So, when did I ‘become’ Iranian? It was when
I let go of all the above. I let down my guard, threw away my defenses
and just said it: I am Iranian. Period.
The reactions have been multifold, often depending on
whom I am speaking with or in what country the question is being asked.
In London, where I lived and worked for four years, I found much less
hostility -- funny enough, being ‘American’ was what most
Brits came down on. Europeans were generally familiar with
Iran’s history, pre and post revolution, and were intrigued to
learn more about my actual experience.
Having recently returned to
the United States, namely the county’s capital, the obsession
with ethnicity has unmasked itself yet again. Rather than asking about
my origins as a means of opening the door to an enlightened
conversation, I am yet again in the witness box, being sized. Despite
this, I keep my head up high. I look into the eyes of those
who wonder what the far away land holds, not understanding how I can be
so American, and yet simultaneously so Iranian. I look at
them knowing that the values I have from both cultures make me
who I am. The blend of east and west, berenj and burgers, coca cola and
dogh-they intermingle to form the Iranian-American. Another
character in the world play.
The lost generation cannot bring back what our parents
lost, but we can seek to ensure, that alongside embracing western
values and freedoms, we hold on to our history. A melting pot
simmers us to a uniform substance, tasteless and lacking in
creativity. A truly courageous society is one that softly sifts
the ingredients to create a colorful medley bringing together
lessons to build generations on.
So, where are you from?
I am not trying to say in this article that I am only
Iranian. I am aware and proud of my American-ness as
well. Some people have written suggesting that in
order to make my life easier I should consider
changing my name to Mary or living in Iran. I find
these suggestions strange and completely against the
objective in which I wrote the article. I am happy
with my given name and a proponent of living in
America, or anywhere one wishes to. To make it clear,
I don't think there is anything wrong with using
that title Persian, Iranian or American. The reactions
I observe when I state I am 'Iranian' have been very
mixed, and are not always positive. However, despite
these reactions, we should be proud of being Iranian,
Persian, American-whatever it is we see ourselves as.
That is my point.