To write home about
"Foreign Iranians" tend to create cultural ghettos
By Ebrahim Harandi
August 7, 2001
These days a distinction is often made between the Iranians living abroad
and their compatriots inside Iran. This distinction is along cultural lines
and contains a number of pre-suppositions, none of which can withstand close
scrutiny. One such supposition is that Iranians living abroad have adopted
or developed new values and cultural practices which sets them apart from
their friends and relatives back at home. Hence, it follows that their outlook
differs from that of people living in Iran.
There is no denying that social and environmental factors can have immense
impact on the way we perceive the world, but such influences are gradual
and interactive. Total adoption of a new culture requires a generation turnover
but it should be possible -- at least in theory -- to deliberately set out
to learn about and begin to live another way of life and the way in which
it perceives the universe. The new learning in a case of this kind is bound
to be in the light of prior knowledge and skills of the person.
However, as far as the Iranians expatriates are concerned, not only have
they not been living in their new lands long enough to form a clear ethnic
identity, but also as the majority of them had been forced to flee and seek
refuge in the West, they mostly regard themselves as refugees and look at
their current situation as temporary. By now many have lived in their country
of residence far longer than they have lived in Iran. But they don't want
to be settled and refuse to give up hope of returning back. They have mostly
adopted a temporal (safari?) attitudes to their current country of abode.
This kind of mentality militates against any form of settlement for the
first generation and prevents the establishment of a new identity, which
is the foundation of a distinct outlook. I know there are many assumed and
real differences in terms of perceptions, attitudes and actions between
us and them, and each side reckons that their perspective on life is superior
to the other, but in reality these differences are minor and insignificant.
By identity I mean a set of irreducible distinct features with which
one can compare and contrast a particular way of life with another; a defining
tool that fashions the way in which social attributes find their ways into
an individual's mind and help shape her private and personal inner world.
As far as this issue is concerned, I believe we cannot make a distinction
between Iranians at home and those abroad. Some of us may have access to
more time, space and resources than our friends and colleagues in Iran,
and most of us boast our freedom to explore our environments and express
our minds as we wish. But the repercussion of such fundamentals is as yet
to be translated into concrete codes of conduct.
"Foreign Iranians", as some call them, mostly live in inward
looking and insular communities untouched by the host cultures and unaffected
by its developments. We tend to create cultural ghettos, which regurgitate
outdated ideas and practices and produce nothing but defensive self-congratulatory
dreams and fill our imaginations with antediluvian imageries, far-fetched
ideas and wishful thinking. Of course there are good reasons for all that
but one of the consequences of such developments has been an impermeable
mindset, which stops us form absorbing new ideas and trends, some of which
might just be the answers to our current problems.
We could act as a catalyst for the transfer of new ideas and modern thinking
to our country. But our failure in this respect has led us to become mere
observers of events and developments back in our homeland at a time when
our contributions could have been invaluable in facilitating and assisting
the current quest of the younger generation for meaning. As we have nothing
to add to current debates. We follow developments rather than lead them.
A recent preoccupation of some of our writers abroad has been comparing
and contrasting works of writers and poets at home and abroad. Implicit
in this line of thinking is that the two groups deploy different world visions
and literary perspectives. In my view this assumption is erroneous as our
mass exodus has -- up to now -- been a mere geographical dislocation. There
are off course minor differences between the poetry and prose at home and
abroad but such differences are superficial and hardly worth writing home
Those of us who wish to go back to Iran eventually, have to ask ourselves
what have we got to take back home with us, if the prospect of return becomes
a reality? How would our efforts compare to our predecessors at the turn
of the last century?