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Enemy within
Finding wholeness as a bi-cultural immigrant

By Parisa Parsa
October 25, 2001
The Iranian

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing
there is a field. I will meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn't make any sense.

-- Rumi

There are times when we can say with certainty that an action was right or wrong. There are times when we want desperately to condemn what has hurt us, what has caused irreparable harm. There are times when we want to cry out with all our might against the forces that cause intractable suffering for us and our loved ones.

We are living in these times.

There are times when we are called to live according to principles that we have recited and written and proclaimed with confidence in the past. There are times when our confidence in the meaning of those principles is shaken. There are times when our understanding of our own identities is turned on end and called into question. There are times when our place in the world, in our own communities, in our own hearts, is uncertain.

We are living in these times.

I have been searching my heart and my experience for wisdom in the past few weeks. I don't have specific policy solutions to offer, nor do I have a theology that decisively explains why people throughout history have committed horrific acts in the name of God. What I do have is a heart that is in pain, a mind that is mistrustful, and a spirit that is hopeful.

As an Iranian American, I have lived all my life with the knowledge that the blood of two proud and beautiful cultures runs through me. The political representatives of each culture, in their policies and practices, would have me hate the other part. As I have made my journey and continue to learn to accept it in its entirety, I have also learned that setting up good and evil as poles that are pure and distinct is the quickest way to land on paths of destruction, individually and communally.

My life was changed forever by the turmoil of a revolution in Iran when I was eight-years old. The revolution ultimately gave birth to the Islamic Republic and the rule of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The influence, overt and covert, of the United States and Britain in the rise and fall of political leaders in Iran has been a well-known fact to the people of Iran for at least the past 60 years. The Shah had been placed in power by a CIA-backed coup in 1953, and the hand of US intelligence in his reign was well-known to Iranians. The revolution itself was a strong reaction to the rapid Westernization that had taken place under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's reign, and the increase in the gap between rich and poor.

In order to take part in the politics and economics of Britain and the US, it was necessary for the Shah to make foreign and domestic policy decisions based on the demands and norms of the West. To the Shah, this meant establishing a forceful secret police (with the assistance of the CIA and the FBI) to suppress opposition, especially Islamic opposition, for more than 20 years. It also meant having teams of advisors who were either from the West or educated there, who had very little idea what the daily life of Iranians was like especially those in impoverished rural areas.

In a very effective mimicking of the West, the rich became richer and the people of the country became increasingly discontented with the government. This was a regime that would not acknowledge the important role of Islam in their lives and which was not making their lives visibly better. The economy was unstable; the secret police disappeared, anyone who spoke out or distributed writings against the government. This was all perceived to be the result of increased Westernization.

Of course, the people of the US did not vote on the CIA's actions or our foreign policy manipulations in Iran. Most Americans have no idea what happens in their name overseas. The representation of US interests in other parts of the world rarely gives people in developing nations a positive view of our culture. Unfortunately, it is not our highest ideals that make it across the seas to speak for us. Freedom and justice were the yearnings of the people who rose up in revolt in Iran. Westernization had brought them just the opposite.

We left Iran after months of fearing for safety and for the future. I was only sporadically able to attend my school (for children of international families) because of bomb threats or rioting in the streets. On people's lips and scrawled on walls were loud proclamations of "Death to America. It became unsafe to look as we did, and fearing for our safety, my father sent us to live in the US until things got better. It has been twenty-two years since we came here, and I have not yet returned.

When we arrived in the US things were hardly better. In rural Ohio, where we went to live with my mother's family, pickup trucks held bumper stickers that proclaimed "Iran Sucks". One particularly clever one had simply a drawing of Mickey Mouse, smiling demonically, wearing the stars and stripes of a US flag, holding up a bulbous middle finger. The caption read "Hey, Iran!" This was my introduction to that American gesture and its meaning.

As the hostage crisis deepened and the flags and yellow ribbons came out, I was instructed not to tell people we had come from Iran. If pressed for information to tell them I was from Persia. "Americans don't know where that is," said my father, "so it's safer than to say you're from Iran." I have since learned that this was true for most of us who came at that time. Many Iranian Americans still will claim only Persian identity.

The overall message that came to me throughout this time was that there was no place where it was safe for me to be all of who I was. No place where it could be acknowledged that these two parts were both good in many ways, and that they were both flawed in many ways. No place to just sit with the pain of the fact that it seemed the interests of one necessitated the destruction of the other.

When people asked the origin of my name, I would often say that my parents just had a good sense of humor. If pressed, or if I felt safe enough, I would sometimes tell people I was from Iran. Inevitably, still, this leads to people looking at me more intently, as if setting their gaze more deeply on my features will magically make their stereotype of Iranian looks appear, lending credibility to my story. I do not "look" Iranian people say, as if their vast experience with these people makes them expert. I do, indeed, look more like my mother, but I have light-skinned, light-eyed relatives on my father's side as well. People also like to compliment me on my lack of an accent. It is impressive that I have assimilated so well. The very things that made it possible for me to "pass" in the US made it very difficult for me to feel like I could claim the Iranian part of my identity.

I endured many ignorant comments, in society at large as well as in more familiar settings. People unaware of my ethnic background would go on vehemently, during the Iran-Iraq war, during the Iran Contra trials, during the Gulf War, about how it was impossible to understand "the Arab mind". I wouldn't think it would be so difficult, if you believe there is only one. Never mind that Iranians do not identify ethnically as Arabs, but as Persians. Never mind that the US, Britain, and the USSR had made the Middle East the mud puddle under the middle of their tug-of-war rope throughout the Cold War. Didn't matter who was there, they all had brown skin, wore turbans, and treated women poorly -- who could tell them apart?

One of my personal favorites was people talking about how education was the answer. "People over there are going to keep killing each other unless we teach them that there's another way." The assumption that we have had no part in the conflict, the arrogant perception that we are the ones who understand how to be "civilized" is exactly part of the problem. I seethed with anger. The part of me that was people over there, wanted to scream that here was where the education was needed. The ignorant savages were here, voting for tax breaks that took away social programs, creating defense systems for imaginary wars, wanting to buy a million varieties of everything under the sun, all for the cheapest possible price who cares where it came from.

One of the most common things I heard was how important people felt it was for the US to stand against the treatment of women in Muslim countries. I have heard dozens of open-minded people say that they could not bring themselves to embrace Islam as a positive faith because of "how they treat women". As a young woman exploring and eventually embracing feminism, I found it odd that there was an assumption that we could set ourselves up as a culture that knows how to honor women.

Certainly after working in an abortion clinic and in a shelter for survivors of domestic violence, I can't imagine what we have to offer the world as expertise. The Muslim women I know who wear hijab, who worship in mosques that are divided by gender, have told me that they consider this an honor, that they feel safe and respected within Islam in a way that they don't in US culture in general. And I have to believe them.

Just as there are men who will abuse women in their homes and make them slaves in this country, there are men who will do it in other countries as well. Men here use Christianity or Judaism or Islam as their justification for violence against women, just as men in Muslim countries use Islam as justification. To my knowledge, violence toward and suppression of women is not explicitly upheld in any of these sacred texts, but interpreters of them have found ways to do it in every time and culture.

It was not until I was in my twenties when I realized that I needed to be able to embrace and make peace with both sides of myself, and all the facets of each of them, if I was ever to be able to understand the world or my place in it. My anger was eating me up, and it was anger that was equally leveled at each part of my cultural heritage. I missed my connection with Iran, with its language and customs and music. And I had never felt at home as I tried to blend in and ignore the other side of my experience. I was always both afraid of and yearning to be exposed as other,: one who's mind was only part of a larger conglomerate; one of them, who needed to be educated; one who didn't understand my own oppression as a woman.

I have never had the luxury of having a single country to which I can claim allegiance unequivocally. I have never had the comfort of thinking that there could not possibly be another way of looking at the world but through my own lens. I love this country and the freedom it has given me. I grieve for the loss of life and the loss of security the attacks of September 11 represent. And I would have everyone remember that this is not about Islam, and it is not about the people of Afghanistan, should bin Laden be found to be the 'mastermind' behind these attacks. It is about the need for people to learn to think around the dichotomies that structure our cultural and political lives, and to see the humanness at the center.

I don't think sitting around singing Kumbaya is a solution, nor do I think that it is necessary to develop feelings of pity or of sympathy with the people who have carried out acts of terror. The world is suffering right now, and it's only in part because of terrorism. Unless and until we can come to terms with the ways we, too, have been responsible (directly or indirectly) for the gross injustices that have been done in the world, we will never be able to create a lasting peace.

There are thousands of people dying on our streets every day. People without adequate health care or nutrition, and in desperate poverty. There are hundreds of thousands of people around the world who live without what we would consider the basics for decent human life. Our nation holds a grossly disproportionate amount of the world's wealth. We stifle any movements that attempt to rival our power on the world stage, and we readily use military or secret intelligence to manipulate the workings of other nations.

The deep and painful reality is that there is a blurry gray muck at the center of it all that is the human condition. Our creative and destructive impulses are always rivals for attention and nurture within us. Often, they are part of the same whole and we don't fully control when one will be released. There are many wrongs that we inflict and endure that are unintentional, and many that are. When we are locked in battle to erase suffering, or to inflict it in retaliation, we lose the valuable lessons it has to teach, and deny its powerful place in our lives.

Suffering begets suffering, and at some point we need to create communities and cultures that are willing to make the courageous move to start playing a different game than the one the world has been engaged in for too long. We must begin to envision a world in which wholeness means knowing each of our capacities, as individuals and as societies, for doing harm to one another. Only if we are willing to come together in humility, seeing one another for all of who we are, can we begin to know peace. Good can only win when it is able to hear the pain cry of the urge to do harm (evil) that lives in all of us and answers it with the creative force of love. True understanding means being able to see ourselves and one another in our complexity.

The enemy IS in all of us, in a sense. That doesn't mean the victims are to blame. The victims are on all sides of the conflict. It means that we must learn first from that impulse toward destruction within us, and answer it with creative urges toward justice rather than vengeance and cooperation rather than conflict. Our rage can be a creative force, if it is harnessed with love that reaches for understanding and for justice. May we lay down in that field outside the realm of rightdoing and wrongdoing, and may we learn to be whole.

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