Finding wholeness as a bi-cultural immigrant
By Parisa Parsa
October 25, 2001
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.
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
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.