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Here to stay
Lamenting our lost roots is unproductive

December 21, 1999
The Iranian

In the early 80s most of those who fled Iran considered themselves provisional refugees. Indeed they expected to return to their homeland after a rapid collapse of the mollas. They lived outside, more or less, like the French aristocrats that took refuge in England after the 1789 revolution. But contrary to the latter, there was no "restoration" and they found themselves stuck in foreign lands.

Little by little the Iranian emigres divided into two groups. A small number bowed to the new authorities and returned . Some of them even became sort of propagandists for the regime. The majority settled and gradually transformed themselves into a diaspora. An "infant" diaspora as it were. But a diaspora, all the same.

Talking with friends here, reading poems, stories, letters, articles by countrymen in numerous publications around the U.S. and elsewhere; it seems to me that many members of this new diaspora feel somewhat confused. Not to mention the material difficulties most immigrants face (finding jobs, housing and the like), they all remain preoccupied with questions about their "roots" and "identity". They admire or despise the host countries. They yearn for their lost homeland while they reject the theocracy in Tehran. They are not yet used to the peculiar duality of their present situation.

Indeed, here in the United States, we live according to laws often different (if not in contradiction) with the ones we had back at home. We find ourselves in daily contact with almost all cultures of the world. For the first time we enjoy all the basic rights and freedoms proclaimed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights -- first and foremost freedom of speech. It is as if we have been catapulted to another planet enjoying a more oxygenated atmosphere.

I own that it is not easy, at least for the elder generation, to adjust to such a genuinely different environment. As a consequence we constantly commute , as it were, between two parallel universes: our private homes and Iranian circles, on the one hand, and the American environment, on the other. This is not science-fiction but sheer reality. Naturally, our children have rapidly acclimated to the new background, at least on the surface.Yet they show keen curiosity and interest toward their Iranian heritage and the original culture of their parents.

At any rate the basic characteristic of a diaspora is to keep alive some of its past traditions. The Iranian diaspora is no exception. From this standpoint, we Iranians of the outside share some problems with the Iranians of the inside. We resent the rule of a backward fundamentalist dictatorship that has created difficult economic and social conditions for our compatriots and plunged the country into underdevelopment and a remote past, making it terribly difficult to join the global economy of the coming century.

But on the whole, we face a different situation. Indeed while the Iranians of the inside have to find ways to extricate themselves from the medieval climate around them, those of the diaspora must adapt to rapidly changing conditions of a society hurling itself into the future.

Fortunately, our new locale, especially here in the U.S., offers us the elements and tools for surviving in and benefiting from this future-in-development. Indeed, a world of information is available to us; there is no censorship; no limit to our curiosity and learning . We know we cannot totally recreate Iran. We have to make choices among our traditions; we must keep and honor those which are helpful in our new conditions and put aside those which would hinder our quest for progress. And in so doing we might be of some assistance to our countrymen in bringing about change inside Iran.

Let me evoke a memory which would illustrate my point. In 1962, while I was an international civil servant , UNESCO sent me to a conference on freedom of information which was held in New Delhi. Nehru, in failing health, was still the prime minister of India. After his speech to the conference, he received the delegates and the members of the secretariat for a private chat. One of the participants asked him what his government was doing in order to preserve Indian traditions in a changing world. Nehru said (I quote from memory) : "Nothing. We study our traditions to find out which ones hinder our progress, in order to eliminate them!"

In my opinion we should set aside nostalgia and concentrate rather on a path such as the one suggested by Nehru. Lamenting our lost roots and sense of identity is negative and unproductive. For one thing, as other ethnic Americans, we profoundly remain who we are. Iranian Americans. There is no such a thing as American-American. The image of a melting pot is nothing but a practical metaphor. America is rather a mosaic of immigrant groups from other nations. And that is why it is easier to become an American rather than a French, British or German citizen.

In early October, I found the following title in The Washington Post in relation with the recent elections in India: "Indian Americans Emerge as a Powerful lobby on India's Behalf". Such is the strength of diasporas. Let us reflect on this.

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment to the writer Fereydoun Hoveyda

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