This is getting complicated
The distances I travel: Reflections on being half-Iranian
Photo by Daryoush Mohammad-Khani
August 4, 1998
A long time ago, when I was much younger and hadn't yet decided I wanted to be Iranian, one of my older Iranian cousins used to love to play hairdresser with me, the little half-breed of the family. She'd sit me down on her bed in Orange County, California, brush out my hair with great care and tenderness and then weave it into the most elaborate braids. "Your hair's so fine and light! Just like a doll's," she'd coo, and as she toiled over my coiffure, she would ruefully utter the final verdict, "It's not at all like real Iranian hair!" I remember keenly the one such occasion when my cousin spun me around to admire her handiwork from the front and, fixing me with an earnest look, said, "You should marry an American! I'm sure that way you could cancel out those hairy Iranian genes when you have kids!"
In Iran, where I was born, they probably would not recognize me anymore; in Germany, where I lived for long stretches of time, I am an American no matter how good my German; in California. . .well, that's the thorniest identity of all -- thorny, perhaps, because here I have a choice in the matter. I am asked "What are you?" and "Where are you from?" frequently enough, but the answers are too complicated, too messy, and they catch in my throat. To Americans, I say quickly, "Iranian," and I mean it wholeheartedly. But Iranians, with whom I grew up and now choose to live among, will not recognize me as one of their own, not initially anyway, and so my answers to them have come hardest of all.
Oriental meets Richard Burton
No one tells the story this way, but in my version of events it was my grandfather's death that really occasioned my parents' meeting. My maternal grandfather had been a paragon of traditional Iranian fatherhood and would certainly never have allowed his daughter to leave the house for even a night, let alone have permitted her to travel out of Iran to study in the West. But soon after my mother's sixteenth birthday, an American diplomat struck her father dead with his black Cadillac limousine. (No jail sentence was served, though a pittance of blood-money did, it is said, swiftly change hands.)
My grandfather's untimely death had left the family penniless and therefore compromised my mother's marriage prospects considerably. In a truly inspired move that had no precedent whatsoever in her family, my fantastically gutsy mother took off to study nursing in Germany. There she met my father, by all accounts then a somewhat rakish young German engineer already engaged to a German girl from his village. What a scene it must have been! I'll play it in my mind's eye like the most improbable of romances that it was: Impetuous "Oriental" with raven tresses crosses paths with Richard Burton look-alike (as they would later call my father in Iran).
The ensuing courtship was a fiasco. My father's family adamantly opposed the marriage and refused to acknowledge my parents' engagement. My mother fled the scene in horror (but with diploma intact), causing my father to hunt her down all the way back in Tehran. My father then braced himself for a nasty fight with my mother's family but, without pater familias there to forbid their union, once my father agreed to convert to Islam (and suffer the requisite rite of circumcision!), the rest of my mother's family could not have been more delighted to welcome him into the family. By that time marrying a Westerner had the effect of immediately up-grading my mother's social standing by several notches. And who could have begrudged her the privileges that afforded? The first dozen years of their marriage they spent in Iran, indulging in a dazzling succession of parties, discotheques, lavish hotels. It was the Shah's version of the Western Good Life, accessible to the privileged few, and my parents lived it up while it lasted.
Years passed; I was born; my parents and I left for America. And then one day my German grandmother and two spinster aunts launched a plan to abduct me, purge me and my German father of our Iranian-ness, and raise me as a good German girl in Germany. I must have been eight or nine years old at the time. My parents had by then been married twenty years and had long since left Iran, but my grandmother and aunts had never gotten over the fact that a strange foreign woman had stolen away the last remaining man in the house, dragged him thousands of miles away to her own God-forsaken backward country, and made a Persian-speaking, tea-sipping Muslim out of their golden-haired "Junge." For years they had been urging my father to come to his senses, divorce my mother, and move back to Germany with me in tow. I am sure I looked too much like "that Iranian woman" (known to me as my mother) to ever really please them, but as my father's one and only offspring and also the last one to carry on my paternal grandfather's name, they were willing to overlook the resemblance and welcome me into their fold despite it.
But to get back to the attempted kidnapping, one day my grandmother and aunts packed their suitcases with a few flower-print frocks and sensible shoes, boarded the first transatlantic flight of their lives, and showed up on our doorstep in Tiburon, California. My mother simply could not believe her eyes. She'd seen these three a mere handful of times, almost twenty years before, and those meetings had not exactly been heartfelt family affairs. But my mother had always been certain she'd win my father's family over in the end, and so now she cheerfully invited them into our house and then scurried off to the kitchen to serve them refreshments.
I was on my way out to play ball in the street when my mother caught me by the sleeve and ordered me to at once present myself to my "dear family." That's how she put it, "my dear family." Well, one minute these three big-bosomed women with blue eyes just like my father's are fingering my ratty braids and cooing endearments at me in German, and the next minute they're pulling me towards to door and frantically motioning me to keep quiet. Of course I let out one hell of a holler. My mother comes running in from the kitchen and, immediately grasping the urgency of the situation, wrestles me away in one fell swoop, races us to the closet room, and locks us both inside. Thankfully, the closest room turned out to be a bathroom because we would have to spend the next several hours crouched on the floor, waiting for my grandmother and aunts to cease their shouting, door-banging, and pleading before we dared poke our heads out to make sure the coast had been cleared.
I recovered well enough from the fright of that attempted abduction, and while for me coming to terms with my German side has often, though not exclusively, meant coming to terms with German prejudice toward Iranians, I now enjoy a relatively untroubled connection to this part of my heritage. I cannot say whether I have truly chosen the Iranian in me over the German, or whether, given a host of other factors, that is the only way I could have turned out. In either case, while my Iranian cousins have twice the Iranian in them, it is I, the half-breed of the lot, the one who because of her mixed blood most easily could have passed as not-Iranian (indeed, the one of whom this was most expected) who has wound up the most Iranian of all of us here in America.
"But how did it happen? How did you turn out so Iranian?" I ought to emblazon that question on my forehead, for I am asked it constantly and I will surely take it to the grave with me. Before I hazard an answer to that question, let me first lay down the criteria I am using to establish my greater degree of Iranian-ness. Of all of my full-blooded Iranian cousins, I speak a more fluent Persian, know more about the history and current politics of Iran, deliberately seek out Iranian friends, and, most importantly, identify myself as Iranian. This is not to say that I occupy an uncritical stance toward Iranian culture in its traditional mold. I am Iranian by several key standards, but I happen also to be feminist and liberal in my politics, which has complicated my Iranian identity in both fruitful and frustrating ways. I would be foolish, moreover, not to acknowledge my American-ness and how America has worked its way into my personality and outlook and into the Iranian woman I am.
This is getting complicated, I know, but complicated cultural and racial identities are, in my adopted California, the order of the day. I have good information, moreover, that we half-and-halfs are coming into vogue these days. A brief survey of my own extended family's recent choice of spouses leads me to think that soon half-Iranians will be the most common type of Iranian. I am, it therefore appears, in ever-expanding company. So far my own admittedly random and limited observations of other half-Iranians has led me to conclude that we either identify strongly with one side of the family or identify but dimly with one, both, or neither side.
I should note that geography, family dynamics, and other fortuitous circumstances have been stacked in favor of my becoming Iranian in at least several respects. Of my parents, it was clear from the start that my mother would have the upper-hand in the direction the family would take, and this included the place Iranian culture would assume in our house. When we came to America, my parents inadvertently landed in a liberal Northern California town that at least superficially tolerated ethnic differences, and this necessarily influenced my experience of being an Iranian in America. Also, from day one, my mother taught me to look Americans straight in the eye and let them know where I came from with nothing but unfalttering pride in my voice. Without even dimly recognizing what it would come to mean, I then went on to attend college in the Iranian capital of the United States, Los Angeles. Almost overnight I acquired a bunch of Iranian friends and began chattering away in Persian with unprecedented enthusiasm. And I haven't ceased chattering since.
All this current, faddish talk of multiculturalism aside, it seems to me that mainstream American culture still demands that at some point immigrants leave well enough alone, shed their accents and peculiar mannerisms, and get on with the business of disappearing into the greater fabric of American society. With my already diluted blood, I'm supposed to be a vanguard in the war against racial and cultural differences as we know it, which makes my deliberate backward glances toward Iran, country non grata, all the more suspicious. My "hairy Iranian genes"-cousin ought to put in an ad for ideal assimilationist immigrant I never hope to become. Since the fateful hairdressing session I chronicled earlier on, she herself has dropped her real Iranian name for a pale American version, had a nose job, and married an American (thereby sealing the fate of her own progeny). These days her sole contact with other Iranians seems to be an occasional visit to an Iranian restaurant, where she will feel no shame about her inability to even so much as order her food in her native Persian.
I avoid this cousin every chance I get, but sometimes, when I am in my more magnanimous moods, I will remind myself that she went through the worst of the anti-Iran era here in America, an era I myself am too young to remember and never meaningfully experienced. While I'd like to be counted among the last to exonerate my cousin, I would venture to guess that bitter experience has something to do with why she now talks about Iran like it's ancient history rather than a very real part of her own history. Our point of origin in Iran may have been the same, but once we arrived in America, our experiences as Iranians diverged. Unless I make a point of it, from looks alone no one suspects I am Middle Eastern. If my English is accented, it is only with the most authentic of California-girl drawls. No one has ever hurled racist epithets my way; the abuses I endured as a child in America were by and large the non-specific abuses children are wont to hurl at one another. I have, in short, had the luxury of coming to my Iranian identity at my own pace and with relatively few scars to compromise my cultural affinities and loyalties. Curiously enough, being half-Iranian, and therefore visibly less Iranian, has freed me up to be as Iranian as I please.
But this half-and-half life has its unique complications. As a half-Iranian living among Iranians, I have frequently encountered the attitude that adding European blood builds a superior stock of Iranians. To this day my Iranian relatives persist in calling me by my mother's childhood nickname for me, "aroosak farangi" (foreign doll). Over the years I have adopted a hostile stance toward such appellations and the other so-called privileges of my European half. Whether you call it Western influence or Western oppression, several generations later, we Iranians continue to internalize the Western superiority complex and have wrought of it a pernicious strain of self-loathing. Naming and fighting that self-loathing has been a key feature of my experience as an Iranian.
To illustrate, among my parents' set, there has always been a clearly delineated hierarchy of Iranian beauty that, not coincidentally, takes as its ideal typically European features. A brief list of such coveted physical attributes would have to include fair skin, light hair, small nose, slim physique, and "colored" eyes, with the highest value placed on blue eyes, then green, and then hazel. Rarely did all these come together in one person (they certainly did not all come together in me for me to feel their force), but they didn't have to. A set of blue eyes, for example, carried unlimited mileage on an otherwise unremarkable face. One of my own relatives, a homely woman in all other respects, had from childhood been lavishly praised for her alabaster skin. Now well into middle age, she continues to indulge the most supreme pride in her farangi-like complexion and has taken to gazing approvingly at my very similar pallor.
I see only ugliness in all this. While I can't say if it's an unconscious revolt to this troubling hierarchy of beauty (would that one could harness desire into calculated protest!), the fact is that my own evolving aesthetic favors the darker Middle Eastern and Mediterranean type. My own mother's features are what I suppose one would call "typically" Iranian. She herself will still count off one by one what she calls my "European assets," but to paraphrase my father's opinion on the matter, I should be so lucky as to look like her! Alas, I don't look especially Iranian or even German, for that matter. When my mother and I walk side by side, other Iranians will always eye us quizzically, struggling to place our relationship to each other. The same will happen when I, a brown-eyed red-head, walk alongside my blond-haired, blue-eyed father.
Since I have not always been counted as a real Iranian, I have frequently been made privy to the most stunning and egregious prejudices. And, sadly, I don't have to travel any farther than home for this experience. My parents' Iranian friends regard my father with a deference reserved for foreigners only. The women flutter around him, offering him the best of everything, while their husbands uniformly defer to his opinions in politics and business. I adore my father as much as I cherish Iranian politesse and generosity, but such special treatment simply unnerves me.
"I know these Iranian men"
Meanwhile, more and more my otherwise kind, open-minded, and sweet-tempered father will throw me a knowing look, as if to say of my mother or another offending Iranian, "There goes that crazy Middle Eastern logic again! Aren't they just impossible?" What he means to communicate to me is, "I know you're with me, that you're another level-headed Westerner," but I am invariably discomfited by his confidences. My father has been sneaking up on me in German in his old age, even demanding that I discipline myself into speaking pure German with him rather than my habitual eclectic mix of German, Persian, and English. And he worries terribly I'll wind up marrying an Iranian. "Jasmin," he'll intone in his gravest fatherly voice, "I know how these Iranian men are. I lived and worked among them. I know them as only a man can know other men." I may lend a sympathetic ear to my Iranian girlfriends when they rattle off the shortcomings in the Iranian men they're meeting, but with my German father, I'm forever leaping to defend the honor of Iranian men.
No one, not Iranians and not Americans, ever places me right, which has come to mean I can get away with all sorts of shenanigans. I can slip in and out of groups at will. I can choose to reveal my real identity, or keep it quietly to myself. In my younger days, I delighted in embarrassing Iranian men (and sometimes women) when they unwittingly dished up salacious remarks about me in Persian. I'd swing around and utterly floor them with a single perfectly executed Persian utterance. Unless it's fully warranted, I've more or less outgrown such habits, and these days, with my soul turning ever more Iranian, I do my best to get on with just being another Iranian, plain and simple.
My efforts are frequently frustrated. "This is Jasmin," my Iranian friends will introduce me to other Iranians, "She's half German." I cringe when, as if on cue, I am transformed in an Iranian person's eyes from one fetishized object (the "American" girl) to another fetishized object (the half-Iranian girl). Sweet-faced Iranian mothers will tug me by the arm and cheerfully introduce me to their sons, for in me they see a pre-fashioned compromise between their own preference for Iranian daughters-in-law and their sons' preferences for "foreign" girls. They are kind, they mean well, and so I'll smile at them as politely as possible before shrinking away.
Every time I encounter another Iranian, I must negotiate the distances between the farangi they see and Iranian woman I have become. I'll consider for just a second how much easier it might be to walk away from Iranians and disappear into the variegated California landscape. Then I remember I have chosen again and again to be Iranian because I adore the irrepressible warmth and kindness of Iranians and also because I crave the sense of belonging I feel in those moments when I am just simply another kind of Iranian in the company of many fellow Iranians. And then I'll choose to be Iranian all over again.