Desire for unity and cooperation
By Mersedeh Mehrtash
September 27, 2003
It appears that much of what I have written about
over the past two years has carried a common theme. The "culture
shock" experience of Tehrangeles, or the feeling of being
an "Iranian outside of Iran", although not the dominant
concerns of my daily life, are the ones I that have written about
Almost three years after moving to the west coast
and diving into the largest Iranian population outside of Iran,
I am still struggling
to adjust and understand. My reaction to these recent discoveries
and experiences has caused such turmoil within me that I find myself
boiling over with a constant inner dialogue, the result of which
has poured onto the next pages.
During the course of my 26 years of existence, life
has taught me many lessons, most of which I have not been prepared
last three years living in southern California have given me a
few of these lessons in the form of a wild slap in the face. I
think it is during such lessons that one loses the innocence of
youth and begins acquiring the bitterness of experience. I'm
not sure which worries me more, the feeling of complete betrayal
of my idealistic beliefs or the fear of becoming that bitter realist.
Like many other Iranians, I grew up all over the
place. I was born in Iran but I grew up between my native land,
Europe and the United
States, with much of my childhood memories being of airplanes,
airports and feeling like an alien. I had a lot to adjust to, all
the time. I would learn a new language only to move to a new place
and learn another one.
I had to make new friends all the time, and explain
my roots and my background to each one, always with the knowledge
investments would be short-lived. I experienced my fair share of
prejudice. I was beaten up by some of my classmates in 2nd grade
in Paris because I was a "Terrorist". I got strange
stares in 1st grade because I ate a piece of "Kashk" during
recess, and the kids told the teacher that I was eating a stone.
I survived all of these experiences and they strengthened me.
I attested them all to being an Iranian among foreigners
who did not understand my history or culture. This was my explanation
being misunderstood, disliked or misjudged and I longed for the
day that I could have friends just like me and live among other
Iranian kids who would understand me. Every time someone would
make fun of my heritage, I grew closer to it. Every time someone
made an ignorant comment, I became more proud. I took refuge in
being Iranian, and it shaped much of my identity.
Now that I think back on my childhood, I realize
that I spent it serving as a mini-ambassador and representative
of Iran. While
my classmates in Iran didn't realize they could be anything
but Iranian, I walked around every day carrying my nationality
on my back. I had to explain everything about myself to everyone,
especially regarding holidays, food and language. I held on to
my culture, not by accident, but by choice.
Throughout all of this, my main connection to my
culture and my support network was my family and their close friends.
I took all
the qualities of this select group of intellectuals and I applied
it to my entire country. Rather than feeling the urge to blend
in and become "just like the other kids", they made
me proud of being different. They instilled such pride within me
that even at that early age, I considered myself privileged to
be Iranian. There was a lot that I didn't know then about
Iran and Iranians, but whatever I lacked in experience or knowledge
I made up for with love. My glorification of all things Iranian
did not change during my teenage years living in Boston. Every
time we visited California, I felt overwhelmed.
were ordinary and mundane to the LA Persians were exciting and
emotional for me. Even going shopping at an Iranian supermarket
and hearing Farsi spoken everywhere made me mute and dazed. It
was the moment where my dreams and reality meshed into one. It
was also a great moment of truth where I would discover how the
Iranians I had built in my mind all these years compared with the
ones I would meet and befriend.
When my brother, Mehran and I attended the Iran-US
soccer game in LA, and I saw the thousands of people dressed in
and White, my excitement and shock was notable to everyone there
with us. It was strange to finally be in the middle of what I had
always imagined. Although I felt that I did not fit in with this
crowd either, I knew that I desperately wanted to. I didn't
imagine the hate that existed inside our own community.
that soccer game, when we were walking from the parking lot to
the stadium, I could not understand why 2 or 3 different
people approached us and made nasty comments about the flags that
we were carrying and how they had the " Allah" emblem
in the middle as opposed to the "Shir-o-Khorsheed".
I responded to one man who told me to give him my flag so he can
take the "mullah" out of it, saying "but this
is the flag of Iran". I thought that he saw it as a political
symbol and that for him time had stood still for the last 24 years.
It never occurred to me that he viewed it as a symbol of Islam
in a predominantly Jewish community.
These encounters, although
surprising were not strong enough to register the cultural divide
and for me that day gave off an incredible
feeling of total captivation inside my dream world. During the
flight back to Boston, I put on my headphones and listened to
the new Dariush CD I had bought, struggling to understand each
and sound which seemed to capture this indescribable feeling
that I felt; awkward bliss.
Once we had moved to California, I was optimistic
about what life would be like living in this environment that had
so much intrigued
me. Much like the way I feel before entering a swimming pool afraid
of the cold water but anticipating the pleasure of being immersed
in it, I cautiously took in my new environment and dipped my toe
in. I was not sure what to expect, but I knew that at least here,
liked or disliked, I would not be an outsider. I never imagined
that my lifelong source of refuge had been a lie.
Iranian Jews live in Los Angeles". Why? "Iranian Muslims
live in Orange County and San Diego". Why? "San Francisco
has a mix of both, but mostly Iranian Muslims". Why? "This
restaurant is Jewish". "This bookstore is Pro-Shah". "This
supermarket is Kosher". "This one is Halal".
Nothing made sense anymore. Iranian wasn't a small enough
classification anymore. Everything was color-coded. Each group
had their own designated comfort zones and rarely ventured into
the other side. This wasn't the community I had imagined.
This wasn't my Iran.
One day, I went to the fabric district
in downtown Los Angeles with my mother, her friend and my brother.
My mother's friend
was searching for a particular fabric, which led us from one store
into another and another and so on. It was fascinating for me to
see how every single store was owned and operated by Iranians,
until my brother opened my eyes further.
He told me that, the majority
of these Iranian fabric stores were owned by Jewish Iranians. When
I asked him how he knew this, he
told me to look above the main desk at the entrance of each store.
Sure enough the label was there. The Jewish stores carried their
own emblem, and so did the few Muslim ones. I wondered how religious
these storeowners truly were, and whether these religious displays
were not intended more as an identification label for the fastidious
customers as to which team they are buying from.
It certainly had
an affect on me. I felt labeled, categorized, and branded. Suddenly
that place that I had dreamed of my whole
life, where I would be fully accepted and embraced where I could
just melt into the crowd, my crowd, no longer existed. I found
myself rejected and pushed away. The looks were familiar to me.
They were the same looks I had run from all of my childhood. They
identified a stranger.
While walking through those stores that day, I heard
a word for the first time when a woman used it in a sentence referring
my mother and her friend in passing. What is a "Guim" I
asked? Maybe we shouldn't be here. In a bazaar full of Iranians,
thousands of miles away from Iran, how sad to feel anything but
The feeling of mistrust and dislike was not only
from the Jewish community directed at the Muslims. It was quite
mutual as I learned
later on. Many people I met, in either small social settings or
often in large public gatherings would open up to me with their
knowledge and experience regarding life in southern California.
Many told me how lucky I was that my family chose to live in San
Diego instead of Los Angeles, since L.A. is so tacky, so unbearable
and …yes, so Jewish!
Regardless of which group was at the receiving end
of these comments, my reaction was the
same. I couldn't believe that people who did not know me were confiding
their opinions in me as though
it was simply "assumed" that I would automatically
agree with them.
I felt that my intellectual space was violated and
instead replaced with this neon color-coded label that allowed
me membership to
one team and excluded me from the other team. No one cared what
I thought about God, or Islam or spirituality. I was born a Muslim
so I was supposed to go along with this group and feel inferior
to the other. Putting down the other religion was a method of bonding
with my own.
I felt so angry. My entire life has been based on
thinking for myself, evaluating all options on my own and reaching
that will honor my values and the path that I have chosen for myself.
I was not a follower. I was not seeking the shelter of a label.
I struggled to keep my individualism because I thought I belonged
to something much more sacred.
I felt betrayed. The culture I had held my head
so proudly for all these years was a lie. My ideas of nationalism,
of unity and
pride were all shattered. No one cared about those things. I felt
like a complete fool. Like I was the last one to have received
the news. Like I was the last one that still believed in the fairy
It reminded me of my second grade classroom in Paris.
One day all the children were sitting in a circle with our teacher
discussion about telling children the truth. One boy raised his
hand and commented on how he felt it was wrong for parents to lie
to their children and tell them that there is such a thing as Santa
Claus, when he doesn't truly exist. Many of the other children
agreed with him. No one ever realized that that was the day I found
out there was no such thing as Santa Claus.
"Jewish Iranians don't marry Muslims".
don't like marrying Jews much either". Why? What about
love? What about respect? What about LOVE? Oh how silly and naive
of me to think that love makes a difference. Just like in a bad
dream where the spotlights are all on you and you are standing
in front of a huge crowd all laughing and pointing the finger at
you, I discovered how much of my childhood innocence I had retained.
"Grow up Mersedeh….get real…this is just the way
marry their own….don't look at our family….we're
not the norm."
Perhaps that is why it was so hard for me to understand
the depth of this hatred. Two of my cousins married Jewish men.
One of them
married the son of a Rabbi. Even one of my mom's cousins
married a Jewish man and that was over 30 years ago.
I thought love and respect were the foundations
of a marriage, but apparently not in our culture. We prefer to
do things like
good dog breeders. We are interested in pedigree. Even families,
who do not obey any of the rules or rituals of their religion,
become extremely pious when it comes time for their children to
They feel that they are representatives of Moses
and Mohammad and that an interfaith marriage will surely bring
an end to the pureness
of their long "clean" blood-line. After all isn't
that what really matters? Isn't this the true spirit of religion?
Isn't this what the prophets intended for us? Be good to
your own, love your own, and the hell with the rest? Not to mention
the social embarrassment that would be suffered when one of your
own children is lost to the "other team". How can love
compete with that?
Suddenly, I didn't care for this culture. My illusions were
shattered. I didn't want to belong to a community that preferred
to judge its members on characteristics of their birth rather than
values of their choosing. I didn't want to become one of
them and raise children with tainted hearts who were only allowed
to fall in love inside this self-imposed circle.
I started hating the concept of religion, and these
poor misguided people who were basing their entire lives on it.
What did any of
this have to do with God? Absolutely nothing! Their behavior went
against the spirit of any and all religion and against the very
notion of a God. For me, the greatest testament to the existence
of God is our ability to think. We cannot help which country we
are born in, which religion
or which family, however we can use our intelligence and ability
to reason to make those other choices that affect the course of
our lives. We inherit a lot from our roots, but our minds can be
our own if we choose to exercise our own judgment. "I think
therefore I am". This is what separates us from the animals.
They act on instinct, we act based upon reason, interpretation
I believe in God. Not the god that you find on bumper
stickers telling you he loves you from the highway or in those
you can buy on two CDs for $19.95. My God is not commercialized.
He doesn't have a name and he doesn't talk through
other people. I believe in God, because after considering a world
without his existence, I find the spiritual need for his presence
and I choose to believe in him. I believe in God because he forms
a part of my conscience. He is my inner dialogue.
After experiencing religion as displayed through
the California Iranians, I started to change. I became bitter and
felt that perhaps
this is what it's like to finally grow up. I hated all religion
and didn't want to be associated with any. I was angry with
Muslims for automatically claiming me as their own, and I was angry
with the Jews for so swiftly discarding me as insignificant.
I had a choice ahead of me. I could either allow
this anger to consume me or I could use it as fuel to drive me
in the same path
that has brought me thus far. I contacted a few synagogues near
me and had conversations with some very enlightened people. I realized
that it would be foolish for me to think that I hate religion,
when it carries so much historical and cultural richness. I can
not only appreciate that, but also understand why a family would
want to pass that on to their children.
I just personally feel that I have ownership of
them all. I can walk into a synagogue, a mosque or a church and
stand in awe. I
don't feel out of place there, quite the contrary, I feel
like I belong. What truly amazes me about a place of worship is
the unifying force of common faith. That is what I find moving,
not the building, nor the statues or holy cloths.
I had this overwhelming feeling when I lived in
Spain and witnessed the bare-foot processions of holy week. I also
had this feeling
in Mashhad during Ashoora, when the uniform sound of the thousands
of hands beating their chests echoed down the street to the beat
of the singer's voice. A Jewish violin brings tears to my
eyes, just like the Dalai Lama amazes me in a hundred ways. In
the end I came to realize that for me God means more than a lifelong
membership to one of these religious clubs.
This is my faith. I have struggled to find it and
I feel no need to name it. It is clear enough where it should be,
which is in
my heart. This is my religion. This is what I want to pass on to
my children. So after everything, I am choosing to retain my naive
belief that love, and not religious membership, is the foundation
family. I will continue to believe that we are all Iranians,
rising from the same proud and long history, and that our nationalism
binds us in a way that no religion has ever been able to divide
I will continue my childhood love affair with Iran
because just like my belief in God, my belief in Iran and Iranians
much too deep for a small percentage of the population to destroy.
I will continue to be an idealist, even after having hit the ground,
because however slow, change is inevitable and because I prefer
to have hope no matter how remote, then to grow old into bitterness.
I know I am not alone in my desire for Iranian unity
and cooperation. One look at organizations such as National Iranian
American Council (NIAC)
is sufficient to see that I share this vision with other Iranians
whose love for their country
and community is above all potentially dividing forces. I experienced
their dedication first hand when I moved to Washington DC for the
summer to intern for them. It is truly amazing to witness how much
we can achieve as a community if we choose to unite behind our
common and individual interests instead of acting as our own worst
I urge the Iranian community to join in and take
ownership of one another and extend the meaning of community and
family to include
more than just religion. Next time you see a familiar pair of eyes
across the street, or hear your native tongue,
don't wonder which "team" they're on. They
are Iranians and their roots are tied to your very own. Instead
of passing down generations of hatred to our children, maybe we
can allow them to keep their hearts clean. In the end, we all speak
the same language, we listen to the same music, we read the same
poetry and we love the same land. It's time we realize that
our diversity is proof of our strength, not a sign of our weakness.
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