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Being born again
Accepting, reclaiming my Iranian identity

February 11, 2004
The Iranian

I'm not sure when it was that I recognized my Iranian self. It must have been sometime before my first year in college. Certainly before the winter of my sophmore year, the year when I came back to Tehran, a trip which inevitably changed my identity from that of an American with Iranian heritage, to that of an Iranian-American. Its not simple to recollect one's past in order to define oneself. However, I can bluntly and honestly state that as a child, our family visits to Iran were felt with personal disdain.

To this day my family in Iran recalls my utter displeasure during each trip to Iran, including my fervent desire to return to America. Of course that changed once I became a man, at that point the option was no longer one of choice. Instead, going to Iran became synonomous with the threat of military duty, which for my parents was sufficient reason to discontinue what had become annual trips.

In "Farsi classes" I was constantly the class clown. Not too ambitious to learn, more to reap at the sheer pleasure of watching the teacher explode with anger. Which, she did more often then not on account to three little children surnamed Milaninia. If memory serves me correct, during my last session with her I was officially considered her worst student ever. Such is the menace of being a menace.

Slowly, however, Iran become more important. For so many of us born in the US, yet inexorably tied to our history, being Iranian often means nothing more then understanding a few relevant lines of Persian (including, mind you, all the popular curse words), celebrating Norooz, going to concerts, and eating popular Iranian cuisine (the more kabab, the better).

As a result many of us are devoid of history, current events, or understanding of the vast ideological struggles which have embraced not just Iran, but ourselves as well. Consequently, our identity as Iranians, and our perception of what is Iranian, becomes unique and contexualized within our personal historical experience; that of exile and assimilation.

As exiles, politics which became forumlative in our status, became an aspect of our detest. It is no suprise that college campuses across the United States are filled with "Persian Cultural Clubs" that engage in the celebration of being Iranian, rather then in its understanding or activism.

As a good friend of mine, who was also the vice-president of our university's Persian Club, articulately stated, "It is not because we aren't political. In fact it is because Iranians are too political. It was politics which ruined us and continues to divide us." It was because we are political, that we are consequently exiles.

This, I believe, was the extent of my "Iranianess" throughout my high school years. Nevertheless a shift took place. A cultural identity, or at least, what is considered cultural by Iranian-American standards. Nevertheless, I was later emaraced by a yearning to know more.

Following my entrance into college, I began searching for Iranian news and current events. I began following IRNA and kept up with all the fervour relating to the Reformists, including all the rhetoric concerning change and reform. Can anyone of us deny that the past decade has been lit with hope, moreso then the years that preceeded the Revolution. If Khatami and the reformers did anything, they brought me back to Iran.

Ironically, at the height of that year, I became unquestionably pro-Pahlavi. My uncle was the Shah's chief bodyguard before the revolution and my mother and other members of our family would pour stories of how modern, upbeat, and exciting Iran was before 1978. Thus, my turn to Reza Pahlavi was not so much in agreement with his own personal stance, then a connection with my families past.

It didn't matter whether I agreed with his position on monarchy, or constitutional monarchy. No. Rather the fact that he was symbolic of my family's happiness was sufficient for my endorsement. An approval that become short-lived and replaced with a committment to human rights and democratization, which I felt the Pahlavi monachy rhetoric was not compatible with.

However, this was my first step to my "born again" self. Traditionally, the idiom "born again" refers to Christians who have apparantly returned to Christ after a period of proposed decadence. While "born again" Christians have sited various Biblical passages to justify the nominage, it has proliferated amongst members of various religious denominations, including Judaism and Islam, to classify those who are born into religious families, but of whom later come to embrace it into their lives.

Overall, however, I believe the phrase has come to encompass those who have some inherent identity but of which accept it and explore it at some further point in their lives. Thus, to be born again, is to accept or reclaim an aspect of one's own identity. As a result, it is feasible for someone to be a "born again Muslim" or like me, a "born again Iranian."

Within that context there is a cycle of feelings, which I believe, comes in consequence of being "born again." First, the enthuasism and exploration of being Iranian. Second, self-classification and understanding. What am I? A Muslim Iranian? A monarchist? Secularist? The verbage used by ourselves to classify each other has become a ridiculous exercise, but one which I can't deny having engaged in.

Once settling on the recognition that I am Iranian, without the addage, comes step three: fundamentalist embrace. You are either Iranian, or not, there is no inbetween. Unfortunately, that type of thinking leads one to the inevitable conclusion that as a result of this arbitrary distinction, there are also stereotypical classifications. Arabs are animals. Afghans are to be made fun of. Whites are to be used and abused. Indians are dirty. And of course Blacks are never to be touched.

To be Iranian means to be the best, straight and simple. What Pedram Moallemian, the "eyeranian" blogger has notably recognized as: "this sense of false pride some of my countrymen and women hold over some of the most bizarre ideas they feel what a sense of national and cultural pride should be."

I think it is for this reason why another blogger's, Faramin, "Human First, then Proud Iranian" paradigm resonates so deeply with me. So many of us are suffocated with false pride that the rhetoric of difference has replaced the fact that as humans we are inherently all the same.

Unfortunately, this is a stage I must admit that I've only recently come out of. Of which has led me to stage four: acceptance. By that I mean, accepting that being an Iranian is not something with a static definition. But rather realizing that I am Iranian by virtue of wanting to be, and wishing it, and thus knowing that there is no one mold or stereotype.

I now find it absurd when someone tells me that "so and so" isn't Iranian because he or she can't speak proper Persian, despite the fact that that individual has embraced that history and evoked it in public. Even had they not known the history, are they not Iranian by simple reference? And if not who are we to make that judgment.

No, they are Iranian. As am I. I may not be an Iranian in the fashion, form, apparel, or ideology that one may desire. But I am one... again. >>> Discuss in forums

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Nema Milaninia is a Graduate Student, International Human Rights Law at the American University in Cairo.

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By Nema Milaninia






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Lost Wisdom
Rethinking Modernity in Iran
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