Growing up as a minority
We were of Moslem, Jewish and Bahai families but we were all Iranians
May 16, 2006
When I was a child in Tehran my father was the only Bahai in his family. His father had been a Bahai and had passed away prior to my birth and his mother was a Moslem. On my mother's side her mother was a Bahai but her father was a Moslem. My upbringing was as a Bahai but my relatives were of both faiths. We associated with all as any family would.
We lived in an apartment at the end of a narrow koocheh, or lane. Above us lived a Jewish family and across the lane there was a Christian family of Armenian descent. The rest of those in our lane were Moslems and we all rented from a Haji we used to call “Haji Esfahani”. We all got along and we were all on friendly terms. The old Haji would sometimes drop by for tea and oranges. He had a unique way of eating his oranges by not peeling them but just quartering the whole orange and savoring each segment. We kids would ask our mother to cut up our oranges “Haji style” as a treat.
When we moved to England in 1959 there were not many Iranians in our city but the few of us, Bahai and Moslem, would visit each other frequently sharing meals and the kids going out to the cinema or the clubs together. We did not get into political or religious debates and if a question was asked about either it would be answered as a matter of fact.
I moved to the United States in 1967 at the age of nineteen and to a community college in a small town in Northern California. When I asked my uncle who had sponsored me as to why he had picked that town he stated that was where he had first arrived from Iran in 1949 and he thought it was a place conducive to quiet study.
He was correct about the quiet study. There was nothing for the young in that town except one cinema and a couple of soda fountains and restaurants. I was enormously gratified to discover the other twenty or so Iranian students in that small college in my first week of attendance. Most of us grew to like each other's company and I still keep tabs on a couple. We were all a minority in that town and we soon learned that as a minority we were highly visible and subject to stereotyping. If there was an incident involving any Iranian we were all painted with the same brush. We each had our religious beliefs and political viewpoints but we shared an identity; a small minority in a small town.
There were a few of the Iranians and other foreign students who lived on the edge so to speak. They either developed a reputation for wild parties or got caught with marijuana and other substances or had a physical altercation in the parking lot. Once the little local newspaper had printed the story or the rumor mill had fed the news to the campus as well as the larger community we all felt the sting of the looks and the comments. We were all Iranians, a minority, and we all got branded together. On as well as off campus we were each other's support and compatriot. We were of Moslem, Jewish and Bahai families but we were all Iranians.
In the evenings we helped each other with the course materials and the language obstacles. On the weekends we all shared rides to the big city of San Francisco to find work to augment the finances from back home. We tipped each other off about job openings and shared rooms or apartments in order to get by. Lacking entertainment locally we entertained ourselves with potluck dinners of Persian food and music as well as moonlight rides through the hills in a couple of cars. We had occasional weekend picnics by the lake eating cotlet, kookoo and watermelon and playing backgammon. We dated, danced, ate, joked all without regard to religious origin or belief. We were simply a small minority community of Iranians.
Yesterday I was at the funeral of the sister of a friend. She had left Iran and the small town she had lived in all her life. She was forced out because she was a Bahai. She had left her friends and community and hop scotched her way across the world to finally end up in California. Those who knew her would say that she constantly talked about the beauty of her little town, the taste of the food, the fruit, the style of poetry, etc. The last few years of her life she had finally succumbed to Alzheimer's and old age. She had chosen to use the brain and the heart God had granted her to believe otherwise. She had suffered estrangement because she was a minority.
All around her grave site, I noticed, were the graves of other Iranians of all ages and all faiths. All shared the same plot of land in their final rest. Some had headstones inscribed solely in Farsi and some in the language of their origin as well as their adopted land. In my mind they all seemed equal in that corner of the cemetery. In my mind there was no majority or minority here and all differences were made meaningless. Looking out across the rest of the cemetery and to the community beyond I could not help but think that we are all human with equal rights to be respected and treated as such; human.