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Daughter of memory
In 'Saffron Sky,' journalist recounts her struggle to be Iranian in America

By Vanessa E. Jones
The Boston Globe
December 6, 1999

Etched into Gelareh Asayesh 's memory is the moment she cast off the conservative culture in which she grew up and gingerly began embracing a more permissive way of life. It happened at her high school prom, with an innocuous gesture: The teenage girl placed an arm around her date's waist.

In ''Saffron Sky: A Life Between Iran and America,'' Asayesh lyrically describes the impact that simple touch had on a girl who came from a world where young people barely dated. The memoir describes her family's immigration from Iran and her struggle to maintain her Iranian identity while steeped in American culture. (See book excerpt here)

''I can still remember,'' writes Asayesh, 37, ''as if it were seared into the palm of my hand, the cool silk of his jacket, the forbidden heat of the body beneath.

''I can still remember the moment when I let go of that girl from Iran.''

Published last month, ''Saffron Sky'' knits together stories Asayesh gathered during seven trips to Iran in the 1990s with excerpts of articles that originally ran in the magazines of The Washington Post, The Miami Herald, and The Boston Globe. The journalist has worked for the Miami paper, the Globe (where she was an intern the summer of 1982), and The Sun in Baltimore.

As Asayesh journeys from her idyllic Iranian childhood to a traumatic period of assimilation in Chapel Hill, N. C., and then to her emotional reimmersion into Iranian culture, she manages to yank the veil off a country that often seems inscrutable to Americans.

Asayesh delves into the dichotomy of the religiously strict land: Women must wear scarves or shawls, known as chadors, to cover their hair and bodies, yet they hold 14 seats in the Iranian parliament. She captures the contrast of the ''Death to America'' signs spotted on buildings during her first visit with Iran's enduring love of American culture, exemplified by her cousins' conspicuous consumption of Danielle Steel novels and Madonna CDs.

In the end, Asayesh humanizes Iran by broaching subjects many Iranian-Americans have feared discussing.

''Iranians have been a silent presence in this country for a long time,'' says Asayesh, sitting in a room at Beacon Press in Boston, which published ''Saffron Sky.'' ''During the hostage crisis, a lot of people didn't want to admit that they were Iranian.''

Twenty years after the crisis, Americans still tell hurtful hostage jokes, says Asayesh. People know so little about the country, they don't even pronounce its name properly. It's ''Eee-rahn,'' Asayesh gently corrects in her book and during the interview.

But a new generation of Iranian-Americans are no longer satisfied to blend into the background of the American landscape.

People magazine recently profiled Sarah Shahi, an Iranian-American Dallas Cowboy cheerleader. Iranian-American S. Rob Sobhani is running for the US Senate in Maryland. And on the literary front, two works released earlier this year, ''To See and See Again,'' a memoir by Tara Bahrampour, and ''A World Between,'' a compilation of poetry, short stories, and essays by Iranian-Americans, delve into issues of Iranian identity.

''They are coming to terms with somewhat of a traumatic experience,'' says Kamran Dadkhah, a Northeastern University economics professor who also runs the school's Center for Iranian Research and Analysis. ''They have one foot in the other world and one foot in this world, trying to find out where they belong.''

It's the pain of that experience that Asayesh brings to life, says Deanne Urmy, the Beacon Press executive editor who edited ''Safron Sky.'' ''She was able to talk about it in such a moving way,'' says Urmy.

Examples of the prejudice Asayesh faced pepper ''Saffron Sky.'' The police secretary she encounters during a newspaper assignment who casually says of Middle Easterners, ''You know, it says in the Bible those people over there are descended from jackals.'' The Baltimore Sun colleague who tells Asayesh, upon learning she's Iranian, ''I have nothing against Iranian people.'' Asayesh writes sarcastically in response, ''I want to say: Thank you for granting me benediction.''

The stereotypes extend to how Americans view the women of Iran, says Asayesh: ''This idea that [they] are the downtrodden population just languishing, awaiting deliverance from their Western sisters.'' The women she encounters in Iran, a mixture of friends, relatives, and acquaintances, are professors, filmmakers, socialites, and bus drivers.

But she also highlights another pain, one born of the struggle to maintain her Iranian culture in a country that she says almost forces newcomers to cast it away. Asayesh, whose luxurious black hair falls in tendrils against her high cheekbones, calls forgetting one's heritage the ''path of least resistance.''

It's the route she followed from her teenage years to 1990. And it cost her.

She describes waking up from nightmares during that period with the desire to speak Farsi, the language of Iran. ''When I started to speak English again,'' she remembers, ''it left the worst taste in my mouth. A part of me knew that something was shriveling there.''

Asayesh tackled these difficult topics by writing about them. She has kept a journal since she was 17 years old. ''Sometimes, I've even run to the bathroom to write down a particular thing'' during trips in Iran, she says.

Although issues of dislocation and identity fill the pages of her notebooks, they were not subjects her family discussed, Asayesh says. Even as her father, Khalil, helped edit ''Saffron Sky'' and fact-checked information about religious holidays, the deeper issues weren't aired.

Asayesh's mother, Homa, says she has read only a section of the book because she does not want to reopen the wounds of immigration. To give their two daughters, Gelareh and Afsaneh, the educational opportunities America afforded, the couple left successful careers, a house, their extended family, and an active social life in Iran.

''All of a sudden, you become nobody,'' says Homa, flatly.

When the girls were young, Khalil and Homa held weekly Sunday brunches-cum-lectures during which they tried to ease their daughters' assimilation process with informal lessons about Iranian cultural values. The question of whether they were successful draws a laugh from Homa, who now heads a women's resource center in Toronto, where she and her husband live.

She points out that her daughters visit Iran often. Gelareh Asayesh spent three months there this spring with her American husband, Neil Brown, managing editor of the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, and their two children, Mina, 5, and Max, 2.

Homa Asayesh also proudly notes that all her grandchildren speak Farsi. Gelareh Asayesh even teaches a weekly class on the language to the children of other Iranian-Americans living near her St. Petersburg home.

Those are small but important actions in a world where, according to Gelareh Asayesh, many Iranian-Americans don't speak Farsi and rarely visit Iran. Yet the discomfort of moving between two worlds remains.

''It's kind of like that diving term `getting the bends,''' says Asayesh. ''There's a very painful psychic process that occurs, you know, feeling alienated from one [culture] or another.

''I've gotten better dealing with that. But it does not go away, unfortunately, and probably never will. And maybe it shouldn't go away.''


Copyright © 1997 Abadan Publishing Co. All Rights Reserved. May not be duplicated or distributed in any form

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