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No walls
Why I love America

By Setareh Sabety
August 13, 2001
The Iranian

All year long I live a pretty isolated life in this rural corner of Maryland. I remember when I first came here, the vast open spaces made me feel agoraphobic. Lack of friends or a social life made me feel extremely lonely. I longed for the tall walls and the long conversations of my childhood.

But now, after a couple of years of this loneliness, I have come to love it. At first I took the neighbor's distancing of themselves as coldness. But now I realize that it comes from a profound respect for the other's independence that is peculiarly American. No one engages in superficial pleasantries in our town but if your car breaks down they stop immediately and help.

Here in America you can live a whole life on a street and not know the person who lives across from you. This can be seen as a lack of caring or warmth, but if you give it a chance you will see that it is indeed a blessing. It comes from nothing more or less than a respect for other people to be "other", to have their home and live in it as they wish. How many compatriots would exchange the womb-like comfort of the Persian home for this kind of prairie freedom?

In our parts of the world, the wall is a great, almost too obvious, metaphor for how we live, how we see, and how we are seen. Nothing is said or expressed directly. All discourse has to circumvent the wall or leak through it. It is hard to keep a conversation open and civil when shouting it over a wall or whispering it through a crack.

It is a comforting architectural fixture, the wall. It keeps the heat in and the bad people out. The wall protects from the elements, but it is confining. In order to see beyond it one must necessarily climb or demolish it. In order to climb or bring down a wall one must have determination and strength and resilience.

But here in this youthful greenness that surrounds this particular corner of the American landscape, there are no walls cutting through one's line of vision. Here you can see forever. This foreverness of the landscape allows one to think and dream and never be encumbered with who thinks what about what one wears. Here in this limitless, open-ended, vastness that seems to go to the end of the world, the neighbors, by their blessed lack of interest, allow you to be who you want to be. Here no one judges you because they simply do not care; they are too busy trying to live their own dreams.

The family who lives across from me may be fascists, for all I know, but their respect for my independence, and the law that guarantees it, will always keep them civil. More civil than many a like-minded Iranian. More civil than people who pretend to be friends but engage in the most cutting gossip the minute you have left their company.

Here we are all linked by one thing alone and that is our mutual respect (at least at a very basic level), for the law. That link is the most precious bond that exists between the people of this country. In America you can wear what you want, play the donbak all night, think and dress and drink in any way you like, as long as you pay the bills and stop at the stop sign -- as long as you obey the law.

For this I am grateful to be living here. They let me be who I want to be. Here I can be Iranian and a democrat and a mother without anyone ever questioning my motives or wondering how this seyedeh from Mashad ended up in Maryland. Here it is taken for granted that the person you make yourself to be is your choice and not the upshot of some incredibly twisted conspiracy.

The other day at the local Safeway I was talking to an elderly couple who were, like me, waiting for their ride. Although they were vocal pro-life evangelists and on the opposite spectrum of politics from me, I told them that the reason I am here and not in Iran is because I believe in the separation of church and state which this nation has championed throughout its history (latest president not withstanding).

I knew that being die-hard evangelists they would not necessarily agree. But they both smiled, nodded and understood in almost an intuitive way. Even though they were consumed by their open passion for their religion, they agreed with me on this most important of democratic principles. They did not care if I was a feminist or on the left of them ideologically, they respected my appreciation of this simple and valuable notion of keeping religion out of politics. On this subject at least there were no walls between us.

In this nation of new identities, they leave you alone to forge yours. Nowhere gives you this opportunity in quite the same way. America provides you with as large a canvas and as varied a color palette as possible to paint your own portrait. Here freedom is about the opportunity to start anew -- to be who you want to be regardless of your parentage and cultural baggage, regardless of your past. Most importantly in this country they allow you to be "other" to them. For all of that I am grateful.

Here, agreeing to disagree is in their blood -- they do it automatically without a thought. Here, walls are not necessary because we need not hide our differences, we celebrate them.

I have often written about my longing for Iran. My life in exile has been one dedicated to remembering everything with the desperateness of one who knows she may never go back. But this longing and homesickness has always been thankfully accompanied by a deep and ever growing appreciation of my adopted country, my sweet and tolerant and incredibly open-armed host: America.

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Setareh Sabety's features index


I was once an Iranian
What it means to be American
By Massud Alemi

Immigrants or exiles?
Identity and Influence among Iranian-Americans
By Haleh Vaziri

Don't be boring. Be Iranian
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Persian spirit
Things that make me who I am
By Mana

I can read!
Wish I had learned Farsi earlier
By Behrouz J. Roohi

Salaam aaghaa
You never know who you'll bump into in America
By Bahar Jaberi

A glass of Iran
The power of a fistful of soil in northern Virginia
By Jahanshah Javid

Just don't do it
If Agassi embraces his Iranian background
By Farid Moghadassi
February 7, 2001

South Pole
Where there's true freedom
By Siavosh J.


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