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Diaspora

A plane
It can be an awfully lonely feeling sitting on a plane

September 29, 2003
The Iranian

Ha ha, he thought (and it could've been the beginning of a story written by a Black man, or a Chinese or a Mexican, but in this case it happened to be a brown-skinned man from the Middle East).

Ha ha, he thought, getting on a plane:  I'll smile because a smile is something I've got.  It's something I can do even if there are things I cannot do, such as get on a plane and not remember that one of the things that I am to the people on board is a killer. 

And it's something that gets better with practice, the same as everything else.  With practice, he doesn't even have to smile to smile.  He can do it by being a smile, by having a smile ready for when the occasion calls for it.  That's the thing that he would hate to lose, and he is glad and proud to not lose it and to be part of a tradition of not losing it, a tradition he is in with the Back man and Chinese man and Mexican man.

But sitting in his seat, he will remember that he is a writer, and he will wonder how he is supposed to write in a country where he is seen that way.  How is he supposed to write in the language of the people who look at him like that?  It is one thing to live and not lose the smile, but it is another thing to write, because a writer has only the people who are around him and the language he knows to work with.  And a writer has to believe in the people and the language.

I remember when I was American, he will think.  It was in a car, driving from Seattle to Visalia and then across to Phoenix, Fort Stockton, San Antonio, Austin, New Orleans, Jacksonville, and then back through the Midwest and the East Coast.  I believed in every person I saw along the way and in every word spoken between us.  It was on foot too, walking along the path behind our house that led to the supermarket when I was a boy, and if an old man of our town happened to be coming the other way, we would say hello and smile.

It all seemed like a good life for an American writer.  And he knew that he was always Iranian at home, but how could he be anything other than an American writer when he stepped out of his house with the words of American writers inside him. And he saw that he wanted to say things about the world around him as they had done, down to the very language of the people, down to the poetry that came out of their mouths? 

He had been a student of it, listening and watching and reading, and then eventually writing.  He had been a student of it more eagerly than he had been a student of anything else, and he was studying because he wanted to celebrate America, because America was life as he more or less knew it.

Who knows, he will think, maybe Ernest Hemingway would look at me like that too.  I remember the day that I picked up a copy of The Sun Also Rises in a bookstore and I felt like crying after re-reading two sentences because I loved it so much, but maybe he would look at me like that too.

It can be an awfully lonely feeling sitting on a plane.  He will think of how it would have been to have stayed in his own country and become a writer among the people who look like him and whom he could trust to look at him as a person.  It seems like a good basis to write about things like love and sorrow and all the other things that make life hard enough as it is without getting on a plane and being looked at as someone who hates life.

To think that there is a place where he could step outside of his house and believe in the people and the language with the same ease that he did inside at his desk.  To think that there is a place where he would not have to hesitate to take part in the history of the people, however much that history might be in his heart, because that past is connected to the same present which sometimes seems like it does not want him to take part.

Don't you know, he will want to tell his fellow passengers, that I made a decision long ago to participate in the life of the people?  Don't you know, he will want to tell them, that I made a decision based on people as people, and if I didn't begin with the people around me, the ones I was walking in the street with or getting on a plane with, then it would have been all talk?  

And I made the decision in America, as an American, as an Iranian American, one who found a home in the English language, and swore to himself that in that home he would sing as boldly and as gently as he felt like, because what he felt for the people outside more than anything else was trust, trust that what was inside him was inside them too, and trust that they would recognize it when they heard him singing.

And on a plane he may feel sad that he has had to learn their song over the song of his own people, but the truth is that there is only singing.  He will remember soon enough that there is only singing, and it is bigger than countries and races, and no amount of suspicion or fear can match that.

Go ahead and try to make me feel as though I am not an American, he will think.  See if you can touch the America that is inside me.  See if you can touch the America of a boy walking home or a young man driving through the night.  See if you can touch the America in me when I am getting on a plane.  Try it, and see if I don't have a story in me about the city where I am coming from and the city where I am going.  And see if those stories don't have the same song that you would recognize as part of an American tradition, one that goes back to writers who may not have seen me as an equal, but even for them, in looking at me like that they would be trying to fight art, and you can go ahead and try it, but a fight like that is unwinnable. 

What are you going to do when you see what I have to say about the cities and towns and it hits you in a way that seems like truth?  Tell yourself that you don't feel what you feel?  It doesn't even have to do with whether I am getting on a plane as a writer or not, because it is a question of whether or not you are living in preparation for a time when I am.

In the meantime, don't worry about me.  (Now he will be talking to everyone, including himself.)  I made a decision long ago, and I know what I have to do.  Don't worry about me because I know what I have to do in order to get off a plane as the same man that I was getting on.  I know that nothing can touch the stories in me.  What you might want to worry about is yourself. 

It is only a suggestion.  But you can worry now, or you can worry later when you read those stories about America by a man you looked at as someone who hates America; stories told not with hate, but in a song with joyful as well as tragic parts. And I can only ask the question, what part do you want to play in it?

All right, he will think.  Just remember that there is a place where you can believe in the people and the language.  There is a place where you can take part in the history of the people.  It is the world.  It is the world, and let it go at that.
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