No "us" or "them"
An Iranian-American tries to explain
September 26, 2001
I badly need to relax, but it seems criminally escapist to
read a novel. TV serves one purpose only, to sift for news, angles, portents.
I rely on my roommate's TV, but he's moving soon, and for the first time
in many years I'm thinking I should get a set of my own. This is serious,
folks. Yes, I can find facts, in-depth analysis, and alternative view-points
more readily on the Internet, but what's happening on television is a story
As much as I need to find out what's really happening, I'm also anxious
to know what America is telling itself about what's happening. Let me explain.
I'm an Iranian-American. A hyphenated bogeyman, a raghead with no trace
of accent, a native Californian with a Muslim name, too much dark hair,
and two passports stashed in a drawer. One of them lets me into almost any
country in the world with a minimum of fuss; the other contains a diabolically
nasty photo of a veiled woman whose childhood memories happen to include
both Disneyland and the sheltered gardens of Tehran.
All my life I've been pulled in two directions, but I've never felt less
confused about it than I am right now. Let me explain.
When I watched the horror that we have all witnessed too many times over,
when the protective mask of media-mediated unreality finally dropped, all
that I saw staring me in the face was the agony of human beings like myself.
No "us" or "them" existed in that moment. Since then,
of course, the raw experience has been poured into the mold of stories,
the lines drawn between us and them, and those like myself who are assigned
some affinity with "them" have been called on to explain.
I am surrounded by American friends who, for the first time, want a closer
look at the other half of my life, startled by long-lost acquaintances who
suddenly want to connect. They are concerned for my safety, but they also
feel an urgent need to educate themselves, a genuine desire to understand
the mysterious other that has turned their world upside down. Why do "they"
hate "us" so much? Part of me is reluctant to answer at all, as
if any attempt at explanation is tainted with justification. Nothing can
possibly justify this horror, and I don't want to be misheard as trying
But another part of me wants to shout: Why did you wait so long to ask?
Maybe if you had asked these questions twenty years ago, none of this would
have happened. And why do you think, as always, that the answer lies elsewhere,
that if you can somehow get under the skin of Islamic fundamentalism, see
inside those turban-wrapped heads, this will all make sense? How about looking
closer to home, at American foreign policy and the double standards that
allow us to seed repression, war, and poverty elsewhere as the necessary
cost of our precious American freedoms?
But I temper these questions of my own, and do my best to explain. After
all, it's my priviledge and duty as a citizen of the world to make whatever
small dent I can in the vast American ignorance of that world. And perhaps
I also explain because it helps right now to talk, to reach out, and not
to be alone. Like you, I'm afraid, but triply afraid. Let me explain. Americans
of middle-eastern origin share the same fear now as all Americans, the same
horror and empathy for the victims and the same terrible violation of our
You can no doubt guess the second fear, of being targeted by our neighbors,
hatred. There's a whole gamut of fears rolled up in that one: from the threat
of hostile stares and comments, to the homegrown terror of random violence,
to the spectre of internment. The final fear may seem distant and alien
to most Americans, but its probability looms larger now than terror or backlash
at home. We fear the war that will be waged on our other home, collateral
damage defined as family and friends, the places that hold our childhood
memories become battlegrounds.
With all the fear and confusion, with all the questions and explanations,
and the blessed curse of a mixed identity, I'm surer now of one thing than
I've ever been in my life. There's no such thing as "us" and "them".