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No "us" or "them"
An Iranian-American tries to explain

September 26, 2001
The Iranian

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 in itself.

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 to.

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 complacent lives.

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".

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for poet Zara Houshmand


Articles follwoing the
September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks

By Zara Houshmand

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