Originally published in REORIENT
‘YOU ASK YOURSELF A THOUSAND QUESTIONS PLUS ONE: WHO AM I?’
As the bombs from Babylon fell from above across the hazy Tehran skyline, dotting the skirt of the mountain whereon Arash once let his felicitous arrow fly, my family and I made for strange and foreign realms. Leaving the land of roses and nightingales for the shores of Albion, we first settled in England before heading further east towards the New World. Despite the fact that many of my mother’s relatives were in London at the time, my parents nonetheless opted for a new life in Canada, being more accustomed to the North American lifestyle they had enjoyed as students in the United States. True, we would be far from ‘home’ and the bulk of our ilk, and my father would not be given free rein to practice as an architect and civil engineer, but one thing was certain: we would be safe, dignified, and free.
As an immigrant child in Toronto in the early 90s, I had it made. My classrooms were always brimming with a melange of kids from far-flung corners of the earth, just like me, each with stories as unique and colourful as their accents. Not once did any one of us ever feel that we were different or peculiar in any way, even vis-à-vis our friends of Western European descent. Of course, there was no doubt that my parents spoke a funny language at home, pointed fingers at strange, bearded men on the television from time to time, and on more than one occasion sent me off to school reeking of ghormeh sabzi; but then again, stinky stews aside, that was more or less the case with everyone at the time. We didn’t make anything of it. We were kids. We just were.
Looking back, though, perhaps I wasn’t just another immigrant child with dark hair and eyes who seamlessly integrated into Toronto’s social fabric. Unlike most of the other families we knew from ‘elsewhere’, we weren’t exactly what you’d call giveaways. My mother and father both attended University in the States in the mid-70s, where they met before returning to Iran. They spoke English without the languid, seemingly opium-induced Persian drawl, preferred ski slopes to shopping malls, and made trips to the local Iranian supermarket only when faced with dire shortages of pistachios and basmati rice. People knew we were from somewhere else; they just didn’t know where. We were often taken for Italians or Greeks, or, if someone felt they had really caught on to us, Armenians. Thus, as far as I can recall, I had a relatively Western upbringing, devoid of any of the typical feelings of displacement or awkwardness that usually rear their ugly head in the immigrant experience.
As I grew older, however, and my perspective of the world around me began to undergo a metamorphosis, I started to become more aware of a blossoming Persian presence within. Was it due to hormones and the onset of facial hair (which we so pride ourselves on), the constant admonition of my grandmother – to Irooni hasti! You are Iranian! –coming back to haunt me, or perhaps a newfound ravenous appetite for fesenjoon? Whatever it was, exactly, it prompted me – for the first time in my life – to question my identity. Was I Iranian or Canadian? Who was ‘Canadian’ anyway? Was it possible to be both? Where did I belong?
Watching Iraqi-Italian director Haider Rashid’s It’s About to Rain brought back a flood of memories, and some ever-ambiguous questions. Set in Florence, Italy, Rashid’s film revolves around Said, a second-generation Algerian Italian and his family, and their trials as ‘second-rate citizens’. After Hamid, Said’s father loses his job as a result of his employer’s suicide, the Italian Government decides that the Mahran family no longer has a valid case for staying in the country, despite Hamid’s 30 years of service in Florence and the fact that his two sons were born there. Due to the circumstances of their early years in the country, Hamid’s applications for Italian citizenship were constantly refused. Now, out of work, officially unemployed, and deemed a political threat to the country, he is given an ultimatum to return with his sons to Algeria. Despite their trying situation, one here is tempted to adopt a more positive outlook, and regard their expulsion as a homecoming of sorts; after all, The Mahrans are Algerian, aren’t they? If only things were as black and white as that. ‘What would I do in Algeria?’ Hamid asks, rhetorically. ‘My family is here. I don’t know whether it’s good or bad. I’m hanging there, torn between these two countries, these two realities. I belong to both these countries without being totally part of them’.
And thus, in a few words of despair, Hamid Mahran sums up not only my predicament, but also that of almost all the Iranian families I’ve come to know in the West. Realistically speaking, what would we do back in Iran? We’ve been here for the past 30-odd years or so. Our sons and daughters have grown up here, many of whom have started lives of their own with non-Iranian spouses. To be brutally honest, our notions of Iran as a country, for the most part, are based on rosy-hued memories of the idyllic 60s and 70s during the reign of the Shah, the nostalgic sound of Googoosh records, and the flowery splendour of our classical poetry. Compared with the Iranians who emigrated after the Revolution, those who have grown up in the West have even less to draw upon, counting themselves lucky to have even had the chance to recline in the teahouses of Shiraz, watch the sun set by the Caspian Sea, or meander through the winding bazaars of Esfahan at dusk. What many of us do not like to acknowledge is the fact that times have changed; this bird has flown. ‘Everything is different,’ explains Hamid, ‘the mindset, the jokes … Life is different. Algeria has taken its path … I’ve grown up in Italy in these 30 years. We’ve drawn apart’.
While at first Said looks upon his situation with disgust, as Rashid’s film brilliantly exposes the injustices of the Italian immigration system, the ‘bright side’ of his circumstances come to light, and his Algerian identity slowly unfurls. In an interview with an Italian journalist, as he speaks of his childhood experiences and the questions he asked himself, I can’t help but feel as if I’m gazing back into the eyes of a 15 year-old me. ‘… In those years of adolescence, when everybody has a thousand questions, you ask yourself a thousand questions plus one: am I from here, or am I from there? Who am I?’
As Said’s cause slowly gains attention, he becomes a sort of champion for the underdog, and a spokesperson for those wronged by the Italian Government. Passionately invoking his identity as a proud Florentine, it seems as if Said’s decision has been made; that is, that he has chosen his Italian identity over his Algerian one. However, as events unfold and an unlikely emotional maturity occurs within the span of a few days, Said becomes ever drawn to that strange desert environ, just south of the Mediterranean. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else, is where Rashid’s cinematic romanticism reaches its zenith. In a dream, Said beholds exotic, enigmatic visions of an East, which bring to mind the travels of Sir Richard Burton, Wilfred Thesiger, and the great European ramblers of old. The images are lush, exquisite, and yet frightening at the same time, redolent with a heady Orientalist fragrance. Yes, the idea of Algeria and the Arab world that Said has in his mind may be highly exaggerated, and more the stuff of fiction than anything else, but who can blame him? Truly, one could say that Said is just as ‘Algerian’ as his fantasy.
Wading through the shimmering sands of the Sahara, the wind blowing the golden dust within his grasp back into nothingness, a faint smile emerges on Said’s face. The struggle is seemingly over, as he submits himself to the endless expanse before him. Why is it so often in the desert, that barren wilderness that ever inspires epiphanies, mystic visions, and Damascene moments in those who scale its dunes, that the mysteries of the heart unravel? ‘I don’t come from anywhere’, Said once said. ‘The end of humanity is where I want to go. It’s where I will be’.
Here, perhaps, lies the answer to my question. Caught between two worlds, I cannot say I am wholly Iranian, nor can I say that I completely identify as a Westerner; but then again, why should I have to choose between the two? To do so would be to deny a part of my being. Either as a result of fate or happenstance, my story has been that of the wanderers of this illusory realm, who, unencumbered by the boundaries of geography, become at once everything and nothing, swearing allegiance to only the sun and the stars; who simply are.