There are certain things I was taught as an Iranian-American girl growing up in the states: always respect your elders, never talk back, don't cause trouble, be a good girl. When I think about it, my mother did her absolute best to raise her children; she continues to show unyielding patience with me on a daily basis.
But there was one lesson, one thing, all the love in the world couldn't have taught me like I've taught myself this last year: to stand up for yourself, to be proud of who you are, and to never, ever, under any circumstances let anyone get away with insulting and degrading you.
It doesn't matter how sorry you may feel for them in facing the consequences, you can never allow anyone to berate you, nor can you casually ignore attempts to vilify your family, your culture and your religion.
Having said that, let me start out by telling you what happened to me on September 11, 2001.
We all know where we were in those horrifying moments when everything we seemed to know, didn't exist anymore. The horrific terrorist attacks pierced the force field of security we'd deluded ourselves into believing existed in the United States.
Many of us on the East Coast were just arriving to work and huddled around televisions in our office conference rooms, ungluing our eyes from the television set long enough to catch a glimpse of the faces of our mortified colleagues.
As for me, I was just returning home from an office visit with my mother, I had been experiencing unusually intense migraine headaches for several months and the doctors had suggested an MRI to investigate any possible serious illness.
I was just returning home to grab a cup of coffee when I heard the morning new announce that a commuter plane had evidently crashed into the World Trade Center. Through my shock, I noted the time on my watch. I had told my boss I'd be in late, so I grabbed my briefcase and hurried over to work. In the five minute commute, all radio stations were announcing that the World Trade Center had been attacked by terrorists.
Though I had never before been a victim of harassing statements about being an Iranian, I knew the feeling of dread that overcomes most people of Middle Eastern descent when we hear “possible terrorist attack.” It's a two-fold feeling. I'll take a minute to explain.
On the one hand, your initial human response is to feel terrible for anyone who may have suffered in the attacks and wonder what could be done to stop such actions and how such violence and desperation came to be in the first place (this, I would argue, would be the first reaction of much of the world's population).
Then, shortly thereafter, there's a cold chill that goes shooting from your heart to your brain, and in the midst of the horror, a selfish, though reasonable thought goes through your mind: “God, please don't let them be Muslim or Iranian or Arab…” In fact, you can just go ahead and fill in the blank with any Middle-Eastern ethnicity you like.
Although these cultures and peoples are distinctly different, to the average person in Smalltown, U.S.A., they might as well be kin. You feel this dread because, deep inside, you're terrified that one day, even if you haven't, you'll get “it.”
What exactly is “it?,” it's the looks of distrust, the snide comments and painfully real sense of exclusion. It's the look when you walk into your office at age 24, your first job out of college, and the majority of your Anglo-co-worker's look at you like, “Hey, can you — Ms. American Citizen, volunteer, drinking buddy, successful budding business leader — explain why your people did this?”
As I entered my office, I past by the conference room whereby colleagues were huddles watching the television. By this time, we knew the Pentagon had been hit too. My best friend John's father had many contacts with the Department of Defense and I knew his father visited the Pentagon frequently for work.
Having grown up with John's family, the fear set in that he may just have gone to building that morning, may have been in the wrong section, the section that was plowed into by a commuter airliner.
I picked up the phone to call John at that moment, a comment was made, a situation arose, that changed my life forever. A senior level editor, a former marine, a colleague who had once made the comment “The name Akhavan [my last name] means, 'kill all Americans' in Farsi,” was briskly walking toward me. At 23-years-old and relatively new to the company, I had dismissed the comment as a one time affair. I was mistaken.
My colleague hurled up to be as if he had been waiting to unleash something on me, when I saw the look on his face I immediately thought: had I screwed something up? Was something off in the Marketing plans? Could he really care about work when we were in the midst of the worst national crisis in recent memory?
With vile contempt in his face, and a look that made me want to melt away into the receiver that was now connecting to John's phone he said it:
” This is all the work of your fucking relatives!”
I'm not sure what I did with the phone, all I know is, I never made it to call John. The tears welled up in my eyes so that I could no longer see. I flashed back to my grandparents in Tehran, who pray five times a day and ascribe to the Islamic pillar of charity so much so that they have erected home for the blind and, who once a week have a line of people waiting outside their home with prescription, waiting for money for needed medications.
I flashed to my mother, who stands on her feet 10 hours or more a day at an upscale department store to support herself, who's financially responsible for sending two children through college in America: the land of the free, where all are created equal.
I'm not sure exactly where my mind was, but I know how I expressed it: I cried. I'm not a big fan of crying at work, but I couldn't help it. I cried, people asked me what happened, I told them. Different people took me to Human Resources; I could barely catch my breath to tell them. I shook, I left.
When I got home, my mother tried to calm me down, “It's OK Shadi Joon, people don't think sometimes, forget about it.”
Amusingly enough, I passed the afternoon of September 11, 2001 with two of my best friends, who happen to be Jewish-American. As we watched television and ate a lunch of spaghetti my mother made us, they pleaded with me, “You have got to talk to your Human Resources department, You Can't let people get away with things like that. Stand up for yourself, Fight back!”
In a way I felt robbed that day, when all I wanted to do was grieve for those who lost their lives, grieve for our country, what I spend most of my time doing was re-playing that voice in my head, seeing those eyes filled with hate and distrust.
About six weeks after the terrorist attacks, my company underwent a massive restructuring that included the laying off a many employee's. I and the one lady who boldly stood up for me in the office on September 11th were amongst the first to be politely asked to “gather up our purses and go home.”
Many people were laid off at my company; a various reasons were given for each lay off. However, mine confused me in that my products had been performing very well and I had just been given a promotion by my direct supervisor which included the additional of several more products to my marketing portfolio.
Perhaps it didn't help that the last name “Akhavan” might not be something readers would want to see on products directly related towards aviation finance and security issues. After all, my division was in the business of publishing specifically for the aviation industry, which post-September 11th wasn't the most amicable atmosphere for a person of Middle-Eastern descent. While the two first people within the organization to be let go were myself and the one woman in my entire office who stood up for me that day.
Accordingly, the gentleman who made the comment continues in his role as a senior level editor to this day. To be honest, I harbor no resentment at him. Those who are ignorant will find most societies, although not my previous workplace, hardly tolerant of their actions.
On a final note, when I was brought into my human resources office on September 12th and asked what action, if any, I planned on taking in response to my colleague's comment, I reflected back to my mother's advice: don't cause trouble, be a good girl.
I meekly told the human resources director I would simply like the man who made the comment to attend some form of cultural sensitivity training. I assume that in conducting the round of lay-offs and restructuring that followed in the coming weeks; this request was pushed to the bottom of the pile, because I know no such training ever took place.
So, here's my advice to you, my fellow Iranian-Americans (or Arab Americans, or Palestinian Americans or any form of brown people that have been discriminated since the September 11th attacks): when hatred confronts you and you feel the humiliation and hatred I felt on September 11th, fight back.
To put it in perspective for you, think about what might still be the case in this country had Rosa Parks moved to the back of the bus.