It appears that much of what I have written about over the past two years has carried a common theme. The “culture shock” experience of Tehrangeles, or the feeling of being an “Iranian outside of Iran”, although not the dominant concerns of my daily life, are the ones I that have written about the most.
Almost three years after moving to the west coast and diving into the largest Iranian population outside of Iran, I am still struggling to adjust and understand. My reaction to these recent discoveries and experiences has caused such turmoil within me that I find myself boiling over with a constant inner dialogue, the result of which has poured onto the next pages.
During the course of my 26 years of existence, life has taught me many lessons, most of which I have not been prepared for. The last three years living in southern California have given me a few of these lessons in the form of a wild slap in the face. I think it is during such lessons that one loses the innocence of youth and begins acquiring the bitterness of experience. I'm not sure which worries me more, the feeling of complete betrayal of my idealistic beliefs or the fear of becoming that bitter realist.
Like many other Iranians, I grew up all over the place. I was born in Iran but I grew up between my native land, Europe and the United States, with much of my childhood memories being of airplanes, airports and feeling like an alien. I had a lot to adjust to, all the time. I would learn a new language only to move to a new place and learn another one.
I had to make new friends all the time, and explain my roots and my background to each one, always with the knowledge that these investments would be short-lived. I experienced my fair share of prejudice. I was beaten up by some of my classmates in 2nd grade in Paris because I was a “Terrorist”. I got strange stares in 1st grade because I ate a piece of “Kashk” during recess, and the kids told the teacher that I was eating a stone. I survived all of these experiences and they strengthened me.
I attested them all to being an Iranian among foreigners who did not understand my history or culture. This was my explanation for being misunderstood, disliked or misjudged and I longed for the day that I could have friends just like me and live among other Iranian kids who would understand me. Every time someone would make fun of my heritage, I grew closer to it. Every time someone made an ignorant comment, I became more proud. I took refuge in being Iranian, and it shaped much of my identity.
Now that I think back on my childhood, I realize that I spent it serving as a mini-ambassador and representative of Iran. While my classmates in Iran didn't realize they could be anything but Iranian, I walked around every day carrying my nationality on my back. I had to explain everything about myself to everyone, especially regarding holidays, food and language. I held on to my culture, not by accident, but by choice.
Throughout all of this, my main connection to my culture and my support network was my family and their close friends. I took all the qualities of this select group of intellectuals and I applied it to my entire country. Rather than feeling the urge to blend in and become “just like the other kids”, they made me proud of being different. They instilled such pride within me that even at that early age, I considered myself privileged to be Iranian. There was a lot that I didn't know then about Iran and Iranians, but whatever I lacked in experience or knowledge I made up for with love. My glorification of all things Iranian did not change during my teenage years living in Boston. Every time we visited California, I felt overwhelmed.
Experiences that were ordinary and mundane to the LA Persians were exciting and emotional for me. Even going shopping at an Iranian supermarket and hearing Farsi spoken everywhere made me mute and dazed. It was the moment where my dreams and reality meshed into one. It was also a great moment of truth where I would discover how the Iranians I had built in my mind all these years compared with the ones I would meet and befriend.
When my brother, Mehran and I attended the Iran-US soccer game in LA, and I saw the thousands of people dressed in Green, Red and White, my excitement and shock was notable to everyone there with us. It was strange to finally be in the middle of what I had always imagined. Although I felt that I did not fit in with this crowd either, I knew that I desperately wanted to. I didn't imagine the hate that existed inside our own community.
Even at that soccer game, when we were walking from the parking lot to the stadium, I could not understand why 2 or 3 different people approached us and made nasty comments about the flags that we were carrying and how they had the ” Allah” emblem in the middle as opposed to the “Shir-o-Khorsheed”. I responded to one man who told me to give him my flag so he can take the “mullah” out of it, saying “but this is the flag of Iran”. I thought that he saw it as a political symbol and that for him time had stood still for the last 24 years. It never occurred to me that he viewed it as a symbol of Islam in a predominantly Jewish community.
These encounters, although surprising were not strong enough to register the cultural divide and for me that day gave off an incredible feeling of total captivation inside my dream world. During the flight back to Boston, I put on my headphones and listened to the new Dariush CD I had bought, struggling to understand each word and sound which seemed to capture this indescribable feeling that I felt; awkward bliss.
Once we had moved to California, I was optimistic about what life would be like living in this environment that had so much intrigued me. Much like the way I feel before entering a swimming pool afraid of the cold water but anticipating the pleasure of being immersed in it, I cautiously took in my new environment and dipped my toe in. I was not sure what to expect, but I knew that at least here, liked or disliked, I would not be an outsider. I never imagined that my lifelong source of refuge had been a lie.
” Iranian Jews live in Los Angeles”. Why? “Iranian Muslims live in Orange County and San Diego”. Why? “San Francisco has a mix of both, but mostly Iranian Muslims”. Why? “This restaurant is Jewish”. “This bookstore is Pro-Shah”. “This supermarket is Kosher”. “This one is Halal”. Nothing made sense anymore. Iranian wasn't a small enough classification anymore. Everything was color-coded. Each group had their own designated comfort zones and rarely ventured into the other side. This wasn't the community I had imagined. This wasn't my Iran.
One day, I went to the fabric district in downtown Los Angeles with my mother, her friend and my brother. My mother's friend was searching for a particular fabric, which led us from one store into another and another and so on. It was fascinating for me to see how every single store was owned and operated by Iranians, until my brother opened my eyes further.
He told me that, the majority of these Iranian fabric stores were owned by Jewish Iranians. When I asked him how he knew this, he told me to look above the main desk at the entrance of each store. Sure enough the label was there. The Jewish stores carried their own emblem, and so did the few Muslim ones. I wondered how religious these storeowners truly were, and whether these religious displays were not intended more as an identification label for the fastidious customers as to which team they are buying from.
It certainly had an affect on me. I felt labeled, categorized, and branded. Suddenly that place that I had dreamed of my whole life, where I would be fully accepted and embraced where I could just melt into the crowd, my crowd, no longer existed. I found myself rejected and pushed away. The looks were familiar to me. They were the same looks I had run from all of my childhood. They identified a stranger.
While walking through those stores that day, I heard a word for the first time when a woman used it in a sentence referring to my mother and her friend in passing. What is a “Guim” I asked? Maybe we shouldn't be here. In a bazaar full of Iranians, thousands of miles away from Iran, how sad to feel anything but at home.
The feeling of mistrust and dislike was not only from the Jewish community directed at the Muslims. It was quite mutual as I learned later on. Many people I met, in either small social settings or often in large public gatherings would open up to me with their knowledge and experience regarding life in southern California. Many told me how lucky I was that my family chose to live in San Diego instead of Los Angeles, since L.A. is so tacky, so unbearable and …yes, so Jewish!
Regardless of which group was at the receiving end of these comments, my reaction was the same. I couldn't believe that people who did not know me were confiding their opinions in me as though it was simply “assumed” that I would automatically agree with them.
I felt that my intellectual space was violated and instead replaced with this neon color-coded label that allowed me membership to one team and excluded me from the other team. No one cared what I thought about God, or Islam or spirituality. I was born a Muslim so I was supposed to go along with this group and feel inferior to the other. Putting down the other religion was a method of bonding with my own.
I felt so angry. My entire life has been based on thinking for myself, evaluating all options on my own and reaching conclusions that will honor my values and the path that I have chosen for myself. I was not a follower. I was not seeking the shelter of a label. I struggled to keep my individualism because I thought I belonged to something much more sacred.
I felt betrayed. The culture I had held my head so proudly for all these years was a lie. My ideas of nationalism, of unity and pride were all shattered. No one cared about those things. I felt like a complete fool. Like I was the last one to have received the news. Like I was the last one that still believed in the fairy tale.
It reminded me of my second grade classroom in Paris. One day all the children were sitting in a circle with our teacher having a discussion about telling children the truth. One boy raised his hand and commented on how he felt it was wrong for parents to lie to their children and tell them that there is such a thing as Santa Claus, when he doesn't truly exist. Many of the other children agreed with him. No one ever realized that that was the day I found out there was no such thing as Santa Claus.
“Jewish Iranians don't marry Muslims”. Why? “Muslims don't like marrying Jews much either”. Why? What about love? What about respect? What about LOVE? Oh how silly and naive of me to think that love makes a difference. Just like in a bad dream where the spotlights are all on you and you are standing in front of a huge crowd all laughing and pointing the finger at you, I discovered how much of my childhood innocence I had retained. “Grow up Mersedeh….get real…this is just the way things are…they marry their own….don't look at our family….we're not the norm.”
Perhaps that is why it was so hard for me to understand the depth of this hatred. Two of my cousins married Jewish men. One of them married the son of a Rabbi. Even one of my mom's cousins married a Jewish man and that was over 30 years ago.
I thought love and respect were the foundations of a marriage, but apparently not in our culture. We prefer to do things like good dog breeders. We are interested in pedigree. Even families, who do not obey any of the rules or rituals of their religion, become extremely pious when it comes time for their children to wed.
They feel that they are representatives of Moses and Mohammad and that an interfaith marriage will surely bring an end to the pureness of their long “clean” blood-line. After all isn't that what really matters? Isn't this the true spirit of religion? Isn't this what the prophets intended for us? Be good to your own, love your own, and the hell with the rest? Not to mention the social embarrassment that would be suffered when one of your own children is lost to the “other team”. How can love compete with that?
Suddenly, I didn't care for this culture. My illusions were shattered. I didn't want to belong to a community that preferred to judge its members on characteristics of their birth rather than values of their choosing. I didn't want to become one of them and raise children with tainted hearts who were only allowed to fall in love inside this self-imposed circle.
I started hating the concept of religion, and these poor misguided people who were basing their entire lives on it. What did any of this have to do with God? Absolutely nothing! Their behavior went against the spirit of any and all religion and against the very notion of a God. For me, the greatest testament to the existence of God is our ability to think. We cannot help which country we are born in, which religion or which family, however we can use our intelligence and ability to reason to make those other choices that affect the course of our lives. We inherit a lot from our roots, but our minds can be our own if we choose to exercise our own judgment. “I think therefore I am”. This is what separates us from the animals. They act on instinct, we act based upon reason, interpretation and experience.
I believe in God. Not the god that you find on bumper stickers telling you he loves you from the highway or in those holy songs you can buy on two CDs for $19.95. My God is not commercialized. He doesn't have a name and he doesn't talk through other people. I believe in God, because after considering a world without his existence, I find the spiritual need for his presence and I choose to believe in him. I believe in God because he forms a part of my conscience. He is my inner dialogue.
After experiencing religion as displayed through the California Iranians, I started to change. I became bitter and felt that perhaps this is what it's like to finally grow up. I hated all religion and didn't want to be associated with any. I was angry with Muslims for automatically claiming me as their own, and I was angry with the Jews for so swiftly discarding me as insignificant.
I had a choice ahead of me. I could either allow this anger to consume me or I could use it as fuel to drive me in the same path that has brought me thus far. I contacted a few synagogues near me and had conversations with some very enlightened people. I realized that it would be foolish for me to think that I hate religion, when it carries so much historical and cultural richness. I can not only appreciate that, but also understand why a family would want to pass that on to their children.
I just personally feel that I have ownership of them all. I can walk into a synagogue, a mosque or a church and stand in awe. I don't feel out of place there, quite the contrary, I feel like I belong. What truly amazes me about a place of worship is the unifying force of common faith. That is what I find moving, not the building, nor the statues or holy cloths.
I had this overwhelming feeling when I lived in Spain and witnessed the bare-foot processions of holy week. I also had this feeling in Mashhad during Ashoora, when the uniform sound of the thousands of hands beating their chests echoed down the street to the beat of the singer's voice. A Jewish violin brings tears to my eyes, just like the Dalai Lama amazes me in a hundred ways. In the end I came to realize that for me God means more than a lifelong membership to one of these religious clubs.
This is my faith. I have struggled to find it and I feel no need to name it. It is clear enough where it should be, which is in my heart. This is my religion. This is what I want to pass on to my children. So after everything, I am choosing to retain my naive belief that love, and not religious membership, is the foundation of a family. I will continue to believe that we are all Iranians, rising from the same proud and long history, and that our nationalism binds us in a way that no religion has ever been able to divide us.
I will continue my childhood love affair with Iran because just like my belief in God, my belief in Iran and Iranians also runs much too deep for a small percentage of the population to destroy. I will continue to be an idealist, even after having hit the ground, because however slow, change is inevitable and because I prefer to have hope no matter how remote, then to grow old into bitterness.
I know I am not alone in my desire for Iranian unity and cooperation. One look at organizations such as National Iranian American Council (NIAC) is sufficient to see that I share this vision with other Iranians whose love for their country and community is above all potentially dividing forces. I experienced their dedication first hand when I moved to Washington DC for the summer to intern for them. It is truly amazing to witness how much we can achieve as a community if we choose to unite behind our common and individual interests instead of acting as our own worst enemy.
I urge the Iranian community to join in and take ownership of one another and extend the meaning of community and family to include more than just religion. Next time you see a familiar pair of eyes across the street, or hear your native tongue, don't wonder which “team” they're on. They are Iranians and their roots are tied to your very own. Instead of passing down generations of hatred to our children, maybe we can allow them to keep their hearts clean. In the end, we all speak the same language, we listen to the same music, we read the same poetry and we love the same land. It's time we realize that our diversity is proof of our strength, not a sign of our weakness.