I and another UC Berkeley student, Pouya Alimagham, student-teach a two-unit course on modern Iranian politics on behalf of our student group: the Iranian Student Alliance in America. This past semester, we dedicated the last session of our class to issues, which concern Iranian-Americans and screened two documentaries: “Why I Call Myself Persian: Iranians in America” and “A Place Called Home.” A discussion followed in which the central topic was the mistreatment of Iranians and stereotypes associated with being Iranian.
Almost every Iranian student in the class had a story or knew of someone who had been mistreated by other Americans. I listened to these stories, but I could not contribute with a personal one. Almost every American that I have ever encountered has been kind and non-judgmental. These students spoke of Americans who called them “sand niggers,” “camel jockeys,” “terrorists” and so forth. But for me, I never once heard an American refer to me by any such names.
My exceptionalism could be partly attributed to the fact that I grew up in Palo Alto-or the bubble as my high school friends used to call it. A town, which borders Stanford University and is the “farthest place from reality.” The people are nice and friendly to the seeming foreigner. I have visited five other states besides our Golden California and my perception of Americans and their attitude towards me have never altered.
Fortunate as I have been by the treatment, which I have received from other Americans, I have not been immune to prejudice. However, those who stared or ridiculed me were not some ignorant Americans who cannot locate Iran on the map, but educated Iranians.
I wore a hejab until two years ago and this was reason enough for every eye in the room to turn to my direction the minute that I entered any Iranian setting. Believe me, I did not imagine this; no one stares now when I enter a room anymore, especially now that I no longer wear the hejab.
There have been many comments, harsh glares, and snickerings over the years but there is one incident, which I can never forget. I was a junior in high school and was volunteering along with my sister and two of my American friends at an Iranian event. We worked as ushers, standing at the entrance, welcoming the guests and helping them to locate their seats. It was all fine until a man asked me in Persian when I took his ticket: “Is this supposed to be some sort of Islamic conference?” I did what I was always do when taken off guard; I said nothing.
I tried to ignore that comment, but then it was difficult to ignore the fact that Iranians who entered the room would go towards my American friend and ask for her help and ignore me. The Iranians, who I approached to see if they needed help, would look the other way. There was one older lady who didn't speak English. I tried to guide her to her seat but she brushed me off. She walked to my American friend and tried to get her help but since she didn't speak the language, gave up. She stumbled around for a while, came back to me and without saying a word gave me her ticket. I helped her find her seat, she took it and did not even say thank you.
I was by then on the verge of tears. I could not understand why I was treated as such. It angered me to think that there are Iranians who cannot make the distinction between ideology and the personal method of practicing one's religion. It always interests me when I hear Iranians complain of being labeled and misunderstood by Americans when many of them are guilty of the same act. In a sense their prejudice is perhaps worse because they are targeting it at another Iranian in a land where they are both foreign and should therefore be each other's backer and not destroyer.
Before coming to Berkeley, my friends were almost all American. This was the me with the hejab. Coming to Berkeley changed a lot of things. Now almost all of my friends are Iranian. But I do wonder if these people would have been my friends if they have met me with a scarf. I also ponder if I would have been involved in our Iranian student group if I still wore a hejab. I am not sure but I would like to believe my generation of Iranian-Americans respects and honors the beliefs of others.
There has been much change over the years. Twenty years ago, my mom was yelled and screamed at by Iranians when she walked the streets in America wearing a hejab. Four years ago, I was glared at for doing the same thing. I just hope that one day Iranians will embrace one another and respect each other's personal decision. I hope that we will not isolate our countrymen based on their religious beliefs. I acknowledge the fact that our community and culture have many imperfections, but I see much strength as well. For this reason, I remain hopeful that we can all improve together.
Author Hoda Fahimi is a third year student at UC Berkeley, studying Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies. She is a board member of the Iranian Student Alliance in America (ISAA).