I am Iranian. Why is it difficult to utter these three simple words in the United States?
You can imagine that someone at work, at a party, or a fellow passenger during a flight asking the innocent question “So, where are you from?”
As someone who was born in Iran and brought up in the United Kingdom, I am used to identifying myself as an Iranian. In the UK, the person asking the question would normally reply with “I thought so”, and might recount some story about another Iranian he or she knew many years ago. They would ask about the situation in Iran, reminisce about their old acquaintance and the conversation moves on.
Since I arrived in New York in August 2003 for a three-year work contract, I have discovered that this type of simple, friendly, exchange is not the norm for US-based Iranians.
Even before I got to New York, a US-educated Iranian friend advised me to introduce myself as British (“They like Britain here”) and avoid any reference to Iran. I was already a frequent visitor to the US, but this advice still shocked me.
On arrival, from the warm welcome I received in US Immigration — we were subjected to the peculiar delights of Special Registration — I found that identifying myself as an Iranian was generally not a good idea, even amongst supposedly educated people. My American boss’s reaction to me being taken to a back room, photographed and finger-printed on entry to US was “This is terrible. You must feel bad. But I guess it does make me feel safer that they are trying to catch terrorists.”
Compared to Europeans, Americans seem generally less interested in anyone’s cultural origin. The assumption is that you are lucky to be here and to have the opportunities offered by this great nation. Talking about what you consider to be your home country is treated with suspicion particularly if you come from a “terrorist” country. Americans distrust their government in terms of domestic policy but trust it completely with foreign policy. “Everything that President Bush says about Iran must be true. It is right for us to treat Iranians with suspicion, particularly after 9/11, and you are well advised to keep a low profile.” There are, of course, dissenters, but I am talking about what is undoubtedly the mainstream opinion in the United States as represented in the media and contact with ordinary people.
Europeans, by contrast, are much more distrustful of their governments’ foreign policy. They are aware of their colonial history, and the extent to which colonies were manipulated for financial gain to the detriment of the local people. They are also genuinely interested in different cultures and resent homogeneity. To declare oneself as Iranian, Turkish, Ghanaian etc. is not an unusual thing. Maintenance of your national identity is encouraged and the process starts in schools, unlike the States, where each school day begins with the children’s pledge to the America flag.
The New York taxi driver who just got off the plane from Karachi is driving a cab with a US flag and “United We Stand” sticker. I have no problem if the taxi driver is genuinely stupid, but if the bad taste in car decoration was the result of fear of retribution, then this should not acceptable in a supposedly free country. The same taxi driver would be driving around London displaying a Koranic script with little or no fear of attack. He would certainly not need to display the British flag.
Iranians living in America seem to have largely accepted that they should downplay their identity in order to succeed in their careers and avoid getting marginalized in their neighbourhoods. The numbers of Iranians in New York metropolitan area and Greater London are comparable, but the number of Iranian cultural events, restaurants, cafes and public forums for celebrating one’s identity is significantly less. None of the numerous carpet shops in Madison Avenue even call themselves Persian; they display the America flag on the screen rather than the Iranian one. In London, there are around ten public Norouz celebrations with 200-300 attendees each. In Manhattan, you will be lucky to find one. You are able to see any Iranian movie of international significance on a London cinema screen. This is not the case in New York.
On a recent holiday in South America, we arrived at a vineyard on a bus tour. Everyone was asked his or her country of origin. As usual we declared ourselves as Iranian, and the guide said that she had never met anyone from Iran. A few minutes later, we heard ‘Salaam Alaykom’ and met Mehrdad who had introduced himself as from LA. We spent the rest of the tour together and had a great dinner the following night, but it still irked me why he had not introduced himself as Iranian. He was obviously completely Iranian in terms of attitude, culture, values, and interests but had been conditioned to play it safe.
It appears to be much more acceptable to change your first name, not talk about your identity and generally blend in with the community in the US. If you are particularly courageous, you may call yourself Persian in the hope that nobody knows where that is or they think that you are a direct descendant of Cyrus, and not Ayatollah Khomeini. This is not in anyway a criticism of the US-Iranian Community, but is reflective of the power of the US to suppress other cultural identities and force them into the anglo-saxon mainstream. The media assault on Iran and the labelling of our country as a pariah state have been extraordinarily successful here. This has placed pressure on the Iranians living in the US, forcing many to prefer to concentrate on their family’s well-being rather than be involved with other Iranians as part of a wider community.
I am not a great Iranian nationalist. This was not a rant against America (past or present) or the Iranian community here. I am not necessarily saying that we should be proud of our history and heritage – that is a matter of individual opinion and choice. However, I think it is a basic human right to proclaim your identity — be it nationality, race or religion – without fear. I believe this right is now more secure in Europe for an Iranian.