Aside from flabbergasting Iranian neo-conservatives aligned with the Bush administration and their sympathizers and apologists, Dr. Hamid Dabashi’s recent article on Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran published in Al-Ahram Weekly fueled dialogue among Iranians in the Diaspora regarding their role and responsibilities as Iranian nationals living abroad. Through our action or inaction, and despite our religious, political, cultural, and social views, Dr. Dabashi reminded us, we have become a significantly influential factor in Iranian politics.
And although he was not present at a discussion on “Iranian-American Identity” at George Mason University in Fairfax Virginia a few weeks ago (headed by Dr. Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, founder of the Persian Studies Department at the University of Maryland in College Park), Dr. Dabashi’s premise in the Al-Ahram article was at the forefront of my thought. The discussion ended on a sour note for me when Dr. Hakkak instructed the audience during his concluding remarks to “walk in the path of Jesus” and search for peace.
Aside from a few compelling comments on Iranian-Americans’ ability to transcend boundaries, Dr. Hakkak’s speech seemed strange and irrelevant to the theme of the discussion. I responded to Dr. Hakkak during the open-mic session, pointing out the oversimplifications of his argument.
After the forum ended, I quickly left the discussion hall, feeling – as I have so many times after such sessions – lonely and yearning for constructive intellectual dialogue with fellow Iranians. The extreme positions often articulated in our community not only bore me, but they also represent stifling and potentially dangerous ideologies to the future of both Iran and the international community.
So imagine my hesitationwhen a few weeks later a group of Iranians whom I know to be active in the Persian Club at George Mason (the sponsor for the aforementioned “Iranian-American Identity” forum) invited me to join them for dinner. I thought to myself, they must recall my remarks at the meeting – and the Persian Club at Mason is notorious for being “non-religious” and “non-political” ad nauseam – so I assumed my response to Dr. Hakkak was not taken lightly. (Persian Clubs in the West tend to claim neutrality, which has always irked me: How do you separate politics and religion from any nation, state or peoples? And why should we avoid talking about issues that engulf our country and fascinate the entire world? Discouraging debate does not eliminate the problems and solutions that actually exist. Or are we getting a little too comfortable with our lives in Amreeka? Why is our history diluted down to Kabobs and Persian dancing during Norooz? Just a thought.)
So when I was invited to dinner, I hesitated, thinking: What in the world could this group want with me, an aspiring Ph.D. student of international relations? As a staunch feminist Iranian nationalist as well as a devout and infinitely suspicious political-scientist by training, I have learned to enter political discussions with meticulous caution. I mainly do this to protect myself spiritually; I find politicking with students who major in engineering and bio-chemistry and who are not well read on Iranian history and politics – or American history and politics, for that matter – draining.
On a day-to-day basis, I try to smile and allow my peaceful, homely appearance mask the revolutionary within. The political environment in the Iranian community in the United States has become increasingly hostile to those who do not, at the very least, subtly indicate their rejection and abhorrence of the 1979 Islamic Revolution prior to addressing any topic having to do with “Iran.” Moreover, the debates that I do find myself engaged in tend to be trite. These observations have resulted in a preference for my pen over my voice.
Carrying this baggage, I proceeded with caution. I noticed a young woman sitting with us who was quiet at first. I had seen her on campus during the last few years, but only on occasion. Her stern walk and stylish flair reminded me of the inherently fierce nature of Iranian women: In Tehran or Virginia, rich or poor, educated or illiterate, we are all survivors, fighters to the core. Shortly after the Hakkak discussion, this young woman had told me in passing that she appreciated my comment.
At dinner, it was clear that she was as curious about me as I was about her. I found out that her father was a professor in Iran, a supporter of the Islamic Revolution, and a die-hard nationalist, like me. Like me, she grew up in Iran – I until the age of seven; she until 14. As our conversation developed, two men at the table joined in and after they mentioned several Iranian scholars they liked, I knew most of those writers to be defectors. Nevertheless, the conversation was complex, well informed, murky, and in the end we had little resolution regarding our role as Iranians living in the States. What marked this conversation memorable however, was that for the first time in a long time, I discussed Iran with a group of Iranians who honored intellectual dialogue over self righteousness.
Consciously or subconsciously, we respected the plurality of our positions while holding onto, mending, revising, rethinking, defending, and at times, rejecting our own dispositions. I could not help but think, what if Iranian associations that traditionally maintain a “non-religious” and “non-political” stance encouraged political, social, and cultural debates on college campuses across the United States and Europe such as the one we held at dinner? We would inevitably become more informed and united as a community. Politically active students like myself, religious students, secular students – no matter the position – would not feel threatened in airing their interpretations of Iranian history and politics. We could interact with scholars and activists in the States or from Iran. We could expand the realm of debate; we could initiate the healing which is imperative to a healthy political future. We could all share Iran, instead of tearing it apart.
After two hours of discussion, which seemed to me like a few minutes, we had to bring our utopian discourse to an end. The young woman hugged me and apologized if her comments had offended me. I told her that not only does she not have anything to be apologetic for, but in fact I hope she always maintains her sharp sense of critical thought. Academia has a tendency to soften our edges, but I suggested she never let her fervor go. I walked away from this discussion with a hint of sadness. But not for the usual reasons. This time I yearned for what I knew to be quite possible.
Shirin Saeidi, Adjunct in the Department of International and Public Affairs, George Mason University, USA.