Not Iranian Enough For Some, Not Iranian At All For Others

I recently travelled with my mother for our second trip to Kish Island in the past five years.  In the years separating our two visits, the island has been transformed into a lovely vacation spot.  We not only went on very exciting boating excursions, but we had the pleasure of visiting the dolphin park, the bird garden and many of the island’s shopping malls.  The shopping wasn’t that big of a deal to us, but I can understand that for many people from the mainland, it is a very big deal to have the the chance to shop and purchase goods that are not available elsewhere in Iran.

I love going to Kish because it is still largely unspoiled by over-development and pollution.  The water around the island is crystal clear and blue.  When one goes out boating, it is easy to look over the side and see fish everywhere in the pristine waters.  Furthermore, I love the people I meet there.  They come from all over Iran and although I’m sometimes mistaken for a foreigner because of my light colored hair, once they know that I speak Farsi (almost as well as they do), they are friendly.  Many of them have never met someone like me who is only half-Persian.  While some of the people I’ve met have undoubtedly thought of me as an oddity in the beginning, once we’ve chatted for a while they come to understand that I am one of them, and more importantly, they come to understand that I am proud to be one of them.  After all, the blood that flows through their veins flows through my own and the proud history that they cherish is the same history that my ancestors have cherished for thousands of years.  The Persian people’s loving hearts are filled with more love, generosity and compassion than all the waters of all the oceans on this earth. 

I am blessed and thankful that when I was young my mother taught me the language of my people and they customs and traditions we hold dear.  I am equally blessed that my father, who is not Iranian, always supported my mother in her efforts to teach me and my sister about our ancient Persian heritage.  Many men would feel insecure if their children spoke a different language at home than they spoke or learned different customs from what they knew.  My dad never felt intimidated by any of these things.  He always wanted me and my sister to be proud of whom we were: Americans like him, Iranians like our mother and Iranian-Americans unlike both of them.  Being the proud inheritors of two heritages was never a problem for him.  He never saw them as mutually exclusive.  If anything, he believed that our heritages complimented one another and made us complete as human beings. 

Though I love the beauty of Kish Island, I will not be going back any time soon, and it has much to do with the self-dignity that my mother and father raised me to hold dear.   I am not angry or sad, but I will not submit myself to degrading and humiliating practices by anyone whether they are Americans or Iranians.  After my recent trip to Kish, I proudly stand shoulder to shoulder with all the other Iranians who for whatever reason cannot go back or who refuse to go back and submit themselves to degrading and insulting practices by government officials.  I know that many Iranian expats who can’t or won’t go home have a far greater claim on Iran than I do since they were born and raised there.  I also know that the pain that they feel in being permanently separated from the land they love so dearly is far more intense and unjust than the small indignity that was recently thrust upon me.  Still, it has left a bitter taste in my mouth.

When my mother and I arrived in Kish, we got off the plane full of smiles and happy to be back in our beloved Iran.  She was clutching her Iranian passport and I had my American one.  When we entered the Immigration area, the officer in charge called out that Iranians should come to the front of the line.  My mother and I were the only Iranians on the plane which had come from Dubai.  The rest of the passengers were Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Filipinos and a variety of other nationalities making a quick visa run to Kish before heading back to waiting jobs in the Emirates. 

Proudly, my mother headed to the front of the line with me in tow.  The immigration officer asked her why she was traveling with an American, and she explained that she was my mother.  He asked her if she could prove it whereupon she presented her Shahnosnemeh which clearly had my name registered within its pages in the appropriate place.  He then told us to step out of the line and wait.  We waited for a long time as he supervised other officers in stamping all the other passengers passports.  When everyone on our plane had gone, he told my mother to tell me to follow him to a back room.  He did not yet know that I could understand every word he said.  When my mother told me in Farsi to go with him, he finally understood that I could speak Persian.

He was not hateful or aggressive with me, but he made it clear I was not an Iranian and for that reason he had to fingerprint me.  I asked him in Persian why he didn’t fingerprint the other passengers.   He told me that it was because I was American.  I corrected him by saying that I was only half-American…the other half was Iranian.  I told him that I was more Iranian than all the other passengers on the plane put together, but they were not subjected to this.  He looked at me said as far as the Iranian government was concerned I was simply an American.  He went on to add that I shouldn’t complain since the American government humiliates Iranians in the same way.  I acknowledged that what he said about the American government was true, but that there was a difference, and that was the fact that I was an Iranian.  I told him that the American government had never fingerprinted me.

He told me that I could call myself whatever I wanted, but that wouldn’t change a thing.  I asked him how many other Americans he had fingerprinted to which he replied, “Many.”  I asked him how many of those Americans could speak to him in Persian like I did to which he replied, “None!”  I asked him how many of those Americans had generation upon generation of ancestors buried in Iran like I did.  He said nothing.  I asked him how many of those Americans had relatives living in Tehran, Tabriz, and Esfahan like me.  He said, “Probably none.” 

He finished the dirty job of fingerprinting me and had me wash my hands.  Then he took me back to my mother who was waiting outside the office.  He told her that she was welcome to visit her homeland anytime, but that I would always be fingerprinted because I WAS NOT an Iranian.  We left the airport for our hotel.  My mother didn’t say anything during our ride in the taxi because what the immigration officer had told her broke her heart.  I’m sure she was thinking the same thing I was.  Why had she spent so much time and effort over the years in making me proud of our people, in teaching me how to speak and read our language and in helping me to learn to love our customs and traditions? 

How is it that my dad who doesn’t have a drop of Iranian blood in his body is proud that my sister and I embrace our Persian heritage when there are Iranians, like the Kish Immigration Officer, who wish to insult us?  I love Iran and Iranians just as my mother taught me to do from my days in a crib, but I will not go back as long as that government refuses to recognize me for what I am; an Iranian, nothing more, nothing less.  This is what my mother is and this is all my ancestors ever have been.  My claim to be an Iranian has been bought and paid for by a thousand generations before me.

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