Maz Jobrani is an Iranian-American comedian. He begins every show with the same introduction.“Hello, my name is Maz Jobrani and I’m Iranian.” He says it because it is part of the act. He knows the response and he works it into a joke. The audience unfailingly responds the same way, with silence, exclamations of sympathy and even booing. Maz does a very clever thing then. He knows the reaction and responds, “I know, I know. Jealous huh?” Good joke. Everybody laughs then. But all Iranians know underneath it isn’t funny. Because that is the reaction we all seem to get at one time or another from non-middle easterners.
It was 1980 and anti-Iranian sentiment left over from the revolution ran at full volume. But where the Iranian Revolution had the American publics’ threat level sensors up, the hostages brought it home and hard. Overnight I went from nonexistent to target. I watched my parents’ social life drop off the radar screen completely for many years. There were more incidents than I can remember at that time. Colorful names like Camel jockey were thrown at me every day of my third grade year. My father was forced to leave his job, my sister was so bullied she had to change schools. And she went to a private girls school. The last straw was something they used to call a swirly and as the name suggests, it involves one’s head and the swirling water of a toilet bowl. I think my parents agreed enough was enough.
The family image needed a serious overhaul. My parents put my sister in a massive public school in the area and my mother stopped bring salad olivie to cultural food day at my school. She switched from the Iranian pea and potato salad to a food that represented a slice of her cultural background. She began bringing three layer German chocolate cake. It was the most popular item at the family food day for three years running. Changing schools would ultimately be my fate as well.
Things were burned on our lawn. What, I never found out because my mother made sure to hurry us toanother room and clean up whatever was on our lawn. Once my mother’s friend hadher son drop by unannounced. She offered him coffee and left the room momentarily. I sat at the kitchen table staring at him as he unapologetically riffled through our mail. As she threw him out, he looked at her unremorsefully and told her he was in the CIA now and he had to “keep a watch on us.” This was the same family whom until this point, I had to stay with after school until my mother could pick me up from work. The father had unceremoniously brought me out to the backyard to introduce me to his horse A-RAB. I inwardly winced at the comparison and wished to disappear. I had never felt so like the animal behind the fence.
The day my father was firedand they pulled my sister out of school, we had an emergency family meeting. It was in the room with the bay window. One of the panels still had bullet holes in it, and family meetings which inexplicably always occurred in that room would forever make me jumpy. My father paced as we sat and then announced
“If anyone asks you, you’re Greek!” and then made a motion I had only ever seen before as “safe” by an umpire in baseball. We sat motionless. It seemed a little too late for that now. And brilliant. Why hadn’t anyone thought of that before?
“Or Turkish!” my father added as an afterthought, “Nobody around here knows what the hell that is.” I mulled it over. I was leaning toward Turkish. There was a girl who beat me up at the bus stop everyday who was Greek (my mother had been forced to drive me to school now) and I was pretty certain my name would not pass for Greek. My father already had a few names to fall back on in case of just this emergency.It is a common practice for immigrants at that time coming into this country.He had his Iranian born name and then he had the name he was allowed to pickout of a hat when he became an American citizen. I thought it made perfect sense and the way my father described it helped tremendously. “Well, my name is Saeed, and now I get to pick an another name for here. Which name do you like?”I always liked Michael and I said so. “Michael it is. Okay done.” It seemed bizarre to me now. Wait, you have a name but since you passed our test here inthe US you get to have another one, a new one. New house, new identity, here are your keys. Okay you’re allset.
McLean, Virginia is only a few miles from Washington, D.C., an extremely culturally diverse and vibrant cosmopolitan area. But cross over the Virginia line into my town at that time,and you would never know it. My whole elementary school was full of Bobby Joes,Billy’s, Trisha’s, Jennifer’s and Cindy’s. Then there was me. I am sure I represented about 1/3 of the cultural diversity at that school. Then there was the one black girl, who everyone referred to as “that one black girl” and my best friend. She was Korean. We were screwed. If our identical personalities weren’t enough to make us best friends for life, clinging to each other for shear survival cemented our friendship. “That one black girl” ran track and at least she had that going for her. But my friend and I were your typical awkward, scrawny, glasses wearing kids. We did the best we could. Everyday wecompeted for who could fade into the background more, her or me. It was close,but she won. We definitely had our share of fights at the roller rink witholder boys cornering us and yelling, “hey chink” or “rag head” as I threw my coke in the tall one’s face. Then we ran. It always ended with a lot ofrunning.
I still wince during a particularly gritty scene of a movie when the hero gets beat up. I feel way more empathy then I ever should but because I have actually been punched in the stomach hard enough to knock the wind out of me and collapse on a flight of stairs.The feeling is unreal. It feels like an organ has very suddenly been pushed into your ribs. Your body doesn’t even have time to prepare for it. That is the first shock. I remember lying on the institutional cement steps of the secondfloor hallway and wondering when my breath was going to come back. I really need to breathe now, nothing is happening, need oxygen! Then with a great open-mouthed gasp I sucked in new air and stopped the burning feeling. My friends now are still horrified to hearI was beat up by boys then.
“But you’re a girl!” they would gasp. That had clearly crossed some invisible line of acceptable racist activity or breached the Geneva Convention in some way. My friend and I still talk about finding an Iraqi friend so thatwe could wear AXIS OF EVIL t-shirts mocking the dangerous triad. Alas, an Iraqi friend has yet to come along.
I always considered my mother to be lucky she was born a very white, very American girl in a small townoutside Cincinnati, Ohio. But she had taken my fathers last name so she got the good treatment until her last name would come up in conversation. At least she could just say it was by marriage. One degree of separation. We three other family members were stuck in it. Somewhere around that same time period as the hostages, my mother put me in the car and drove to a very official office with a lot of people typing and a lot of papers. When we reached the front of the line, we very officially changed our names. I was no longer the person I was born as. My father had explained it all to us in another family meeting. It made us too visible. Because of people I had never met who had never met me, I now had to become someone else.
When I switched High Schools it was like living in Europe. I was accepted into a school in Maryland, and itmade all the difference in my little world. I survived a few years relatively insult-free until Ireached college. I did not expect it at a New York college. There were alwaysthe little comments I was used to. Old favorites like “I thought you’d have a little red dot on your forehead.” My shoulders would sag “no, those areIndians. And I’m pretty sure the red dot means you’re married.” Wrong on both counts buddy. But India and Iran are in the same Continent. Even my friends, those I pointed to that were in my corner, would lament at times, “I wish you were Indian. The food is sooooo good. And they are so colorful!” Sorry I had to disappoint you with an all black wardrobe. How I wished to be Indian then. Exotic and nonthreatening.
Then Sally Field came along and ruined my life. Not Without My Daughter was released and once again I emerged from my pleasant life of anonymity. I boycott her movies to this day, which is really too bad because I loved Norma Ray. People I had never seen in my life wouldaccost me in the library, full of outrage, yelling and pointing in my face with accusing eyes “I saw Not Without My Daughter” as if I had killed someone they loved very, very much and they had finally found me. “I know how it is there. You never bathe and you eat bugs.” I tried to explain I showered every day, thank you, with that nice ylang-ylang body wash and no, Iranians didn’t sit around eating bugs.At least nobody I knew. The angry girl was unconvinced. She stood and argued with me for fifteen minutes in front of a small crowd of people. To this day I’m not even sure what the argument was about or what her point was. All I know was Iranians were back in focus and we were bad.
Iranian-American racism isn’t as outwardly hostile perhaps as in the days post revolution, but it exists asan undercurrent. I still see it everywhere. In Television, books, movies. I am always let down that the American public has to make Iran suffer endlessly asthe representation of evil in the world. Whenever there is an act of violencein the world, the anti-Iranian sentiment surges. I have noticed that since 9/11, almost every shooting or act of assumed terrorism is met with thequestion “Was he an Arab? From the Middle East?” In a recent popular movie, Jim Carey sits next to his Iranian bride from the internet who he doesn’t talk to or look at except to exclaim to his friend “yeah, don’t worry about her. She just sits there.(or something along these lines just as offensive)” The woman is positively wrapped in a black blanket looking homely and a little intimidating. It ruined the whole movie for me.
The examples are endless.Just a few years back, we were always the bad guys submerged in a murky plot todestroy democracy, unless we drove cabs or ran convenience stores. We were the threat to American integrity and usually Bruce Willis brought us down.Sometimes it was Arnold Schwarzenegger. It wasn’t just Iranians, but the blanket term used so often -“middle eastern”. It appears to be used inwhichever way serves the purpose best. Iraqi, Iranian, Afghan, whatever.Usually it is meant to be synonymous with Arab and therefore very bad. It doesn’t matter that Iranians aren’t even Arab. Cultural accuracy doesn’t enterinto the equation.
When there is prejudice toward any culture there are times when it lies more dormant and times when itwill surge. Ethnic and racial minorities understand this. When the gunman firedon Virginia Tech, a school from my hometown, a school my closest friend attended, I made a frantic call to her at the San Francisco Chronicle newsdesk.
“Oh God it’s an Iranian isn’t it. It’s got to be a Middle Easterner.”
We waited breathlessly for the information to come across the wire.
“Oh no,” Aileen said in a shocked voice, “It’s a Korean
I could feel both of us holding our head down in shame through the receiver.
“I’m sorry girl. Bad luck.”
We both knew what it meant.We do this for each other often. Usually she does it more for me. Whenever oneof our people does something, anything, we all suffer. It’s the surge. Aileen knew as we hung up that she would have to endure days, possibly weeks of hearing“Are Asians that angry underneath that passive exterior? Are you ready to snap and kill us at any moment?” It makes it suck for the rest of us.
In an interview for NPR recently, Maz Jobrani recounted a story where he had a big time gig at a famous LA comedy club and was crest fallen to find out the day before his act that he was asked to wear a turban and talk in a thick “Middle-Eastern accent.” When he respectfully attempted to correct the mish mash of cultural misrepresentation he was told the turban goes on or he doesn’t. I feel I have also had Maz Jobrani moments, one where I struggled internally between pride and my livelihood. Shortly after college, Iowned a rare bookshop in Georgetown, a popular shopping district of Washington,D.C. A woman came to my register with what amounted to the biggest sale on fineprints that I had ever made. It would cover the whole months rent. As I was ringing her up, she just had to let her ignorance show. Did it have to be then?The woman leaned forward over the stack of prints and said
“I’m so glad you opened a store in this space. Everywhere else here it’s Iranians, Iranians. They’re taking over.”
My name, along with my then American husband’s name, was on the sign that hung over the store. Apparently it went overlooked. I hesitated for just a fraction of a second and then swallowed what was left of my pride and rang the sale.
My new husband never quit believed me when I told him about the subtle obstacles my culture presents on adaily basis. In fact, it has become so predictable I stopped noticing unless it was really egregious. But my world is new for my husband. Although we dated in high school and college, being married now, he walks through my world with me now every day. He is aghast at the number of times people mispronounce my name.I expect it.
“But it isn’t even that hard!It’s two syllables!” His name, incidentally, is a very common and easy to pronounce American name. I pat his back sympathetically sometimes. This is new for him.
Here is the scenario. There is an occasion for someone to ask for my name. I tell them my name speaking slowly and very clearly-Laila Ansari. Without fail, 8 times out of 10, this isusually what I hear
“Don’t be sorry, what’s your name?”
I tell them again, usually a few times. Then I wait for the pause. They are processing. They look back at meand ask tentatively ask what kind of name it is. When I tell them I have another Maz Jobrani moment. There is usually a sympathetic nod or “Ohhhhhhh”that trails off into unspoken disappointment.
I used to apologize in a haphazard way as if it were my error. Excuse my culture. I know it would have been better if I was Italian (I get Italian a lot as the default cultural guess). I don’t apologize anymore.I look right at them and say,
“I’m Iranian, what were you expecting? Jealous huh?”