Condemned to be only Iranian?
When people ask me if I’m happy to be Iranian, my response is that the part of the world I was born in is an accident of birth, not something to be happy or unhappy about. Then comes the follow-up question: “But are you proud to be Iranian?” I’m not sure I understand. What is considered here? Is my being Iranian an award bestowed on me for some exceptional achievement? Is it the result of a particularly trying and grueling effort on my part? Are the splendors of ancient Persepolis and of Ispahan, the magnificent and fairly continuous Persian art and thought, the physical beauty of Iran, and the importance of the country in world history and as part of world heritage partly or entirely my doing?
The short answer to these questions is that I am Iranian. Does that commit me in some way to be, think, and act — specifically and always — within a framework of Iranian-ness? Here’s an example: Many cultural events occur in the two cities where I live — Washington and Paris — and I attend quite a few. I have learned to minimize these activities when I talk with most fellow Iranians. Not only do they resent the fact that I and my family speak French — as we have for generations for reasons too complicated to go into here — but they don’t understand that I would be interested in anything non-Iranian. Not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings, I don’t tell them that my house has many rooms.
By now, I know better than to take visitors on a tour of the Louvre or the Metropolitan without heading directly to the Persian sections. One family I was showing around the Art Institute of Chicago made long faces until one of them said, “Don’t they have anything Iranian here?” At a dinner in Paris recently, I mentioned attending a tremendous performance of Rigoletto in the Luxembourg Gardens. An acquaintance present, a cultured woman who knows her Verdi, looked at me with a blank expression until I mentioned that the cast had been diverse in the extreme. Perking up, she asked me if I had seen any Iranian name, only to lose interest again when I said I had not.
I’m also expected to apologize for not writing in Persian. “Don’t you want Iranians to read you?” people say. I won’t apologize. First of all, a great many Iranians are fluent in a number of languages. And then, writing in another language — French, my first, and English, my second — is not an insult directed at my fellow country people. I am lucky enough to live in countries where freedom exists so I am free to express myself in any language I choose. My being Iranian doesn’t condemn me to have only Iranian interests.
I was recently spoken to severely because I’d not read the books or even heard the name of an Iranian novelist apparently well-known in France. I read all the time but there is no way I can read everything. Is a novel by a new Iranian writer a priority when there are so many tremendous novelists, essayists, and poets — of many origins — that I want to read? Not necessarily. Does my being Iranian obligate me to consider it so? You tell me.