Last week I had the pleasure of attending the 24th annual All People’s breakfast in honor of Martin Luther King. We had a good speaker and good performances, but I walked away with a revived image of the man whom we had just honored. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that Dr. King lived at a different time, with issues that had previously belonged to others, yet he has offered solace each time a new anti-Iranian wave surged through the US.
I came here a few years after Dr. King had passed away. I knew a few facts about him and respected his vision and leadership on the Civil Rights. While I had lived in Iran, where everyone is of the same race, my knowledge of racism came from books and movies. Iran’s social conflicts were primarily based on economical issues and as a student, the subject was vague to me. Yes, we had a small number of immigrants, but they were treated more as guests, albeit some wanted and some not. But as Persians say, I was only “warming my hands from a distance” with no idea how it felt to be inside the fire!
I grew up as a white girl who lived in what Iranians considered “the best country in the Middle East!” Despite a Muslim majority, in our Westernized lifestyle religion was just “there” and we seldom discussed it. With the word “Arian” constantly being hammered into our heads, we were but a nation of whites with no one to prejudice against. As for religion, I was taught to be “nice” to minorities and yet “not to get too involved.” Case closed.
Attending a public school, my schoolmates came from all parts of town. But after high school and when we shed the denim uniforms, our diverse socioeconomic status became evident. To be non-prejudice only meant being considerate of the less fortunate and treating others as my equal. It wasn’t until I moved to England and later the US that the glass bubble, in which I was raised, finally burst and I found myself the subject of discrimination.
My first shock came when my own child told me I was not white. Surely, she must have misunderstood the teacher. Who ever heard of a non-white Arian? I wasn’t from the Far East and nor was I black or native American. At some point, my daughter mentioned the term, “Brown”. What did she mean by brown? I may be dark beige, but brown? To this day, when people ask my color, I tell them, “I used to be white, until I had children.” And what’s even more astonishing, Muslims became a religious minority. All 2.1 billion of them?!
As politics turned the Middle East’s “best” into a target of discrimination, a dark horizon opened before me. For four decades living in the U.S. I have searched for a place where I belonged completely. I didn’t find it, but to my amazement, I came across someone who understood my dilemma. I never met Dr. King and nor do we share the same history, but he knows the feeling and he never fails to find the right answer to my tormenting questions.
When I wonder what I have done to deserve animosity, he says, “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.” If I’m tempted to give in to self-pity, he says, “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” And when someone makes a rude remark he helps me to maintain my pride. “One’s dignity may be assaulted, vandalized, cruelly mocked, but it can never be taken away unless it is surrendered.”
Martin Luther King finds the positive in every negative situation. “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” His words are the golden compass to guide me from one day to the next, year to year. They hold the umbrella of peace over my head when ignorance pours.
My new admiration only partially has to do with his what he had done for the African Americans. I bow to him for having seen the rough road ahead and having left a road map for those who come to walk it decades after him, regardless of their race. He knew that prejudice is not limited to one ethnicity. It is everywhere.
How did he know we would be next? Martin Luther King takes my hand, smiles knowingly, and whispers, “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”And when I tell him that hatred prevails and that the world is no better than when he saw it, he winks playfully and says, “I have decided to stick to love… Hate is too great a burden to bear.”