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Imagined territory of exilic identity and of all identity formation

July 10, 2001
The Iranian

From the preface to Exiled Memories : Stories of the Iranian Diaspora by Zohreh T. Sullivan (Temple University Press, 2001). Exiled Memories is a collection of testimonies (oral histories) from America by Iranians displaced by revolutionary turmoil. Sullivan, professor of English at the University of Illinois, has based this book on a series of conversations with Iranians of all ages and backgrounds scattered through the United States who remember their pasts and the struggle to reconcile those pasts with their American presents.

I feel I am the wandering Jew who has no place to which she belongs. I thought I could settle down, but can't imagine staying. Whenever I bought a bar of soap and two came in the package, I thought there would be no need to buy a package of two because I would never last through the second. Why? Because I knew I was returning to Iran -- tomorrow. So too, I would buy the smallest size toothpastes and jars of oil. Putting down roots here is an impossibility.

Spoken at my dining table in Champaign-Urbana in l989, these words were part of one woman's meditations on exile and on her resistance to diasporic assimilation, part of a conversation with me, now her closest Iranian friend, who had once been her teacher in Damavand College, Tehran, Iran from l970 to 1972.

I resumed a long-time friendship with this woman (I shall call her Pari) after she found herself stranded in the U.S., exiled by the revolution that had her coworkers killed and her brother in solitary confinement. The recognition of the different challenges we faced in locating ourselves, combined with my own troubled relationship to nations and nationality, provoked the greater part of this inquiry.

I met Pari as a student in Iran in l970 when she had decided, even though she was professionally established, that she wanted a degree in English literature. Ten years later, in l980, her daughter also sat as a student in my class on the British Novel, except that I was now a revolution and continents away at the University of Illinois in the middle of midwestern corn fields.

Pari's visit to her daughter in Illinois coincided with the revolution that separated her from Iran for ten years. She had worked in Iran as a writer of children's books, as an editor, as a translator, and as an assistant director in a ministry in charge of the women's literacy campaign in villages. Her arrival out of Iran was much the same as that of any other group, but what she chooses to remember articulates significant moments of transition.

She remembers the first words she heard at the airport, words inflected beyond intention: "Why have you come here? How much money do you have? Who will support you? Why are you travelling alone? How long do you plan on staying in this country?" Her recollection echoed that of so many others, yet, refracted through Iranian eyes that had just seen a national revolution, even generic questions about money, aloneness, support, and change of country were now charged with a particular history of revolution and loss.

She was then interrogated for two hours at the airport, asked more questions about matters she considered private and intimate, and lost her luggage because the immigration officer had held her up so long. Away from the comforting chaos and litter of Tehran streets, she felt she did everything wrong. There were anti-littering signs everywhere, and she was faced with the silent codes of the big city. When she tipped the cabbie who drove her in from the airport, he cursed all foreigners. When she threw her cigarette butt on the city street, her daughter picked it up and silently carried it to a garbage can.

Once she realized she could not return home, she struggled daily to cope with life first in a university town, and then in Los Angeles, suffering what she perceived to be recurring failures interrupted by breakdowns. On those occasions she felt as if she were in some undefined hollow space that threatened her equilibrium; some days she said her panic took on the configuration of a landscape where she was balanced on the edge of a huge black hole about to swallow her; other days she felt she had lost her self.

She thought that perhaps the problem could be solved if she set down roots, if she bought a house and owned a piece of space she could turn into solid ground. But then she wondered how she could buy a house when she couldn't buy a tube of toothpaste without paralyzing anxiety and ambivalence.

In the polarity between "here," where one does not belong, and "there," the romantic point of departure and return, lies the imagined territory of exilic identity and of all identity formation. Although the dichotomy seems simple -- there and here, nation and enemy, home and exile -- its separateness is blurred by an entangled dialectical relation. There, nation, and home, often defined by what they are not, also become the charged spaces that constitute "identity" and "culture" reorganized by memory in exile.

Pari's daughter, Maryam, once made her the subject of a five-minute film in which each shot showed her mother locked outside a door -- first the door to her car, then the door to a neighbor's house, and finally the door to her own apartment whose outer walls were covered with anti-Iranian grafitti.

My interest in recording stories and memories of displaced Iranians began with my friend's palpable grief at her loss of identity, work, home, language, family, and country, then evolved into an interest in the differences between our attitudes towards the past, towards nation, language, identity and culture. In Iran, Pari's last name would announce her past, her family and her "identity" to most educated and literate Iranians.

The language in which she wrote short stories and children's books (Persian) and into which she translated English texts was one of her key sources of power. To me as a hybridized outsider, her house in Tehran had once represented a fantasy space that reconstructed the imagined and idealized spaces of the "east" (the domed ceilings, the vast stone floors jewelled with Kerman carpets, the garden, the courtyard) and the conspicuous spaces of the "west" (the sauna and the swimming pool).

Now she lived either in student flats, or in a small rented room in someone else's house, she couldn't master the grammar or spelling of the language she had studied for years, and she had a name no one could pronounce.

The violent anxiety Pari and others faced in displacement provided the impetus for a series of interviews with emigres and exiles started in l990, eleven years after the Islamic revolution. "I know you have lost much," I said to her on one particularly dreary Champaign afternoon, "let's not lose your memories of that loss."

We then started to record her narrative. The need to raise those memories was predicated on the conviction that Pari's voice was part of the contemporary history of Iran, of dislocation, and of migration, and that somewhere in the links and gaps between my voice and hers and those of the other interviewees we could stitch together fragments of what had been omitted from other stories of identity, gender, and history...


From concluding paragraphs to Chapter 1:

If revolution can be read as the return of the repressed, what the Shah's government repressed consistently were two groups -- the clergy (both traditional and radical) and the Left. Isolated, the clergy looked for support and found it in the many leftist organizations who had well-articulated principles of revolt.

The naivete of the left (and Hannah Arendt may be cited as one of its Western theorists) lay in its conviction that revolution was inevitably secular. The unlikely forces, whose distinctions were strategically blurred, that came together to form the revolution were not only the left and the clergy, but the radical and the conservative positions (respectively) of Ali Shariati and Ayatollah Khomeini...

The discourse of the radical and liberal philosophers and theologians that led up to the Islamic Revolution, by providing a counter-discourse, replaced one set of myths, one idea of nation for another. But, the hybridized audience that constituted the apparently unified black-robed marchers on the streets of Tehran, according to my informants who were among them, were anything but unified in their understanding of what the Revolution represented.

The face of the Revolution -- as witnessed by the changing stamps produced weekly in Iran -- was the changing face of Iran's many heroes from the progressive Ali Shariati and Mossadeq to the conservative Sheikh Fazlollah Nuri. The Revolution became a tabula rasa on which could be mapped all manner of fantasy and desire.

Like the Revolution and the nation which changed continually, so too our narration of self is a mediated story always in a state of improvisation, "fictions that we employ," as Rosemary George puts it, "to feel at home". This is particularly true of identities in exile or diaspora whose relation to homeland and their new nation shifts with the multiple channels on the evening news, as new histories and new social movements transform reformers into reactionaries, allies into adversaries, and the exile into the exalted.

Twelve years after the revolution, exiled playwrights and filmmakers in California began to protest film festivals from the Islamic Republic with marches and counter-festivals as the exiles took it upon themselves to contest the politics of art that, in its very production, sanctified the brutalities of the Republic. At the same time Iranian newsletters published in the U.S. through the l990s identified "The Exile Iranian Political Opposition as the Endangered Species" by publishing lists of assassinated Iranian leaders of that opposition.

And as the meaning of exile has been transformed on domestic and foreign ground, so too has it been contested in virtual space as the internet opens a new space for the homeless to find homes and for Iranians to contest diverse positions on vatan parasti (homeland worship), vatan doosti (love of homeland), or vatan foroushi (betrayal/selling of homeland).

We live our lives, as the Bible reminds us, as a tale told, and the tales we tell have to do with fashioning a gendered self as part of or in opposition to a collective unit. The process of telling who we are, however, changes when people are suddenly removed from the group. When the received story of relation between the self and the collective breaks down, the process of telling who we are continues in a new circumstance.

Although some forge identities out of the debris of loss, our narrators suggest that all stories of new belonging are not told from positions of powerlessness and alienation, that sometimes new stories are told to recapture new power interests, newly imagined alternative gender and national identities, multi-voiced artistic expressions (comedic plays, films, and journals) that challenge, reconfigure, and subvert traditional cultural affiliations.

What follows are the interrupted narratives of self, nation, and belonging, new stories that begin to be told in the new circumstance of exile, migration, or diaspora when we see people knitting the story of themselves with the story of the collective after it has been torn apart.

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