Here & there
Imagined territory of exilic identity and of all identity
July 10, 2001
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.