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No use hiding
Iranian-American revisited

By Sasan (Mohammad Hossein) Seifikar
April 29, 2004

Since the attacks on September 11, life has become more difficult for those of us whose origins go back to the Middle Eastern regions and its vicinity. There is a sense that we are now all suspects. Encouraged by the President's rhetoric of "us and them" and his characterization of America's enemies as being against freedom, democracy, and American values, popular media often portrays us as violent, aggressive, and misogynistic. Many people raise questions about our religion and beliefs, our allegiances, our patriotism, and our mixed identity.

In response to these pressures, some of us who are Iranian-American find ourselves down playing and even hiding our Iranian identity. We certainly have good reasons to emphasize the American part of our identity because the United States has been very good to many of us. We have been able to live our lives as we wish here and to pursue whatever goals or aspirations we may have without interference from the state or religious authorities. I however want to argue that in the long run it may also be in our interest to recognize and acknowledge the Iranian part of our identity and learn to take pride in it.

It is certainly not easy for our youth to fight the social pressures to cast away and conceal the Iranian part of their identity because they often lack the resources to resist these pressures. But as adults in order to have peace with ourselves and to be one with ourselves, we may need to seriously come to terms with all aspects of our identity and learn to acknowledge ourselves fully.

In a sense if we want to have a robust, stable and sound sense of ourselves and our worth, if we want to have a healthy dose of self confidence and self security, then we must be able to appreciate all aspects of our identity and learn to affirm ourselves fully. If on the other hand we try to hide the Iranian part of our identity and treat it as if it is unworthy, then inevitably we may come to feel somehow impure, incomplete, and less worthy than others.

Some Iranian-Americans seem reluctant to acknowledge the Iranian part of themselves because they accept the popular media's characterizations of Iranians and fail to see anything worthy in their Iranian identity or in Iranian culture. Other Iranian-Americans reject the Iranian part of their identity because they assume that accepting and cherishing it entails affirming or identifying with a narrow set of beliefs and values, namely, those beliefs and values that are held by the anti-democratic and fundamentalist forces that rule Iran today.

But these assumptions are false. Cultures are not uniform entities but they are always very complex and multi-layered. They are also nourishing. The Iranian culture is no different. Our culture is very old and very diverse. Iran has a rich history and many rich literary, music, and artistic traditions. Iran, like all the world's ancient cultures, has always been a patchwork of different ethnic groups, languages, and traditions.

Besides the dominate Persians, Iran is home to a large number of Turks and Kurds. There are also many Balochis, Luries, Gilakis, Turkmen, Ghashghais, Bakhtiaris and Arabs living in Iran. The most common spoken language is Farsi. But Turkish, Kurdish, Arabic, and Armenian are also spoken in Iran.

The history of Iran is over 2500 years old. It is mostly made of the rise and fall of the various dynasties that ruled Iran, the civil wars that were fought between different local rulers for the control of the country, and the various foreign wars that Iran fought with other countries which it was invading or being invaded by.

Each of the successive dynasties that ruled Iran had their own unique influences and styles. Each often celebrated and promoted some particular styles of architecture, literature, poetry, and music over others. These dynasties all have left their own stamp on Iran and add to its cultural heritage. The cultures of those nations and people who at one time or another overran and occupied Iran, such as Greeks, Arabs, Mongols, Turks, and the cultures of those nations and people who were invaded and occupied by Iran, such as those of many of its neighbors, also left their marks on the Iranian culture and contributed to its making.

All these various variables and influences not only make evident the richness and the complexity of the Iranian culture, but they also point to the fact that if one appreciates poetry, mythology, folklore, architecture, or art, then Iranian culture has a lot to offer such a person.

Each of these various complex forms of art and cultural expressions reflect a wide variety of different perspectives on life and ways of looking at the world. In this way, they have the power to enrich our lives and broaden our horizons by providing those who seek it with bits of wisdom, beauty, inspiration and a wide variety of values and ways of being a human being.

These cultural treasures however do not just fall into our laps in virtue of our connections to the Iranian culture and the fact that Iranian culture is part of our inheritance. Accessing them requires that we learn about them, it requires work and sometimes a lot of work.

Iranian culture, like the American culture, has both good and bad values, customs, and practices. Not all Americans embrace every aspect of the American culture. The United States Constitution is based on values such as personal freedom and civic equality. But as the debates surrounding issues such as gay marriage and abortion rights show, clearly many Americans are unwilling to extend these values to everyone.

Most states carry out capital punishment, but there are many Americans who oppose the death penalty. Moreover, there are many Americans who dislike football or pop music. These people however do not cease to be Americans, because there are many ways of being American. In other words, loyalty and appreciation of the American culture and tradition, does not mean allegiance to some narrow set of beliefs and values.

This sort of logic also applies to embracing the Iranian culture, namely, accepting and cherishing the Iranian culture does not entail affirming or identifying with the values and beliefs of the religious authorities who currently hold power in Iran. There are many Iranians who believe in the separation of religion and state.

There are also many Iranians who are opposed to polygamy. Because of the experience of living under oppression, many young Iranians are in some ways more passionate about personal freedom, political participation, and feminism than their Western counterparts. Moreover, there are many Iranians who enjoy pop music, dancing, and going to parties.

It is perhaps important to remind ourselves that the United States of America is and has always been a land of immigrants. There is in fact hardly many places left in the world which are not home to many people of a variety of different backgrounds and origins.

Multiculturalism and multiple identity are not about to go away. It is no use hiding the Iranian part of our identity. Even if we have never lived in Iran and think of ourselves as basically Americans, we often cannot escape our connections with Iran because others will remind us of it. Moreover, one or both our parents are mostly shaped by Iran and we ourselves often look darker and have thicker eyebrows.

In other words, we are confronted with our connections, when we visit our parents and when we see ourselves in the mirror. It is worth pointing out that if we know something about Iran, its history and culture, and we are able to respond and correct people's misconceptions when they say something mean and completely false about our culture or religion, then we would be not only speaking out for our culture and people but also for ourselves and our dignity.

Sasan (Mohammad Hossein) Seifikar is a freelance writer.

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