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To write home about
"Foreign Iranians" tend to create cultural ghettos

By Ebrahim Harandi
August 7, 2001
The Iranian

These days a distinction is often made between the Iranians living abroad and their compatriots inside Iran. This distinction is along cultural lines and contains a number of pre-suppositions, none of which can withstand close scrutiny. One such supposition is that Iranians living abroad have adopted or developed new values and cultural practices which sets them apart from their friends and relatives back at home. Hence, it follows that their outlook differs from that of people living in Iran.

There is no denying that social and environmental factors can have immense impact on the way we perceive the world, but such influences are gradual and interactive. Total adoption of a new culture requires a generation turnover but it should be possible -- at least in theory -- to deliberately set out to learn about and begin to live another way of life and the way in which it perceives the universe. The new learning in a case of this kind is bound to be in the light of prior knowledge and skills of the person.

However, as far as the Iranians expatriates are concerned, not only have they not been living in their new lands long enough to form a clear ethnic identity, but also as the majority of them had been forced to flee and seek refuge in the West, they mostly regard themselves as refugees and look at their current situation as temporary. By now many have lived in their country of residence far longer than they have lived in Iran. But they don't want to be settled and refuse to give up hope of returning back. They have mostly adopted a temporal (safari?) attitudes to their current country of abode.

This kind of mentality militates against any form of settlement for the first generation and prevents the establishment of a new identity, which is the foundation of a distinct outlook. I know there are many assumed and real differences in terms of perceptions, attitudes and actions between us and them, and each side reckons that their perspective on life is superior to the other, but in reality these differences are minor and insignificant.

By identity I mean a set of irreducible distinct features with which one can compare and contrast a particular way of life with another; a defining tool that fashions the way in which social attributes find their ways into an individual's mind and help shape her private and personal inner world. As far as this issue is concerned, I believe we cannot make a distinction between Iranians at home and those abroad. Some of us may have access to more time, space and resources than our friends and colleagues in Iran, and most of us boast our freedom to explore our environments and express our minds as we wish. But the repercussion of such fundamentals is as yet to be translated into concrete codes of conduct.

"Foreign Iranians", as some call them, mostly live in inward looking and insular communities untouched by the host cultures and unaffected by its developments. We tend to create cultural ghettos, which regurgitate outdated ideas and practices and produce nothing but defensive self-congratulatory dreams and fill our imaginations with antediluvian imageries, far-fetched ideas and wishful thinking. Of course there are good reasons for all that but one of the consequences of such developments has been an impermeable mindset, which stops us form absorbing new ideas and trends, some of which might just be the answers to our current problems.

We could act as a catalyst for the transfer of new ideas and modern thinking to our country. But our failure in this respect has led us to become mere observers of events and developments back in our homeland at a time when our contributions could have been invaluable in facilitating and assisting the current quest of the younger generation for meaning. As we have nothing to add to current debates. We follow developments rather than lead them.

A recent preoccupation of some of our writers abroad has been comparing and contrasting works of writers and poets at home and abroad. Implicit in this line of thinking is that the two groups deploy different world visions and literary perspectives. In my view this assumption is erroneous as our mass exodus has -- up to now -- been a mere geographical dislocation. There are off course minor differences between the poetry and prose at home and abroad but such differences are superficial and hardly worth writing home about.

Those of us who wish to go back to Iran eventually, have to ask ourselves what have we got to take back home with us, if the prospect of return becomes a reality? How would our efforts compare to our predecessors at the turn of the last century?

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