Here to stay
Lamenting our lost roots is unproductive
December 21, 1999
In the early 80s most of those who fled Iran considered themselves provisional
refugees. Indeed they expected to return to their homeland after a rapid
collapse of the mollas. They lived outside, more or less, like the French
aristocrats that took refuge in England after the 1789 revolution. But
contrary to the latter, there was no "restoration" and they found
themselves stuck in foreign lands.
Little by little the Iranian emigres divided into two groups. A small
number bowed to the new authorities and returned . Some of them even became
sort of propagandists for the regime. The majority settled and gradually
transformed themselves into a diaspora. An "infant" diaspora
as it were. But a diaspora, all the same.
Talking with friends here, reading poems, stories, letters, articles
by countrymen in numerous publications around the U.S. and elsewhere; it
seems to me that many members of this new diaspora feel somewhat confused.
Not to mention the material difficulties most immigrants face (finding
jobs, housing and the like), they all remain preoccupied with questions
about their "roots" and "identity". They admire or
despise the host countries. They yearn for their lost homeland while they
reject the theocracy in Tehran. They are not yet used to the peculiar duality
of their present situation.
Indeed, here in the United States, we live according to laws often different
(if not in contradiction) with the ones we had back at home. We find ourselves
in daily contact with almost all cultures of the world. For the first time
we enjoy all the basic rights and freedoms proclaimed by the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights -- first and foremost freedom of speech. It
is as if we have been catapulted to another planet enjoying a more oxygenated
I own that it is not easy, at least for the elder generation, to adjust
to such a genuinely different environment. As a consequence we constantly
commute , as it were, between two parallel universes: our private homes
and Iranian circles, on the one hand, and the American environment, on
the other. This is not science-fiction but sheer reality. Naturally, our
children have rapidly acclimated to the new background, at least on the
surface.Yet they show keen curiosity and interest toward their Iranian
heritage and the original culture of their parents.
At any rate the basic characteristic of a diaspora is to keep alive
some of its past traditions. The Iranian diaspora is no exception. From
this standpoint, we Iranians of the outside share some problems with the
Iranians of the inside. We resent the rule of a backward fundamentalist
dictatorship that has created difficult economic and social conditions
for our compatriots and plunged the country into underdevelopment and a
remote past, making it terribly difficult to join the global economy of
the coming century.
But on the whole, we face a different situation. Indeed while the Iranians
of the inside have to find ways to extricate themselves from the medieval
climate around them, those of the diaspora must adapt to rapidly changing
conditions of a society hurling itself into the future.
Fortunately, our new locale, especially here in the U.S., offers us
the elements and tools for surviving in and benefiting from this future-in-development.
Indeed, a world of information is available to us; there is no censorship;
no limit to our curiosity and learning . We know we cannot totally recreate
Iran. We have to make choices among our traditions; we must keep and honor
those which are helpful in our new conditions and put aside those which
would hinder our quest for progress. And in so doing we might be of some
assistance to our countrymen in bringing about change inside Iran.
Let me evoke a memory which would illustrate my point. In 1962, while
I was an international civil servant , UNESCO sent me to a conference on
freedom of information which was held in New Delhi. Nehru, in failing health,
was still the prime minister of India. After his speech to the conference,
he received the delegates and the members of the secretariat for a private
chat. One of the participants asked him what his government was doing in
order to preserve Indian traditions in a changing world. Nehru said (I
quote from memory) : "Nothing. We study our traditions to find out
which ones hinder our progress, in order to eliminate them!"
In my opinion we should set aside nostalgia and concentrate rather on
a path such as the one suggested by Nehru. Lamenting our lost roots and
sense of identity is negative and unproductive. For one thing, as other
ethnic Americans, we profoundly remain who we are. Iranian Americans. There
is no such a thing as American-American. The image of a melting pot is
nothing but a practical metaphor. America is rather a mosaic of immigrant
groups from other nations. And that is why it is easier to become an American
rather than a French, British or German citizen.
In early October, I found the following title in The Washington Post
in relation with the recent elections in India: "Indian Americans
Emerge as a Powerful lobby on India's Behalf". Such is the strength
of diasporas. Let us reflect on this.