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I was once an Iranian
Now I must grasp what it means to be an American

By Massud Alemi
September 7, 1999
The Iranian

Either you will go through this door
or you will not go through.
If you go through
there is always the risk
of remembering your name.

- Adrienne Rich

* Time has arrived
* JFK assassination
* Catholic school in Tehran
* Extra-curricular activities
* The Little Prince & Hafiz
* Political literature
* West: Mixed feelings
* Strangers in homeland
* Religious sentiment
* Separate from humanity
* People of divine rituals
* Process of becoming
* Reminded of foreignness
* Strengths of rootlessness

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Time has arrived

Recent conciliatory gestures from the White House toward Iran and the consensus of the punditry on an impending rapprochement between old enemies has prompted a sharp debate both within the expatriate Iranian community and the public at large. To well-meaning persons of all persuasions, there are indications that the time has indeed arrived.

Is it truly so, my grocer asks me, that East and West are "going to bed together"? And how do I feel, a colleague asks, about the end of animosities between the country of my birth and my adopted one? It must be sweet, another one opines, to be living in an era when old enemies are about to bury the hatchet. We are living in paradoxical times, bursting with tribal and national passions to purify, inoculate and cleanse slats of land, yet ripe with occasions for peacemaking and hatchet-burying.

To me, both an outsider and insider, West and East are as much states of mind as they are geographical designations or cultural entities, ready to be swayed this way or that, if there is enough zeal either way. My background has provided me with stereophonic insight into both and with it a constant source of tension and ambiguity about my role and the meaning of my life.

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JFK assassination

I was a tad under four when President Kennedy was shot by Oswald. My earliest recollections are blurred images becoming crisp and continuous round that time. My sharpest memory is of walking with my parents past the store windows along Elizabeth Boulevard (renamed Keshavarz after the revolution) and Pahlavi Avenue (renamed Vali-e-Assr). We found more than half the shops closed in mourning; the entrance to the ones open festooned with black bunting. Not long afterwards, five-feet-by-eight portraits of John F. Kennedy, woven entirely into fine silk carpets, appeared behind the windows of carpet stores all over Tehran.

In the months and years that followed Kennedy's assassination, while America pondered the mysteries of the grassy knoll in Dallas, I came up with suspicions of my own. The whole affair, which sank my older sister into a mild depression, did not sit right with me; my four years on the planet had not prepared me to cope with its shock. Years later, I was almost glad to stumble upon the realization that it did not sit right with America, either. Therefore, if America would not be the same after the assassination, nor would I.

Already, a bond was forged between that faraway land and I. Since then, my life has been in America's shadow. From Mohammed Ali's bold rejection of the Vietnam War to the horrible explosion of the tenth flight of the shuttle Challenger, I have been there with America, mourning its tragedies and celebrating its triumphs. But truth be told, nothing ever came close to the memory of JFK's assassination. I felt responsible for the slain president the way Christians feel guilty for the Crucifixion, or the surviving Jews feel about the Holocaust. I have always had intense feelings for the martyred president.

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Catholic school in Tehran

My formal education began with a schizophrenic twist. Barely past the age of five, I was sent off to the Iranian branch of Don Bosco, an all-boys school run by the Roman Catholic Church. In Tehran, Don Bosco was under the meticulous care and direction of an Italian priest named Father Piccioni, and the faculty was both Jesuit and lay. Unlike other schools in Tehran, Don Bosco had a five-day week schedule. We were off on Sundays as well as Fridays, the Moslem Sabbath. On the dangling Saturday in between, classes were adjourned. We observed Christmas holidays as well as the Iranian New Year, Noruz; Easter as well as the Shi'ite holy days of Tasua and Ashura.

The program at Don Bosco was rigorous; the emphasis was stronger on English than on Farsi. In the first grade we were required to study the English Reader Series. My bicultural education was thus set off on a note of irony. I grasped, without a question, the content of those magic-ridden books, and internalized them as though they were the culture of my parents. At home I was cheered on for my progress; every new English word I learned was a cause for celebration. Too young to notice the deliberate exposure to the other culture, I was nevertheless pushed by my parents toward the land after which they themselves secretly lusted. Some children on my father's side of the family also attended Don Bosco. Naturally, socializing with them never became a problem.

The same, however, cannot be said about my mother's side of the family. Sundays to those children meant another day at school, and they looked upon my schedule with envy. They never observed Christmas, never learned the words to "Jingle Bells". English did not find its way into their curriculum until much later in high school, and even then, it was not taken half as seriously. Almost all English teachers in the Iranian public schools had rarely, if ever, been in situations where they had to rely on their second tongue as a primary means of communication.

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Extra-curricular activities

Life at Don Bosco, however, consisted of scientific tours to botanical gardens and local factories in between a variety of courses, peppered with music lessons and extra-curricular activities. We were shuttled to and from children's movie festivals, where cartoons from Japan, the U. S., Czechoslovakia, Romania, Great Britain, France and other countries were shown. Also quite a few plays by my elder schoolmates saw stage in the huge amphitheater adjacent to the school's church.

I understand that the rich and indulging educational methods at Don Bosco were hardly the norm in the country. However, they were real and today I stand to benefit from them. An entirely new world opened itself to me in the third grade when I was drawn into a comic - book trafficking network. It was a channel of communication that went totally undetected by the school officials and other adults. We bought, sold, traded or otherwise gave away tens of colored zines on a weekly basis. Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Spiderman, Ironman, X-man, the Incredible Hulk and the Daredevil provided just the sort of fantastic underworld in which any normal kid loved to roam about, and which was a whole different level of exposure to the West. The colored cartoons opened new horizons for us, teaching us what the school books were incapable of teaching: a way of relating to each other that was, at the same time, only possible in the English idiom.

By sixth grade I was so comfortable in my surroundings that not even a hint of what was ahead entered my mind. My parents suddenly forced me to switch schools - something to do with my grades having slipped on a downward slope. The pain of departing my friends and the world of Don Bosco was so severe that I introverted and fell back on the only familiar ground available to me: reading. During the five years at Don Bosco, I had become motivated enough to independently pursue the course most to my liking. Through a magical blend of fate, Catholic school training and bad grades, literature became the single passion of my life.

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The Little Prince & Hafiz

In my Don Bosco period, I had owned more than two hundred comic books. I had also read many of the tall tales of One Thousand and One Nights. The narratives of Cindrella, Aladdin and the Magic Lamp, The Little Prince, Jack and the Beanstalk, David and Goliath, Bluebeard and king of the fairies, King Oberon, all in English, were already a part of my conscience when I left Don Bosco. At family reunions and birthday parties, throughout my pre-teen years, I entertained my friends and relatives by recounting those stories. I was often surprised that my new friends had not even heard of The Little Prince or Bluebeard.

In my eleventh summer, I poured over a shabby translation of The Count of Monte Cristo, by the elder Duma, and devoured Jules Verne's Mysterious Island. The latter had such a profound influence on me that on numerous nights I woke up in the middle of an intense dream with remnants of audacious deeds on my palate. The next summer, Agatha Christie came into my life with her captivating yarns. In the following years I read Dr. Zhivago, The Good Earth, Einstein's biography and Henryk Sienkiwicz' Quo Vadis. The realization dawned on me only two decades later that the education I received all those years was filtering two different cultures into my conscience; two views of the world not necessarily opposing, but distinct.

Although I never defined Iranianness in ideological terms, not consciously anyway, I always thought of myself as an Iranian, even when my school celebrated Christmas. It was the farthest thing from my mind that some people (i.e. the predecessors of the fundamentalist movement) might rebuke my education as un-Iranian, adulterated and Occidentalist. Looking back, I had regarded Don Bosco as much an Iranian fact of life as a mosque, or the air that I breathed, and never thought of myself being any different from other less fortunate kids. Granted, having been exposed to so much of life's varieties, there had been little room for the old texts, perhaps I did not study as many Persian classics as my parents had. However, this deficiency would be compensated in high school where I'd acquaint myself with Hafiz, Saadi, Firdowsi and Mowlana. In retrospect, I feel my early education in its entirety was, unbeknownst to me, directed toward pulling out whatever roots I had in that soil, toward making me a homeless citizen of the world.

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Political literature

In the sixties the rumblings of the revolution were already affecting the Iranian Littérature engage'. In ninth grade, I read a small paperback by a provincial teacher, Samad Behrangi, who played an enormous role in the radicalization of the Iran of my youth. The Little Black Fish was written ostensibly for children but not really. It praised the values of heroism and martyrdom, thus falling right into the religious groove of the mass culture. This, in spite of the fact that the writer himself was on the periphery of an underground Marxist group. I do not particularly sympathize with that little fish anymore, but its impact on my younger self I cannot minimize or deny. Thus, my political awareness was swayed by the liberal critique of the society.

A banned novel by Ahmad Mahmood, wrapped in newspaper, surreptitiously found its way into my hands in high school. The Neighbors was set in the background of the 40's and early 50's, particularly dealing with the aftermath of the coup against the popular government of Dr. Mossadegh. Then I read the subversive poetry of Shamloo, and the prose of Hedayat. One of my teachers, upon discovering a copy of Blind Owl among my books, frowned and gave a half-hour lecture about patriotism. In essence he said there were only two ways ahead of the book-reading lot: either comply and try to change things from within the system - which to me was unacceptable if not impossible - or face the torture-chambers of the security police, SAVAK. There was no middle ground. It struck me as odd, even then, that an educator should drive his point home through intimidation.

Gradually I found my surroundings repulsive, looking to get out of all that violence that threatened my freedom. My high school was two blocks away from Tehran University, where college students were methodically mistreated by the police and paratroopers with shoot-to-kill orders. The anti-riot police units on my way to the bus stop provided the most surreal backdrop to my growing up. In spite of the tight security around the campus, however, the news of the riots always managed to leak outside. Those were the times that you interpreted everything as a sign of the regime's imminent collapse. It wasn't a matter of if anymore, only when.

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West: Mixed feelings

By the time I graduated from high school, I had acquired mixed feelings about the West's relationship to my birthplace. On the one hand, I cherished all that the West had made possible for me, especially providing a rich literature that included The Grapes of Wrath and Bread and Wine. On the other hand, I did not understand how the very same West would tolerate a regime that mutilated the translation of those august masterpieces. The puzzle only made me restless. I was anxious to get out, the cost unimportant. This restlessness may have been the start of what the Hungarian critic, George Lukacs, named "transcendental homelessness," the modern condition of feeling at home nowhere, yet everywhere.

I can see my seventeen year-old self stuck at the intersection of the past and the future. The nostalgia for the ancient Persian glories and a bitterness toward the incompetence of the venal political order had created in me a gnawing alienation with which I was not equipped to deal with. In the Iran of my youth the West had roused unknown desires. My generation clearly symbolized that desire, so much so that concern for pressing issues of our immediate environ paled in comparison. Speaking for myself, I was too eager to know the intriguing culture on the other side of the globe to notice that I had become an alien among my own people, a stork, a mantis, a gawk. I felt ashamed for my obsession with the West - and increasingly felt I should conceal it - a shame that could not be excised out of existence, and that soon was to transform to a solid burden of guilt of which I'm not quite certain I have disposed. I was a lost soul in search of roots in a world that strove to find strength in rootlessness. It is as though the revolution was bound to come and put an end to this schizophrenia that was increasingly unable to sustain itself at this level.

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Strangers in homeland

All during the 70's most of the Iranian youth of my generation felt like strangers in their own land. It is important to note that the present (pseudo-Islamic) official definition of 'Iran' and 'Iranianness' presumes anything Western as un-Iranian. Since the revolution, the Iranian intelligentsia has been under constant attack by the official culture, just as the leaders of the opposition have been assassinated by the regime's death squads. In all cases, the charge has been having sided with the West at the expense of (a narrowly-defined) Islam. Abroad, signs of fragmentation are everywhere within the Iranian community: of religious confusion, decadent and rigid sects, revolutionaries without a following, societies of friends of Iranian culture, monarchists without a monarch, nationalists without a nation, a laundry list of ad-hoc committees to promote, to defend and to advance foreign notions such as . . . well, democracy.

Iranian émigrés let nothing go, lest everything be lost. In the name of keeping the rituals alive, these get-togethers have a specific function. They're the reminders that 'home' is still there (where Farsi is spoken) at the expense of our American selves, of our actual lives. The west-coast branch of the Iranian community is like a Jack-in-the-box broken loose from its spring. Through TV networks and twenty-four-hour radio programming in Farsi, it wishes to keep a certain Tehran alive, even though the city most of us grew up in no longer exists except as an abstract idea. There in California, I'm told, they brood the love of a past that most of us don't remember anymore at the expense of becoming a truly modern people.

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Religious sentiment

An admission: having been raised in a gentler Islamic sphere of existence, I was not aware of the deeply religious sentiment within my society. I was not aware of that other "Iran". Some within the émigré community have argued that prior to the revolution, that other "Iran" - Iran of the faith we see nowadays on TV screens the world over - simply did not exist. The Islamic Republic of Iran, they assert, is a British conspiracy. I neither share their view, nor the contention that the Iran of my childhood was a fabricated illusion, that I grew up in a bubble. I cannot hold my northern Tehrani upbringing responsible for not seeing that other Iran. Perhaps, I tell myself, the two Irans existed side by side all along in a grafted mold.

I constantly catch myself trying to understand both Irans by juxtaposing the images of my past with the ones I see in the American media. I find Hollywood's stereotyping, exemplified in the movie "Not Without My Daughter", to be gross exaggerations that have nothing in common with my experience. I do suspect what we see and hear in these examples are indeed snippets of the prevalent reality in today's Iran. Yet, I strongly resist the notion that the Iran of my boyhood never was, or has merely been a figment of my fantasy. Somewhere within the hefty layers of reports from the old country, the evidence is overlooked that my generation - the generation most influenced by the West- had not intended to subvert the society in favor of this mindless theocracy, that for us the culture in which we grew up was no less "Iranian" than what is being proclaimed of late by the interpreters of the Word. I'd offer an alternative view: the present anomaly simply grew out of the old one; the old, so to speak, gave way to it, nurtured it.

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Separate from humanity

Many Iranian expatriates subscribe to the notion that their Iranianness is separate from their humanity. They form consciousness raising "cultural" groups to reach an understanding about what constitutes Iranianness. They hold meeting after meeting (with a stiff, almost un-Iranian regularity) to emphasize an affair that passed away many years before the revolution. It is worthy of note that it had been through a similar search for an original self, sans any foreign impurities, that the old country was pushed on the path of cultural suicide, cutting itself off from the wellspring of civilization. Therefore, despite all their posturing, I see the Iranian intellectuals still bound to the double tyrants of fundamentalism and inept nationalism. Meanwhile, waiting to be addressed, lurk the great questions, Who are we? What are we doing here?

My generation (and I use this term generously) came of age with a flavor for Western civilization, even though some of us turned our backs to it during the revolution - an affair that was destined to come and yet took everyone by surprise. Relating to this flavor in a personal way, I can say Western civilization was good to me in that it kindled in me the urge to read and write. It flung open the doors of my imagination, and allowed me the possibility of adopting a new self, or rather, new selves. America, as the bellwether of the West, became a migrant space for me, a place where you are not marred by your class and background, and have many chances, as many as you wish, to start anew.

By the time I graduated from high school, mine was already a migrant mentality. Naturally, the Western civilization that I cherished set me on the road to America. First the irreversible journey of the mind, then, in the summer of 1977, of the body, aboard a 747 jet. In a superb essay in Granta, titled "Loss", Gunter Grass spoke of how loss has given him a voice. "Only what is entirely lost demands to be endlessly named. Without loss there would be no literature." If we were not that animal that remembers, the weight of the past would not have been so grave. Our memories would stop pestering us to remember things that have long perished. Paradoxically, our memories would not forget either. In order to remember one has to forget. All cultures are in danger of losing perspective, as if time has a corroding effect on their sensibilities. Sometimes a culture can be too achieved, too refined, too restrictive. Old cultures in particular can saturate with their own echoes and become, literally, full of themselves. It is rarely that they embrace the contributions of other civilizations and become global. For some cultures, this acceptance of the "other" seems to represent death itself. Not unlike old people, cultures become more set in their rituals the older they get.

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People of divine rituals

Iranians are a people of divine rituals and sacred books. Our culture embodies a thicket of thoughts, from empty gestures of ta'arof to our convoluted classical poetry. We have more than our fair share of epics, grand and opulent narratives that are the sources of our pride. We emphasize the greatness of our ancestors, their contributions to the world civilization, their tolerance of other religions, their sense of poetry and justice. We take special pride in Firdowsi, Hafiz, Saadi and Mowlana, but our adherence to the literature of eons ago, I'm afraid, has not made of us a literary people. Our literature, our texts, did not commit us to an exploration of the universe. They were cultural signposts, giving us a sense of the wholeness of our world and the alienness of what lay outside. For us, the Iranian culture has accomplished greatness, once and for all. When we think about our writers and their vocation, by writing we mean something fundamentally regressive.

Original literary composition - what in academic circles in the West is referred to as 'creative writing' - has little value for most of us. The kind of writing that we cherish usually tends to elaborate and explain those existing texts. It is a part of the perfection of our culture. Salman Rushdie is given credit for saying that every nation has its own unique brand of obsession by which its character is stereotyped. The Iranian obsession lies somewhere about the idea of our superiority. It is as if Iran hides its head in the sand of its huge beliefs, inside spiral layers of rituals and conventions. Trapped in a cobweb of musty decorum and ancient customs we have somehow led ourselves astray, into the dark alleys of fruitless pursuits. Our constant search for the perfect arrangement of Hafiz's odes is as futile as my mother's obsession with cooking the tastiest ghormeh sabzi, and her endless search for the perfect-tasting tea.

The irony is that our history is rich with funny anecdotes and noble characters who took to mock these vain habits of ours. Yet, we are so busy being proud of our heritage that we have failed to recognize, let alone catch up with, the last couple hundred years of development of the Western mind. To us, the West's huge towers of literature are of no consequences in themselves, but exist merely to support our rich nostalgia. Since migrating to America, I have encountered many an occasion to reflect on these issues and have been cornered by well-intentioned folks to decide, once and for all, to which camp I choose to belong.

My Iranianness is relevant as far as it helps me grasp what it means to be American. My vision of who I am is formed by examining the idea that I was once an Iranian, and that I will never be an Iranian again; that I will not be buried in the country of my ancestors.

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Process of becoming

To be a migrant, though, is to be of doubtful blood. The migrant is a hybrid always in the process of becoming, constantly aware of the shape of his unskilled mouth forming the difficult vowels. By establishing himself in the host society, he attempts to attain a vacillating yet firm balance between becoming and being; with the idea of becoming he becomes a citizen. Thus, by transforming himself into a normative being of becoming, he surmounts himself. In the words of George Lukas, "the voyage is completed: the way begins."

But becoming a citizen in the strange new world posits an existential danger. Where morality binds a citizen to carry out his duties within the society, the naturalized citizen of the new world finds it still difficult to receive acceptance. He still has to ignore a part of himself in order to complete the assimilation, because the melting pot will not accept that part of him which is looking at the pot from the outside. The naturalized citizen does not feel quite at home the way he probably did in the old country. And here lies the danger: since you have to spell your name, the chances of mutual acceptance that the idea of great melting pot demands are destroyed. Migrants have to accept and live with their limitations as necessary conditions of their existence. In Grendel, John Gardner created a beastly creature indicative of that we humans are all in some sense or another monsters, trapped in our language and our deficiencies. And migrants' is scarcely a unique problem. Czeslaw Milosz has reminded us that language is the only homeland. Hence, the urge to merge.

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Reminded of foreignness

Since migrating to this country, I have been but a most fleeting blip on society's screen, numerously reminded of my foreignness. I'm aware that there are times when I make everyone uncomfortable without having done anything wrong. But this was never new to me. I had the same strange feeling even in the country of my birth, where I never had to spell my name, yet easily felt out of place like a square peg in a round hole. Here I deliberately use the term migration, instead of immigration, because it refers to the actual condition of change through movement. Migrants are both immigrants and emigrants, as much defined by what they leave behind as by what they meet on arrival. Not only do I feel nothing new in being an outcast, I see great potential in it here that's missing elsewhere. My life experience provides excellent proof that in America the holes are any shape and no peg is amiss. A miraculous land in which new breeds of people constantly merge and emerge, where lovers of various descents join together and produce composite souls. In America one is always two or three things at the same time. And this quality, more than anything else, is responsible for breaking down of the racial walls and prejudices.

I feel very much at peace in this society, more so than in any other. But migrants do not simply go from one place to another; they vacillate between the country they left behind, and the country that will take them in. This swinging back and forth, between the buoyant reality of present to the dream-like memory of the past, is what defines them. The world of a migrant is a mosaic of lost past, untold stories, untransplantable rituals and untranslatable jokes juxtaposed against the haphazard denigration in a land where he is a freak of sorts, defined by cultural jetlag and language barrier.

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Strengths of rootlessness

Having said that, I have finally come to the conclusion that in America, one need not acquire new roots to survive. If the study of the condition of modern humankind has taught us anything, it's that this rootlessness can be a source of strength as well. Being a carrier of foreign germs, the migrant is immune against current social maladies of sectarianism, prejudice, xenophobia. The migrant's struggle to cling on to life under inhospitable circumstances ultimately breeds that essential American thing that is tolerance. His or her triumph marks the triumph of humanity at the end of the twentieth century.

As I write these words, mobs of angry Chinese students are burning the most flammable flag of all, the American. TV screens once again question the seemingly improbable notion of a civilized dialogue between East and West. I ask myself, doesn't what we daily witness from the comfort of our living rooms indicate an inherent inability for the two worlds to even begin to understand one another? Are my hopes and the hopes of other outsiders in vain? Whence and on whose initiation must this serious undertaking begin for history's most taxing and formidable effort which is the coming together of civilizations and cultures?

My hybrid background, my past and present encounters with both camps, can not help but provide me with the following thought. For America and everything she stands for to prevail in the sometimes chaotic world, there has to be a window through which others can take a gander. We will be judged less arrogant when others come across us outside of our foreign policy than through it. When the world experiences us through our smart bombs and air raids and economic sanctions, the world cannot help but judge us arrogant and ugly. While our foreign policy machinery represents most of what constitutes Americanism, there seems to be a void real Americans, average farmers and homemakers and mechanics, can nicely fill.

America tasted good to me then, and she tastes good to me now. There is nothing imaginary about my American adventure. My only hope is for a way I can share the taste with the student rioters in Tehran who have risen to fight the oppression of theocratic rule. They're calling for democracy, this ultimate and sweetest of Western products.

* Massud Alemi's features index

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