I was once an Iranian
Now I must grasp what it means to be an American
By Massud Alemi
September 7, 1999
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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