Coming to America

By J. Javid
New York

The clerk at the Swiss Embassy in Tehran threw my daughter's Iranian passport at me. "We cannot give your daughter a visa," she said in the rudest manner imaginable.

I had come from New York to pick up my daughter, Mahdiyeh, for her first trip to the U.S. Her mother and I had divorced a few years back and since then I had been living in the U.S. I thought it was time for my 11-year-old to see America. But the stone-faced clerk behind the thick glass counter, did not think so.

It was a typical encounter between the terrorist Iranian and Heaven's no-bull gatekeeper, who tells him to beat it. Or if you will, Godzila meets Bambi who kicks the monster where it counts.

I reached for my side pocket and took out my secret weapon: An American passport. Five minutes later the clerk returned with the sweetest smile and handed my daughter's Iranian passport that was now stamped with a visa.

I wondered what my daughter felt about this episode. Does she understand the depth of official hostility? Is she concerned? Angry? Indifferent?

Mahdiyeh was born three years after the 1979 revolution and two years after the U.S. hostages episode. She hears "Death to America" chanted on the radio or TV. If she picks up any newspaper or magazines, chances are pretty good that she would find something anti-American. On her way to school, she walks passed slogans that declare hatred toward the U.S.

But at the same time, she wears jeans with Bart Simpson or Flintstones T-shirts, roller-blades in Park Mellat (People's Park), loves hamburgers with fries, drinks Coke and her favorite novel is the Persian translation of Gone With the Wind.

Her father and numerous relatives live in the U.S. So do the relatives of many of her classmates. And she hears that many relatives, friends and neighbors want to come and live in America. How does she deal with these contradictions?

The first thing she did upon arrival in New York was to get a fresh set of clothes. My sister, Soraya, took her to the Gap store and bought her more jeans and colorful summer dresses. You couldn't tell the difference between her and any American girl.

When I was her age, I spent one of my happiest summers at a children's camp near Nowshahr, in northern Iran. I had spoken with my other sister, Iran, to find a suitable camp near her home in Rochester Hills, a suburb of Detroit, Michigan.

When the camp supervisor saw the registration form, she asked if Mahdiyeh had a nickname. I said she didn't. But I knew her new American friends would soon come up with one.

I returned to New York to get back to work. When I called to see how Mahdiyeh's first day at camp went, I was horrified. "Magie had a great time," my sister said, laughing. Magie Javid? Dear lord.

Mahdiyeh did have a great time. For six weeks, she went to two different day camps, picked up a decent English vocabulary ("shut up!") and even went horseback riding at a ranch for a couple of weeks.

A week before she went back to Iran, I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up? The last time I asked she couldn't decide if she wanted to be a math teacher or an actress.

"I want to be an astronaut," she said. I was thrilled and surprised. Where did she get that idea, I wanted to know. "I just like to travel in space. But in Iran they don't allow women to become astronauts."

"Ghalat kardan!" (They won't dare!) I said angrily without even thinking. I knew Iran Air actually has an Iranian woman pilot. But what mattered at that moment was that my daughter believed she didn't have the same opportunities as men. I hesitated and added, "I want you to remember this: You can be whatever you want to be."

That weekend I took her outside New York to the Six Flags amusement park for a ride on "The Right Stuff Mach 1 Adventure." We sat in a dark auditorium, fastened the seat belt and felt the thrill of a supersonic ride in the sky. When it was through, I bought her a pilot jacket and cap.

A few days later we drove with my friends the Ahmadis (Abbas, Zohreh, Ali and Leila) to Washington, D.C., to visit the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. I told her a little about Amelia Earhart and how she was the first woman pilot to fly alone across the Atlantic. Mahdiyeh had the broadest smile lying on Earhart's poster.

I felt I had been a good father for those few days and was on a roll. We visited the Washington Monument, the Vietnam memorial and the Lincoln Memorial. And posed in front of the White House.

I wonder what she will think about America when she grows up.

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