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Identity

Pomegranates and black tea, that's me
But many have become ethnic impostors where being Iranian is synonymous with being a terrorist

June 28, 2003
The Iranian

I had a friend in high school whom we shall call Sina. He was the hairiest teen-ager in school, with a five o'clock shadow which had not left him since he was 12-years old. His eyebrows were two hairy caterpillars joined at the mouth in an amorous embrace. His arms were covered by an Amazonian jungle that spilled out onto his hands and fingers. His skin was darker than my African-Canadian classmate Lissa.

His rotund belly was evidence of a profound love for polo-khoresh and dough. Apart from his physical attributes, the kid was a whiz in math, getting an unheard of 105 score on his annual math grade. (Our school grades were measured out of a 100).

Why all this description?

Because this very picture of Iranian-ness claimed that he was not Iranian.

Sina was born in Iran, and was schooled there for some years, before moving to North America. But for the handful of times that I forced him to speak Farsi with me, he exhibited an accent worse than even mine (which was admittedly not pretty).

And don't go on blaming the parents on this one. Sina's mom was the loveliest specimen of a true, classy Iranian lady, with much education and pride in Iranian culture and heritage. She always organized the yearly "Eid Nowrooz" show at our school, and she was an active member of countless Iranian cultural and charitable associations.

Sina and I always got into huge fights because I kept insisting we were both Iranians but he kept vociferating that he is Canadian. One day, he brought his Canadian passport to school to "prove" to me that he was not Iranian. As if that meant anything!

Last I heard from him, he had married a White Canadian girl from a small town and had his mom in tears because he had forbidden her to inject any "Iranian" elements into the wedding. They were going to go to City Hall, get the license and get it all done with.

Sina was not an isolated example of an "Iranian ethnic impostor". I ran into countless of examples over the years. The friend's mom whom I bumped into at the mall and who "shushed" me when I greeted her in Farsi in front of her Anglo co-worker. (She had reinvented herself as a German woman).

The countless Ginos, Antonios and Vincenzos that used their tired, heavily Farsi-accented pick-up lines on my friends and I at nightclubs. The manager at my apartment building who can't pronounce words starting with "S" without adding an extra syllable ("ESS-stop", "ESS-school" etc) but who plays dumb when my husband is courteous enough to speak to her in her native tongue and put her out of her misery.

My own family, sadly, is not immune from this phenomenon. One of my relatives married a native of Mauritania, a francophone African country. She has raised her children to be disrespectful to their Iranian heritage. For example, they ignore their Iranian relatives when they are addressed in Farsi, even though they understand it perfectly well. She has taught them that they are "French"!

Another sad example was a relative who invited me to her office party however she proceeded to warn me "never" to speak Farsi to her and to "blend it" with the American co-workers.

My close friends have always asked me why I use the pen name of "Tehranchi" when writing for iranian.com. This is my own little inside joke. Years ago, I had met a young woman in college who sported that family name.

The "Tehran" in her name standing of course for the capital of Iran, it was not hard to deduce that she was Iranian. However, when I asked her so, eager to find a new friend among the vast anonymity of a college campus, she responded that she was Italian. She actually went so far as to pronounce her last name with an Italian accent ("Terrenchi", rhymes with "Arrivederchi").

Unfortunately for her, a few weeks later, I was introduced to her at a wedding by common Iranian friends, at which she turned beet red and disappeared for the rest of the night.

People who have tried to hide their ethnicities and reinvent themselves are not as few and far between as you would think. Though there may be a multitude of reasons that would motivate people to take such a step, at the bottom lies the desire to escape an unwanted identity.

It is not surprising that many Iranians have become ethnic impostors in today's world where it is synonymous with being a terrorist, backwards etc. Something as seemingly innocent as your cousin Jamshid introducing himself as Gino to more egregious examples like Sir Alfred, the Iranian man who has been living in Charles de Gaulle airport, or that disturbed Iranian man who tried to pass himself off as Steven Spielberg's nephew Jonathan Taylor Spielberg are all examples of how difficult it has become to be "Iranian" in today's society.

Of course the counter argument could be that there is no such thing as being "Iranian" for the millions of displaced Iranians who have been raised all over the world, sometimes in four or five different Western countries.

Maybe it's confusing, sure. But I truly believe that wherever you have been raised does not matter as much as how you feel, or, stealing a line from Catherine Deneuve in the movie Indochine, what your flavor is. It comes down to whether your flavor is red apples and Baguette bread, root beer and Mac'n'Cheese, or pomegranates and black tea.

You know what? I have lived in London, the French Riviera, Paris, Toronto, New-York, and now L.A. and I have traveled to three times as many places around the globe. But I have never set foot in Iran. Nevertheless, I feel Iranian, in my heart and soul. Pomegranates and black tea, that's me.

So the next time I hear a request by a friend or relative to turn down my Googoosh CD or speak English, German, French or Chinese, anything but my native tongue, I am going to stand firm and say: "Kheyr!" Khassteh shodam.

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