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Our touchstone
Most of us were neither born in Iran, nor have we ever lived there



November 20, 2006

There are innumerable English proverbs, adages and idiomatic expressions which revolve around the concept of home. A few of these include: "a man's home is his castle", "charity begins at home", "men make houses-women make homes", "there is no place like home", "the chickens have come home to roost", and "till the cows come home."  

Perhaps, the proverb that best applies for many of the Iranian-Americans who left Iran prior to the revolution is "home is where the heart is." For those of us who are the second-generation children and third-generation grandchildren of those early immigrant/refugees to North America, Europe and other parts of the world this proverb simply doesn't apply.  

Most of us were neither born in Iran, nor have we ever lived there. We have listened over the years to our parents and other elders wax emotionally and sentimentally about someday returning home and taking us with them. The problem for us, the born-abroad-generation, is that the "home" that they so vividly remember is not our home and never has been; it is theirs. While their hearts are still in Iran , our hearts are still waiting for the chance to go. 

Realizing that we may spend our entire lives outside of Iran , the adage which best applies to many of us is "you can never go back home." This is especially true when that "home" has never really been your home.  While I am as proud of my Iranian ancestry as any other young person, I have slowly come to realize that the home which dwells in my mother's heart and memories as brightly today as it did thirty years ago when she still lived there with her family does not dwell in mine. 

My maman's experiences of growing up happily in Braim, Abadan live in her heart and head, but they do not live in mine. When she speaks about Roya Girls High School where she studied as a young girl, the Golestan and Naft Clubs where her family use to socialize with their friends, the Braim swimming pool where she spent many pleasant, sultry summer afternoons, the little store where she would buy candy and ice cream with her brother near their home, or the many other places and people whom she can still see in her mind's eye as if it were only yesterday, her heart is filled both with immense joy for the wonderful childhood she had there and profound sorrow that her people have suffered so much these past twenty-seven years. I wish I could say that her memories of life in Iran move my heart the way they do hers, but that would be a lie. 

When those in the generation who left Iran as adolescents or adults say that they are Iranian, they are not merely stating a fact of their nationality they are referring to something much deeper than that. They are speaking of all the experiences, emotions and little intangibles in one's life that form one's concept of self and one's personal identity. Every sight, smell, feeling, and memory they've ever experienced went into forming their sense of being Iranians. Those of us who were born and raised outside of Iran have lived experiences that are vastly different from those of our parent's. We are Iranians simply by the fact that we are our parent's children and not because we have lived any of the experiences that our parents or relatives in Iran have lived. 

Certainly, we look like other Iranians. Many among us speak Farsi, but then again, many of us don't. We celebrate Norooz and other special days like Shab-e Yalda, just like any other Iranian. We have grown up loving fesenjoon, ghorma sabzi, lubia polo and all the other wonderful dishes that our mothers (or fathers) have cooked for us. Persian music fills our homes, cars and heads with the magic of its melodic rhythms and few among us have not had our parents try to instill in us an appreciation for the gentle beauty of Persian poetry. All these things are part of our lives, but unlike our parents they are not "all" of our lives. While our parents, in most cases, have gone to great lengths to firmly instill in us a profound sense of pride in our heritage, we are not and can never be carbon copies of them.

Although my mother may never live in Iran again, I know it will remain her "home" forever, for that is where her heart is. My heart, however, is not in my ancestral home, but in my real home. Iran was my mother's real home, but it was never mine. While I look forward to my family's yearly visits to Iran , that is all they are to me, visits. For my maman, however, these journeys represent much more; for her they are and always will be "going home."   Each time, when it is time for us to leave Iran, she is always filled with profound sadness for she is once again leaving the dearest place on earth to her heart.

I, however, have never once thought of our many departures from Iran as leaving home. For me, our departures have always been "going home." While I love visiting our relatives there, I also eagerly anticipate getting back to my friends my life and my routine. I'm probably not the only young person who feels this way though, especially when one considers that there are hundreds of thousands of us who've never lived in Iran. When you add to our number the hundreds of thousands of Canadian-Iranians, Australian-Iranians, British-Iranians, French-Iranians, German-Iranians and Iranians living around the globe who've never lived in Iran , the number must surely rise to well over a million, perhaps even more. 

Intellectually, our elders in the Iranian expatriate community know that everything I've said about our generation being unable to feel the way they do about Iran is true, but emotionally they can't help but feel that we've let them down somehow. How can we feel as they feel, though? Circumstances have deprived us of the opportunity walk in their shoes and experience for ourselves what they have experienced. It is a hard fact for many of them to swallow that we are not Iranians in the same sense they are. 

While those of us abroad with Iranian fathers may possess Iranian passports, all of us born outside Iran are hyphenated-Iranians and we always will be. The experiences we've lived in multicultural environments around the world have shaped our identities just as much as our parents and ancestry have. We are a different kind of Iranian from our parents' generation who grew up in Iran and our relatives still living there, but we are no less Iranian than any of them. Our claim to our ancestral birthright is as strong, just and legitimate as anyone else's. 

None of us in the second and third generations choose to be severed from our homeland, but severed we were. Political circumstances, social upheaval and economic realities forced our parents to make the difficult decision, long ago, to make new lives as foreigners in countries with unfamiliar cultures far from the home they loved dearly. Few of us have ever questioned the decision our families made. We took for granted the wisdom of their decision and we accepted the adversity our Iranian heritage sometimes brought us in our new countries. Not only did we have to balance the demands of our mothers and fathers to be traditional within the home against the demands of the cultures in which we lived to assimilate, we did it with grace and distinction. This is evident by the huge numbers of our young men and women who have excelled academically in every country our parents raised us in and which we now call home. 

Many of us are more comfortable in the language of the countries where we were born and raised than the language spoken by our parents. While many of us can fluently read, write and speak Persian, there are just as many among us who can't speak at all because their parents, for whatever reason, chose not to teach them.  Some among us can speak Persian, but are criticized at every turn by elders if their command of Persian grammar, diction, vocabulary and pronunciation is anything less than perfect. If we occasionally lace our Farsi with English, or the language of the country we call home, the older generation looks down on us for mixing the languages or they accuse of showing off. Rarely, do they consider the possibility that we mix the languages because we don't know a suitable equivalent word in Farsi to use in a given situation, or that our command of Persian isn't as strong as theirs.   

While their criticisms are often unhelpful, hurtful and discouraging to us, we have an obligation to future generations to do our very best to hold on to our language, no matter what. Only our knowledge of the Persian and our ability to use it in everyday situations will keep us rooted in the culture of our ancestors, so that we can pass it on to our children and grandchildren. The fourth, fifth and sixth generations of expat-Iranians must be taught how to speak, read and write our beautiful language if our community-in-exile is to survive to the end of the 21st century as a distinct ethnic community abroad. Just as our forefathers gave Persian to their children, so too is it is our responsibility to pass it on to our posterity.  

We must teach our children Persian while they are very young, so as to make it as natural and easy for them to master it. Once they are old enough to understand, we must make it clear to them that Persian as a language, an ethnicity and a personal identity are inseparable. If we are successful in making them understand who they are and the noble people from whom they've come, they will appreciate the importance of passing our language and customs on to their children. As long they and those that follow them can speak Persian,  Iran will always be their heart's homeland no matter how many generations of us are forced to live in this damned Diaspora.  More importantly than that, however, is as long as our descendants hold fast to our language, they will always be regarded by those inside Iran as countrymen no matter how many generations have passed.

If the sad day ever comes that our descendants lose their linguistic tie to Iran, they will, for all intents and purposes, cease to Iranians. They will then simply be just flag-waving, red, white & blue, Americans, or maple-leaf-loving Canadians who have been swallowed up by and assimilated into the wider North American culture. This doesn't  have to happen though. Our distant descendants future begins with us today. As long as we accept the responsibility to teach our language and culture to our children, we can from today take the first steps toward insuring that those who carry our names, long after we are dead and buried, are just as Iranian as our parents were when they left Iran. 

In our community, there are many in the second and third generations who can't speak Persian, or if they can speak, they can't read or write. This must change! Whatever the reason your parents had for not teaching you when we were young don't matter now. It is water under the bridge. If you are a young Iranian who finds himself culturally and linguistically handicapped through no fault of your own, find a class and begin learning. It is never too late to recover your birthright, but it does take action on your part. If you fail to act, you must accept that you will be condemning your future children to a life in which they may be treated as outsiders by the expat-Iranian community. If that's okay with you, then do as you wish. If that's not okay to you, then find a class and start learning... now!

I have grown up in a bi-cultural family; my maman is Iranian while my baba is American. I have an older sister whom I love dearly. The age difference between us is pretty big.  When she was a little girl our mother didn't speak Farsi to her. By the time I came along, my mother understood the mistake she had made in not teaching my sister Farsi from the start. She tried to start teaching her, but my sister wasn't interested in learning.  My mother probably spoke her first words of Farsi to me before the two of us left the hospital delivery room after my birth. Until I was five years old and began school, my dad and sister spoke English to me and my mother spoke Farsi to me at home. By the time I left for kindergarten, I didn‚t have a first and second language; I had two first languages.  

Although she's never said as much, I'm sure my sister, having been deprived of the chance to learn Farsi in those first very important five years of her life, resented it when my mother spoke to me as a baby in Farsi. Over the years, my maman kept trying to get her to learn it, but she was always too busy with high school life, her studies and just becoming a young adult. My mother felt terrible for a very long time.  

Over the years our maman never gave up hope that my sister would someday want to begin learning. It was shortly after my sister left for GWU five years ago that something changed in her. Maybe she met other Iranian students there or perhaps being in Washington, she had more chances to become aware of Persian culture and art, but she suddenly she wanted to learn how to speak Persian. Our mother patiently worked with her for hundreds and hundreds of hours and my sister attended many excellent courses. I pitched in to help her to learn when I could, but she is the one that did all the work and the one who deserves all the credit.

The result is that she's now reached a level where she can easily understand TV and radio programs and she can comfortably converse in most social situations. Perhaps, she will never be as comfortable in Farsi as she is in English, but so what. She made a decision to take back what was rightfully hers and she did it. Sure, she and others like her who learn Farsi as young adults will always have some fluency problems and they will speak with an accent, but at the end of the day, who cares? The more they use their Farsi, the easier it will get for them to get better and better until whatever fluency or accent problems they have simply disappear.

I am so proud of my sister because she came to understand the importance of keeping our language alive, not only for herself, but for her future children who most probably be born outside Iran . My sister came to understand that she could never teach her children to appreciate what it means to be an Iranian, until she herself developed her own appreciation of it. Fundamental in her journey of discovery was her realization that one's identity of self cannot be rooted in a language that one cannot speak or in a culture one has no knowledge of. 

My sister wasn't the only one in our extended family not to learn Farsi at home though. Last July, my maman, sister and I went on our summer holiday to Iran. While there we attended a family gathering where my sister and I met our mother's cousin from Germany , Sholeh, and her three children. Sholeh has been married for many years to a German fellow and their children only speak German. 

While we all tried our best to make her children feel welcome, no one in the family was able to communicate with them unless Sholeh translated for us. Everyone tried to convince her that it was never too late for her children to start learning Farsi as my sister had done, but she seemed to think that they just wouldn't need it in their life in Germany . Her reasoning was that since Iran didn't recognize them as Iranian citizens that there wasn't much use for them to spend a lot of time, effort and energy learning how so speak Persian. Am I wrong in thinking that she is depriving them of something that she has no right to keep from them? She may be their mother and my mother's cousin, but in my opinion, she shouldn't strip them of their ancestral language. Their right to know Persian, in my opinion, greatly outweighs her right as a mother to decide that they don't need it.

While at the same gathering where I met Sholeh and her children, I had an interesting conversation with my uncle about the generation of Iranians who've never lived in Iran . He said that although we look like them and many of us have the ability to converse fluently in Persian, we still stick out like sore thumbs. He said that Iranians in Iran can discern instantly if a person has been raised outside of the country. I asked him how they could know this if a person's spoke fluently and without an accent. He said that it is not what we say that gives us away, but how we say it.

He said that we speak with and informality and directness that is very alien in Iranian society.  He then said that most Iranians understand that this informality and directness of speech isn't something we've been taught by our parents, but that it comes as a consequence of living abroad and of thinking in a different manner from how our peers inside of Iran think. He said that these differences aren't surprising since western culture has influenced us as much or more as our heritage has. I asked him if most people considered our differences to be weaknesses. He said, "No, not as long as those of you abroad always remember who your real people are and where your real home is." 

As long as we continually strive to perfect, preserve and pass on our language ability to our children, so they can pass it on to their children, we will never have to worry that the day will ever come when our descendants stop calling themselves, Iranians. We, in the second and third generations of the Diaspora are already different in some respects from people our age who grew up in Iran. This can't be helped. Our personal identities have been shaped as much by the social environments our adopted countries as much as our traditional heritage.  Maybe being a little different from our peers inside Iran isn't all bad. The danger in us being different, however, lies in risk that we allow ourselves become too different. If that happens, future Iranians, yet to be born into the Diaspora, will be completely assimilated into the wider culture. If that day comes, it will be because our failings now. If we lose contact with the touchstone that defines us as a people and connects us to our homeland, the Persian language, it will be our posterity that will have to pay. Comment

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To: Lance Raheem

Lance Raheem



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