September 28, 2004
I knew that we were Iranian, and I knew that it was as good
as being anything else, American or Guatemalan or Vietnamese
or anything else that my friends were,
but a boy who leaves his country at age two wants to know the world that is right
in front of him. I didn't want to miss anything, so I had to learn what everything
was. The language was English. We spoke Farsi at home, but even at home, the
world was happening in English. A tree in our yard was a tree, and a dog barking
next door was a dog. They were all connected somehow to the people who spoke
the language. I wanted to be part of that too.
We could look at things and know them by their Farsi name,
and that made for a beautiful world. I loved the sound of it
in our house. It didn't matter that it was the only house on
our block where it was being spoken. It still explained everything
that needed explaining. But there was a language happening inside
me too. It came from the idea that I had something to say about
everything happening around me. I had to use the language of
the people around me, because that was whom I was trying to tell.
Things began to take on the quality of the language they seemed
to come in. A mother and father were two things that were still
in Farsi, along with everything
that came through them, and they still rang out like a bell as when my mother
would call out to the street for me to come inside, but the street itself
was taking on the quality of the language spoken there, as was
everything in it.
I didn't know it at the time, but I was making a decision: to live in that
language. I didn't know it because to a kid the decision was an obvious one.
I knew that there were streets that were just as alive that were living in
Farsi. I could hear it when my parents talked. But they were too far away
to get inside me.
I only saw those streets on television when there was some
kind of problem, when we would be chanting angrily and burning
American flags. I already knew about that stuff. I knew that
we were mad at America and I knew we had some reasons to be.
My interest in watching it was in hearing even just a single
word in Farsi. And the world would go back to English soon enough,
but for a moment, I'd be thinking: I knew it. I knew there was
more to us than just us.
When I was ten years old, we went to Iran for the first time
since I was old enough to understand what was going on. I had
not guessed that it would be as wonderful as it turned out to
be. It was wonderful to see everybody, and it was wonderful to
see all the things that I hadn't known were Iranian. I remember
looking at a tree and thinking, this tree is Iranian. It had
something that went with what was inside us. I felt it in the
way it carried its Farsi name with it, derakht. I could think
of it as a tree, but I would somehow be being truer to it to
think of it as a derakht. I would be being truer to it and to
everything around me. I would be being truer the way a poet tried
to be true.
All this time, a tree had been an American thing to me, whether
it had been something that a boy climbed or hung from or hid
behind. And seeing the tree, I felt like I finally understood
what my parents had been talking about. I had always known what
they had been talking about, but now I understood that they had
been talking about whatever they had been talking about in the
language of a place that had this tree. It all made sense.
The thing that really did it though was that I felt like I
finally understood what I had been talking about. I had been
talking about this tree all this time that I had been talking
at home. I had been talking about trees and the sun there and
the people. I had been talking in the voice of our house, but
also in the voice of the street. It just happened to be a faraway
street. But it had gotten inside me more than I knew.
There had been an Iran that had been to my mother and father
what America was to me: a place where they woke up in the morning
and dreamed. It was a place where they had a mother and father,
where they looked at what was around them and wondered what it
was to be alive. It was a place where they felt the things in
their first ten years of life that I had felt in mine. That was
the Iran that they were telling me about when they spoke to me
in Farsi. It was a country on the map, but it was also a place
where anything was possible because I knew its language, and
there was nothing that language couldn't reach.
I would never know it was well as I knew English. That was
okay, because we lived in America, and I had the reading and
writing that I wanted to do in the language of where I was. I
was beginning to see that there was a lot that a poet could do.
I wanted to hurry up and get to that, and the fastest way
was through the language that I lived in each day. It was not
out of any disrespect for Farsi. I still loved it, and I learned
that sometimes it didn't take a whole country for your heart
to move in the language of its people. It was easiest when you
were in the country, but sometimes all it took was one family,
and even sometimes just one person. It would always be there,
because I didn't have a mother and father without it.
I set out to become a poet in English. I could include Iran
and Iranians in it, but the language happened to be English.
The funny thing about it was that I set out to write in a way
that was sincere, and along the way, I saw how much sincerity
was in Farsi for me. I was still a kid in it, because I couldn't
speak it much better than a kid, and part of how I was trying
to write in English was with the straightforwardness of a kid.
I liked who I was in Farsi, because I didn't know it well enough
to be sarcastic in it, to the point that it almost seemed like
the language didn't lend itself well to sarcasm. It lent itself
well to poetry itself, because I heard a love in it, even when
the conversation had a disagreement. I would hear that love in
English later, but I heard it in Farsi first.
Everything I've written has had Farsi in it, even though the
language has been English. It has been in me, and it has come
out in ways that I may not know myself. It's not the kind of
thing that I could put aside even if I wanted to. Once you know
that a tree is not just a tree, when you know with all your
heart that it is something else somewhere else, and it fits into
the rhythm of people's lives with a language and melody that
is different, then you know that there are limits to where you
are, but that they can be exceeded as well, by saying, okay,
let me do my best wherever that happens to be.
goodbye to spam!