An American and an Iranian
He remembered the day he had officially become American, standing in a government building with his family among a crowd
May 25, 2006
An American: "You could do worse," a memory of the Brooklyn Dodgers, even though he was born in 1972, in his heart - New York, Chicago, Van Horn, Texas, walking down the street not far from Ben Franklin walking down the street, 1932 (no particular reason, other than: a Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt, 'Hey, mac', stick-to-itiveness), the blue sky of San Francisco and the American songs that came into him as a result, train tracks that are poetic and also a sad thought of buffalo and Indians, pie (apple or not), "Well, I suppose that's the way it goes, there's no getting around it, it's just one of those things," Spoon River Anthology, heads or tails, restaurants that serve a cup of coffee before anything has even happened yet, a smile and a wave and a handshake, a feeling that he could walk into any drinking establishment in America and sit down and ask for a beer and sit there and drink it, no matter what was happening outside the place and no matter what was happening inside the place, and the truth is he probably couldn't, but still: a feeling that he could that is an American feeling.
An Iranian: Something in the language that goes far back, a love of nature that's not even a love, it's more like breathing, "Children" as the way men refer to each other, parsley, a man kisses a man on the cheek, a pause in the conversation contains sorrow, but since it is shared it is practically love, pants on a hot day and not shorts, Persepolis, a political thought is always close at hand - it doesn't need to be spoken, everybody already know it's there, everyone rises when someone comes into the room and he tells them to stay seated and he would have done the same himself, prison and how it's not a faraway thing, tea is the thing running through the course of a day, the deep fire of revolution after revolution, a knowledge that he could be walking down any street in the world and happen to meet a countryman and if they were approaching a door, he would say, "After you," and so would the countryman and they would pause there in front of the door longer than anyone on the street might expect.
America is the man he wanted to be when he read books - able to joke with an American woman, to dream in an American twilight, to look around at the people of America and tell them something that showed that he knew how hard they were trying, that he was paying attention to it. He was paying attention to even the parts of America that were nowhere to be found at home. At home there was no mention of World War II and the names of places where American soldiers had fought. But those names were among the things in the air when he stepped outside, and in order to know the people, he had to know them, not just as names, but as stories. He had to know them as the stories that helped Americans remember who they were, told in an American voice.
Iran is the man he wanted to be when he listened to his father talk with his friends - able to make even sarcasm sound sincere, to talk of pain as though it were nothing more than pain and even to laugh about it sometimes, to value one another's presence in a room as the beginning of a new and good country. Being around one another was enough because of what everybody came into the room with. They came in with their hearts and with the understanding that that room was as good a place as any for letting their hearts out, which might mean pontificating or poem-reciting, and would almost certainly mean singing before the end of the night.
The America and the Iran inside him were good friends. They didn't know each other personally, but they were good friends the way that two men who understood their own desperation towards life didn't have to know each other to be good friends. They were two old men sitting on a park bench and they were two babies playing on the grass. They didn't know anything past today and they knew everything going back in time. What they shared was things and not the names of them.
They were friends in ways they didn't know themselves, because names were something that people could get stuck on. But there were times when he felt the wonderfulness of his presence in the world, and everybody's, and he felt inside him one-hundred percent of both, America and Iran. They didn't crowd each other out when that happened; they just made more room for each other, like gentlemen.
They weren't two men who could fight anyway, even if they wanted to. They were the kind of men who knew what they were really fighting if they fought. It was themselves, and all the pain and sorrow that a man accumulates by living. It was the kind of thing that even if they forgot, they would remember again when they looked in each other's eyes.
All this was true even though when he did listen to his father talk with his friends, and they spoke of prisons and revolutions, the talk always came back to America. They weren't talking about the America of the Brooklyn Dodgers either. They made it a point not to. They didn't even know who the hell the Brooklyn Dodgers were, and they still made it a point not to. And when he was a boy, he would go to school with that talk inside him, and the American kids would ask him: What about this stuff with the Americans over there? What about this stuff with holding them hostage like that?
All right, he would think, you want stories? You want stories of men looking their executioners in the eye? You want to hear about them smiling at their torturers? You want to hear about what the hell a dictatorship is, and why the hell America is helping out the guy who ran it, after all this time that the people in Iran have been trying to get rid of him, and how now they were saying, give him back to us to face his punishment, and you can have your people back? But when it came out, it came out like a real story, and he knew that a story wasn't told well if it was told with the teller angry at anyone, least of all the listener, so he told them the only other way there was to tell them: with a belief that they would understand. And they did. They would nod and say "Okay" and he would feel glad to be the one telling Americans. He didn't have anything against Americans when he was doing that, and that was the beginning of becoming one. It wasn't a question of the food they ate or the clothes they wore, it was a question of two boys liking life over death in a school library in America, and running outside to recess a little more excitedly because of that.
He remembered the day he had officially become American, standing in a government building with his family among a crowd, exchanging one piece of paper for another. The piece of paper had meant nothing to him, but coming back outside to their gray city in the late afternoon as the people were going home had meant everything, for no other reason than that he had never before seen that moment of America.
And afterwards, he had thought of his mother, crying in a room full of everybody celebrating. She had known that it was just a piece of paper too, but she had cried because that feeling of coming outside to the city had been Iran for her, that feeling that had included her mother and father and sisters and brothers, coming outside in the morning and the evening, and he had felt good to see her tears because they were the closest he had come to Iran in a long time.
As a a boy, it was often death that did that. He would be going along with American thoughts of an American girl in his class, and then all of a sudden, a death would bring Iran to their house in a way that was darker and older but also more poetic than anything he felt ready for. Oh boy, he would think, I don't know if I have enough for this. I don't know if I've been preparing for this here in America.
It could be a death in America or in Iran. It could be pictures in the Iranian newspapers of the war dead. Their house would only change a little with those. He would look at those pictures and he would wish he knew Farsi better because he wanted to tell those boys how he felt when he saw their pictures in a way that they would understand. But if he paid attention to the feeling, he would see how their lives had been happening in Farsi here in America. It didn't matter what their town was called or what street they lived on, their lives were happening in English too, it was just that at a time like that, he would look up from the newspaper and see the world that those boys were leaving. He didn't have to be a poet in Farsi for that.
But poetry helped, the American poetry that he was learning more of each day, from books and from everywhere else. That poetry was important because walking down the street to get a cup of coffee was important. A young man didn't have to want to be American, he just had to walk out of his apartment and down the stairs and out to the street until the street and the stairs and the room had gotten inside him. America would get inside him along the way. He didn't have to greet the building manager in a particularly American way. He just had to be glad to see him, enough that he would think about him a little out in the street, in the context of his effort to make something out of a day and in the context of everybody's effort to make something out of a day, and then the words would come.
The words were what started the story, and he wanted to know them because he wanted to tell Americans how he felt when he saw them in a way that they would understand. With Americans, it wasn't language that got in the way, but how he looked, so he had to make sure that his words sang with the rhythm of America. He wanted Americans to sing around him, even if that meant that one of the things he would hear in the singing was the same voice that would have excluded him from the song, and might still. I'll wait till I hear it for sure, he would think. I know it can seem like that voice is everywhere sometimes, but I'll wait until I hear it for sure, and then when I do, I'll try to remember that they may not have heard any other songs, they may not know that they're singing in Iran right now. There's nothing to do but to show 'em.
America and Iran could do whatever they wanted as places outside of him. They couldn't touch the America and Iran inside. They couldn't touch the way he felt to see the light at the end of a day and how he could be talking with Americans or Iranians and he would feel like he was doing what that light wanted him to do either way. It was always ready to adjust accordingly, carrying in it the memory of a different past. That's a heart, he would think. That's a heart doing it's job. It's a little thing taking place in a little room, but that's true for anybody doing their job. The good thing is that it can do its job anywhere. It's a good feeling knowing that his heart can do its job in two different places like that. They could try to make it so that his heart couldn't do both, but what they didn't know was that when it came right down to it, it was a concurrent affair, that he was Iranian at his most American and American at his most Iranian. And he had learned it from poetry, the way the poetry of one suddenly opened up the poetry of the other. It didn't have to be the poetry of written poems, but the poetry of the people living, even when included in that living was a lostness that could think that the whole problem lay with the people over there. They could think that as much as they wanted, they could think they weren't doing anything to their own sunny days when they diminished the sunny days of the other, but the proof of it was inside him on sunny days and cloudy days, because when he could get the American and the Iranian straight inside him, he wouldn't be asking for much more from the world, whichever kind of day it was.