The American Reality

Why not stay in Iran and fight for liberty in my own land?


The American Reality
by Ari Siletz

None of the characters in the film The Visitor have the dignity of citizen power. Certainly not the young Syrian musician being deported by the US immigration authorities, not his Senegalese wife, not his Palestinian mother, and surprisingly not the affluent American citizen who tries to help them. The visitor’s poetic and personal cinematic texture, often used in gently thoughtful films about mid-life crisis, conveys a strongly bitter public message to all Americans: politically we are now as powerless as non-citizens.

Walter Vale (played by Richard Jenkins) is a widowed middle-aged man bored with his job as a Connecticut college professor. During a visit to an apartment he owns in New York he discovers that a Syrian djembe drummer and his wife are squatting on the property. The couple had been conned into paying rent to a swindler pretending to be the apartment owner. Walter evicts them gently and politely, but later realizing they have nowhere else to go he allows them to stay until they find a place. It turns out that the couple has a much bigger eviction problem. They are in the country illegally and face deportation if discovered.

Soon a friendship grows as Tarek begins to teach Walter how to play the djembe. On their way back from a jam session, loaded with drumming equipment, Tarek innocently jumps a subway turnstile even though he had a paid ticket. While Tarek is being arrested, nothing Walter says can dissuade the police from going through with the arrest. The paid ticket and Walter’s testimony mean nothing to the to uniformed human machines of the police state. They books Tarek while sternly warning Walter to stay out of it.

To prevent Tarek’s deportation, Walter hires him an immigration lawyer who says he will do his utmost to make sure Tarek gets an appeal. It turns out that the law is just as powerless as the individual citizen in persuading authority. Walter’s money is no good to him, even when he uses it to purchase Tarek the protection of the law.

In one scene towards the end of the movie we watch a frustrated Walter yelling at a uniformed man behind a thick glass window. Why did you deport Tarek without due process, without waiting for his legal appeal, without even notifying his lawyer? The uniformed man simply threatens Walter with arrest, cautioning him to step away from the window.

On one level The Visitor addresses the anti-immigration sentiment in the US, but at a deeper level it speaks to the American sense of powerlessness as we watch our country drift towards a fascist state. In such a state, political decision power is not shared though wealth and comfort may exist for some-even many--citizens.

The Visitor was released in 2008. I was reminded of it after President Obama announced that photographic proof of Osama Bin Laden’s body would not be released to the public. A small circle of insiders who supposedly know what is best for the country made the decision. This elite circle tells us that lives may be lost to terrorism if the photos are made public. As though fewer lives are lost to terrorism when only the elite have access to information and make the decisions.

On a yet deeper level, The Visitor made me wonder if immigrating to the US is worth it anymore. Sure, the shopping is better, but the idea of freedom and the dignity of democratic citizenship are fading more and more into an illusion. And if I have to struggle against the tide of fascism, why not stay in Iran and fight for liberty in my own land of birth?


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Some responses

by Ari Siletz on

Arezu: I'm sure your thoughts have run into the paradoxical issue of whether or not diaspora Iranians are helping or hurting the IRI opposition when we rescue its members from danger by finding them assylum out of the country. On an individual level of course it saves lives, on the strategic level it removes leaders and organizers from the field. One way to resolve the moral conflict is to start a reverse immigration process. If it catches on, Kahrizak prison may have to build its own international airport.  Also, I agree Libya holds big lessons for Iranians regarding what not to do.

Bavafa: True, many came to the US for "comfort" opportunities. The mindset could shift somewhat as the drama of the Iran conflict intensifies and the average diaspora Iranian gets more emotionally involved. Good works of literature, films and TV may help. In fact, IC helps. However, you may agree that the biggest help towards political awareness will come from our getting involved in the politics of our host countries. That way we also have something of value to offer when and if we go back to join the fight.

Roozbeh, vildemose: This 2006 article comments on one of the reasons why 9-11 wasn't as disastrous for Muslim-Americans as it could have been. Controversially, it has to do with how Hollywood has raised Holocaust awareness in the American public. 

Comments: One happy continuation of the plot in the viewers mind was for Walter to leave the US and marry the Palestinian woman. Did you notice that they didn't even bring up the idea of a Green Card marriage--even though the marriage would have been for love?

Anahid: Walter definitely found a reason to come alive again in his intercultural experience. It's just what he needed. So the movie can also be taken as the story of a positive and successful transformation of a soul. Regarding fascism, the airport luggage business is the tip of the iceberg. If you have AT&T service, your phone and internet communications are being recorded at a facility on 611 Folsom st. in San Francisco. A lawsuit was filed in 2008, and I don't know where it's at now. Techincally you can now be searched or possibly arrested with no warrant under NSA rules...Of course this surveillance of the US population is not supposed to be abused for domestic political purposes , but check out this article to find out that once the fascism genie is out of the bottle...




Anahid Hojjati

Thanks Ari for writing about this great movie

by Anahid Hojjati on

As far as movie "visitor", I watched it couple years ago and enjoyed it. I did not find it completely depressing since the part about worsening conditions for those from middle east and Islamic countries was not news to me.

  I believe message of the movie is also about the effect of friendship on American guy. In the beginning, he is shown as depressed but later he connects to his foreign new friends and becomes transformed and engaged in life. That was the message that I mostly got from this movie, how people become transformed by the connections they establish with others. Obviously, huge part of movie deals with security aspect and freedom, etc. but for me the transformation part was more significant .

Thanks Ari for writing about one of my most favorite movies.


I watched the movie years

by comments on

I watched the movie years ago, and I recommend.  I didn't find it depressing.  I found the movie motivational.


 actually think that if

by vildemose on

 actually think that if 9/11 had happened elswhere in the west, say in England (where I studied before moving to US), the reaction would have been very much more severe and long lasting

That is so true. I think all muslims would be in a concentraion camp if this had happened in France or GB.


I saw this film on board a plane back to US...

by Roozbeh_Gilani on

A few years back. I found it very very depressing. It clearly portrayed the extreme aspects of the immediate post 9/11 american  attitude towards muslim immigrants in US.

I actually think that if 9/11 had happened elswhere in the west, say in England (where I studied before moving to US), the reaction would have been very much more severe and long lasting

In US, things have improved a great deal since, as a testement to the strength of the domcratic and multi cultural system in the United States. 

"Personal business must yield to collective interest."


I watched this movie some months ago and enjoyed it

by Bavafa on

But as to Ari's valid question about the "struggle against the tide of fascism" and the idea of staying in Iran "and fight for liberty in my own land of birth"

I would suspect that most of those who have immigrated to the West, the USA specially, have done so primarily for reasons other then a true sense of freedom for all and a strive for human rights and dignity. A good evidence of this, perhaps can be seen in lack of true interest and an honest effort in working together to bring such freedom to Iran or improving human rights and dignity to Iranians inside Iran. A good sample of such infighting can be found on IC or at larger sense, among the so called Iranian leaders and intellectuals outside of Iran.

It seems vast majority of us are busy with the economic opportunities that has been afforded to us here, some even be taking advantage of such opportunities while keeping a door open to the system in Iran, possibly taking advantage of double dipping opportunities.

So, I do believe majority of those who really believe in a fight against fascism, have remained behind and tried to fix "it" at home but may have already paid the ultimate price for their idealism and true sense of belief and integrity they have had.


Anahid Hojjati

There is no comparison between Iran under IRI and present USA

by Anahid Hojjati on

My guess is that Ari has never lived in Iran after 1981. I can tell Ari from my personal experience that you can not compare Iran with USA. Yes, it is true that after 2001, there have been limits on freedom in USA and there have always been some. However, I left Iran in 1983 and conditions were horrible. Now in some areas, conditions are better, women can pull their roosari to the back of their head, they can walk hand in hand with their boyfriend but still people are being raped just because they participated in demonstrations. 

Just because in US, they may randomly search my luggage when I travel does not mean I would want to live in Iran where people have to burn books every time political pressure becomes more.  

Arezu Samani

Wonderful review and thanks for Ari's Truthful Question!

by Arezu Samani on

As a dual citizen of Iran and USA, I was touched by Ari's meaningful question about Iranians who might decide to live in Iran to fight for liberty. Iran is in deep need of progressive social and economic change, and I agree that at times I too wonder if I should live part-time in Iran where I could perhaps have some impact.  I think no matter where we live, we must become active to oppose the corporate elite - both here and in Iran - but realize that NO SUPPORT should be given to the USA in its schemes for "regime change".  Iranians and Iranians alone, must make that change.  Look at what's happened in Libya, where some foolish reformers called on the US and NATO to bomb their country.  Now how many more have died and the country is in ruins! Do we want that for our beautiful and free Iran?

Ari Siletz

Big mystery to me too!

by Ari Siletz on

Ali A Parsa

"It is a mystery why those of us who have chosen America as a refuge for
free speech and civil liberties do not take interest to safeguard those


Occasionally I wonder if some of us came to the US for other reasons.

Azadeh Azad's comment in this blog has an insightful bite that may apply equally well to some US immigrants--though her comment addresses a different context, it applies in the abstract.

"Ignorant of the long and arduous struggles by
the Western feminists, these spoiled women imagine that their
present rights and freedoms have been offered to them by their
"sugar-daddy" as a birthday present :-) "


Ali A Parsa

Thanks Ari for the logical and timely article

by Ali A Parsa on

It is a mystery why those of us who have chosen America as a refuge for free speech and civil liberties do not take interest to safeguard those values. It is past the time to think of "The squeaking wheel gets the grease." It is the application of common sense that is getting to be less common. For more on the urgency of such issues please google Global, Common Dreams, etc.