Photo by J. Javid
Mixing memory and desire
Iranians in the United States
May 13, 1998
Laleh Khalili, a graduate student at Columbia University in New York, prepared the following research paper for a class (Diaspora and Transnationalism). Her paper was partly based on a survey sent to members of The Iranian Times in early April 1998.
She cut her hair and joined a writing class. But odder still to him, she never wrote to relatives. She bought foreign plants and rooted vines on every windowsill, used Latin names for flowers, wore slacks not saris, and turned on a Joplin rag or Sousa drill, and frequently the vacuum, sucking footsteps out (as if for one moment the children would disappear) ( and him: he craved baingan fried and kofta curry. He didn't count her sloppy joes as food, the canned sauce and bread from plastic wrap( or frozen subzi boiled until the taste returned to the nothing smell of steam. -- Reetika Vazirani
The trauma of Iran's 1979 Revolution and the subsequent period of terror and economic deterioration, not to mention the long and bloody war with Iraq, resulted in the widespread dispersion of Iranians outside the borders of Iran. While census statistics place the number of Iranians in the United States at slightly more than 200,000, others estimate their number as being between one and two million.
Anecdotal evidence about the absence of a real community among Iranians, about wide and deep chasms between various political (and social) groupings, and about massive distrust between Iranians abroad abound. Whether these anecdotes have been self-fulfilling or evidence of true divisions among Iranians, they indicate a highly fragmented presence in the United States.
Times are changing, however, as the 20-year old political grudges between Iran and the United States are fading away, and new political realities are emerging. New generations of Iranians and Iranian-Americans are born in the United States who have no memory of the revolution and whose reaction to Iran is more inherited than visceral. As Iranians settle into their new lives in the US, the idea of permanent "return" becomes more and more remote, while short visits gain in prominence. Additionally, the new "ethnic-chic" trends in the U.S. welcome and encourage an examination and return to one's "roots."
As times change, and as Iranians find their social niche in the US, they turn back towards Iran, not so much as a possible destination, but as a point of origin, a source of identity and memory, and as their homeland (the word alone implies physical distance between one and the geographic entity one chooses to call a homeland. As the number of Iranians (or Iranian-Americans) who have wrestled with the duality of passports, languages, identities, and nightly dreams grows, so do questions about their memories of their homeland and their desire to demarcate their share of space in their hostland.
Here, I intend to give voice to this internal discourse about how the Iranians in the United States relate to Iran, what dimensions their memories take, their response to nostalgia, and their physical relationship with Iran. I want to know how the Iranian in the United States has coped with questions of identity and assimilation, how the United States has received him or her, and to what extent the dream of returning to Iran insinuates itself in the lives of Iranians in the United States. Finally, I want to discuss whether there is a cohesive community of Iranians in the US, how the Iranians themselves perceive and respond to this community, and whether this community can be defined as diasporic.
Ideally, to answer these questions scientifically, one would have to perform a comprehensive survey which would not exclude any Iranian on the basis of class, geographical location, gender, age, fluency in English, or method of access. I hope that in the future I can conduct such a research project. For now, this survey about the Iranians in the United States is intended to examine our memories and desires, our notion of community, and whether we are a diaspora.
The survey was never intended to be statistically correct. Its distribution among friends (introducing socioeconomic homogeneity) and through an electronic mailing list violated a few fundamental rules of surveying: A statistically correct survey requires involuntary responses, some knowledge (or accurate estimate( of population size, and random sampling. In this case, the sampling was inevitably skewed towards those who were within a certain age range, of a certain socioeconomic and educational background, and possessing some degree of comfort with technology.
The survey was also not designed to be objective. I did not want to collect facts about the Iranians in diaspora. In fact, I was curious about how the respondents "felt," dreamt, thought, and imagined, rather than about the factual facets of their lives. The manner in which certain questions were answered was as important to me as the content of the responses. I chose mostly open-ended questions which would allow the respondents to write as much or as little as they wanted: after all, if I were to ignore possible inconveniences or shortage of time as a factor, the length of the responses themselves were an indication of the openness of the respondent.
However, I committed certain unintended mistakes in designing the survey. When I was writing the questions, I only thought that younger (and single) respondents would answer; therefore, the wording of some questions reflected this blunder. For example, the questions referring to marriage and children were always in the future tense. I am also ashamed to admit that throughout the survey, I referred to Persian as the mother tongue of Iranians, and I was corrected by a number of respondents who reminded me that only 52 percent of Iranians speak Persian as their primary language, and that Iran actually echoes with the sounds of Turkish, Kurdish, Arabic, Armenian, and other languages and dialects as well.
Of the 157 respondents, 14 chose to respond anonymously; the remainder included their email or postal addresses and some even asked for a copy of the completed work or the data included therein. Somewhat unexpectedly, the majority of the respondents were male (110 out of the 157), and less surprisingly, the population of respondents were highly educated: 48 percent were attending a four-year university or had completed a bachelor degree, 11.5 percent were in graduate school, 18.5 percent had doctorates, and 21 percent had obtained a professional graduate degree .
The occupational statistics also indicated that 45 percent of the respondents were either in engineering, business-related, or high-technology professions. The average age of the respondents was 33, while the majority of the respondents were between 20 and 40 years of age. The average age of departure from Iran was 16, and the average length of stay in the United States was also 16 years, indicating that slowly the number of years spent in the "new country" are exceeding the number of years spent in the homeland.
The statistical data, however incomplete, were only a small part of the survey. Many of the questions required some elaboration on a basic issue or idea. Of all the questions, those which consistently provoked the longest responses were questions about the respondent's image of Iran, about the respondent's identity as an Iranian or Iranian- American and his/her perception of the identity of Iranians in general, and about the relevance or role of the Iranian community in the United States: in short, memory, collective identity, and community.
Memory and The Homeland
Memory, like imagination or dreams, is that intangible substance so profoundly colored by whom and where we have been (which intellectual, temporal or physical space we have occupied) that it emphatically bespeaks of our subjectivity. When a connection to one's point of origin is ruptured, memory fills that absence of origin; eventually we re-narrate our collection of images of another time and space in such a way as to better define our location in it: every image, every object, every person, every place we remember comes to signify something larger than the original. Like memory, dreams also access this store of images which a sound, a sight, a smell can evoke; unlike memory, dreams are not subject to the conscious filtering of stored images which has to do with the rational preservation of one's sanity and happiness.
The language of immigration and specially exile is the language of verdure: the exile is uprooted and dispersed (1). When she decides to find wherefrom she came, she chooses to "delve into her roots.(2)" This language implies an original soil in which the exile had laid down roots. The close association of a person's selfhood with the spatial and temporal point of origin is not quite explained (were we to set aside Freudian "return to the womb" theories). Ultimately, we know the language spoken in our point of origin, we know how to negotiate our daily existence within its confines, and we have internalized its structures of power and intimacy.
Dispersion disorients us; sometimes, we have to acquire an entirely foreign language which contains sounds our voice-boxes and mouths are not trained to utter, whose vocabulary is foreign to us, the rhythm of whose life is much too fast (or much too slow), its rules of engagement and interaction are vastly different from what we know; we may even find ourselves in a disadvantaged socioeconomic position relative to our place in the homeland. The feeling of loss and loneliness resulting from exile, or absence, is contained in the concept of ghorbat which is prevalent in much of classical and modern Persian poetry: the linguistic roots of this Arabic word assimilated into Persian is that of "being a stranger" (in the vein of Camus' l'etranger.)
One condemned to ghorbat not only suffers the physical condition of distance, but an intense intellectual and emotional alienation as well. The loneliness and loss associated with ghorbat permeates our conscious understanding of the world in which we live and memories of the space we have left behind. Memory constructs connections which will allow us to access that lost space with which we were so familiar in such a way as to recover our sense of balance and happiness. By becoming a version of reality we can contrast against the reality of our everyday lives in ghorbat, it permits hope and provides an alternative to our powerlessness.
We idealize our homelands not because our memories are inaccurate or idealized, but because subconsciously we crave the ideal. The families we left behind become the ultimate source of affection, love, and support. The images of our families, the lives we lived there (or we heard about), and the land itself converge. We thus personalize the abstract notion of a homeland in much the same way a citizen personalizes the concept of the nation in times of war, when nationalist and patriotic fever are contagious. We imagine our homeland and our nation into being by imagining our immediate community and extending that imagination to include a larger collective (Anderson).
In describing their image of Iran, many of the Iranians and Iranian-Americans who responded remembered their families, the winding narrow streets, the traffic in Tehran, the soccer games in the streets, the twilight-time during the month of Ramadan, the crisp bills given to the children at Nowrooz, the mopeds zooming about the cities, the bazaars, the turquoise mosque domes, the wide and chic Pahlavi boulevard in Tehran, their grandmothers, cypress trees, the peddlers on the street, and frequently the mountains which sit at the edge of one's field of vision in almost all major Iranian cities. The pleasant images all attest to the idealization of the homeland and internalization of the nationalist mythology.
Many of the respondents emphatically denied ever considering the Islamic Republic as part of their imagination of Iran. Only a few actually viewed Iran as "a dark place," where life consists of daily struggle to survive, vicious political conflicts, repression, and corruption. When thinking about Iran, some imagined Iran's map "which looks like a cat." That this political abstraction allows a "totalizing classification" of Iran and becomes a symbolic representation of a spatial reality owes a great deal to the nation-building efforts of the Pahlavi dynasty.
Though Iran (being the bridge between the West and what it coveted, the East) had been long mapped by explorers, merchants, and conquerors, it was during the nation-building era of Reza Shah Pahlavi that its map came to represent the fervent nationalism of the time alongside its newly-designed flag and other "ancient" symbols (such as the lion/sun/sword symbol) which came to represent modern Iran. Since the flag, the symbols, and the map itself came to change after the revolution (the pre-Islamic symbols exchanged for Shi'a symbols, the flag modified to "cleanse" it of monarchist influences, and names of geographic entities changed to pre- or non-Pahlavi names( they all came to be not only nationalist symbols but political abstraction as well.
Many of the respondents spoke of how they surround themselves with objects from and reminding them of Iran: maps and photographs, flags and handicrafts, artwork and decorative objects. That in some instances the flags displayed are pre-revolutionary flags indicates the political content of remembering. Nafici writes "the Persian art and crafts that decorate the exiles' homes do not so much reproduce Iran as produce a world made of signs... The meaning that is produced involves establishing both cultural and ethnic differentiation (from the host society) and cultural and ethnic continuity (with an idealized past and the homeland)." (p.290). The meaning that is produced not only differentiates Iranian from non-Iranian and validates the personal past of the exile, but the chronological nature of the symbols serves to act as a political litmus, intended to "authenticate a past and simultaneously to discredit a present" (Nafici, p. 289).
The most decisive indicator of the attachment of the Iranian to the nation itself is that of the 157 respondents, 71 percent still refer to Iran as their "country", and another 10 percent (holding both Iranian and American passports( determine based on context whether they are referring to Iran or the United States; however, another 7 percent refused to utter the phrase "my country". One respondent wrote that he could not consider using a term for which men killed and were killed. Another said that she never used the phrase anymore, as she did not belong to any country.
For most respondents, however, "my country" was not the nation-state, its bureaucratic apparatus, and its legitimate monopoly over the use of force. The personalization of the homeland, and re-narration of the personal memories had resulted in an intimate identification of the homeland with one's family. Almost all respondents, when asked about what they liked and disliked about Iran, noted the affection and closeness of the families in Iran. The Iranian family is "vast" and "boundary-less;" the high fertility rates have resulted in large extended families, and the almost clannish kinship structures have resulted in intricate networks of relatives and friends tied together by blood or marriage.
Frequently, Iranians who meet outside Iran for the first time, question each other about their hometown and if they happen to be from the same geographic region, they often trace their genealogies and family trees until a mutual friend or kinship link is discovered. Family gatherings in Iran tend to be exuberant and raucous affairs, and like most cultures where the extended family is still a relevant social unit, Iranian families provide financial and emotional support for each other in times of need. However, the idealization of Iranian family (so prevalent in nostalgic recall of the homeland) tends to gloss over the "secrecy and silence," the bloody inheritance wars (exacerbated by the Islamic inheritance laws which reward the male children twice the inheritance of the female children), the "jealousies and nosiness," rigid patriarchal control, "inequity in upbringing, treatment, and education of sons versus daughters", arranged (and sometimes forced) marriages, and prevalence of "rhetoric of honor" regarding the daughters.
The "centrality of the mothers" in the Iranian family is also highly underestimated. In the period immediately following the revolution, when "the husbands had their wings clipped," and purges and "cleansing" efforts had blocked employment opportunities for a large number of Iranian men, the Iranian women took up the task of supporting their families financially and emotionally. In a number of instances, the respondents wrote about how their mothers accompanied them to the United States (sometimes unfamiliar with the language and the way of life, risking separation, loneliness and homesickness) so that the children could obtain a "good foreign education," while the fathers remained behind to earn a living in Iran.
It is not coincidental that in our mother tongue, Persian, we refer to the homeland as the motherland. Nor is it coincidental that the birthplace looms so large in our definition of who and what we are, even if we have departed from that geographic locality shortly after the birth itself. Perhaps if the ultimate point of origin is so important in defining who we are, the ultimate destination is also of some importance: though the question about desired location for burial startled many of the respondents, 22 percent wanted to be buried in Iran (and this percentage included around 10 Iranian-Americans who have been born in the United States), 9 percent were emphatic about wanting to be buried in the United States, another 9 percent wanted to be buried near their families (where ever that may be), and a surprising 11.5 percent wanted to be cremated. I can count myself as belonging to the latter, and I have chosen to be cremated, not only because the idea of being interned into earth is unappealing to me , but also because I want to, in some symbolic way, belong to the whole world.
Becoming ashes and being spread into the waters of the world (which is what most respondents preferred) somehow fulfills this (selfish?) need for immortality. The need for belonging to the world perhaps arises from the feeling that one belongs nowhere or that return is no longer imaginable. The desire to be buried in the soil of the motherland not only refers to a return to womb (a la Freud), but also reiterates the parallel between self-land symbolism and the language of vegetal growth. If we are the seeds that were dispersed, would our planting in the original soil be the ultimate irrevocable return? It is worth noting that in a handful of instances, the respondents wanted to be buried next to their fathers and grandfathers, thus fully bounding the family circle so intimately identified with the homeland.
Faithful celebration of national holidays in ghorbat is also another way the Iranian remembers Iran. Almost every respondent spoke of how they celebrate Nowruz (the Iranian new year celebration held on the spring equinox( scrupulously, even if the objects and tools of celebration are not always present or available. One respondent wrote about how he always observes Nowruz "in his heart." Nowruz becomes another ritual that binds us to the homeland, that provide us with an excuse to call our relatives "back home" and to tune in to Iranian radio or television abroad (the new year is inaugurated at the precise moment that the sun crosses the equator). But the holiday has also become "a measure of our growing distance from the context in which it made sense." We don't always have the implements required for observing the holiday, and as we fall into place in our new spatial location, the number of phone calls we make to Iran dwindles over time. Celebrating Nowruz and its sister holidays (the preceding charshanbeh-suri (3) and the succeeding sizdeh-bedar(4)) as well as other ancient holidays which are defined by the solar calendar (mehregan (5) and shab-e-yalda (6)) allows practice of nostalgia and defiance of the unfamiliar Christian calendar, simultaneously. It reminds us that we are still Iranian, no matter how far-flung, and perpetuates the myth of return, through organizing the temporal space in much the same way as our compatriots do "back in the homeland."
The mystical, emotional, and nostalgic relation with Iran coexists with the very real question of whether we would ever actually "return." Nafici argues against this notion and emphasizes that "The nostalgia is enamored of distance, not of the referent itself" (S. Stewart). The "glorious return," the operative engine of actively maintained exile, must remain unrealized; in the words of Rumi, the exile must roam and pant to return but never actually achieve it (p. 288). The myth of return has been a defining characteristic of all dispersions, from the moment the exiled Jews sat by the river Babylon and wept. However, the degree to which the myth has been maintained and nourished is tempered by the degree of assimilation and by the impossibility of return due to the socioeconomic or political conditions of the homeland (Safran, p.89).
When asked whether they would ever live in Iran, 33 percent responded with an "unequivocal no." They cited intermarriages with Americans who would be uncomfortable in Iran, the loss of language, the possibility of persecution (specially for all the Baha'i respondents), and spoke of having become accustomed to the conveniences, comforts, and freedoms of life in the United States. Another 11.5 percent emphatically stated their intent to return upon retirement, or completion of studies (none were born in the United States). However, 49 percent of the respondents were more ambivalent about return. They stated that they would base their future decision on social, economic, and political changes in Iran; almost all spoke of a more democratic environment being a prerequisite for return.
Many spoke of the contribution they could make to the Iranian society. It is worth noting that this question, more than any other question on the survey, was left unanswered as 6.4 percent chose not to respond. The intent to return for many of us is qualified by our memories of the reign of terror following the revolution and by realistic expectations about our careers and our place in the society. As a female, I empathize with many of the female respondents who spoke of the limitations on behavior (social and sexual), careers, movement, and thought placed on them should they ever choose to return.
Some of us who feel we can contribute something to Iran's growth are also ambivalent about how patronizing this wish may appear: if we have chosen to subtract our voices and our presence from the Iranian society for so many years, do we have a legitimate claim on a place in the society we left behind? Ultimately, however, Iranians are a people who define themselves through poetry and a mystical connection with the world; we place much significance on dreams and on visions. One of the respondents wrote that to him "Iran means where I was born, grew up, and lived until my early 20s. It is all of my sweet dreams and all my nightmares. It is my past, the whole package." That Iran is so prevalent in our subconscious that our dreams are saturated with its images is perhaps an indication that the myth of return is persistent and present in our psyche to a degree we don't always realize or acknowledge.
When after ten years of ardent assimilation I began to interrogate myself about my future, Iran rose inside me again. During this period of self-questioning, every night for several weeks I dreamt the same dream: walking along narrow winding streets walled between high mud-brick walls, in a hot and dusty city that was decidedly my father's hometown in Iran (and the site of my fondest sentimental memories of Iran), I would end at an abandoned mosque, where populations of pigeons and hungry and tattered rural families (whom I recognized from my memories as belonging to the Qashqa'i tribe) lived among the shafts of light falling through the shattered windows under the dome and through the dust and cobweb. Somehow, preserved in the dusty shelves of my memory was the urgent need to return. That perhaps is the most defining characteristic of the diasporic identity.
Identities and Desires
We define who we are by our names, by the languages we speak, by where we chose to live, by the clothes we chose to wear, by what we believe and what we do, and by how we choose to guarantee a space n history where we can continue after we die. Being "betwixt and between" (Turner, p. 93) two stable states of being (life in the homeland and full assimilation into the new environment) gives a liminal character to the immigrant-before-assimilation, to the exile, and to the diasporan. The liminal is between identities and allegiances (Norton, p. 53), and his state is marked by transition, ambiguity, and contradiction. "Liminars stand on the line that defines the state. Their inclusion within it is ambiguous" (Norton, p. 61). This straddling of two abstract political and cultural entities requires us to negotiate two worlds, to reconcile two allegiances, to (perhaps even) create "two personalities" as the facade we choose to present to a community, a country, a people, or another.
Becoming a liminar entails a change in how one is, it is a move from being to becoming. One has to grow accustomed to instability and movement and change; in fact, change has to become the prototypical way of life. When one moves from one society to another, the very first thing that changes is the way in which one's name is pronounced by new mouths and new voices. Persian names have "those 'kh's and 'gh's" which can not be so easily enunciated. Eventually, as the accents on the syllables of our names shift and vowels transform ever so slightly, Laleh becomes Lolly, "Morteza becomes Mort and Ali, Al;" some of us even choose to take on new names. Names are the very most basic markers of our identity; our names link us to our ancestry and to our progeny, and attest to our point of origin.
Changing our names, this very most basic and very most profound phase of "becoming" affects us deeply: a Laleh acts and speaks differently than a Lolly, a person who no longer carries an alien name does not have to explain her self and her allegiances at every turn. During moments of political unrest (the hostage-taking, or the war on Iraq, or terrorist attacks (which are inevitably tied to Iran first, as they did with Oklahoma City or the TWA crash) when one has a familiar name, one's loyalties are not questioned; even if one chooses to protest vociferously, one is not told "why don't you go home?"
Despite the conveniences of having an American name, surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of the respondents stated that they would (or already have) name their children with Iranian names, and almost all qualified that statement by emphasizing that it would have to be (or already is) a name that "is not too difficult for Americans to pronounce." Ultimately, the respondents wanted to transmit to their children "who are fast becoming Americans, the parents' native cosmologies and values, which they feel are under threat" (Nafici, p. 290), and a name (specially as symbolically-loaded as Iranian names tend to be (7)) is one of the most fundamental containers of such values. Since the Iranian does not "look" very different than the Italian or the Greek, the next important marker of his identity becomes language.
The transition from Persian to English is the hardest of changes: a female respondent wrote that she was concerned about "losing Persian," and about how she has not been able to write poetry since she has moved to the United States. Persian is the language of homeland, the language in which many of the respondents have learned their multiplication tables: a respondent stated that after so many years, he not only performs all mental arithmetic in Persian, but he also "analyzes people's motives and forms judgments and perceptions in Persian, or maybe it is some silent language which seems to be Persian." "Languages, as they change the symbols, also modify the ideas which the symbols express. Minds are formed by language, thoughts take their color from its ideas" (Rousseau, p. 86).
Many of the Iranians whose first language was Persian spoke of how much more emotional they were when speaking Persian; that it was the language in which they had learned to express their feelings. Even I have been told that I am gentler and kinder in Persian than in English, perhaps that is why 68 percent of the respondents stated that they were completely fluent in speaking, reading, and writing Persian. The Americans of Iranian descent (or those born in the United States) emphasized their desire to improve their reading and writing skills before transmitting it to their children. Regardless of whether "return" is a physical possibility or a myth, or cosmic mysticism, language seems to be a primary signifier, a connection to a past that has become idealized and assimilated into one's subconscious as an indispensable part of one's identity. Language allows "nostalgia without memory" much the same way that photographs and family stories allow inheritance of memory from one's family.
Finally, aside from those markers which distinguish the Iranian from the other, how the Iranian labels and imagines his/her self is also an identity marker far more complicated than the simple label itself. For one thing, the Iranian in exile carries much of the identity crisis he or she has to face in Iran itself. The program of Persianization sometimes brutally enforced by the Pahlavi Shahs has led to a cultural schism: a pre-Islamic history glorified by the Pahlavis celebrated Iran's Zoroastrian past, attempted to "cleanse" the Persian language (and culture) of any Arabic influences by replacing even frequently-used Arabic words with ancient Persian (or Pahlavi) words, and inevitably led to anti-Arab xenophobia and to a cultural clash with Islam.
On the other hand, the post-revolutionary regime was so intent in restoring Shi'a Islam to its place of honor in Iran (after all, Shi'a Islam is particularly affected by Iranian culture and enriched by Iranians scholars) that it associated all 2500 years of monarchy in Iran with Imperialism and Pahlavi corruption, itself in turn replacing simple frequently-used Persian words with Arabic words pronounced with a guttural Arabic accent (8).
Both before and after the revolution, the official insistence upon either extreme Iranism or extreme Islamism has resulted in a tortured internal interrogation about our loyalties and allegiances, and in a distorted and skewed perspective of our history. The Islam-vs.-Iran culture clash, so prevalent in our daily lives in Iran, does not even begin to address differences and schisms attendant to being a minority in Iran. Baha'is of Iranian descent are on one hand infected with the longing and nostalgia that comes with distance from one's homeland, and on the other hand have to persistently question the legitimacy of longing for a country whose state apparatus has so emphatically and harshly persecuted them for apostasy.
The Islam-Iran duality also does not speak to the other minorities of Iran who may suffer a case of divided allegiances. This is most extreme in the case of Iranian Jews who may feel some loyalty to the state of Israel, which Iran has persistently demonized and vilified. While in this instance, I am not distinguishing between the sentiments of the people of Iran and of the State apparatus, there is certainly a large amount of apprehension about post-revolutionary Iran on the part of Iranian Jews, since the percentage of minorities in Iran has decreased so drastically in the post-revolutionary period, and propaganda against the minorities who may have other allegiances (or not) has grown dramatically.
One of the more perplexing problems of self-definition faced by the Iranian in the United States is the Persian-vs.-Iranian label. In the 1930's, Reza Shah formally asked foreign countries to begin referring to Persia as Iran. It is worth noting that in Persian-language court documents dating back to the 17th century, the land itself is referred to as Iran while the European nations continued to call the land by its Helenized name which is derived from the name of the Fars province, where Takht-e-Jamshid (Persepolis) is located. A "Persian" person technically belongs to the ethnic Persian group who comprise 52 percent of Iran's population and speak the Indo-European language of Persian as their primary language. The most simple definition of an Iranian on the other hand is a person who hails from any geographic location within the UN-recognized borders of Iran.
From the 1930's until the 1979 revolution, almost all Iranians abroad referred to themselves as Iranian. After the revolution, in order not to be identified with the anti-American sloganeering and the violent hostage-taking in Iran so sensationally featured on American television, and to avoid the verbal and physical assaults from enraged patriotic Americans, a large number of Iranians abroad began referring to themselves as Persian. This simple act of label-switching which began as a defensive measure has developed into an intensely political action. Perhaps because "Persia" evokes the great pre-Islamic empire, choosing to be Persian implies negation of the relevance of the post-revolutionary Iran, and a wish to freeze Iran's history at the moment when "things changed."
The respondents of this survey overwhelmingly refer to themselves as Iranian (68 percent), while only a small minority of 10 percent chooses to be Persian. Interestingly, 14 percent of the respondents chose the Iranian-American label, while others questioned what it meant to be Iranian-American and whether being a hyphenated American correctly bespoke of dual political, social, or ethnic allegiances. Somewhat unfairly, a large number of the Iranians in the U.S. (and a number of the respondents) have begun stereotyping those who call themselves "Persian" as being exclusive, "classist," "slick," "monarchist," "shallow," and "racist."
Political lines are drawn in the sand by the simple act of labeling oneself in such a way as to represent an entire history. Naming objects (and persons) is a process of magic whereby we conjure something (or someone) into being, or we define its (or his) boundaries and its (or his) character. By naming ourselves "Persian" or "Iranian" we are internalizing the subtext of these labels, we swallow our history and our geography whole along with the bloody politics of the nation, the revolution and all. With its historicity and symbolism, the self-labeling and self-imagining process is instrumental in how the Iranian in the US relates to other Iranians, other ethnic/immigrant communities, and the Americans.
The "Community" in Exile
An Iranian in ghorbat stands as part of a triad whose three points are the homeland, the hostland, and the community in ghorbat. That the hostland itself has an abundance of subnational ethnic, immigrant, and diasporic communities, and that the Iranians abroad have supranational relations with other Iranians in other countries, enriches the intricate network of relationships, and confounds the circumscription of such relations. The respondents' relations with America is complicated by the hostility between Iran and the United States. Antagonism towards Iranians and the economic and social opportunities available in the United States have encouraged two contradictory trends among Iranians in the US: the first has been a full-fledged attempt at assimilation, and the other, a withdrawal into the cocoon of small communities of friends and acquaintances and limiting interaction with the "outsiders" to a minimum, mostly at one's place of employment.
The absence of ability to "decode nonverbal messages and signals" of Americans exacerbates the latter trend, and the intense homesickness, nostalgia and unfamiliarity with the new surroundings translates into resentment towards or dislike for the "happy and superficial" American pop culture for those who have spent the majority of their lives in Iran. On the other hand, a number of respondents contrasted the fast-paced, visually lavish, and technologically-driven pop culture positively to the more sedate introspective Iranian culture, appreciated its variety, and some even considered it as "an anti-dote to Iranian court culture," where the cacophony of pop culture is a sort of democratic chaos of voices and thoughts and images.
The next generation of Iranians, specially those born in the United States, have consumed and internalized the pop culture more readily and comfortably, and the production of consumer-oriented pop-Iranian culture in California has also allowed an easier reconciliation between Iranian and American popular music/lyrics, symbols, etc. In fact, a large number of the younger respondents who consume the pop-Iranian music fancy both varieties of pop music equally. The difference in social interaction with Americans also transforms along with generational changes. While the Iranians who have lived the majority of their lives in Iran find the US to be a "big society" where one is "always dealing with strangers," and where friendship, affection, love, and loyalty are not at all comparable to the home-grown variety, Iranians born in the US find negotiating the waters of cross-cultural friendship much easier.
An interesting correlation between language and social interaction can be observed through enumeration of certain untranslatable Persian words by some of the respondents. These words, transliterated into English in the respondents' answers, are delbastegi, safâ and samimiyat, and they convey the most rousing essences of attachment, purity of heart, and intimacy. While a large number of those Iranians who have spent the majority of their lives in Iran lament the absence of these qualities in their relationships with Americans, those Iranians born and raised in the United States seldom use such emotionally charged language in describing their friendships.
Another facet of the relationship of Iranians with their host country is the manner in which they are portrayed in the media. The revolution against the Shah who was a stalwart ally of the US, and the subsequent hostage-taking in Iran, was considered as some sort of affront or personal injury to the US. The images that saturated the American television screens in the first few years of the revolution, and even now occasionally appear in documentaries or news features, were those of "flag-burning, Khomeini-following, hostage-holding, desert-living, fanatical terrorists."
Not aware of the rage Iranians felt at a quarter century of American support for the totalitarian regime of Shah, the American public considered the revolution as equivalent to the savage temper tantrum of people who don't know what is good for them. Edward Said writes, "however much the Iranian individual had gained his or her freedom from the Shah and the United States, he or she still appeared on American television screens as part of a large anonymous mob, deindividualized, dehumanized, ruled again as a result." (p. 95).
Almost all respondents wrote long and passionate passages about the unfair treatment of the Iranian in the American media, found it to be detrimental and damaging to any attempt at perpetuating one's identity, and noted that it fans the flames of prejudice and discrimination. In fact, almost half the respondents spoke of the various forms of discrimination they had suffered simply because of their ethnicity. From fights on playgrounds to difficulty in obtaining employment, from discrimination by a soccer coach to unfair treatment in the universities by the highly educated professors, the respondents wrote of the indignity, humiliation, and hardship suffered should one not be "like the others." On the other hand, among those Iranians who were fluent in English, who did not "look foreign," or who had arrived in the United States in recent years, the incidences of discrimination and injustice were much more limited.
One of the more interesting aspects of life in the United States has been the manner in which Iranians interact with other ethnic, immigrant, or diasporic communities. While 37 percent of the respondents choose most of their friends exclusively from among other Iranians, 63 percent do not. However, a great portion of those who do not, choose to associate with members of other transnational communities, rather than "white Americans." The most frequently mentioned countries of origin for these communities are located in South Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. A shared knowledge of what crossing borders entails, and a similarity in sociopolitical (if not always cultural) backgrounds provide a context in which the Iranian in the United States can operate comfortably.
Similarity of our skin colors, our histories of colonialism and quasi-colonialism, that we (perhaps) dream in a language other than English, that the contours of our lives are so defined by nostalgia and longing, brings us closer to each other, and our association with "foreigners" circumvents the problems attendant to interaction within the exclusive (sometimes claustrophobic) Iranian community. That we are all the "other" to the American self has a curiously empowering effect. The familiarity of rhythm in our languages and music also encourages the association.
A large majority of the respondents named Latin music as one of their favorite genres. Association with the African-American community also allows a cross-cultural connection with another liminal group whose symbols and signifiers are powerfully present in the pop culture. Many young respondents (most of whom are male( recounted their preference for rap music. The masculine symbols associated with rap music reinforces the liminal pride in being on the margins and turns prevalent social images upside down by claiming images of power for those who are most exploited. But of all social interactions of the Iranian in the United States, his or her relationship with other Iranians is the one most fraught with contradiction, confusion, conflict, and complexity. The Iranian "community" in the United States is highly fragmented; in fact, a cynical respondent asked rhetorically whether even such a thing existed in Iran, much less the United States. Fault lines of class, gender, and religion make intracommunity relations fragile and hypersensitive.
One indicator of this fragmentation is language. "With political cultures, language articulates systems of sociopolitical order and serves as the instrument for placing individuals within those systems" (Norton, p. 46), and Persian is a highly class-conscious language which conjures a stratified community of Persian-speakers into being. When addressing another in Persian, we choose our vocabulary based on their station relative to us. The courtly and formal language we use (not just the tone, but the actual words) with those who are older, richer, more aristocratic, or more educated than us is easily and unconsciously exchanged for the less formal, sometimes demeaning set of words used with those we deem to be below us. This linguistic inequity itself exacerbates the way the Iranian community interacts internally: the Iranian cab-driver, mechanic, or store clerk is certainly not of the same station and "caliber" as the Iranian physician or lawyer or businessman whose last name indicates that he belongs to one of the 1000 Families (9).
Another fault line fragmenting the Iranian community along gender lines is the patriarchal family structure and cultural constructs preserved in certain segments of the Iranian community abroad. Marriage is used to patrol the "communal boundaries" (Tölölyan, p. 14) not only on the Iranian-Foreigner cultural borders, but also along the internal boundaries drawn with the brush of class allegiances. A majority of the respondents prefer marrying an Iranian, not only because they find a shared culture, history, and language as a necessary basis for a fruitful relationship but also to "perpetuate the race" of Iranians: 43 percent unequivocally desire an Iranian spouse, while another 13 percent prefer to marry an Iranian.
But more specifically, a large number of the male respondents speak of how they would prefer to marry an Iranian only if she were "a certified young lady from an educated established family." Several male respondents also find Iranian women "as sweet as nectar" and far more "beautiful" than any other women and indicate this beauty as their reason for selecting an Iranian wife. On the other hand, 22 percent of the respondents, mostly female and some with first hand experience of marriage to an Iranian man, emphatically reject the notion of an Iranian spouse, perhaps due to the prevalence of the aforementioned Iranian men's attitude towards and images of Iranian women.
Iranians in exile also draw communal boundaries along the lines of religion (for example the powerful and wealthy networks of the Iranian Jews in Los Angeles and Long Island tend to be very exclusive and cliquish), ethnicity, profession, and most importantly political sympathies. The language used to indicate membership of any of these imagined gated communities is highly symbolic and coded. Many of the respondents bemoan the "ego," the "absence of caring or loyalty," and the pretensions which they perceive as the characteristics of the Iranian community in Los Angeles.
An unspoken geographic affiliation apparently distinguishes the southern California Iranians (who are estimated to number around 700,000) from the Iranians elsewhere. Since many of the Iranians in Los Angeles happen to belong to the more affluent class, and since the Iranian community (or communities) in Los Angeles dwarfs all other communities around the nation (except for the Iranian community in Washington DC), the Los Angeles Iranian (who has been parodied in such Hollywood fare as Clueless) has become the operating stereotype of Iranian that other Iranians revile. In response to the question of whether they saw themselves as similar to other Iranians in the U.S., a large number of the respondents vocally protested the idea that they could belong to such a "materialistic, shallow" group of people with their ever-present Mercedes Benz and the eternal cell phone.
The statement "I am not like the others, there are few like me" echoed throughout the answers: "I am not like the others because I feel comfortable with both Iranian and American cultures" and "I am not like the others because I am proud of my heritage and don't deny my essential Iranianness" were the two most prevalent responses. The culture of distrust and paranoia, so carefully cultivated by both the Pahlavi regime and the Islamic Republic as a means of creating a self-policing environment, continues to haunt us in the way we approach and interact with one another in exile. We need to know each other's political affiliations before we consider what the other says as credible; we subconsciously find ourselves on the brink of "being reported."
The classist and formal language which has taken two thousand years to achieve perfection in inaccessibility and double-meaning exacerbates honest conversations. Polite manner often precludes debate or discussion in Persian; as in fact, many Iranians who speak Persian fluently find themselves debating political, social, and religious issues in the more neutral language of English. But if we can not communicate openly, can we build transparent communities? There seem to be indications that as a new generation of Iranians grows up, and as forgetfulness shrouds the old class and political allegiances, a sense of community is beginning to burgeon.
Speeches by Iranian luminaries and politicians, showing of new Iranian films, Iranian classical and pop music concerts, and Iranian holiday parties organized by university associations are growing in number, as responses to the survey indicated. A number of the respondents who are either students or work within the academic environment mentioned the ease with which the Iranians in their university community communicated and interacted with each other. In the broader society, those Iranians who have become conscious of their political power in a democracy have formed political action groups which align themselves with either the Republican or Democratic parties.
In addition, Iranians who actively practice their Islamic faith have established religious associations which not only deal with discriminations Iranians face, but also address the problems that a devout Moslem would encounter in a secular society they consider hedonistic and decadent. These Islamic organizations tend to reach across various classes, and frequently organize gatherings at mosques where Muslims of other ethnicities can join the religious and social activities. On the other hand, professional groups are also flourishing in those areas of the country which enjoy a high concentration of Iranians. It remains to be seen whether these efforts at community-building are a sign of the rising awareness of the Iranian community as a whole of a diasporic consciousness, or a result of the activities of a group of "committed, activist and militant diasporists [who] rarely form more than a small percentage of old ethnic or new immigrant dispersions" (Tölölyan, p. 19).
That the old divides still exist is undeniable, that the language of our interaction with other Iranians still smacks of paranoia and distrust is apparent, and that our mother tongue is still the language of class division is a lamentable fact for which there is little recourse beyond personal initiatives to utilize a certain vocabulary and style, but perhaps the activism of a younger generation whose attachment to a homeland is not clouded by despair, exile, and bloody terror can have a considerable and mutually reinforcing impact on the community's perception of itself as well as the hostland state's perception of the community, and indeed managing this game of mirrors is one of the chief skills of the diasporan leadership (Tölölyan, p. 19). As this diasporan leadership begins to focus on community-building efforts, each individual in the community has to engage in an honest and unsentimental interrogation of their relationship with Iran and with the United States.
Most of us know that we can never truly and wholly return, that if we are the first generation of Iranian-Americans, then we really belong nowhere (or perhaps everywhere), and as such we have to establish whether we can define a role for ourselves in relation with other Iranians in the context of our "new" country, and constitute the rules of engagement with both our homeland and our hostland. The program of action the respondents were asked to consider included cultural events, social events, networking, and political lobbying. An equal number of respondents emphasized the need for cultural events which would allow the Iranian community to educate its American counterpart, networking events which would encourage the community-building efforts at grass-roots level, and political lobbying to influence legislation affecting not only Iranian-Americans, but also Iran itself.
Many of the more passionate responses to this question referred to the powerful and cohesive Jewish lobby as a role model and suggested that the Iranian community should emulate the manner in which it has secured support for the state of Israel by fostering a tenacious and well-organized relationship with the legislative and executive branches of the American government. One respondent wrote that "if we elect an Iranian to the Congress" then we can influence US policies on Iran substantially.
Several respondents believed that Iranians need to find a niche in American media, that our presence in Hollywood and in the offices of newspapers and newswires allows our voices to be heard and our visions to be seen more readily. Others suggested that as Iranians we need to know our place in history, that we need to learn who we are and where we have been in order to understand where we are going, that we have to "restore our sense of creativity," and allow our voices to speak for our hopes and dreams readily and openly. And if we shed our "false memories, " and learn that we can be "critical, honest, and loving" simultaneously, then perhaps we can break bread again not only with the Iranians in the United States, but also with Iran itself. I am ambivalent towards the viability of this latter proposition. "Many despotic governments, vulnerable to international criticism and pressure... may perceive a threat in their diaspora's ability to foster and channel international animosity towards them. In response, they may employ a variety of means to discredit, deter, and silence their overseas opponents, including retraction of citizenship when that is an issue, restrictions on visitations, confiscation of property, withdrawals of honors and awards, and, in extreme cases, kidnapping and political assassination." (Shain, p. 103).
The Iranians in diaspora have indeed suffered all the above forms of persecution, but as the post-revolutionary regime in Iran has to grapple with the increasing demands of its very young constituency for economic rights and political participation, it finds ignoring, suppressing, and exterminating its critics abroad to be much more difficult. Though many of us in the diaspora have mixed emotions about the legitimacy of our participation in the political processes of our homeland, ultimately, we have a responsibility to our history, whether personal or political. Regardless of our visceral connection to the country, history has shown that a diasporan community is ultimately a boon to its homeland.
When I begun my survey of the Iranians in the United States, I had no idea that the act of writing out the questions itself would lead me to a profound examination of how I viewed myself in the diasporic context, how I felt about my homeland beneath all the sentiments which tend to blind us to rationality, and how I perceived my place in my hostland. I have for a few years now been viscerally aware of the duality which defines me, but the questions of memory and forgetting, community-building, distrust, and paranoia were those I had not scrutinized beyond a cursory examination.
As I read the responses of 157 other Iranians in the United States (many of them similar to me in background, aspirations, and dreams), I realized the fallacy of my personal skepticism towards a concerted community-building effort. Setting aside small differences and personal preferences, our voices are voices of intelligent and introspective people who have crossed borders, suffered traumas, and have survived magnificently the indignities and hardships of becoming an apprentice of a new culture in a vastly disparate society which has not always welcomed us.
We have so internalized the notion of ghorbat that we find ourselves alone and lost, suffering from a nostalgia which, like most cases of nostalgia, idealizes a past that never was and dreams about a "return" that may never be. We have a shared history and language, our names are still known to each other, and the lineage of our dreams and our cosmology ultimately originates in the same ground, surrounded by the same mountains, watered by the same succession of bloody wars, conquests, and revolutions. Perhaps we need a new temporal space in which we can establish our existence more fully and more freely.
As we learn to negotiate the manners and processes of two countries simultaneously, we have the unique opportunity to become who we want, rather than whom the history chooses us to be. The unique advantage of being a liminal diasporan is that we, bridging two worlds and belonging not wholly to either, can learn the silent secret language of transition in ways the stable states which stand on the two sides of our hyphens would never learn.
* Also by Laleh Khalili
- Absence: traveling to Iran after twelve years.
Anderson, Benedict; Imagined Communities; Verso, London, 1991.
Appadurai, Arjun; Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization; University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1996.
Nafici, Hamid; The Poetics and Practice of Iranian Nostalgia in Exile; Diaspora, 1:3, Winter 1991, pp. 285-302.
Norton, Anne; Reflections on Political Identity; The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1988.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Emile; J.M. Dent, London, 1993.
Safran, William; Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of Homeland and Return; Diaspora, 1:1, Spring 1991, pp. 83-99.
Said, Edward; Covering Islam; Pantheon Books, New York, 1981.
Shain, Yossi; Marketing the Democratic Creed Abroad: US Diasporic Politics in the Era of Multiculturalism; Diaspora, 3:1, Spring 1994, pp. 85-111.
Tölölyan, Khachig; Rethinking Diaspora(s): Stateless Power in the Transnational Moment; Diaspora, 5:1, Spring 1996, pp. 3-36.
Turner, Victor; The Forest of Symbols; Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1994.
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1. Nafici quotes Mahshid Amirshahi in his article: "I am searching for a lost earth in which I am rooted, a sun in whose rays I have gained strength, and a water by whose grace I have matured." (Back to text)
2. All unattributed quotes are from the survey responses. (Back to text)
3. On the last Tuesday of the solar calendar Iranians follow, the ancient Zoroastrian ritual of interacting with fire is enacted by street celebrations which include lighting small bonfires and jumping over them. (Back to text)
4. On the 13th day of a new year, it is customary for all Iranians to spend the day outdoors to ward off the evil of the number 13 and all bad luck for the remainder of the year. (Back to text)
5. Traditional harvest celebration held on the fall equinox. (Back to text)
6. Celebration held on the longest night of the year. (Back to text)
7. Iranian names can be pre-Islamic names or Islamic/Shi'a ones. A large number of names are also politically significant or symbolic. (Back to text)
8. It is worth noting that the Pahlavi regime chose to ignore more than five millennia of Iranian history in favor of 2500 years of monarchy, much the same way that the Islamic Republic has chosen to disregard all but the last 1400 years of Iran's history under Islam. (Back to text)
9. The 1000 Families are those elite families of Iran who through tenuous connections and intermarriages with the Qajar dynasty have acquired aristocratic (in an almost feudal sense) positions in the society. (Back to text)