Being born again
Accepting, reclaiming my Iranian identity
February 11, 2004
I'm not sure when it was that I recognized my Iranian self. It
must have been sometime before my first year in college. Certainly
before the winter of my sophmore year, the year when I came back
to Tehran, a trip which inevitably changed my identity from that
of an American with Iranian heritage, to that of an Iranian-American.
Its not simple to recollect one's past in order to define oneself.
However, I can bluntly and honestly state that as a child, our
family visits to Iran were felt with personal disdain.
To this day my family in Iran recalls my utter displeasure during
each trip to Iran, including my fervent desire to return to America.
Of course that changed once I became a man, at that point the option
was no longer one of choice. Instead, going to Iran became synonomous
with the threat of military duty, which for my parents was sufficient
reason to discontinue what had become annual trips.
In "Farsi classes" I was constantly the class clown.
Not too ambitious to learn, more to reap at the sheer pleasure
of watching the teacher explode with anger. Which, she did more
often then not on account to three little children surnamed Milaninia.
If memory serves me correct, during my last session with her I
was officially considered her worst student ever. Such is the menace
of being a menace.
Slowly, however, Iran become more important. For so many of us
born in the US, yet inexorably tied to our history, being Iranian
often means nothing more then understanding a few relevant lines
of Persian (including, mind you, all the popular curse words),
celebrating Norooz, going to concerts, and eating popular Iranian
cuisine (the more kabab, the better).
As a result many of us are
devoid of history, current events, or understanding of the vast
ideological struggles which have embraced not just Iran, but ourselves
as well. Consequently, our identity as Iranians, and our perception
of what is Iranian, becomes unique and contexualized within our
personal historical experience; that of exile and assimilation.
As exiles, politics which became forumlative in our status, became
an aspect of our detest. It is no suprise that college campuses
across the United States are filled with "Persian Cultural
Clubs" that engage in the celebration of being Iranian, rather
then in its understanding or activism.
As a good friend of mine,
who was also the vice-president of our university's Persian Club,
articulately stated, "It is not because we aren't political.
In fact it is because Iranians are too political. It was politics
which ruined us and continues to divide us." It was because
we are political, that we are consequently exiles.
This, I believe, was the extent of my "Iranianess" throughout
my high school years. Nevertheless a shift took place. A cultural
identity, or at least, what is considered cultural by Iranian-American
standards. Nevertheless, I was later emaraced by a yearning to
Following my entrance into college, I began searching
for Iranian news and current events. I began following IRNA and
kept up with all the fervour relating to the Reformists, including
all the rhetoric concerning change and reform. Can anyone of us
deny that the past decade has been lit with hope, moreso then the
years that preceeded the Revolution. If Khatami and the reformers
did anything, they brought me back to Iran.
Ironically, at the
height of that year, I became unquestionably pro-Pahlavi. My uncle
was the Shah's chief bodyguard before the revolution and my mother
and other members of our family would pour stories of how modern,
upbeat, and exciting Iran was before 1978. Thus, my turn to Reza
Pahlavi was not so much in agreement with his own personal stance,
then a connection with my families past.
It didn't matter whether
I agreed with his position on monarchy, or constitutional monarchy.
No. Rather the fact that he was symbolic of my family's happiness
was sufficient for my endorsement. An approval that become short-lived
and replaced with a committment to human rights and democratization,
which I felt the Pahlavi monachy rhetoric was not compatible with.
However, this was my first step to my "born again" self.
Traditionally, the idiom "born again" refers to Christians
who have apparantly returned to Christ after a period of proposed
decadence. While "born again" Christians have sited various
Biblical passages to justify the nominage, it has proliferated
amongst members of various religious denominations, including Judaism
and Islam, to classify those who are born into religious families,
but of whom later come to embrace it into their lives.
however, I believe the phrase has come to encompass those who have
some inherent identity but of which accept it and explore it at
some further point in their lives. Thus, to be born again, is to
accept or reclaim an aspect of one's own identity. As a result,
it is feasible for someone to be a "born again Muslim" or
like me, a "born again Iranian."
Within that context there
is a cycle of feelings, which I believe, comes in consequence of
being "born again." First, the
enthuasism and exploration of being Iranian. Second, self-classification
and understanding. What am I? A Muslim Iranian? A monarchist? Secularist?
The verbage used by ourselves to classify each other has become
a ridiculous exercise, but one which I can't deny having engaged
Once settling on the recognition that I am Iranian, without
the addage, comes step three: fundamentalist embrace. You are either
Iranian, or not, there is no inbetween. Unfortunately, that type
of thinking leads one to the inevitable conclusion that as a result
of this arbitrary distinction, there are also stereotypical classifications.
Arabs are animals. Afghans are to be made fun of. Whites are to
be used and abused. Indians are dirty. And of course Blacks are
never to be touched.
To be Iranian means to be the best, straight
and simple. What Pedram Moallemian, the "eyeranian" blogger
has notably recognized as: "this sense of false pride some
of my countrymen and women hold over some of the most bizarre ideas
they feel what a sense of national
and cultural pride should be."
I think it is for this reason why another blogger's, Faramin, "Human
First, then Proud Iranian" paradigm resonates so deeply with
me. So many of us are suffocated with false pride that the rhetoric
of difference has replaced the fact that as humans we are inherently
all the same.
Unfortunately, this is a stage I must admit that
I've only recently come out of. Of which has led me to stage four:
acceptance. By that I mean, accepting that being an Iranian is
not something with a static definition. But rather realizing that
I am Iranian by virtue of wanting to be, and wishing it, and thus
knowing that there is no one mold or stereotype.
I now find it
absurd when someone tells me that "so and so" isn't Iranian
because he or she can't speak proper Persian, despite the fact
that that individual has embraced that history and evoked it in
public. Even had they not known the history, are they not Iranian
by simple reference? And if not who are we to make that judgment.
No, they are Iranian. As am I. I may not be an Iranian in the
fashion, form, apparel, or ideology that one may desire. But I
am one... again. >>> Discuss
.................... Paayaan-e spam!
Nema Milaninia is a Graduate Student, International Human
Rights Law at the American University in Cairo.
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