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Iranian American; What Does That Exactly Mean?

By Kam Zarrabi


After arriving in the United States in 1956, I soon discovered that most Americans were more familiar with the name Persia than they were with Iran as my home country.


Life in America was wonderful in those days. The streets were as though paved with gold, and drivers braked for pigeons crossing the street. Middle Easterners were regarded as fascinating, charming, visitors from a dream-like world of spices and intrigue. I had heard from my older cousins who had spent some time here that Persians reminded the Americans of the 1001 Arabian Nights stories. The old colonial attitude inherited from Europe had created a permanent picture of what we supposedly were and where we came from: turban-headed nomadic tribes riding their camels across vast expanses of dry sand deserts dotted with occasional oases, breaking the monotony of that featureless panorama.


Somehow, I did not want to be associated with all those Hollywood imageries of Persia and the Persians.

These pictures were far removed from the Iran I had left behind. I had a lot to say about what Iran was really like and who the Iranian people really were But my comments always met with resistance, disbelief and displeasure, as I was challenging all those exotic preconceptions of the Medieval era of harems, thieves, poets and flying carpets. 


I was an Iranian, and a proud one, since I knew quite a bit about the history and culture of my homeland, its past glory, and its modern standing among the nations of the Middle East. During WW II, the caravan of military equipment, supplies, and allied soldiers did not cross over a thousand miles of sand desert from the Persian Gulf to the Russian border along camel trails; the "Bridge of Victory" to the Russian Front was the very modern railway system that snaked through some of the most forbidding mountains in the world. My father was the chief surveyor for one of the international engineering teams that had charted that route.


Adadan refinery was at the time the world's largest installation of its kind, and the University of Tehran was among the best anywhere. Actually, one reason for coming to the United States for my university education was the fact that, even though I thought of myself as pretty smart, I knew I wouldn't be able to beat the competition in the entry examinations to qualify for the University of Tehran.


As a young man just hitting Twenty, I felt much more experienced in the real game of life than my college mates here in America. I had work experience helping my father as a mining prospector and, politically, I had been involved in major pro-Mosaddegh demonstrations in Tehran and had battled the police and the military with some scars to show for it. 


A couple of years later, while waiting for a routine checkup at the UCLA medical center, a nurse showed me her paycheck stub and pointed rather angrily to the deductions for Federal income tax, blaming people like me, she maintained, who come to benefit from American education and other facilities at her expense. All I could do was to gently remind her that Iran was worth a lot more than the price her country had paid to own it outright. I asked her if she had watched a recent television program about the CIA's account of the 1953 coup that reestablished the Shah back on the Iranian throne. Her response was, Didn't we just save your country from communism? I didn't argue with her, even though she, as a grad student, was supposedly more in tune with foreign affairs than the average Jane or Joe.


Yes, we were proud those days, perhaps bordering on arrogant and cocky. While the Japanese and South American students easily blended in and were smilingly herded to baseball diamonds or the YMCA sponsored foreign students events to get better acclimated, we Iranian students stubbornly refused to act like a group of disadvantaged adolescents or a flock of sheep; we'd rather do our own thing, in our own way.


I had a Hungarian friend in college, Sandor or Alex, an immigrant from Hungary whose family had been granted political asylum in the United States shortly after the 1956 Hungarian uprising. He didn't know much about America, only that everyone hated communism and communist sympathizers. Alex was violently anti-communist, to a point that merely hearing the word he would throw a temper tantrum. This, of course, never happened when we were alone together, two foreign students of the same age confiding in each other. Alex didn't know enough about communism or political science as yet to have developed such strong sentiments at his young age.


I used to criticize him for his overly demonstrative exhibition of his hatred for communism. You are overdoing it, Alex, I used to tell him, you are already here, with citizenship and all; you don't need to qualify anymore, Alex, I used to remind him.


But, Alex was in fact a very ambitious young man. He was planning to major in political science, and had told me many times that his aim was to someday run for Congress. For that, he used to say, you couldn't be patriotic enough!


By the early seventies, we Iranians were no longer the dark-haired, gentle "Persians" with a child-like pride. By then, we had become globetrotting entrepreneurs, and Iran's name decorated newspaper headlines around the world as a rising industrial and economic power in the Middle East. We were welcomed as we disembarked at any airport, from New York to Hong Kong. Our immigrant populations in America and Western Europe were the best educated and most financially sound among all immigrant groups. We held our heads high and took great pride announcing that we were Iranians.


We did away with the term Persian in favor of Iranian, and referred to our language as Farsi. Persian rug or Persian cat, etc., were ok, as they had a generic character (Persian cats are not really from Kerman anymore). But there was a psychologically bothersome, old fashioned, Colonial connotation to the term Persian as our nationality or language. In Albert Ketelbey's composition, "In a Persian Market", the chorus sings a repeated mocked Arabic phrase and the music sounded too much like the Arabian Nights. We were certainly not Arabs, and we wanted the whole world to know that.  At one point, our government went even as far as changing our traditional calendar by beginning the count from the year of the establishment of the Iranian Empire under Cyrus the Great. Wow!  And why not; we had earned, we thought, the right to flaunt it.


This rush to glory turned into a frightening stampede when, after a few short years, our colorful balloon suddenly popped. O, yes, Iranians with fat foreign bank accounts and suitcases full of worldly treasures were still arriving in Western centers of civilization in great numbers; but this time they were not on shopping sprees, they were running to hide. It wasn't long before our Iranian identity became a real liability rather than being a source of pride. We did not want to stand out as proud Iranians, or even as just Iranians, we didn't want to stand out at all; we preferred to remain incognito.


In a very convincing and convenient ploy, many reverted back to being Persians. Somehow all those colonial and archaic connotations didn't matter anymore. Some of us paraded as Greeks, Turks, or even Arabs quite ironically - anything but Iranians. The ploy worked quite well, as most people associated Persia with the old and exotic world of the Arabian Nights, and not the new Islamic Republic of Iran. But, many were not that easily fooled, especially the more educated people in positions to be of help to the frightened refugees as far as jobs, housing, and other essential needs were concerned.


That took me back many years to my Hungarian friend, Alex, whose ire at hearing the word communism could start a brush fire. Now Islam had replaced communism as the enemy of human civilization, and the new Islamic Republic of Iran had become the element of evil on earth in the American mindset. So, very much like the refugees of 1956 from Hungary, our new "Persians" seeking asylum, residency, jobs and, most of all, acceptance in their communities, were exhibiting as much hatred against the new Islamic regime in Iran, as well as against Islamic religion and ideology, as they could muster. In short, for the most part, our immigrant "Persian" refugees had left Iran to the Iranians and started new lives and careers as Persians in the New World.


But things didn't stay the same; for the Iranian, or now the Persian, community things actually got worse. We had the 9/11 episode and the Axis of Evil label now to haunt us. The terrorists of 9/11 were not Iranians or even of the same branch of Islam. The masterminds and perpetrators were actually avowed enemies of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the whole world knew that. But, when poor Sikhs were mistaken for Arabs and shot dead, we Iranians, excuse me, Persians, had to become extra careful about what we said or where we showed our Middle Eastern faces. At least that was the perception of many folks who felt intimidated by all the hate rhetoric. It was pitifully sad to see an older Iranian lady I knew, a permanent resident no less, walking around with a small American flag in her hand and a pleading smile on her frightened face, as though begging not to be spat upon by the passersby.


In a way, for many of us "Persians", old Alex or Sandor the Hungarian had the right idea after all.


Some years ago, as the president of our local chapter of the World Affairs Council, I attempted to invite a knowledgeable and articulate Palestinian to address our predominantly Jewish audience on the Israeli/Palestinian issues. I did find several well-qualified Palestinian Americans who could do a great job, but not one accepted the invitation; they each had successful businesses and didn't want any trouble by sticking their necks out. And, that was long before the first Gulf War. Old Sandor was right then, too!


My own friendly critics, even some of my children and close relatives, warn me against needlessly poking my finger into hornets' nests when I lecture or write unfavorably about American foreign policy in the Middle East. I understand and appreciate their genuine concerns, as prudence is indeed the better part of valor. But, they are wrong. They are wrong about what America is truly all about.


There are very, very, few places on this planet where one can speak ones mind freely and openly and without fear of official sanction or persecution. The greatest appeal of America for those seeking asylum or simply looking for better opportunities and better lives here is exactly what so many of us seem to have forgotten. Here is where anyone has the constitutional right to dissent, to voice opinions and concerns, and to actively engage in all that the laws of the land, not the whims of groups or individuals, guarantee everyone.


In over twenty years of political discourse and discussions, I have often faced two antagonistic comments by some in my audiences who are upset about my remarks: one is, If you don't like it here, why don't you go back to where you came from? Or, Could you stand up and say whatever you want and get away with it where you came from?


The response to such comments is very simple and straightforward. Rather than go back, I usually say, to where I came from, I can choose to stay and try to change what I don't like, as long as I stay true to the laws of the land and the Constitution upon which they are structured. And, yes, I can stand up and speak my mind under the First Amendment to the Constitution that guarantees me my freedom of expression; and I do hope that, someday, the same could also be true where I came from.


Patriotism as an American, Iranian American, or an Iranian in self-exile in America, does not mean buying into whatever the Administration wants to pursue; that would be true in totalitarian regimes, not in a democracy. Furthermore, objecting to America's foreign policy in the Middle East, especially with regard to Iran, is for more than its detrimental effects on our former or current homeland; it is, many of us feel, counter to the best interests of our adopted land, the United States of America, as well.


My old school buddy, Alex, was right only as far as his personal ambitions took him. He continued gaining in popularity, even resulting in quick promotions at his jobs. And, playing into the popular mindsets, his political ambitions did seem almost guaranteed. One of his fellow refugees did actually attain one of the highest political offices by applying the same tactics.


We have witnessed the same behavior by some ambitious Iranian Americans, as well. In a hurry to jump on the bandwagon of opportunity, they become chameleons that can change color to blend in with whatever background might best serve their purpose. One particular character that makes guest appearances as an Iran expert on various television programs has even suggested that "we", meaning America, should nuke Iran; the man is so "patriotic" that he even outperforms the neocon gang that he is licking up to for favors and acceptance. Sandor would have understood how the act went, very well.


So, what does it mean when we say Iranian American?  To find out, let us see what it doesn't mean: It doesn't mean cowering around corners and lying low in fear. It doesn't mean having to pretend to be something you are not. And, it certainly doesn't mean having to kowtow to anything or anybody out of fear of being politically incorrect. You see, this is what has attracted us to this land; to take it for any less is to betray the faith in the democratic principles that we all crave, the same democratic principles that we also wish for those we have left behind halfway around the world.


... Payvand News - 12/16/03 ... --

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