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Oh, there goes that word again! Diaspora

By Neda Sarmast


It's everywhere I go and I hear it from the mouths of Iranians every where ... I guess I am afraid of what usually follows, "I long for my long lost identity", "I look in the mirror and I wonder who this person is and where do I belong?", "If only ...." and "Why didn't we ....?" or my new favorite, "Why don't they ...?" (referring to Iran or America)


I guess this is how it began:  I am finding myself getting more and more angry at my fellow Iranians who are hiding their identity for fear of repercussion from their host country.


For years during the revolution I heard Iranians introducing themselves as any other nationality but Iranian.  I remember sitting at a bar with my friend and having two guys who were speaking Persian next to me.  Next thing I knew they tried some awkward pick up line in English and when I asked them where they were from, they said France.  Having had a French roommate and taken a few courses in the past, I decided to attempt to speak French with them ... mind you, my French was ... well ... let's just say my French wasn't.  I don't know what was more embarrassing, my attempt to speak French or their attempt to answer back in "their own" French language.  All I know is that our accents 'sounded great" but that was it.  Then I asked them in Persian, "Vali shoma aslesh Irani hastin, na?" (But in reality you are Iranian, no?).  They were shocked, they laughed and high five'd me and with a response of "damet garm!" (Right on!) they tried to save face.  Needless to say, they left within a few minutes to the other side of the bar as I waved "Au revoir" to them.  This was years ago, but I still remember that moment - because you see, this happened all the time.  I laughed and shrugged this stuff off in the past, but today it's different.  I am different.


Back then, it was the hostage crises, it was the Islamic revolution, it was the "I don't want to be associated with the negative image of the country in the news" and other reasons.  At first, I proudly thought of us as a race that was able to weave itself into the fabric of their host country, then I started to see that we weaved ourselves out of our own culture.  Then something changed.  A new generation of Iranians arose - I being one of them - where we either had a limited experience with our country or we just knew it from across the waters through old family albums. I'm not exactly sure how this happened, but I started to feel more and more proud to be an Iranian, despite the dehumanizing negative image of Iran seen everywhere today .  My generation is finding each other and we are reconnecting at lightning speed to ensure better relations and a calmer political tomorrow.  Sure there were things and are things that I am not proud of and certainly we have to take our share of the responsibility for what is not working in Iran as well as it could be.  But still, no country is perfect and needs work, and Iran is no different.  Yeah yeah, I know about the nuclear progress, the conflict, the possible war, the oil, the poverty, human rights and wiping Israel off the map ... but those topics will have to be discussed at a later date when I have had an extra dose of coffee and a nice cup of Advil.


If we have learned anything from the West, or in my case, from America, it is the beauty of being authentic and showing your vulnerability to each other.  It is this that brings us closer together and allows us to relate to one another. The 'looking good' and always showing your best face forward (even if at times you are hiding beneath the sad, hopeless and scared face) doesn't do us any good .  All this does is separate us and distance us from one another, even more than we are today. It is this lack of unity and authentic relatedness that has come between us and our country.  I may even be bold enough to say that it is that has been the root cause of Iran's problems internally and historically.  When we do not stand united together in or out of our country, then it is easy to control, take over or lose your ground or your identity.  Sadly, Iran has seen this all too often and it is the major reason that comes to my mind when I think of Iran and how it has gone through so much turmoil and conflict throughout the decades.  I blame this equally on us along the many causes that are often blamed - US, the CIA coup of 1953, The Shah, England, Russia, our oil, our land and so forth.


I urge the good people of Iran living abroad to stand up and speak up!  It is important now more than ever to show ourselves in our community and let people see us so that they don't fear us.  Is it not fear and the unknown that is the root of hatred?  Then let us be shown and let us be known - because truthfully there is much to be proud.  I hope to see the media portray some of this in their message of Iran.  I know that conflict, war and fear sells more in the press and so ultimately it may be up to us to take it upon ourselves to educate and show a side of Iran and our Persian heritage that is not being fully portrayed, along with our many countless contributions that we have made in the world - and I don't mean just bag pipes!


I once stood up in front of a crowd of over 500 Americans, and invited them to look at me not as their friend or another American, but as an Iranian - a Muslim.  As I stood in front of them I told them "This is what Iran looks like.  Me!"  I wasn't so scary looking to them (feel free to insert smart ass comment here), as many came to confess to me afterwards that I had shattered the image they had of Iran, and I told them that what they will find in Iran and throughout the world are Iranians just like me and not to collapse the government of any country with its people.  Sure we "choose" our governments to represent the people, but haven't we chosen unwisely before?  Oh come on!  I know somewhere in your closet you're hiding a pair of bell bottoms or a cut off muscle shirt ... my point is that this too shall pass. 


The only way to diffuse a conflict is by starting a dialogue because through dialogue, you get yourself seen and heard - that is where the breakthroughs are and that is where peace is hiding out -- and you can't get yourself heard if you hide your heritage and your identity and your views.  I found myself often asking what it is that I can do from this part of the world to be of help to the people of Iran and I have come to realize that we can give them a voice by showing people who we really are.  It is the least we can do from our side to give them a louder voice in the global community and to stand united as they fight for their cause and as we give back through our experiences.


I hope for us to break free from the confines of our short lived comfort zones and I hope that we stop dimming our lights so that others feel comfortable around us, this serves no purpose to anyone and there is no bright future in that.


And for the people that have often asked me to choose once and for all which side I represent, because now that I am a US citizen, I say to them that I choose both! 


I have taken the best part of both cultures -- and I represent the East and the West, (that explains the extra few pounds), much like the millions of others living in the States representing their birth country.  I am lucky indeed.


I see that I never lost my identity, I just rediscovered my heritage.


About the author: Neda Sarmast is Documentary Filmmaker - "Nobody's Enemy": The youth culture of Iran (Due out 2006)


... Payvand News - 5/1/06 ... --

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