An American Girl, According Only to My Citizenship

f6366999-20d3-4505-9fdd-a300f4e0b2cc.jpgThe gist: I’m Iranian American and I don’t want to be. I want to turn my back on my cultural heritage. I want pale skin and light brown hair instead of an olive complexion and a jet black knotted rat’s nest. I don’t want to marry an Iranian man. I want to marry Charles Caruthers III and celebrate Christmas and not feel the guilt and pull of my Iranian heritage. But it’s part of me and no matter how little I talk about it, it lives there inside me forever until I die. I love my grandmother, Nahid Joon, who always wants me to carry on the tradition of the Persian new year. My Farsi is getting worse over time, and my knowledge of Iranian history has been relegated to a few key events over the past few decades. One of the oldest civilizations there is, and all I can recall are some anti-American historical movements that have been drilled into for me thirty years. One of the oldest civilizations there is, and one that I want little to do with. Give me George Washington over Cyrus the Great any day.

***

Mohammad Mossadegh was democratically elected as the Iranian Prime Minister in 1951. He was a champion of progressive social reforms, and beloved by the Iranian people. He was also considered the architect of the nationalization of Iranian oil industry, which had been under the control of the British, particularly British Petroleum. In 1953, MI6 and CIA operatives overthrew Mossadegh’s government in a coup known as Operation Ajax. Mossadegh was imprisoned for three years and then placed under house arrest until his death. Mossadegh died in 1967, twelve years before the Islamic Revolution would officially and finally undo so much of the reform and modernization he championed. My grandfather Nosratollah Amini was his private attorney, and one of his close personal friends. Sometimes I tell people this and they are not that impressed. And then I am embarrassed for thinking anyone should care about this. The emotions pinball inside me from guilt to anger to frustration to loneliness.

***

I’m a bad Iranian.

***

I can’t skirt the line between American and Iranian effectively. This is what Diaspora is. I grew up in the countryside of Virginia, I had no Iranian friends, I barely learned to read Farsi, and I didn’t want the stigma of what it meant to be something besides a white girl with straight hair and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in paper lunch bags.

I know boys hear my last name and are put off by it. I hate them for that. But I hate myself for that too. I live in America but I am trapped in purgatory. I think of mint leaves in yogurt and rose water and chadors and dusty paths leading to walled off mansions and I wonder, is this part of who I am? I think of meatloaf, and Episcopalian volunteer trips, and straight silky hair, and wonder, is this who I am? I am neither and I am both.

I am a betrayer.

***

My father was sent to boarding school in England. From there he moved to Texas and then to Mexico. He lived in France at one point, and traveled all over Europe and eventually ended up in the United States. My aunt spent a few years in South America and another aunt moved to Europe then Iran, and another to California. My uncles moved to Paris and set up a base there from which they traveled around for years. They were part of the Iranian diaspora—the millions of Iranians who moved away from Iran after the Revolution.

Is diaspora contagious? Is diaspora genetic? Does diaspora flow through my veins?

***

Before my grandmother Nahid Joon went to Iran a few years ago to visit family and to spend the anniversary of my grandfather’s passing in the country they loved and loved in together, she sent me a package. In it were items for the Persian New Year and ingredients to make her famous baklava, which she had taught me to bake. She phoned me and gave me specific directions on how to set up the Haft Seen—the table of Seven S’s. On the Haft Seen the following objects were to be placed: goldfish, a bowl of apples, a hyacinth, a plate of grass (usually sprung from lentils), gold coins, sumac, vinegar, an oleander fruit, and a mirror behind it all to reflect the items back. These were meant to bring good luck for the future and each represented health, happiness, love, light, and prosperity. She had sent me some of the items she thought I would have difficulty finding myself and told me where and how to set up the whole thing.

I planned to arrange everything on a small table in my tiny studio but never got around to it. The items she sent me remained forever in their packaging. She called me on the Persian New Year day in March to wish me a happy new year. She asked about my Haft Seen and I looked at the table where the items should have been. “It looks great,” I lied. I missed her deeply.

I eventually made the baklava, but burned it.

***

I joined Match.com and when I selected Middle Eastern as my ethnicity for my profile, my older brother scolded me. Don’t put that, he said. But that’s what I am, I said. But he was right. I got almost no messages, no winks, no likes. I eventually changed the answer to the ethnicity question to “No Answer” and the messages came pouring in. In an email exchange with one guy, he asked my last name, and I told him: Ebrahimi. I did not hear from that man again.

Is it sick that my inner response to that was “maybe I should change my last name?”

***

The problem is, I’m not Iranian enough to be part of the Iranian community here, and I’m not white enough to be just plain white. I pronounce middle eastern countries correctly. But I also have zero interest in Islam. I’ve learned to cook traditional Persian cuisine, but I mostly like to eat Thai food. My house is decorated with décor from the ancient cities of Yazd and Isfahan, but I have no Iranian friends. I am a little of this, a little of that, a lot of nothing, it seems.

***

Last time I visited Iran, my Uncle Massoud took me to a famous mosque, Shah Cheragh, Light of the King. Before I was allowed to enter, I had to assure the woman at the gate that I was indeed a Muslim, which I am indeed not.

I rented a sheet from her to wrap around my head and body so that only my face and hands and feet were visible and I walked through the beautiful mosque and watched the women praying and touching the glass wall behind which was kept a very old Koran. I was followed throughout, by one of the ladies who worked at the Mosque—I suppose she wanted to make sure that I didn’t behave in an un-Muslim way.

After walking through the mosque, I ended up back in the expansive square and waited for my uncle who was walking through the men’s part of the mosque. An old man approached me. “Are you Spanish?” he asked me, in Farsi.

“No,” I replied, in Farsi. “I am Persian, but live in America.”

“No,” he said. “I think you are from Spain.” A crowd had begun to circle around me. I laughed but felt nervous.

“No, I really am Iranian!” I smiled at him and he looked at me through the slits of his eyes.

“No,” he said. “I don’t believe you.”

The crowd circled in closer. I opened my mouth to say something, but I wasn’t sure what to say anymore.

Maybe he was right.


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