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An Iranian Identity: A Tufts Student Reflects on Being Iranian-American

Opinion | March 9, 2012

Growing up an Iranian American was, originally, not all that momentous. When I was a young child, it simply meant that no one would ever be able to pronounce my last name. Of my parents, only my father is Iranian. He never successfully taught me any Farsi, and, growing up in New Hampshire, I certainly wasn’t exposed to much Iranian culture. So for a good while, I didn’t feel that connected to my heritage. People would frequently tell me, “You don’t look Iranian,” and honestly, for much of the beginning of my life, I didn’t really feel Iranian.

In this regard, everything changed after the September 11th attacks. As Americans—including my peers—developed a much more negative outlook towards the Middle East, I began to hear more statements and accusations that made me uncomfortable. There were off-hand comments that linked turbans to terrorism. There were vast generalizations about “the Middle East” as though it were one single mass of homogenous people. And of course, when we traveled, there were the extended looks at my father’s passport, the quizzical glances, and the “random” extra checks at security gates. Fear makes people do irrational things, and it seems that many Americans are actually afraid of Iranians.

President Bush famously labeled Iran one of the “Axes of Evil,” and many Americans seem to embrace this view. Polls consistently find that Americans perceive Iran as a great threat. In a 2010 poll conducted by CNN that surveyed Americans across the nation, 91% of respondents admitted to having either a “mostly unfavorable” or “very unfavorable” impression of Iran. Given the increasingly tense atmosphere surrounding Iran’s perceived nuclear intentions, I can’t imagine that the numbers have improved in the year and a half since this poll was administered. While I don’t claim any authority on Iran’s foreign policy practices or its nuclear program, I can definitely affirm that American/Iranian foreign relations on the governmental level have seriously impacted the way that most Americans perceive Iranians on a personal level.

Interestingly enough, it almost seems that as more and more Americans feel threatened by Middle Easterners and as the terms “Persian” and ”Arab” take on more negative connotations, I have developed a closer attachment to my background. I feel an inexplicable solidarity towards anyone whose name or appearance bears Iranian resemblance. I develop instantaneous interest when I hear of an Iranian book, movie, or event. I eagerly enrolled in The History of Iran during my first semester at Tufts, desperate to absorb as much of Iran’s past as I could. It’s as though my mind has an unquenchable thirst to learn as much as possible about my heritage so I can defend it when people make ignorant comments.

About five years ago, I went to Istanbul with my family. Given Turkey’s proximity to Iran, the people of these nations look very similar to one another. During our trip, many Turkish citizens would stop my father on the street and ask him if he was Turkish. When he revealed that he was an Iranian living in the United States, several of these Turkish individuals were very surprised. Looking at my pale-skinned, light-haired mother, one man articulated what most people were thinking: “That isn’t a problem, then? Living in America, with an American wife, when you are Iranian?” I was disappointed to hear that Americans’ fear and prejudice toward Iranians had become infamous hundreds of miles away, in Istanbul. Americans are distrustful of Middle Eastern people, and the rest of the world knows it.

There is an unsettling conflict in my mind when I consider my non-traditional Iranian appearance and my inability to understand the Persian language, compared to my passion for protecting Iran’s reputation. In a strange way, I almost feel only semi-qualified to represent the Iranian culture and nationality.

For my senior project in high school, I overcame my inhibitions and conducted an oral history of my grandparents’ experiences immigrating to the US (after my father had already made the trip) following the Iranian Revolution. When the piece was completed, I presented the recording to a group of my peers. For the first time, I was able to provide them with some personal testimony about Iranians’ experience coming to the United States. I derived a great sense of satisfaction from providing this tiny amount of cultural and historical knowledge and from deflating some of my classmates’ stereotypes.

Ultimately, that’s all I really hope for: small gestures that can spread positive impressions about Iran, its people, and its wealth of cultural history. I want people to see “Persepolis,” hear a poem by Rumi, or read A Thousand and One Nights, and feel their preconceived opinions start to change. It’s easy to be afraid of the unknown, and I firmly believe that Americans should make a conscious effort to understand Iranian culture, to lower the potential for baseless fear and hatred.

Flo Wen