What It Means to Be Iranian in America

Forgetting the Revolution

People march around a truck bearing pictures of Khamenei and Khomeini during a rally to mark the anniversary of the revolution in Qom, February 2011 Morteza Nikoubazl / REUTERS

I was an immigrant before my first birthday. We left Iran in 1975 for Peoria, Illinois, home of Caterpillar; my father transferred there from the company’s Tehran branch. The Iranian Revolution began in 1978, while my family was on our first return visit, our last shared visit, to the country of my birth. I was four years old. Several months later came the hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy. Both events chased us to the other side of the world.

The revolution cleaved our lives into before and after, into happy and unhappy days. Iran transformed from an exotic and ancient civilization into something ominous. Growing up in the United States required a new durability, a thicker skin to tolerate the demonization of Iranians as religious fanatics, our reputations put at risk by the crowds on the other side of the world chanting “Death to America.” Who I would be now depended on what Iran had become. I became an ambassador from a country I did not know. Invited to comment by my teachers at school, I offered the standard replies: the shah was good, Khomeini was bad. Or was it the other way around?

Revolution had different consequences for the grownups. My parents were part of a community of new Americans in Peoria. The group was an eclectic Midwestern congregation of Jewish, Baha’i, and Shiite Iranians who had found each other in the United States in the mid-1970s, early arrivals before the flood that would follow the revolution in 1979. The United States brought these immigrants together in ways hard to imagine happening back in Iran: laborers who worked on the Caterpillar assembly floor mixed with doctors and students from the local college, Bradley University; homemakers chatted politics with engineers. Almost every week, the group met for picnics and parties, at a different home each time. Under clouds of secondhand smoke and gossip, over plates of gheimeh and ghormeh sabzi, they danced, debated, and held off the loneliness.


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