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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.

The revolution brought those days to an end. Over shortwave radio during a dinner party one night, the group learned that Iran had become the Islamic Republic. The host, Teamsar, a former general in the Imperial Army (his name was his rank) and an ardent supporter of the shah, stood up to tear down the gilded portrait of the shah that had been a permanent fixture in his home. He smashed the gold frame on the floor, sending the shattered Aryamehr, Bozorg Arteshtaran, in jagged shards across the room. Teamsar shouted, “Marg bar shah! Marg bar shah!,” the same slogan chanted that night all across Iran: “Death to the shah!”

That was the last good night. Over the next few months, the gatherings became less frequent, then stopped. Old friends silently accused one another of working for the new regime, or worse, for the Americans. Small suspicions accumulated until they became impossible to overcome, until the group fell apart.

In the years that followed, I gathered the stories my parents and their friends left behind. I reached into my parents’ memories and made their past my own. Like so many overseas children of the revolution, I fostered an affection for a country that no longer existed: Laleh-Zar Street, late-night cabarets, weekend trips to shomal and the Caspian coast. I remembered the lost glamour of American actors on tour—Gregory Peck in Tehran, Elizabeth Taylor in Shiraz and Isfahan—a romanticized life of abundance without war or inflation or the sacrifice of blessed martyrs.

Why did I feel such nostalgia for days neither lived nor seen? I held onto the memories of others in the mistaken belief that if things went back to how they were before the revolution, I would be accepted. I longed for Iran because I wanted to become American.

THE IMPORTANCE OF FORGETTING

“The United States,” the political theorist Michael Walzer writes in What It Means to Be an American, “isn’t a ‘homeland’ ” but “a country of immigrants who, however grateful they are for this new place, still remember the old places.” To be American is to remember being something other than American. Lacking access to a fatherland over here, we keep close the land over there. How and how much one remembers the past, Walzer cautions, must remain a personal matter, a choice, not an obligation, passed down the generations. Being American means being able to forget.

What happens when we’re prevented from forgetting? Iranians have not been able to become Americans in the usual ways. To be Iranian-American is to be reminded, constantly, of imminent war, of the circumstances of your arrival, of your estrangement from both sides of the hyphen. Forty years of cold war between the United States and Iran has meant that the Iranian diaspora in the United States isn’t just another assimilating minority population, afflicted by occasional bouts of cultural prejudice. Rather, Iranian-Americans are trapped in a geopolitical vise because of the seemingly intractable conflict between the two governments. Layered on top of this hostility are the varying degrees of trauma experienced by different waves of Iranian immigrants over the years. Those differences in experience make unifying the diaspora even harder.

The author as a child with his family on holiday in Iran, July 1978
The author as a child with his family on holiday in Iran, July 1978 Shervin Malekzadeh

At first, immigration from Iran to the United States was no more than a trickle. Modern Iran was not an emigrant country before 1979. With rare exceptions, Iranians who came to the United States during the 1960s and 1970s didn’t come to stay but to take education (or profit) back home to Iran. A U.S. degree was peerless back home, and for the poorly connected or the working poor, it provided the most potent means of securing a comfortable future. Even if they opposed the shah, as so many did, they planned to go back. The revolution ended those plans.

After the trickle came the wave. In the first major exodus of Iranians, in the 1980s, people fled the turn to political Islam, the growing violence, and the war with Iraq. The monarchists left first, soon followed by their erstwhile enemies, the liberals and the leftists, the partners abandoned by Ayatollah Khomeini, devoured by the revolution. They all came to wait history out, convinced that the revolution and its regime would not last. Many arrived on tourist or student visas, while others sought and received asylum until things settled down at home. In time, they remained, resigned to their fate. The Islamic Republic did not collapse as planned. Without intending to, and with the help of a general amnesty granted by the U.S. Congress and the Reagan administration, in 1986, they became Americans.

That path was not open to the Iranians who left during the brutal repression of the student movement in the late 1990s, or those who came to the United States ten years later because of the corruption and violence of Iran under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. These newest arrivals were the native born, the nasl-e sevom, or “third generation” children of the revolution. They had seen the Iran-Iraq War and grown up entirely under the banner of the Islamic Republic. They tended to be the ones who didn’t quite fit in back home, the Westernized kids who refused the official rituals at school and dispensed with the correct revolutionary vocabulary or performing their piety in public. Resistance to official Islam did not necessarily mean rejecting religious life. Many who left in the second and third decades of the revolution were practicing Muslims, just not in the manner expected by the nezam (the system).

Coming to the United States turned that sequence of identities—dissenters first, Muslims second—on its head. Whereas the Iranian government viewed them as a security threat for failing to be “good” Muslims, the U.S. government could not see them as anything but Muslims. Their presence alone was a threat to the system. Locked into a post-9/11 immigration system that injected bureaucratic fear and uncertainty into their daily lives, this last wave of immigrants received conditional passage to the United States, their status predicated on the vagaries of the lottery and the follow-up interview.

Although these three immigrant waves share the exhausting experience of hailing from a “rogue nation,” their divergent beginnings deny them a common framework around which they might unify. The greatest fault line separating the generations is the question of what to do about the situation in Iran. Many of the Iranians who came to the United States around the time of the revolution are inclined to dismiss reform of the Islamic Republic out of hand. They fail to see much difference between “good” and “bad” clerics or any purpose in discerning the democratic potential in Iranian institutions, much less the latest electoral strategy of the country’s reformists. Frozen in the amber of their disappointment, they condemn the Islamic Republic as a system in constant disorder, ruled by irredeemable ideologues.

By contrast, immigrants who grew up in postrevolutionary Iran tend to be more sympathetic to political engagement with the existing system, however flawed that system is. Their starting point, different from that of the older generations, is the constitution, the revolution, and, above all, the war with Iraq and the war in Syria. Even those who were in the opposition retain a formidable sense of civic duty and what the sociologist Kevan Harris describes as a “ruthless pragmatism” in regard to Iran’s future. Almost uniformly, they reject a politics of revolution, foreign intervention, and royal restoration. Better to work with a flawed regime than with a failed state.

“I Wish I Could Go Back to Iran and See My Real Identity”

That the first to arrive after the revolution were the pioneers who struggled to secure the benefits enjoyed by the subsequent generations has become integral to the story Iranians tell themselves about how they became successful Americans. Most in this cohort responded to the trauma of the revolution by choosing discretion over confrontation, steering clear of politics in favor of pursuing economic success. If some overcompensated in the pursuit of wealth and profit, it was, in part, to prove their fidelity to the United States.

The first wave also carried with them the old class and ethnic divisions from Iran. Yet those prejudices are changing, thanks to Iranians who grew up in the United States as the children of immigrants. In the United States, hardly anyone knows, much less cares, what your father does for a living, whether a last name is Persian, Armenian, or Jewish, or whether from a powerful family or an obscure one. Azadan, Hakopian, Elghanian, and Farmanfarmaian—all are unpronounceable in the same way. If Iran shapes how Iranians become Americans, then America offers them new possibilities for defining what it means to be Iranian.

In a wonderfully reported piece in the Los Angeles Times on the history of the Iranian diaspora in “Tehrangeles,” Melissa Etehad quotes longtime resident and dual citizen Sadra Ford: “I wish I could go back to Iran and see my real identity.” The sentiment, I suspect, has it exactly backward. Our truer selves are made here, by the second and third generations, the native-born Americans who have the ability and the desire to go beyond forgetting and remembering in order to imagine new communities and new memories. We become better Iranians by becoming Americans. America gives us that.

Made in the U.S.A., by the Islamic Republic

Being American means being able to choose to forget where we came from. Yet Iranians in the United States are put at risk of losing their status as Americans by the absence of forgetting, by the work of remembrance done by journalists and filmmakers. So long as the news provides daily reminders of Iranian-backed Shiite militias and Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism, so long as there are films about mothers without daughters, the status of Iranians as Americans will be held in perpetual abeyance, and their fate in the United States will not be their own.

The good news is that civil action in Iran continues to dictate the fate of Iranians in the United States. The rise of an oppositional student movement in Iran in the late 1990s introduced new possibilities to the existing script, stacked as it was with ayatollahs and swarthy fanatics, later revised further when protests reached out beyond the campus dorm rooms to include the broader public at the voting booth.

The failed presidential campaign of Mir Hossein Mousavi and the subsequent Green Movement, in 2009, proved to a turning point. A single summer of protest transformed ordinary Iranians into heroes in the eyes of Westerners, fit to be fêted on concert stages by the likes of U2 and Bon Jovi. Images of Iranian protestors marching by the millions, demanding that their votes be counted—and being arrested, beaten, or worse for doing so—made it possible for Americans to imagine themselves in the Iranian narrative. Suddenly, the Iranian diaspora were fellow travelers in a civilizational struggle for democracy.

Iranians in the United States had for years been defined by tropes and assumptions formed in the 1980s. Now they found themselves in new roles, pulled between the peculiar binary of an emerging, freer Iran and an Iran conventionally imagined as unmitigated evil, a regime wrapped in veils of theocracy and revolutionary protest, implacable in its hostility to the United States.

REMEMBERING

How might we as Americans begin to forget a country that no longer exists? We start by paying attention. Iran today is hardly the country it was even ten years ago, much less 40. Its leaders have not succeeded in preserving the revolution as originally conceived by Khomeini, in part because they never fully determined which parts were worth saving. State and society have changed dramatically since 1979, lately at a dizzying rate. Yet the possibility that politics has a present tense in Iran, that civil action and protest have appeared because of, not despite, Iran’s political development these past 40 years, remains outside of conventional discussion in the United States.

U.S. leaders routinely celebrate the people of Iran for their ancient culture and contributions to world civilization and for their youth and talents, their yearning to be free. That is how the current regime in Washington is able to proclaim that the United States stands with the Iranian people even as it promotes crippling economic sanctions that will hasten the end of the Islamic Republic, as Vice President Mike Pence did earlier this year in Warsaw, when he called on European countries to “bring the economic and diplomatic pressure necessary to bring the Iranian people … the peace, the security, and freedom they deserve.” That the audience met Pence’s comments with uncomfortable silence seemed not to matter to an administration wrapped in its own certitude.

In spite of the Trump administration’s confidence in its strategy toward Iran, reports of the Islamic Republic’s imminent demise continue to be premature, just as they were last year, just as they were in the immediate aftermath of 1979. Political dissent in Iran is not an all-or-nothing proposition—not yet, at least. As the historian Ali Ansari recently noted, perhaps the greatest trauma of 1979 was the idea of revolution itself. Iranians steadfastly reject all future revolutions as simply not worth the cost. The widespread protests that gripped the country at the beginning of last year represented the revolution’s latter-day expression, not its demise, demonstrations made from below as politics by other means and alarming to the authorities at the top precisely because the marchers’ demands were so familiar.

Americans’ understanding of Iran remains stuck in the past; the authorities in Iran have the opposite problem. How does Iran remember a revolution that most of its population did not experience?

Remembering starts on television and in the streets, in the repeat performance of Khomeini’s arrival from exile every year on February 1, culminating ten days later with televised parades and mass rallies held across the country. State media broadcasts footage from the era, scenes and images unimaginable the rest of the year: men with Western ties and women without Islamic hijabs. Secular housewives march in the streets alongside hezbollahi students. U.S. President Jimmy Carter toasts the Iranian monarch in Tehran, and Ayatollah Khomeini meets with American journalists in France. Every year, the hapless shah comes back to life, resurrected by state media, only to be chased out of the country once again.

Those same sacred memories are rehearsed and reproduced in the classroom. First graders receive their first rites in political Islam near the end of the school year, in the closing pages of their Farsi primers. The story of Khomeini’s return is taught as a memory, and includes an image of uniformed children adorned with paper hearts bearing a picture of the late leader. The children are met with an approaching airplane showering daisies from its undercarriage over the countryside below, the timeless Persian obsession with flowers unchanged by revolution. Their eyes turn skyward to a plane that circles but never lands, promises from a future that never arrives.

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