I write in a blog called The Ruh of Brown Folks
, together with neplus_ultra
(who is also a member of this community) and cheshm_badoomi
. The three of us are Middle Easterners who have grown up in diaspora, and I think a lot of what we write about is relevant to this community. In particular, I wanted to share a recent post I made about my upbringing and how I came to identify as Iranian, part of which was inspired by discussions that came up in this thread
. I invite you to comment on it.Diaspora sucks pt. II
Growing up in a mixed family in diaspora, I did not grow up "Iranian" but rather claimed it for myself, figuring out what it meant from whatever materials I could get my hands on. I learned how to be Iranian mostly from foreign sources. I learned how to be Iranian--or maybe it is better to say I learned how to un-assimilate myself--from reading Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers, from reading Gloria Anzaldúa, from my Ashkenazi Jewish mother, from Pan-Arabism, from Orientalist travelogues. I pieced it together from old photographs, stories I think I remember my father telling me, and other things I just made up. I learned from infrequent trips to my relatives' homes, where Persian was murmured unintelligibly around me.
Memories of those visits have a dreamy, synaesthetic quality to them in my head. The sound of Persian was inextricably linked to the fragrances and flavors of our food: saffron rice with barberries; cool yogurt with cucumbers, dill, and mint; pastries with rosewater and honey. Uprooted as I was in diaspora, what sense of self I had came from the Persian food my mother and grandmother prepared. As Bahman Ghobadi fell in love with cinema through Kurdish sandwiches, as Aziz and Atieh in The Fish Fall in Love mediated their love through cooking, I located one part of my identity in my palate. It has taken me years to try to locate the others.
My mother, like other mothers, maybe all mothers, was burdened with the patriarchal task of providing identity by mothering. In a mixed family, this task was doubled: arranging the seder plate and the haft-sin, cooking kugel and kotlet, and so on. I am still untangling the nexus of Judaism and Iranian-ness. My mother knew how to be Jewish, and so my Jewish identity came easily, in Yiddish phrases, Hebrew school, rituals and holidays; decorated by mezuzahs and candles; marked in stages from my bris to my bar mitzvah. But how to be Iranian? This was a more contested notion, something my mother could not know and something I feel my father was still in the process of redefining for himself, let alone for his children.
Sometimes I think my father only wanted to shield my brother and I from everything he had faced as an Iranian in the U.S. Maybe he thought he was protecting us by raising us as Americans, and I can't blame him for wanting to shield us from xenophobia and racism. Other times I think that he, like so many other young, urban Iranians of his generation, was simply Westoxified, and valued American ways more highly than Iranian ones. In the end, though, I don't really think it was either one of those. I don't think he actively tried to raise us as Americans or to prevent us from identifying with Iran. I think he saw himself as American, and, living in America and having married an American, naturally his children would be American as well.
It was not until I was mostly grown up that I began to realize that my skin was olive-colored and that my eyebrows connected in the middle, that I could pronounce the sounds of Persian words easily (even if I was still ignorant to their meaning), that there was this enormous heritage that belonged to me. I started to ask myself questions: Do I have to be American? Am I white? Am I Iranian? What do these things mean? I had little at my disposal with which to answer these questions, and trying to answer them was a difficult and painful process. Some of them I have answered for myself: No, I am not American. No, I am not white. The others I still struggle with.
The one tool I had to help me answer these questions was the Persian language. Persian symbolized the birthright my upbringing had denied me access to, and from what I had read of Fanon, I was sure that language was the key to knowledge of self. With that in mind, I threw myself into studying Persian. That was more than three years ago; I am still studying, and I feel more than ever that the more Persian I learn, the more I learn about myself.
Due to passport complications, I cannot go to Iran yet, so I am going to Armenia this summer to study Persian language and literature at Arya International University in Yerevan. All this time, I have been trying to learn how to be an Iranian from all the wrong places, and while I'm moving ever closer to Iran, this summer I will still be one country away. In Armenia, Armenians gaze west to Mt. Ararat, their nation's most powerful symbol, which lies just over the border yet beyond their reach, in Turkish territory. Perhaps they will know how I feel when I go and peer over Armenia's southern border into Iran, the homeland I dream of but have never set foot on. Next year in Tehran, I hope. Until then...diaspora sucks.