In Defense of My Countries, My Identities

I have always been in search of words to describe myself. Usually I’ve found the words to be too limiting, too uniform. It has been only the past few years or so that I have had to confront my social identity, my relation to others, my past and eventually my future.

Born and raised in Iran, I could never deny my Iranian-ness. But even in Iran I didn’t completely fit in with everyone. I knew I was different. I did not act like other girls and did not hold exactly the same thoughts and values. When I went to college in the US, I became more engaged with my sexual and gender identity. I ascribed my difference in relation to other girls as a difference in gender. I refused to ascribe to a violently limiting binary system of genders. I began to view gender as a spectrum. But little by little, I disposed of the spectrum idea, founding even that to be limiting. Thus, I came to the conclusion that each individual person has their own gender, which is an ensemble of a variety of things such as their biological sex, their gender expression, their culture, their own self-identification, the identification by others, their class, their race, their religion and so many other factors that affect our notions of gender. But I have to wonder now: this could not possibly be all that differentiated me from other Iranians? Even as mere children in Iran, we knew deep down inside how the world functioned, even if we didn’t have the words to describe it. And sometimes the words were too painfully precise. Yes, I was too American, a remark that many of my Iranian friends did not fail to point out at times. I accepted their haphazard observation and even took pride in it. But for the most part it was a source of play and joking. When I moved to the US at the age of 15, I did not fail to mention to my newly found American friends that I was Iranian – a fact in which I took great pride. At first, this phrase was pronounced with much nuance, with almost a sense of provocation. Were they going to be mean to me? Were they going to make fun of me? Were they going to be surprised? Or simply indifferent? The response most often consisted of an initial surprise, a series of questions posed out of curiosity and ignorance and eventual indifference.

Despite holding official citizenships of both countries, I never felt myself overly American.[1] Throughout high school and even the first few years in college, I insisted that I was not American, regardless of my social status. Never until now had I ever questioned why I was so vehemently opposed to being American. Furthermore, what does being American even mean? I posed this question to a few of my American and foreign friends but none of whom could provide a satisfactory answer. But one thing was clear: you do not need to be born on American soil to be considered American. In fact it was not until I was doing a study abroad in France that I accepted and made my own the American identity.

During my three months in France, I met and interacted with many different people from all over the world. One of the first things that was always asked in class from professors and fellow classmates was national origin. My initial response was immediately: the United States. If I somehow felt as if I was going to have a longer relationship with this individual I always added: “But I was born and raised in Iran before moving to the US.” However, throughout my stay, my response, even to people with whom I knew I would have no major or very little contact, slowly became: I was born in Iran but I come from the United States. Finally it turned into what I had been feeling for a while but had never pronounced out loud: Iranian-American.

It would be too narrow-sighted and utterly false to claim that going to France was the ultimate experience that pushed me into this brilliant new identity that I had forged for myself. So I retreat. Before traveling to France, I had become relatively active with the Seattle community organization of Iranian-Americans. It was there that I met a lot of Iranians from all walks of life and from very diverse backgrounds. I talked to people who clearly felt one side of their identity weighed more than the other, and then there were individuals who easily described themselves as Iranian-Americans and found no irony or contention in saying so. I knew I was one of them but I felt that I first needed to define being American. But can I even define being Iranian? I would be lying if I said Iran was a homogenous country with very little diversity, hence the question is never posed like it is in the United States. As an atheist upper-middle class Persian born and raised in the city, who am I to ignore or worse – assimilate the experiences of millions who are lower-class, religious, Kurd, Turk, Azeri, Arab, Lur, Afghani, Turkmen, Baluchi, and the multitude of other ethnicities that make up this beautiful country, into my own narrow experience as an Iranian? And I have to wonder: do other ethnicities and classes in Iran make the Iranian identity their own as I do?

It had been some time that I had completely washed my hands off of Iranian politics, even if I followed the news regarding the nuclear program and the 2009 elections very closely over the past few years but I never commented or even allowed myself much thought. Even when talking to friends genuinely interested in international politics, I refrained from getting myself too involved. I could not because it was too painful. I could not be emotionally invested in an issue that was tearing me from within. What I didn’t realize until the last six months was that only by confronting my fears, my prejudices and privileges, and by actively engaging with my Iranian and American identities and communities could I truly heal my wounds. I cannot move forward without confronting my past. And if I am to call myself a true activist and continue on the route of anti-oppression work, how can I simply disregard the political realities of US-Iran relations, the consequences of which affects my identity and my relations to the people around me at every level?

And even yet, my overly active and critical brain does not permit me to read back upon these words and not reproach myself for throwing myself under the ugly and violent grasp of nationalism. Many terrible things have been done under the name of nationalism and it is precisely nationalism to which I am subjecting myself by defining my identities as a haphazard mix of a multitude of cultures, histories, and politics from two different countries I call home. But when I am faced with the threat of the destruction of everything that I hold dear in Iran and in the United States, I cannot help but feel a deepening desperation of clinging onto what little I feel is left of my past for a morsel of stability at present, and hopes of a brighter future. As much as I would like to join hands in the common fight against racism, imperialism, and oppression, without regard to nationalism, I cannot raise myself above the unfortunate realities of borders. My experience of the world is deeply rooted in histories. Thus, I can never own the Iranian-American identity without fully engaging in its politics and the consequences it entails.


[1] The usage of the word “American” here is meant to refer to the United States. I fully understand the white/north amero-centrism of the usage of this term. With my deepest regards to my fellow Latin/South Americans, the term is used out of ease and to differentiate it from being a “US citizen.”

SH