Wanted Dead or Alive: why we should not be quick to rejoice the death of Osama bin Laden

Recently, the news of Osama bin Laden’s death has taken the United States by magnificent surprise and wondrous joy as swarms of Americans crowded the White House gates with their American flags and the President announced the success of the US Navy SEALS mission to storm into a village in Pakistan and to “smoke” bin Laden out of his compound. The mission was filled with intrigue and danger: military helicopters swooshing out of the sky, commandos caught in a deathly crossfire, shooting at America’s Most Wanted, killing one of his wives in the process, and finally declaring a victory after a decade of war and destruction in the region. An adrenaline-rush of American hypermasculinity on display, as the raid team penetrated the town where bin Laden was staying in, Abbottabad, Pakistan. But it is not just a show of macho military might. It is also the elevation of the masculinity of our soft-spoken and diplomatic President.  As one BBC commentator has noted, this has elevated Obama’s status from “wimp” to “warrior”. This has also significantly improved the President’s ratings (15% increase among the Republicans in fact) and has given a sense of relief and justice to many families of victims of 9/11 attacks. In short, the death of Osama bin Laden has returned the President to the status of a “man”, the United States to the status of world leader and savior, and the American people to the status of self-righteous sense of entitlement and justice. Everybody’s happy.

Sunday night, I was enjoying a nice hot cup of tea with my family members around a pit-fire when I received a text from a friend simply stating, “We killed Osama bin Laden!” At first, I thought it was a drunken joke. But then I received a similar message from a friend in D.C. celebrating in front of the White House. I quickly checked the online news and informed my family of the development. Everyone was obviously surprised. However, after 15 minutes of trying to figure out what had actually happened, we went back to our usual discussions. I, however, tried to follow the news online as the days went on. One of the articles that caught my eye was one on BBC explaining how the code name for bin Laden was, in fact, Geronimo. The name is derived from a 19th century Apache warrior who fought against white North American and Spaniard soldiers, to resist white supremacist efforts of Westward expansion and to preserve Native Americans’ lands and way of life. According to the BBC article, “[Geronimo's] struggle to resist the white Americans has led to him being depicted in a sympathetic light by many cultural historians.”

It is, therefore, no surprise that many Native Americans are upset by the use of the name Geronimo as a code word for bin Laden. To associate a great warrior in their history with a ‘known’ terrorist merely perpetuates negative stereotypes about indigenous peoples and “undermines the military service of native people.” To me, their sentiments of outrage make sense, are warranted, and should be taken seriously. However, I cannot help but to analyze the situation from a different perspective. It make sense to me that the code name for bin Laden would be Geronimo. Indeed, the projects of white supremacy, racism, westward expansion and ‘Manifest Destiny’ have not stopped in the deserts of the Wild West.

Nobody knows why the code name Geronimo was chosen in the first place. However, we should not be surprised by its appearance. Indeed after the attacks of 9/11, a lot of the rhetoric of the fight against terrorism and against bin Laden, such as “wanted dead or alive”, remind us of the old Hollywood Westerns: white dudes with rifles going into uncharted territory (usually deserts) to “smoke out” those “savages”. Of course in the movies, the white dudes with rifles are the good guys. Just like how US’s presence in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq is seen as the ultimate battle between the nation of “progressiveness, democracy, human rights, civilization, good” and the culture of “backwardness, dictatorship, barbarism, savagery, evil.” It is Us v. Axis of Evil. It is our objective and impeccable justice system v. shariaa law. It is our women running for president v. women wearing burkas and staying at home. It is Manifest Destiny Version 21. We have heard this same rhetoric many times during Colonialism and the “white man’s burden”. In our history, we have very rarely allowed the possibility that people of color and people from the Global South have agency, can determine their own paths, can fight for their own rights, and can provide for their own livelihood and happiness. Nevermind that decades of colonialism, pillage, militaristic occupation, and neo-liberal economic policies have left the Global South the unhappy short end of the deal. Nevermind the lack of education, development and opportunities in those countries. Our yardstick for determining “progressiveness” has been how well a nation treats its women/gays/minorities. It is a new Imperialism of tolerant, “multicultural” diversity, because our state has never treated its women/gays/minorities poorly. And should a nation fail to meet the requirements, the United States military (and allied nations) will descend upon it in all of its hypermasculine might and throw the torch of enlightenment into the Heart of Darkness. Colonel Kurtz-style. The irony as always lies in the fact that in our rhetoric of ‘liberation’ we are using the state and the military, two sexist and homophobic institutions, to push forward an agenda of equality and freedom. Naturally then, we are at ease to ignore the violence that emanates from these institutions as we support them to be our protectors against the monstrous Others.





In the War on Terror, we constantly tell ourselves “those people hate us”, but we are never to blame for that hatred. We are logical, humanitarian, and right. They are irrational, monstrous and evil. This is the basis for the new Eastward Expansion. Yes, we are fighting terrorism. Yes, we are getting rid of dictators. And we are doing all of that by murdering innocent people, destroying entire towns and villages, illegally detaining people in Guantánamo Bay, torturing them in black sites around the world (aka having other countries do the dirty-work for us), and spreading our militaristic influence in the region. Let’s not even consider the trillions of dollars spent in these wars and the outrageous military spending of the United States (which, by the way, is more than the combined military spending of the next 45 highest-spending states, accounting for almost half of the world’s entire military spending).

This is not a question of Osama bin Laden’s crimes, which deserve punishment. But we are quick to forget our own history of racism, imperialism, and militarism in the Middle East and South Asian countries. Since the attacks of 9/11 we have been given many reasons for invading Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Actually, I take that back. We didn’t really give a reason for rolling our tanks into Pakistan, nor did we ask for permission when sending troops into the territories of a sovereign state. Practically everything is justified in the War on Terror. Branding Islamist fighters as “illegal combatants” under international law covers our legal bases. Asking NATO to join our invasion and occupation of Afghanistan covers our diplomatic bases. Branding our quest to profit off of oil and other business ventures in Iraq as a mission to bring down a terrible dictator with nukes (which he didn’t have) covers our public image as the harbingers of democracy and human rights. Even if there are things that are not justified, who is going to stop Us? Our crimes against humanity will go on with virtual impunity while we point the finger at authoritarian brown/black people whom we once financed, sponsored, supported and protected. When do we see American leaders brought before the ICC, or UN-sanctioned special tribunals? Not with the United States’ veto at the Security Council.

There was a time when the United States had the sympathy of the world. On September 12, 2001, when I was still in Iran, my fellow Iranians went to the streets and lit candles for the victims of 9/11 in solidarity with the American people. And now the same people face heinous sanctions, horrifying inflation rates, and the horrendous prospects of war from Western powers. Clearly, attacking Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan is not just about revenge/justice for 9/11.

So again I ask, why wouldn’t bin Laden’s code name be Geronimo? Different century, same imperialism. Indeed, Geronimo was probably considered a terrorist back in those days. I wonder: about a century from now, would bin Laden be a martyred hero who was just trying to preserve a way of life and resist American Eastward Expansion and imperialism? Well, we don’t need to wait a century: he already is.

SH


the question of happiness

Gender and sexuality are staring you square in the face, one finger in the air, and it’s not a thumbs-up. Don’t get me wrong, i mean no disrespect; i just mean to bring to your attention the big queer elephant standing in the middle of the room. Why must our conversations always be drowned out by sounds of grinding teeth? i lost your love in translation and you misplaced my trust. This was a two way street until we drove head first into each other: this is me and i know you can’t understand it right now, but take a deep breath and believe me when i say: this is where i am happy. That’s all it’s about. That’s all it’s ever been about. Happiness.

Long drives made me happy. Sleepy too. Daddy would look into the rearview mirror to see my face, half asleep, lulled into a semiconscious state of bliss by the perpetually morphing landscape that accompanied an evening drive. Smiling he would ask, “Tum kush toh ho na?” gauging his parenting skills, his paternal worth, on a simple question, “You are happy, aren’t you?” i remember long pauses, absolute psychological dissonance, weighing his fatherhood against my chemical imbalances seemed cruel. Having grown up in the age of obedience, i knew what he wanted to hear and the merit my answer held. “Yeah.”

i never understood how you could expect me to be happy, when every canyon on your brow tells me you are not. Would you have answered in the same breath as i, if i had asked you this question? A lie out of good intension? Seemingly innocent, this question pinches nerves. Especially today.

My happiness, despite its absence then, meant something, intangible, but something. And now, in its purest form, my happiness is a “delusion”, a cross-cultural misconception, “unnatural”, and unreal. Unraveling my every itch, i am finally me, and in this place of self-recognition, i feel like living. But in my life, in my reality, you seem to find no pride in my self-discovery, my greatest accomplishment. My parade beacons only to be drained of its hue because your rods and cones have eyes of their own. Where are your questions now, when i am, for once, ready to answer without fear?

And when i did ask you, “Ma, are you happy?” i heard the same ageless pause, felt the same dissonance, and understood your obligatory response, “Of course.” But that smile- that smile said, “Baby, for you i can try.”


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


culturally queer

My parents never forget to remind of their good intentions: “We say this because we love you.” But with so much of my life hidden from their peripheries, I wonder if they can fathom the thought of their little girl standing up on her own two feet and taking charge of her own life. When did the hand holding and spoon feeding stop and the independent social justice queer superhero persona begin? When did I make the transition from their daughter to my self? Somewhere between my gender and sexuality, I started fighting for myself rather than fighting against them. Nonetheless, it is always a fight to be who I am because it’s hard for them to understand the butch behind the babe.

They have yet to be acquainted with the world I have come to call my own. How could I expect them to know what I, as a gay genderqueer individual, need? They grew up in irony. Post-colonial India, the mysterious subcontinent, the womb of the karma sutra, shies away from its roots and boasts a hush-hush attitude toward any thought of sex, sexuality, and gender nonconformity, as if somehow it makes them more chaste. What is morally pure about perpetuating the cycle of oppression? How is it that a culture that worships an androgynous god, who is represented by an abstract sculpture of a lingam and yoni (male and female sex organs, respectively), can’t talk about sexuality?! This symbolism for oneness is not a promotion of heteronormativity but a union of male and female energies, an embrace of sexual dualism. The true nature of this culture, based on the idea of natural balance and fluidity, has been drowned out by colonialism, insecurity, and ignorance. I can still feel the effects, generations later, continents apart. These human experiences, sexuality and gender, were never discussed in my house, as I was growing up and even now. And I never dared to ask. I only dared to learn.

Imprisoned within their mental models, they remind me: “We’ve been through it, we were your age once, and we know what it’s like,” without realizing that they are not me. Do they really know what I’m going through? Have they really gone through the questioning, acknowledging, and coming out process? Do they really know what it is like to live in dissonance trying to balance who you know you are and who you know they want you to be? They live life from their perspective, like everyone else, but they can’t seem to see beyond it. They are the “experts” of their lives, but without being me, how could they be the experts of mine? I don’t doubt their intentions but I certainly doubt their knowledge.

At first, I didn’t know what I needed as a queer person. Since knowledge is power, I turned to the knower of all knowledge: google. Researching myself was beautiful, but things got tricky when I went for the “giant leap for queer kind;” from the inter-webs to the real world. I can still remember the fear I experienced the first time I visited the Q Center. I hardly felt like I could walk in the building, let alone the center, I was so afraid of being seen by someone I knew. What would I say about where I was going and why? Do they know what the Q Center is? Are they judging me for going there? At that point I had experience with avoiding the rapture, as many fresh-out-of-high-school students had, but this was bigger than “oh, I wasn’t smoking, my friends were, I just watched” or “yeah, their parents were home and no, we didn’t drink.” No amount of air freshener and no amount of spearmint gum can mask the fact that I am gay. Intimate and powerful, my sexuality and gender expression needed to be acknowledged, nurtured, and celebrated, even if it meant judgment. I had to remind myself that the truth is the truth, and the truth was that I needed to put myself out there in order to seek guidance, despite my paranoia. I am worth the fight. I deserve to find peace.

As a shy person, I was literally shaking as I walked in. I had never been in a room with more than one or two queer people, other than myself. But it felt right. My experiences were shared by many (even my experiences as queer Indian), and it wasn’t long before I found a community of people who don’t look at me funny for dressing like a lumberjack or performing drag or expressing my attraction to that grad student, who is WAY out of my league. They liked me for me, in all my queerness. And I liked them. Being gay was one less thing we judged each other on and one more thing we unified to celebrate. To say I am a different person, a better person, a happier person, after finding this community is an understatement. I am finally able to say “I am ok” and believe it. And for once, I have hope that I am to make it through to another day and love it. Having found my niche, I know that if I ever lost that hope, I have people holding it for me. My parents may not understand who I am yet, but with “Team Sasha” backing me up, I feel like I am where I should be: happy and whole.


the smallest minority

True story: Waiting for the bus one morning, I overheard a mama talking to her 5 year old daughter:
“There are so many different kinds of people in the world, right baby?”
Chewing a mouthful of cold smore poptarts, she nods.
“There are big people, there are little people, there are mama people, and daddy people, and baby people. There are tall people, who play basketball, and small people… There are black people, and white people, and brown people… What kind of person are you baby?”
Still chewing that mouthful of cold smore poptarts, “A cute person!”
Smiling, mama affirms that baby is indeed a cute person.

I too am a cute person (or so I think), but I am also a short person, a chubby person, a silly person, a female bodied person, a gay person, a genderqueer person, a 19-year-old person, a middle class person, and a first generation Indian American person. It might have taken me a long to realize, but I’m definitely a cute person. In fact, it took me a long time to realize who I am. The more I discovered about myself, the more I felt like I was falling further into the minority rabbit hole. I felt more alien than anything. Did anyone else’s intersectionality, intersect with mine? Or was my unique being going to be isolated, alone, and unappreciated?

Intersectionality is a funny thing. It divides us, drawing lines in the sand of humanity, erecting chasms between you and me. And it unites us. And it leaves us solitary. And it creates solidarity. This double edged sword so integral to our being makes us who we are, as individuals and as a human race. There is pride in being the one and only you, celebration and beauty. But what is a celebration without others to share with?! Isn’t there a sense of excitement in meeting someone who shares an experience with you? In seeing someone like you? In realizing you are not alone in your struggles and achievements? This interpersonal connection, this sense of community, plays a pivotal role in self-appreciation and in self-love. In turn, this creates the foundation for the appreciation and celebration of others too.

The branches of our intersectionality all lead to the same trunk, our being. Each branch affects another and cannot exist alone. My race affects the filter with which I view my sexuality or gender expression or class or age or my physical appearance, abilities/disabilities, or the culture I want to create for myself. Finding a balance between the aspects our lives, the tidbits that makes us who we are, can be difficult without affirmation of our existence. It wasn’t until I met another queer, first generation, Indian American that I was able to see how the mosaic fit together. I was opened to a whole new dimension. Realizing that I wasn’t some kind of mistake or freak or monster let me adjust my filters. Apparently the Indian culture is chock full of instances of homosexuality! Gods that are half male and half female, sex positions for lovers of the same sex, even religiously accepted marriages between women! My culture wasn’t as suffocating as I thought, exploring the intersection of my race and sexuality has given me a new appreciation for my mother culture. I’m not a mythical creature, “queer woman of color”, but I am the child of millions, if not billions, of others just like me. There is so much peace in this enlightenment.

Dedicated to gita mehrotra