Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Iranian Third

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
But who is that on the other side of you? 
T. S. Eliot

Really, who is that third who is always walking beside us Iranians in the Diaspora? Who is that “Iranian” who appears in our minglings, in our workplaces, in our parties, or in our daily meetings here and there who is not like us but has a much stronger presence than us, that invisible Iranian who is like none of us but is like all of us? Where has it come from and who created it?
The American Embassy inTehran was taken over by Iranian students during my first year of teaching in college.  Overhearing my conversations with faculty members, my students learned that I’m not American and my home is somewhere else; though, I had no idea why my accent had not clued them in! In any case, in one class, students asked me where I’m from. “Guess,” I said. After a wide range of guesses, ranging from South Africa to Sweden, we got closer to “somewhere in Middle East.” I asked them where in the Middle East. Surprisingly one of them said “Somewhere like Africa!” I finally told them I’m from Iran. “Wow! But you don’t look like one!” “One of whom?” I asked. “Those in the street in front of the Embassy.”  I’m not sure if I would have felt better or worse had he said, “Oh, we thought so!” But the fact that students who thought that Africa is somewhere in the Middle East already had formed a fixed image of us within a few days certainly made quite a difference in my life, I learned that there is another “me” walking besides me that I must make sure does not overshadow me.
I was still struggling with that image when Betty Mahmoodi returned from Iran and wrote the famous book NotWithout My Daughter. Very likely her best bet was that it would become the bestseller that it became, but none of us imagined that she would create a genre in Iranian contemporary literature and model for Iranian characters as she did. Since then, I have heard that some books are rejected by publishers because “the men aren’t abusive” or “none of the women are abused,” or “the women in are very strong and independent, not fitting our readers’ expectations.” One author was rejected for years because there was not a single villain in his book. One publisher suggested to an author, “Could you change the persona of the father in your book. He is too soft for a Middle Eastern man.”
And then arrived political about us stories with all the characters either confirming the images of the American Embassy occupation or testifying to the truth of Betty Mahmoodi’s experiences: all men unpredictable, brutal, and irrational and the women, desperate, helpless, betrayed, and beaten up in their private lives, if not tortured, raped, and, in many cases, executed in prison. These stories left nothing more for the characters to do but to defy and turn “defiance” not only into the main theme of our contemporary literature and art, but as an epithet for us, a caricature of being Iranian.
This mode of characterization spread soon to all other branches of art. An art historian, from Spain shifted her study of the history of photography from contemporary Iranian photography to the early nineteen century just to free herself from the expectation of explaining the veil and chador in modern photography or the significance of calligraphy inscribed on the body. A few painters complained that they are all expected to exhibit political painting. It seems that contemporary Iranian art is nonexistent if it is not Islamicized or politicized.
In reality, however, we write a book and create a work of art to tell the world our stories, how we experience life and how we deal with it. Through our art, we try to record history—our identity—to leave a trace for the next generation, for them to know how far we have come to get here. Our artifacts testify to the life we have lived, something to speak for us and tell our tales when we are gone. Undoubtedly life, and our experience of it, is much greater than a few symbols and traits “describing” us over last few decades. Why should this temporary passing phase take precedent over our history? And why should we create a false image, base on a slippery ground of a political page of history, instead of presenting our reality?
This is by no means to deny the emergence of a new culture during the last three decades, the regime’s brutality, the security forces’ violence and lawlessness, or even disorders among civilians. Of course there is no doubt about recurring rape, torture, murder and executions in prison, as is the nature of a dictatorial regime. An alarming amount of domestic violence can also be seen. However, literature and art are about the wider spectrum of life and not only a display of our anger and frustration towards certain period of history. Neither are the territories of our nation limited to the span between Evin Prison and Behesht-e Zahra Cemetery.
Even though the roots of many of the country’s current problems are the malice of the dictatorial regime which has created a suffocating climate for all, many of our concerns could be discussed meaningfully from different perspective. Gay and lesbian citizens are not all executed, though they still face huge amount of obstacle in their way to happiness and fulfillment in Iran’s traditional society. Women are not all facing the threat of stoning, but the local custom and the family relations and lack of communication between man and woman which allow a man to testify against his wife to be stoned in more damaging and of greater concern. If the laws of censorship stop authors and journalists from expressing their thoughts, unwritten habits of talking in metaphors, general terms, obscure references to vague ideas, and reference to unidentified entities are more detrimental still. If artists, artisans, thinkers, intellectuals, and writers do not step up to change these habits, removing censorship will be of little help.
The community of elites in the Diaspora should be more held to account in spreading these stereotypical images than any anyone else. Could we not pay more attention to human needs in a humane society? Could we not promote and emphasize the positive characteristics of our culture that has older tradition than those imposed laws of sharia which have emerged during the last few decades? Could we not contemplate a bit over the virtues we share with the community of nations and build a bridge to them as a passage to a global village rather than focusing on petty eccentricities that divide us and lock us forever in our local tribes?
While many elements may have contributed to forging this kind of model, each of us bears a still greater responsibility. It is up to us to keep the balance between the images we present to our host countries about ourselves, our nation, and our character traits. It is so unfortunate that society has become so sluggish that clich├ęs have an easier time to register themselves. It is so unfortunate that we, as refugees, political or otherwise, sometimes have to exaggerate our grievances in order to be heard. It is even more unfortunate that we sometimes come into competition with so many that we have to turn to the most remote and the most eccentric aspects of our customs and traditions in order to catch some attention. But there are still so many of us that enjoy a kind of security and peace to be able to focus on the more meaningful aspects of our existence.
Why don’t we discuss our problems as they are? Why don’t we present ourselves as we are? The image we have created not only won’t help us to pursue our happiness in our adopted country, but will give a false identity to the next generations. Why don’t we want to take a measure against this falsehood? If we do not do it now, our children in future will have to pay much higher price to do the remedy.  

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