Sept. 13, 2000
I was expecting to feel more emotions when the plane landed in Tehran, Iran: the overwhelming joy of returning home, nervous anticipation of coming face-to-face with my ancestry, or perhaps just excited curiosity about what this country had in store for me. I had felt all these emotions back in California while preparing for my journey. And yet, as the plane landed, I was calm, as if I had made this trip a hundred times before. Perhaps that is how it was supposed to be - Iran was something familiar, an inherent part of me, an expansion of a culture I was already used to.
I was born in Tehran (the capital of Iran) on April 25, 1978. Both sides of my family are from Iran, and my brother and I continued the tradition, the most recent generation to be born there. However, this was a time of much change in the country, and it soon became a time of great change for my family. Iran during this period was Western-influenced and under the rule of a king, Shah Pahlavi. But in 1978, the seeds of a revolution were being planted.
Although I like to joke that it was my birth that brought about a revolution, there were actually many other factors involved. For instance, as people started to feel that the Shah was threatening their traditional and religious values, protests against the government became common. The Shah declared martial law, and hundreds of demonstrators were killed. Because many agencies were on strike, mail was not delivered, and water and electricity were often shut off. My parents kept the bathtub and all the pots in our house filled with water so that my brother and I and could have water when we needed it. These were not the most ideal conditions for raising a baby, I imagine.
My parents talked about moving to the United States at some point, but they did not have definite plans. Then, in January of 1979, the revolution came to a head. The Shah left the country, and the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, took control. The country was declared an Islamic Republic, and fundamentalist codes of behavior and dress were put into place. This meant, for example, that women would have to wear the hejab, or modest Islamic dress and headscarf.
My parents, who were Western-educated and not very traditional or religious, decided this was their cue to leave. They packed up their things in about 48 hours, and we left the country and headed to the U.S. Considering that it would probably take me about 48 hours just to properly clean my room, I am blown away by the fact that my parents were able to pack up their lives and leave their home in that short a time - and with two small children! I would of course love to believe that I was an absolute angel on the day-long plane journey and during all the hassles of moving, but something tells me otherwise.
Yes, my parents truly do amaze me. It is interesting to think about what your family went through when you were too young to remember - or perhaps what earlier generations of your family experienced before you were even a dot on the radar screen. And it's interesting to realize that some of the experiences you are going to have will be passed down the generations as family stories!
When we came to the States, my family first went to Santa Barbara, California and then moved around a bit before settling down in the Bay Area. Many other Iranians immigrated to the United States around this same time, including my maternal grandparents and aunt and uncles. Iran had changed so much that none of my family really talked seriously about going back, even for a visit.
It was only after 21 years of absence that my parents and I decided to return. It was now April of 2000, and I had about a week and a half to discover Iran - quite a daunting task, I must admit. Yet, slowly, the pieces started coming together. My parents took me to the house where my mother grew up and the apartment where I was born. We went to the cemetery where my grandfather is buried alongside my great-uncle, great-grandmother and other family members. I hung out with my grandmother as she cooked some traditional Persian meals (yummy!). I met my great-grandfather, who is pushing 105 and has this majestic air about him. I celebrated my 22nd birthday with family I had just met, and who treated me like royalty. We traveled not only to Tehran, but also to Isfahan and Shiraz, two other major cities where we have some family ties.
I enjoyed the delightful bombardment of my senses. The smells of the spice market in Isfahan. The sounds in the teahouses of chatter in Farsi, my native tongue. The sights of elaborate and amazing mosques and ancient ruins. The taste of ghormeh sabzi, a favorite dish of mine made with rice and spinach.
Iran is so rich and amazing. And although much of it is familiar, I am still continuously impressed. I am experiencing my culture directly at the source! How many times have I written my birthplace on a form or told someone of my origins without having a true appreciation of what that meant? It is incredible when stories you have heard start coming alive and you have full vivid experiences to go along with what used to be just words.
And, of course, it all comes back to family. People who I assumed would just always be names in the family tree to me were now actual people with their own experiences to share and stories to tell. And so I listened. My family here has dealt with a lot - the aftermath of the revolution followed almost immediately by a devastating 8-year war with Iraq. I never had to think about such things when I was a kid in the U.S.
My whirlwind tour of Iran came to an end with so much left to see and do. But just as when I first arrived, there was no outpouring of emotion when the plane took off to head back to California. I realized that I was not leaving Iran; I was bringing it back with me to the States. And it would only make me stronger.
The United States is my home, yet Iran is the foundation. It is this cultural base which makes me so strong and my experiences as an American so rich. There have always been traditions, such as going to my aunt and uncle's house to celebrate Persian New Year's, which takes place on the first day of spring. But now there is more. As I have grown older, I have gained a greater appreciation of what it means to be an Iranian-American and a greater awareness of what we left behind in Iran.
I tried not to have too many expectations about my trip to Iran, but I knew it was to be one of self-discovery and of forming a deeper connection to my past. And it was. But I also feel that I am still processing a lot of it. I am still questioning certain customs, still wondering about certain aspects of tradition. And I think about the role of my Iranian background in my life as an American and the role that I will want this culture to play when I have children of my own.
And this, of course, is just one story. Everyone you encounter has his or her own story and family history. The U.S may be a relatively young country, yet below the surface, there are roots sprawling in every direction, criss-crossing, intertwining, spanning oceans or perhaps just digging deeper into the land. Most importantly, these roots provide support, and they make us stronger.
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