Iranian–Americans, Quest For Identity

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The United States has been going through inevitable demographic shifts lately, not only quantitatively but also qualitatively. Incessant migration has dominated almost all these changes. The increasing number of minorities is especially noteworthy and game-changing.

Immigrants from numerous countries have migrated to America. In particular, many Iranians have migrated to America over the past few decades, especially after the advent of the Islamic Revolution and the installation of Islamic government, not only in search of better living conditions but also to escape religious persecution and what they have considered unbearable living condition in Iran. Since their arrival, they have worked diligently to successfully establish themselves financially, socially, professionally, politically, and intellectually in the U.S. Even though they are relatively new, Iranians have been quite successful in America in many respects. Particularly, when it comes to academic, business, medical, and technology fields, their report card is quite impressive.

Although the level of curiosity about Iranian-Americans is high, the public awareness of their community is shallow and often imprecise because it has been grounded on inaccurate information that often provided by lopsided mass media. For example, a typical American cannot distinguish between Iranians and the other Middle Easterners; most Americans are scantly familiar with the historical contexts for the current bickering and the antagonistic relationship between the U.S. administration and the Iranian government. Even as recently as today, Iran is still identified by the U.S. government as a hostile nation and the sponsor of terrorism despite the fact that there is no credible evidence to support such accusations.

As Iranians become increasingly visible and more established as a minority group in America, they have no choice but to integrate deeper into the dominant culture of their new country and build their own identity nonetheless, an identity with fitting elements. For Iranian immigrants, constructing an identity is a tedious endeavor that takes a long time; however, doing so serves as a conduit through which they can earn deserving recognition and political power.

Iranian writers, I believe, have strived diligently to properly inform the public about their community and its unique aspects by addressing the key social and cultural issues in their writings and expounding on the type of identity Iranian-Americans want to be associated with. These writers have eloquently told stories by narrating their upbringing, lifestyle, the Iranian culture, food, music, their longings, their aspiration, and where they want the Iranian community to be in the future. They have addressed these issues thoroughly in their books published in recent years mostly in form of memoires. Among other things, the works of these writers have served as excellent mediums through which group identity has been constructed and intercultural issues have been addressed.  They have voiced their opinions regarding these issues and have told their stories for multiple reasons. Foremost, they want to promote public awareness and to clarify the misconceptions regarding who Iranian-Americans are and what they stand for, and to gain the recognition they deserve as well as the political power that comes with such recognition.

The salient fact is that most of such books/memoires have been written by female Iranian authors, who departed Iran after Islamic revolution, simply because they have been more frequently discriminated against and claimed to be oppressed by the government in Iran and thus had no choice but to leave in the face of harsh living condition. Oppressed people have more emotional memories to draw upon and more touching stories to tell. Owing to female’s charm, women are usually better storytellers and offer more intriguing accounts of their life. Additionally, the popularity of feminism in the U.S. makes these books more appealing to mainstream American audience and thus more marketable

What is important for us Iranians is to claim our rightful niches in this great nation and elucidate the way we want to be known and be portrayed as a community. Writing has always been an effective means of parlaying the forces of identity and putting an accurate face on human life in general and the Iranian community in the diaspora in particular. Iranian writers, as mentioned above, have done a fantastic job of telling their stories in an attempt to not only shed some light on a number of social, cultural, political, and human rights issues, but also they have composed a rightful identity for Iranian-American community. Particularly, in the aftermath of any calamitous events like the terrorist attacks, they have felt more obligated to clarify the Iranian position and repudiate any blame placed on Iran or Iranians for such attacks.

In a nutshell, Iranians in the U.S. are best presented by their writers and thought leaders. The stories they have told in their memoirs, although their own, are also serves as the building blocks of their group identity. Delving into these memoires gives us good insights into the self-portrayal of Iranian-American community. They want to bring to the fore the issues they think are momentous to them and need to be addressed, and their writing is also a response to the priorities of their American audience and the diasporic Iranians. These stories represent the events, experiences, memories, and traditions that comprise the group’s ethos.

The US is one the most welcoming places for immigrants. While religious and cultural diversity is less tolerated in developing countries including Iran, tolerance is one of the attractive most attractive magnets of American culture. We Iranian immigrants appreciate it profoundly. Respect for diversity and multi-ethnicities, freedom of expression, as well as equal protection under the legal system are among the fundamental values of modern societies wherein people thrive and get along better.


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Parsa Parsa (@Parsa) Pinned comment
“a typical American cannot distinguish between Iranians and the other Middle Easterners..”

This is very true globally. Having said that it is a bit hard to distinguish between Arab Muslims and Iranians if you are an outsider, what is clear to us is not necessary clear to others:

Arab=Muslims (although there are Arabs who are Christians, Jews and atheists, etc… However, vast majority are Muslims)

Iranian= Muslims (statistically more than 80% Iranians are Muslims)

Iranian language although closer to Sanskrit but because of using Arabic alphabets has added to the confusion. What’s worse is that some Iranians who have nothing better to do and who want to seek only attention insist on calling the language Farsi when referring to it in English, dismissing the word Persian that has always been used.

Iran/ Iraq the similarity between the two names does not help.

Iranian government also has no interest in promoting Iranian culture to the foreigners. Having said that they are using the Iranian culture as a political tool in particular countries; if it is in their interest to expand their influence. For example, in Sarajevo there is an Iranian cultural centre. Over there a visitor will find more to read on Ferdowsi and Hafiz than Shiism. So you can never trust IRI as genuine promoter of Iranian culture for they have ulterior motive.

Since the Islamic revolution in 1979 Shiism has gradually overshadowed the Iranian identity. So the Iranians main struggle, most important cultural warfare in order to break free from the parasitic Shiite bondage is with Iranians who claim Shiism as their religion/identity and salvation and dominate the political landscape and suppress all other Iranian voices in the home country.

Many Iranians in diaspora have an authentic interest in their culture. As you mentioned writing is a great way to promote, understand and appreciate how Iranian identity (or any other identity for that matter) has evolved through the vicissitudes of history. We are not alone. The Tibetans, Palestinians, Syrians, just to mention a few, are on similar journey. I find great comfort and strength by talking to them.

I personally find Iranian history/culture very interesting but at the same time a very hard nut to crack if you are looking for truth that is. This is what makes the Iranian identity so exciting because there is so much we still don’t know about ourselves (our history) that we need to unearth, much of it buried beneath layers and layers of lies and deceptions fabricated by so called historians and propagandists for their theological or political gains.
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varjavand varjavand (@varjavand) Pinned comment
Dear Mr. Parsa,
Thanks for your comprehensive comment. I believe the Iranians writers who live in the West or in the United States wish not to be identified with Islam and its Arabian culture for the possible cost of being associated with such an identity. Especially, they want to distance themselves from the most combative version of Islam, Shiaism, for many good reasons. First, to avoid prevailing discrimination in the United States in various forms against Muslims and the phobia of extreme Islam. Second, to educate American audience about the Iranian community and the kind of identity they wish to construct for themselves. And finally, to use the freedom of speech to tell their stories the way they deem truthful. They also have to explain why they wanted to distance themselves from Islam many reasons including violence committed in the name of this religion. Such intentional distancing from Islam and from its Arabian culture is understandable and supported by most Iranians living in diaspora.
They have searched for and utilized the non-Islamic alternatives as the key elements of their identity in the United States by invoking the glorious past of Persian Empire and its rich heritage to create Iranian/nationalistic identity, taking refuge in their Aryan root, celebrating pre-Islamic events such as Nowruz in full force, and taking pride in their powerful Persian Empire, the kings and leaders like Cyrus the great, and especially distancing themselves from Islam’s Arabic culture they regard as responsible for the invading and undermining of their country’s ancient heritage, and returning to pre-Islamic religion of Iran, Zoroastrianism. Some Iranians have resorted to poetry and rich Farsi literature to promote their culture and their love of their home country.
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