From Iran to America (non-fiction)
I fell in love with America when I was seven. That’s when my cousins went to New Jersey for the summer and came back with all these cool treats. There was bubble gum, candy that popped in your mouth, cassettes of popular music, and even fake nails. My favorites were the magazines with pictures of the Six Million Dollar Man, the Bionic Woman and Charlie’s Angels. I watched these TV shows in Tehran. The characters spoke Farsi. Now here they were, on pages of magazines, giving the world a glimpse into their all-American life.
Inside the magazines, there were also pictures of a tall, rather unattractive man with long black hair who wore a handkerchief around his face. He was with a thin, striking looking woman with long silky black hair who wore very revealing outfits. They looked like they were trying to dodge the cameras. And next to their pictures there was always a picture of this devilish looking man. He also had long black hair, but his face was covered with make-up. He had a very long tongue. And then there were the clean-cut boys hanging out with boys who had longish blond hair. Who were these people? How did they all know each other? I couldn’t even figure it out because I didn’t speak or read English. My cousins didn’t have the patience to translate. The pictures were all I had.
But the pictures were enough. Looking at Farrah Fawcett and Jaclyn Smith, I saw two gorgeous women as strong and independent as Jill Monroe and Kelly Garrett. I admired the women’s perfect mix of femininity and self-assuredness that came through in their photos. It further endeared America in my heart because it was there that these women lived.
This was 1976, three years before Iran became the Islamic Republic. We had a lot of social freedom in Iran then, but it was still very much a patriarchal and conservative culture. A woman’s worth was practically determined by the type of family she married into. Dating was forbidden and pre-marital sex was akin to blasphemy. I didn’t know any women who had careers. Sure, we had some famous actresses and singers. They were also glamorous and pretty, but they didn’t embody the same confidence and originality as their American counterparts.
America seemed in a league of its own. It was the land of possibility and innovation, the land where you could be free to be yourself. I desperately wanted to go to this magical land. My mother didn’t share my curiosity for the place. She insisted that we vacation in Europe during our holidays. I think she thought Europe was chic and America was shameless.
By the winter of 1978, student protests were widespread in Tehran. Many schools, including mine, had been closed for weeks. My parents and I went ahead with our winter holiday plans to go skiing in Austria. My parents’ close friends and their two daughters joined us from London.
I was good friends with the two girls and we were thrilled that our parents allowed us to share a room in the hotel. It was so liberating not having adults around all the time. We skied every day and had family dinners at night. We’d split from our parents after dinner to do our own thing. I don’t even remember what we did, but I remember we had a lot of fun. We were completely oblivious to developments in Iran.
On our last day in Austria, my grandfather called to tell my parents not to come back. The unrest in Iran was escalating and the Shah was rumored to be leaving the country.
The next day, we flew to London with our family friends.
Once we were settled in an apartment, my father returned to Iran to sell our house and tie some loose ends. The Shah had left by this point and Ayatollah Khomeini had returned. The evening news in London broadcasted the protests in Tehran. There were images of bleeding students, shouting men, and burning tires. I still didn’t speak English so I couldn’t understand what was being said. My mom told me the demonstrations were far away from where we lived and didn’t affect our family. She didn’t want me to worry, but I overheard her on several occasions talking to her friends about someone they knew having been arrested or having had their property confiscated.
None of this made any sense to me. The Iran I had left just months earlier had been a safe place where no one I knew lived in fear of arrest or homelessness. How could things have changed so much so quickly? I wanted to understand, but no one seemed interested in explaining it to me. It was years later that I realized it was probably because it didn’t make sense to them either. I prayed every night for the safety of my father and other family members. My prayers were answered for the most part. Almost everyone I knew survived the new regime.
That summer, my father joined us in London. He had big news. We were moving to America! At last, my dream was going to come true! This crazy revolution that was wreaking havoc on most people’s lives was actually working in my favor. We were moving to a place called Florida. Disney World was in Florida. I jumped up and down, my screams getting louder as the news sunk in. We were moving to America!
My father went there first to buy a house so we would have somewhere to live. My mom and I joined him a couple of months later, towards the end of the summer. On our last days in London, excitement rushed through me each time I thought about the move. I wasn’t even concerned about the possibility of disappointment. My expectations were high, but not unrealistic. A country with so much creativity, originality and openness was bound to be exciting.
Our flight landed in the evening. Though it was the middle of the night in London, I was wide-awake. My father picked us up in a big white Cadillac. As we drove to our new house, I was amazed by the size of the roads. Unlike the narrow streets in Iran and Europe, these were wide and spacious, with multiple lanes in each direction. Ah, America was already living up to my expectations of grandness.
Then we got to our house. It was huge – with a bar room, a pool and even a tennis court. I ran from room to room, trying to decide which one to pick as my own. I was still deciding when my dad ushered us back to the car to go grocery shopping. Grocery stores in Iran were tiny and claustrophobic so I wasn’t really expecting much from this road trip. Then I walked into Publix.
The place was massive. And it sold everything. It was hard to focus. There was just so much stuff. There was an aisle dedicated to candies, chocolates and chips. Another aisle displayed pretty hair accessories – from ribbons and barrettes to elastics and hairpins. And there were the colorful rows of nail polish, with the equally colorful rows of lipsticks nearby. They even had Farrah Fawcett shampoo and conditioner. And of course the magazines – the same ones I had coveted back in Iran. They were all here, right in front of me. I couldn’t stand still, but I did take a second to thank God for my good fortune. America was everything I had imagined. I was thrilled to finally be here.
My parents enrolled me in a private school. Fortunately for me, there was a Spanish girl in my class who didn’t speak any English either so I didn’t feel totally out of place. But unfortunately for me, it was the midst of the Iran hostage crisis, which compelled a boy in my class to sit near me every day only to sing “bomb, bomb, bomb…bomb, bomb Iran.” I wanted to tell him to shut up, that I had family still living in Iran and that bombing the country wasn’t going to free the hostages. But I didn’t know how to say any of this in English. So I just ignored him and eventually he stopped.
I was in the sixth grade when the American hostages were released. I spoke English fluently by then. My teacher announced the good news. Then she recounted the horrors the hostages had endured during their 444 days of captivity. She described how some of them had been subjected to games of Russian roulette, never knowing if there was a bullet in the gun.
When my teacher looked at me, I felt compelled to weigh in as the only Iranian in the room. I said that the hostages had been lucky, that they could have been subjected to much worse forms of torture than Russian roulette. She was appalled by my remarks.
What she didn’t realize was that I knew people – two distant relatives – who had been jailed, beaten and eventually executed by a firing squad. They didn’t survive the hostilities of this new regime. And they were innocent men too, caught in the political crossfire of a revolution. So compared to what had happened to them, the American hostages were lucky. They were alive and they had a great country to come home to.
One of the best things about living in America was the exposure to people from all races and religions. I had grown up hearing about the PLO, Yasser Arafat and the ongoing war between Palestinians and Jews in Israel. Discussions of these topics were often one-sided in Iran, with the Jews always cast as the bad guys being supported in clandestine ways by the almighty America. I didn’t spend a great deal of time thinking about it, but from what I had heard, I think I expected Jews to be different, to always stand out, and not necessarily in a positive way. But I didn’t know anyone Jewish then.
It was in America that I actually met Jewish people. They were my classmates, my friends and my neighbors. And they were no different than anyone else except that most of them had a deeper respect for their traditions than the rest of us. And because of this, they were treated to the best coming of age party of any culture or society – the bar/bat mitzvah, second only in grandness to a wedding. I had so much fun at these celebrations. And I never felt awkward being a Muslim. Religion was never an issue amongst us kids.
It didn’t take long for me to be immersed in the American way of life. I was an honor student and a cheerleader. I liked to go to the mall with my friends. Sometimes we would try to sneak in to a rated R movie. I wasn’t allowed to have a boyfriend, but I had one anyway. He was the first boy I kissed, and it was during a game of Spin the Bottle. Though my close friends were the “popular” kids, I was friendly with all groups. I was especially fascinated by the punk rockers. They were as different as you could get in a private school. I admired their courage to be different. I sometimes wished I had the balls to slash my hair and dye it pink.
Because I wasn’t judgmental, a lot of kids came to me for advice. Even the punk rockers. I enjoyed hearing everyone’s stories because they taught me about different viewpoints and life situations. I liked diversity. It’s what I appreciated most about America.
By the time I was in the eighth grade, my mother had had enough of Florida. She was pregnant and couldn’t stand the heat. She was also concerned that I was headed down a sexually loose path with the boys (she suspected I had a boyfriend). We moved to Toronto, Canada that summer. I was devastated. The Canadian people were different from Americans. In some ways they were much more active and focused, and in other ways they lacked the same warmth and friendliness. I knew that one day I would return to my beloved America.
After almost a decade, I moved back. I lived in Boston for a few years and then made New York my home. I was here when the dot com phase took off, when Monica Lewinsky became a household name, Google became a verb, the Twin Towers collapsed and the first black president was elected to office. Despite its challenges, America has remained the land of opportunity and innovation.
I became a U.S. citizen a few days shy of my 37th birthday. It was the birthday gift I had wanted for almost thirty years. It was official – I was an American.