Friday's "Arts & Weekend" section of London's Financial Times featured a long personal essay by Kamin Mohammadi, a young woman who lives in London but whose sense of family derives from her grandfather, whose "family of khans . . . ruled the southern Gulf province of Busheir" but left to take "a government job in Abadan." -- The essay is an extended reflection on the fate of a cousin, who became addicted to heroin during the Iran-Iraq war and died an addict with AIDS in 2004 at the age of 38; it begins with a haunting scene in an Iranian graveyard on the Islamic weekend when Iranians visit with flasks of rosewater and boxes of halva, honey biscuits, and fruit, paying respects to the dead. -- Kamin Mohammadi contributed another article, much less personal in tone but containing more reflections on the phenomenon of dual identity, to Impressions, the inflight magazine of BMED (an airline operating "as" British Airways with flights to destinations in the Middle East), in which she notes that "Iranian Alliances Across Borders (whose directors are students themselves) held the first international conference on the Iranian Diaspora at Wellesley College and Tufts University in Massachusetts in April to try to address issues of identity." ...
Arts & Weekend
THE HERO AND HEROIN
By Kamin Mohammadi
Financial Times (UK)
July 15, 2005
It is Friday and Abadan's graveyard is busy. The second day of the Islamic weekend, this is when many Iranians pay their respects to their dead. Families come bearing flasks of rosewater and boxes of sweets to hand around the raised stone graves, most of which are topped by glass cases containing pictures of the deceased. Beyond, the rain has turned the marshland into fields of mud. I am here with my cousin Esmael and his wife and we have brought trays of homemade halva, honey biscuits and fruit. We have come for the rituals marking 40 days after my cousin Ebby's funeral.
We walk past the martyrs' section to another part of the cemetery because, although Ebby was a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, he was not martyred on the battlefield, but died 16 years later in an abandoned slum in Abadan, a homeless heroin addict with Aids and hepatitis. He was 38. Already gathered around his grave are his two sisters and his estranged wife, Mina, a moon-faced woman in a voluminous black chador. None of them had seen Ebby for years before his death, but finally they are laying aside their anger to grieve. Not just for his death, but also for his life. I take my place by their side, crouching in the mud by the grave, which is set like a table at a party: white gladioli are surrounded by dishes of fruit and sweets. There is some shaking of heads and mutters of a wasted life, but no one talks about Ebby's death or the drug addiction that soared out of control after he came home from the front line of the war.
I have flown here from my home in London, haunted by memories of my cousin and his ignominious death. I have come to try to understand why he died, how the happy boy I grew up with became such a desperate man.
During Abadan's oil-drenched heyday, a line from a local song neatly captured the city's self-image: "Abadan: don't call it Abadan; call it Paris." In the south-western province of Khuzestan, on the Iran-Iraq border, Abadan lies on an island of the same name off the eastern bank of the Shatt al-Arab waterway, 30 miles from the Persian Gulf. It was a small town when the Anglo-Persian Oil Company set up its refinery there in 1909, but by the 1950s the facility was the largest in the world and Abadan had grown into a city of more than 220,000 people, with a booming economy and a sophisticated population of foreigners and Iranians. From the small airport one could board a plane for London, New York and, indeed, Paris. By the late 1970s its population had grown to nearly half a million. Then came 1980 and the Iran-Iraq war. Border areas were worst hit and Khuzestan is still struggling to come to terms with its devastation. Now, Abadan's airport handles only a few internal flights a week.
My family had lived there since the 1930s, when Reza Shah consolidated his power by stripping the local khans of their land and absorbing them into local government.
My great-grandfather was from a family of khans who ruled the southern Gulf province of Busheir and gladly accepted a local government job in Abadan. Soon after, he gave his only daughter, my grandmother, to a merchant in marriage and they proceeded to produce 12 children, the eldest of whom was Ebby's father.
Within this vast family, we children were close. Even after my parents moved away from Abadan, we would visit often and I remember lunches at my uncle's house, falling in the dust as we chased each other outside, Ebby helping to pick me up and divert me from my bleeding knees.
After we left Iran in 1979, I never saw my uncle again. Like everyone employed by the oil company, he was not allowed to leave his post during the war and he stayed in Abadan throughout. A few years after the end of the war, he died of cancer, followed a few months later by his wife.
When I last saw Ebby seven years ago, he was a man in his 30s. He told me that for the last 18 months of the war he had fought along the border further north of Abadan at Shalamcheh, scene of some of the conflict's worst battles.
"I can't even describe the things I've seen," he muttered, chain-smoking. He was still suffering from nightmares. "There were the Iraqis, large men, you know, much bigger than us, and they had the latest arms. You felt -- here's a war where there are bigger powers against us. And us, just disorganized and poor."
He and his wife and two children lived in a small town nearby, but he wanted to move. "Saddam used chemical weapons you know," he said. "In the last few years two members of our family have died of cancer." He was referring to his father and another uncle of ours. Ebby worried about the water, the soil, the health of his children. I was not surprised that he was one of Iran's growing number of heroin addicts.
By 1979, the Shah had gone into exile and Ayatollah Khomeini was leading Iran's Islamic revolution. The stage was soon set for war. Khomeini vowed to avenge Iraqi Shia victims of Baathist repression and called on Iraqis to rise against Saddam Hussein.
Hussein wanted to exploit Iran's post-revolutionary vulnerability. He also feared that Tehran's new Shia leadership would encourage Iraq's Shia majority to revolt against the ruling Sunni minority. There was a strategic reason for going to war too: Iraq's only access to the Persian Gulf is via the Shatt al-Arab. Historic animosity between the two countries had seen several treaties signed and then ignored before the 1975 Algiers Agreement settled the exact location of the border separating them.
By March 1980, relations had deteriorated so much that Iran withdrew its ambassador from Iraq. In September, Iraq abrogated the Algiers Agreement and declared full sovereignty over the Shatt al-Arab waterway. On September 22, Iraq invaded Iran. On October 22, Abadan was besieged by the Iraqi army and on October 24, nearby Khorramshahr -- then Iran's largest port -- fell to the Iraqis.
Baghdad planned a swift victory. Hussein knew that despite the Shah's stockpiled arsenal of the latest weapons, Iran had just executed or lost to exile all of its top military personnel -- some 12,000 senior officers had been purged during the revolution. The Iranian air force was able to fly only half of its aircraft by the start of the war. The Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) were led by clerics with little or no military experience and often armed only with light infantry weapons and Molotov cocktails.
Hussein also expected the native population of ethnic Arabs living in Khuzestan to rise against the new Islamic regime. But instead they remained loyal to Iran, and the war dragged on for eight long years, a war in which trench warfare was seen for the first time since the first world war and nerve gas was used -- by Iraq -- in combat operations for the first time. But Hussein underestimated his opponents' passion for their land and the strength of Khomeini's ideology. Iraqi forces were repulsed from Abadan by a small unit aided by the city's fierce inhabitants, and Khorramshahr was captured only after a house-to-house fight so brutal that the town was nicknamed "khunistan" (town of blood). Some 7,000 Iranians died or were seriously wounded in the battle.
Another unforeseen factor was the Basij, the people's militia that Ayatollah Khomeini called the "Army of 20 Million." By the end of November 1980, some 200,000 new Pasdaran were sent to the front, accompanied by the Basij, troops so ideologically committed that some carried their own shrouds in expectation of impending martyrdom, along with plastic keys worn around their necks -- issued by the regime for entry to paradise.
In Tehran I meet Hassan, a war veteran. Like Ebby, Hassan is from a secular middle-class family. But, unlike Ebby, as a teenager during the revolution he became a fervent Khomeini supporter. We are sitting in the Laleh Park in the city's center and I am chaperoned by an uncle: for a devout man like Hassan it would be wrong to be alone with an unmarried woman. "The imam called it a 'holy war,'" he says quietly. "He promised us that anyone who died in the war would go instantly to paradise." He laughs as if slightly embarrassed. "At the time, whenever a mullah came to talk to us about the war at school, we were burning to join up."
The regime used aggressive recruiting techniques, particularly in mosques and schools in lower income areas. Iranian television broadcast pictures of young men -- boys -- with red Basij headbands and guns, saying how wonderful it was to be a soldier for Islam. Women were shown declaring pride that their sons had died as martyrs for the cause. Although Hassan was 16 when he joined up, there were plenty of younger boys. "There was one who was 12," he says. "He lied about his age but they let him join anyway."
The cult of martyrdom is still in evidence in Iran -- towering billboards with names and pictures of the dead proliferate in every town. Street names have been changed to commemorate martyrs. In a country where getting ahead is often a matter of who you know, veterans get preferential treatment in university places and government jobs, as do martyrs' families. Some Iranians resent this and exaggerate the benefits, but nonetheless there has been a change in attitude to the war and those who fought or died in it.
Hassan went to the front in 1981. He won't talk about the actual fighting, but I know that in the rain and mud of that winter, Iran first employed what would become a trademark tactic, the suicidal "human wave," in which thousands of ecstatic soldiers would storm the Iraqi lines without artillery or air support, chanting "Allahu akbar." An Iraqi officer once described the effect: "They come on in their hundreds, often walking straight across the minefields, triggering them with their feet." He said that his men would cry with fear and try to run away: "My officers had to kick them back to their guns."
In July 1982, Iran launched Operation Ramadan on Iraqi territory, near Basra. Although Basra was within range of Iranian artillery, the clergy -- who had taken charge of operations earlier that year -- used human wave attacks against the city in one of the biggest land battles since 1945. Ranging in age from only nine to over 50, these eager soldiers swept over minefields and fortifications to clear safe paths for the tanks. Unsurprisingly, the Iranians sustained an immense number of casualties, and it is from this battle that Hassan still bears a limp.
Despite his injuries, he went back a few years later. I ask him why and he hesitates. "It's hard to explain," he says. "But it was impossible to get back to normal life. I just kept thinking of my friends and wondering what was happening." He looks embarrassed again. "You know, I felt close to God there."
As Hassan talks, I watch a well-dressed young couple walk by. Like most of the girls I have seen in northern Tehran, this girl's hejab consists of a short, tight coat while the obligatory headscarf perches precariously at the back of a towering hairstyle, topping off an elaborately made-up face. The man is clean-shaven, his longish locks gelled back, and he clutches a mobile phone. They may be married but it is more likely that they are out on a date, and as they pass, they throw Hassan, with his trim beard and collarless shirt, a glance. These are the children of the revolution, the under-30s who make up 70 per cent of Iran's 68 million population. They didn't live under the Shah, they didn't long for revolution or to fight in the "holy war." They watch illegal yet ubiquitous satellite television and surf the internet. They have grown up in the Islamic Republic and they are impatient for change.
Hassan sees them and says: "Look, I have friends from the war days who are still very devout. And they look at these youngsters today and they wonder what it was we were fighting for." He considers before going on: "My children are very respectful but I know when I see some of their friends that they don't care about our sacrifice. They don't have respect."
Martyrdom is a familiar concept to Iranians, whose Shia branch of Islam is driven by the 8th century martyrdom of Imam Hossein, whose death is commemorated during the month of Moharram by thousands, flagellating themselves, beating their chests and crying. In reality, though, most Iranians didn't want to be martyrs, most mothers weren't praying that their sons be killed for the glory of Allah.
Iran liberated Khorramshahr in May 1982 and in June Iraq called a ceasefire that was rejected by Iran. For Iran's new revolutionary government, the war may have served the useful purpose of allowing it to consolidate its power and see off opposition groups. For the world's powers, the Iran-Iraq war ensured a weakened Iran, one unable to spread its fundamentalist fervor throughout the region. At different times through the eight years of the war, various western powers supplied arms to both sides, though Iraq received the most conspicuous help, in both armaments and economic aid.
Hussein started using chemical weapons against the Iranians in 1982, including mustard gas and sarin nerve gas. By the time Ebby was called to the front in late 1986, war-weariness had set in. As Iranian troops had been called to push into Iraqi territory, many of the soldiers had lost their zeal; they had wanted to defend their own land, not invade Iraq's. The battles were horrific and losses heavy: mass graves harbored thousands of bodies and tales of drug addiction in the trenches were rife. Away from the front line, Iran's economy was suffering -- by 1987 nearly one in two Iranians was unemployed and shortages of basic commodities grew worse. Terror had spread to all of Iran's main cities and nowhere felt safe.
From Abadan's cemetery we drove back into town. Ebby's wife Mina rushed home to make dinner for her children. After she left Ebby six years ago, she told them that their father was working in another town -- she hadn't yet told them what had happened. I asked her when she was planning to let them know and she stared at me blankly. "How do I tell them? What do I tell them?"
After dinner with my cousins, we sat over steaming black tea and Esmael told me some of the things Ebby had said about his time in the war. "He saw too much. He once told me about the night before one of those human wave attacks. No one was sleeping, they were praying and weeping and were really scared. And there were loads of drugs around -- hashish, opium, everything -- Ebby said that it really helped. Maybe that was how he got into the heavier stuff." Perhaps Ebby became addicted to opium at the front, but we will never know. All that is certain is that by the time he came home, he had a habit.
Iranian society is formal, and a drug-addicted child is a problem that affects every family member. Ebby had two marriageable sisters and so he was sheltered by his parents. There was no official support for addicts or their families then. Mina's parents were against their marriage -- they had heard the rumours. Yet for a year Mina refused anyone else. After their marriage in 1990 they lived with Ebby's parents. He worked and held his life together. Their son was born after a couple of years and a few years later they had a daughter. "We were happy," said Mina. "We were ordinary."
They were living back in Abadan, where Ebby's family had returned after the end of the war in 1988. The city was in ruins and the economy was a mess but Iran restarted petroleum refining and petrochemical production on a smaller scale and the city's port reopened in 1993. As Mina says: "There was work and we had a small, comfortable life."
It was after the death of my uncle and his wife that it all changed. Ebby's addiction was uncontained. His brother and sisters started to draw away from him and Mina, whom they accused of encouraging him. I asked her if she was involved with drugs and she looked horrified. "Of course I wasn't," she pursed her lips. "Look, we weren't like that, like those people you see on the streets." Then she grew a little sheepish. "But I did buy the drug for him sometimes." She looked down. "I had to, he was my husband and he couldn't do without it. I loved him and it made him happy."
Eventually Ebby ended up on heroin and on the streets. Soon after I saw him for the last time in 1998, Mina's parents insisted that she leave him, and she took the children and moved back into their house. She got a job and got on with life as a single parent. She never divorced him, though under Iranian law she was entitled to do so because of his addiction. I asked her why and she said: "Because I loved him."
The waters of the Shatt al-Arab still flow lazily between Abadan and Iraq's fields of palms, and the refinery is still at work -- in 1997 it reached the same rate of production as before the war. But the town is a dusty relic, the pavements half unpaved and streets with their neon shopfronts are marred by gaping holes where bombed-out ruins have not been rebuilt. The grand Abadan Hotel where my parents danced is now a shell.
My cousin Milad is taking me on a tour of Abadan. He is a young man in his early 20s, typically Abadani, with slicked-back hair and a pair of Ray-Bans permanently fixed on his face. He speaks with an Abadani accent, his Farsi peppered with English words -- another legacy of Abadan's cosmopolitan past. It was Milad who found Ebby a year ago, begging on the streets, and it was Milad who identified Ebby's body when he was missing from his usual post in the town center.
It is an early winter evening, balmy and breezy with no sign of the humidity that besieges Khuzestan for nine months of the year. We pass the site of the infamous Cinema Rex, historically the starting point of the revolution: on August 20, 1978, the cinema was locked from the inside and set on fire, resulting in 430 deaths. It was widely believed that the Shah was responsible -- there were several dissidents inside. This sparked mass demonstrations and the Shah was overthrown six months later.
Turning down a side street, we see where Ebby used to sit, outside a shop selling brightly patterned blankets. Across the street, outside the bank where Ebby would spend the mornings begging, stand his "friends" -- other addicts clustering around a blind cigarette seller. They are in various degrees of narcosis: one man is standing, leaning at a dangerous angle, another is crouching on the ground, head lolling forward. Everyone knew Ebby had Aids, Milad says, and they let him do whatever he wanted. They didn't want to go near him.
There are an estimated 2 million drug addicts in Iran, though some put the real figure as high as 6 million. This is a significant proportion of a population of nearly 70 million -- the U.S., for instance, has 1 million opiate addicts in a population of about 295 million. Iran borders Afghanistan, the world's largest producer of opium, and there has always been a tradition of social opium smoking; but the big change is the move to cheap and available heroin. With intravenous drug use comes HIV and hepatitis and, sure enough, HIV infection is now regarded as a problem in Iran. The U.N. estimated that more than 30,000 people had contracted the virus by 2003.
Many, such as Ebby, are never treated or registered by the government as Aids patients. Last summer, Abadan hospital's drug clinic refused to take Ebby in, because he was too infectious. Better not to risk other lives for one that could not be saved, they said. Ebby returned to the streets with weeping sores on his legs and feet. Prisons are the main source of HIV infection and Ebby had been regularly in and out of jail over the years. "After he became homeless," Milad said, "Ebby would try to get jailed so he would have somewhere warm and dry to sleep." After he developed Aids, he literally couldn't get arrested and Shapur Park is where he mostly spent the night, sleeping by a cedar tree.
A recent law has made it possible for pharmacies to supply free syringes to registered drug addicts -- a sea change in the Iranian government's policy -- and there are now three methadone centres in southern Tehran run by the NGO Persepolis. But these are pinpricks of hope in a dark landscape.
There is still a huge stigma attached to having a drug addict in the family. Ebby's elder sister, Azar, says to me: "He stole from me, he lied to me, and I still gave him money. But it was impossible to try to find a husband for my sister with Ebby coming around every time he needed a fix. So in the end I had to stop him and when we moved, I never gave him my new address." She is crying as she tells me this. "He was my brother and I loved him. But what could I do? Our parents aren't here. I had to look out for my sister."
His younger sister, Azine, is nursing her first child. She is less emotional. "He brought this on himself," she declares. "For me, Ebby died a long time ago. And even though I told my husband about him after we were married, his family still don't know, and I have no desire for them to find out. Ebby was a disgrace to us all. At least now that he is dead I can get on and grieve for him. But Ebby died a long time ago."
Twenty miles from Abadan, we alight in Khorramshahr, declared holy ground since the brutal two-year Iraqi occupation. Many buildings are mere shells; the economy has never recovered from the destruction the city suffered during the war. I head to the city hall to get a pass for Shalamcheh, the no-man's land between here and Iraq which saw so much bloodshed and is now a shrine to the war, a place of pilgrimage. This is where Ebby spent most of his war.
"There are still lots of mines here," says the taxi driver, a Khuzestani Arab from a nearby village. We turn on to a long straight road, surrounded by vast emptiness, the odd shelled-out tank providing the only punctuation in the dull brown plains. Occasionally there are large banners bearing the garishly painted images of martyrs who were killed in the war. When we draw into a muddy parking lot, the dips and elevations of trenches and dug-outs are still clear in the landscape all around us. "Shalamcheh: welcome to Iran's Kerbala" announces a sign. Kerbala, in Iraq, is where, in the 8th century, Imam Hossein was martyred.
To the right lies a prayer area with rows of billboards displaying pictures. The shrine itself is on the left, a dome covering a cool hall supported by columns, and the centerpiece, a glass case edged by sandbags and red paper flowers. Inside the case are the broken remains of guns, helmets, Korans and other relics of soldiers' lives collected from these killing fields, all watched over by a photograph of a dead, bloody soldier.
Outside, there are a couple of watchtowers, a few meters from the border with Iraq. I walk up to them, passing two very young, bored-looking guards. From the top of the watchtower, I spot an Iraqi post on the other side of the border. A lonely guard waves. "Pity you weren't here half an hour ago," says one of the soldiers who has wandered over to hand me a pair of binoculars. "The Iraqis were singing and dancing." (The Iraqi election is days away and the excitement is palpable.)
Later, I wander a little from the path. "Stop!" the other soldier shouts after me, alarmed. "Mines," he explains, "there are still mines here. All the way to Ahvaz." Ahvaz is 120km away. When it rains like this, the mines shift. "We lost a couple of men just a few days ago," the young soldier says.
Stories abound of shocking incidents the war made commonplace: half a garrison lying down on an electric fence so that others could go through; a hundred boys throwing themselves in a river to act as a human bridge; the children who ran at Iraqi tanks with Molotov cocktails or hand grenades.
Looking over the scrub and mud, I think about Ebby waiting in the trenches, scared. Rousing religious tunes would be played over loudspeakers and mass prayers said before battles to whip the troops into a religious frenzy, though by that time many of the soldiers were conscripts like Ebby and didn't have the same zeal as those who had flocked to enlist in the first few years.
The silence here is eerie. Underneath my every step may be bodies: four major battles were fought from April to August 1988, in which the Iraqis used massive amounts of nerve and blister agents to defeat the Iranians. In the last big battle of the war alone, 65,000 Iranians were killed, many by poison gas. The pictures lining the prayer area don't shy away from any of this: there are bodies, dismembered, beheaded, bleeding, wounded. Men praying in the trenches, looking shell-shocked.
There are photographs of the dead with their names underneath: some just young boys, some in the height of late-1970s fashion, frozen forever in their youth and big hair. Just as shocking is a picture of troops marching in the area at the start of hostilities: Shalamcheh was like an oasis, green and lush with date trees and all shades of bushes and plants. The pictures are here as a testament to the glorious values of martyrdom, of the bravery of Iran's sons. To me they just speak of futility, a waste of young lives and of land as old as time.
The war between Iran and Iraq was a great human tragedy. Perhaps as many as a million people died, many more were wounded, and millions were made refugees. The resources wasted on the war exceeded what the entire Third World spent on public health in a decade. And even now, as those who lived through it struggle to come to terms with their memories, the war still claims its casualties, such as Ebby.
In death my cousin has found a status he never enjoyed in life. For many of the men who fought in this war, the only honorable outcome was death and martyrdom. For those who survived, it meant reintegrating into a society that every year cared less for their war. For the likes of Ebby, that was not an option.
Despite support from family, a loving wife and children, Ebby's love for the drug that helped him forget was stronger than anything, and to it he sacrificed his family, his home and, in the end, his life. While still alive, reeling through the streets of Abadan, he was a disgrace to his family, an embarrassment to his country and a shameful testimony to the war that shaped him. In death, Ebby has become once again a beloved son, a missed brother, and a father and husband. Another martyr to the war that continues to haunt its survivors.
--Kamin Mohammadi is a London-based writer working on her first book, a family history of Iran.
By Kamin Mohammadi
Impressions (inflight magazine of BMED, operating as British Airways)
Although the Iranian Diaspora has existed in the West for some time, the Revolution of 1979 saw its numbers swell, as those who were a part of the Shahs regime fled the country. For many Iranians, arriving in the U.S. or the U.K. at this time was traumatic. Peoples perceptions of Iran were very negative then, says Masoumeh Hamedi, a broadcast journalist now based in London. It was the time of the U.S. embassy siege, and people chanting against the West on the streets of Tehran. Even though we had visited the U.S. many times, going there to live as a child of 12 was incredibly different. All I wanted to do was fit in, to not be Iranian.
Professor Hooshang Amirahmadi, president of the American-Iranian Council adds: I dont think we did ourselves any favors. Because we were all hurt by the new regime, we helped to demonize Iran more in the eyes of the West. And of course, we were the ones who suffered from that misperception.
However, the millions of Iranians who have made their homes outside the country have forged their own unique path. Estimates as to the number of the Diaspora range from two million to four million; of these, some 700,000 live in the U.S. The biggest population by far is in Los Angeles -- nicknamed Tehrangeles -- followed by Virginia and Maryland. Sizeable communities exist in New York and north of the border in Canada. In Europe, the U.K. is the main place that the Diaspora has settled, especially in London. While Sweden, France, Germany, and Italy have their own communities of Iranians.
The questions most asked by the younger members of the Diaspora have to do with the duality of identity between the Iranian and the Western aspects of their characters. Iranian Alliances Across Borders (whose directors are students themselves) held the first international conference on the Iranian Diaspora at Wellesley College and Tufts University in Massachusetts in April to try to address issues of identity. Speakers from all over the Diaspora talked on themes such as community composition, identity formation, civic and political participation and alliance building. Taghi Amirani, an Iranian filmmaker who lives in London, attended the conference to screen a couple of his short films, Tehrangeles and Going Gaga for Googoosh. The process of rediscovering my Iranianess has led me to make these films about the exiled community, he says. Its been like testing the waters before taking the big plunge -- making a film back home. So I, along with an increasing number of Iranians, will be going back to immerse myself in Iran with all its troubles, contradictions and joys.
Of course the Diaspora includes many age groups and, as Iran has one of the highest instances of brain drain in the world, it is growing annually. It is estimated that every year more than 150,000 educated young people leave Iran for countries such as the U.S., Canada and the U.K., where Iranians are among the most educated groups of immigrants. Mohammad Hafezi of the Iranian Studies Group presented data to the conference on the significant achievements of the Iranian-American community in academia and the economy. According to the groups research, Iranian-Americans rank first among 67 immigrant groups in regards to educational attainment, while the average family income of the community is 38 per cent higher than the national average.
Traditionally Iranians have done well in business and academia, but in recent years there has been more of a flowering within the arts, too. Azar Nafisis literary memoirs, Reading Lolita in Tehran, has helped bring not just literature, but the recent history of Iran to a mainstream audience (at the time of going to press, it had spent 13 weeks at the top of the New York Times Bestseller List). Marjane Satrapis cartoon book, Persepolis was widely acclaimed, telling her own story of growing up in Iran at the time of the Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war in striking black and white strip cartoons. Artist Shirin Neshat (see pgs. 44-46) continues to attract international attention for her video installations and is turning her hand to her first feature film. Exhibitions -- such as the contemporary Iranian arts show at Berlins Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of World Culture) from March to May -- bring together artists and filmmakers living and creating work both outside and inside Iran, fostering a cultural exchange between these two groups that has been unprecedented since the Revolution. Satellite TV stations based in L.A. beam programs into homes in Iran, many of which have illegal dishes, and bootleg copies of banned Iranian art films and music ensure the people of Iran are not isolated from the community outside.
The Diaspora has always kept its cultural roots very much intact, both in traditional and progressive ways. Within each large community, wherever they happen to be in the world, important Iranian festivals such as No Ruz (Iranians New Year, celebrated around 21st March on the spring equinox) are marked not just in private homes, but also by large gatherings and events organised by various cultural organizations, such as the Iran Heritage Foundation in London.
This year for the first time, the Persian Parade in New York marked the Iranian new year, while in London the British Museum devoted a weekend to celebrating all things Iranian to commemorate No Ruz. A few years ago when Googoosh, a pre-Revolutionary pop star unlike any other, was allowed by the regime to tour abroad for the first time since 1979, the tickets to her concerts sold out in minutes. In Toronto alone, she attracted an audience of 12,000.
Events such as the Diaspora Film Festival, held every year in Toronto, started off as a way of giving voice to filmmakers from the Iranian Diaspora, but, having been such a success, it has been expanded to include all Diaspora filmmakers. Shahram Tabe-Mohammadi, the festivals director, applauds his adopted country: Canada is among the most open societies to immigrants. Although discriminations exist here too, society in general approves and supports national identities. As a result, the second generation of Iranians look back to their roots more freely and more proudly.
He echoes many others when describing his sense of identity: I have kept from my mother culture whatever seemed to be human, and adopted from the host culture those elements that I found helpful.
This point is crucial in understanding the reconciliation that some members of the Iranian Diaspora have affected. Hooshang Amirahmadi emphasizes this point of choice for the younger generations: These kids can become better Iranians. They have been brought up in democratic, open societies and so they dont have to take on the negative aspects of the Iranian character.
His organization, the AIC, is working hard to find a peaceful way to reduce hostility and foster understanding between America and Iran. He says hopefully, People like us must become a bridge of understanding between Iran and the West. I have lived in the U.S. for many years, and I have an Iranian side and an American side. I cannot live with these two halves hating each other, so I want to find a way to resolve this conflict of cultures.
Azar Nafisi, who is also director of the Dialogue Project aimed at encouraging understanding between Islamic countries and the West, sees this in some young Iranians, saying the allure of their roots seems to pull them back to the homeland in their 20s, even those who have never lived in Iran. And the conflict is even more apparent in those who spent at least some of their lives there. Many go back to visit, and then, says Dr. Nafisi, there is this drive, this seduction by the country, this love, but at the same time, they can find society there claustrophobic, repressive. But even then, they still keep going back. They carry with them always this love and hate, but they still go back.
Hooshang Amirahmadi similarly identifies a feeling of emptiness that can come to haunt some members of the Diaspora. Taghi Amirani sums it up: The older I get and the longer I live away from home -- and yes Iran is still home -- the more Iranian I feel. Identity and belonging to a place and culture matters. I cant deny that my life in the West has shaped me, but it hasnt fully reached deep into my soul, my inner self. When asked after some 28 years away from Iran, do I feel more English or more Iranian, I always reply 'My head is English, but my heart is Iranian, and I wouldnt have them the other way round!
And as the Diaspora comes of age 25 years after the Revolution, Iranians abroad are continuously finding new ways to survive, to reconcile dual identities, to be Iranian and forge a relationship with Iran that will one day benefit both East and West.