When living in America, I was confused for being an Iranian more so than any other nationality. A close second was “Latin American”, but I suspect that’s because the continent covers all kinds of races and therefore you’re bound not to offend someone by using it. People have come up to me spouting Farsi at airports, in hotel lobbies, at university campuses, in traffic jams in LA and dinner parties in Dubai. Once I was stopped by a limousine outside a hotel in New York and asked by its woman passenger, resplendent in furs and diamonds, if I was from the “homeland.” I’ve always taken this as a compliment. Minus the belief that unibrows are an attractive feature, I’ve found Iranians to be spectacularly good-looking people with a vast and rich cultural memory and so was always pleased with the comparison.
Not gonna lie: the reason I haven’t been to Iran in the last decade is out of fear of what foreign border agents in the West would do to me at airports once they saw the stamp. I’m not proud of it but there you go. Incidentally, that’s one of the reasons I haven’t been back to Saudi Arabia since I was 18, the other being an Unbreakable Vow I made to myself during one of my more dramatic religious epiphanies.
I admit my fear of an Iranian passport stamp is unconscionable. I know many people who have been to Iran multiple times and come back to tell wonderful tales. Upon closer examination, it seems I may have bought into the narrative of ‘Scary Iran’ (or ‘Sciran’, if you will) that’s been peddled around the world since the revolution (that pretty much covers my entire lifetime). But there is also the reality that, like with most of our geographically close but emotionally distant neighbors, we just don’t go next door to say ‘Hi’ all that often. This says more about “us” in Pakistan than it does about “them” in Iran.
Israel has begun to sound like a paranoid octogenarian, sitting on her porch brandishing a shotgun and threatening to shoot the next teenager that steals her apples
I went to Iran when I was a child on ziarat (in essence a Shia umrah) and remember only snippets of things: memories of blue-tiled mosques, lots of rice, a blue sky, the memory of pushing my grandmother down a flight of stairs because I had had enough of her and desperately wanted food (it’s OK, she found it endlessly funny, which only made me angrier).
The image of the country in both local and international media as a somewhat mad, emphatically regressive regime has been pervasive enough that alternative stories and images of Iran stick out with great difficulty. My main exposure to contemporary Iranian culture came by way of Art. The country has produced some truly spectacular artists both at home and abroad. Iranian expats like Shirin Neshat, Maryam Satrapi and Y.Z. Kami have been producing seminal work for decades, both about the country they left behind and the worlds to which they migrated. Recently, artists within Iran began exhibiting their work in galleries and art fairs across the world and the results proved to everyone that despite the anti-Iran (ant-Shia) axis in the world, Iran is not North Korea. This is not to say that the revolution and the ensuring decades were not a scary time. I recall being vividly terrified by Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Shah of Shahs, a harrowing account of the fall of Raza Pahlavi and the return of Imam Khomeni (read the book, if only to know what we can expect here if things go further south).
But, as I said, the idea that Iran is the civilized world’s greatest enemy is risible at best and is slowly being shown up as such. At no time has this shift in perceptions been more apparent than in the last six months.
Suddenly American op-eds about Iran have begun to acknowledge that it is a real-life country filled with myriad sophisticated complexities, and not a cartoon villain with an eye patch. American political TV shows began showing Iranian characters (diplomats and politicians in particular) as nuanced and (*scream*) peaceful. The country has become an alternative world player, and there is a grudging respect at the storms it has weathered over the past decades. But more than that there is a feeling that young Iran is hip, happening, and happy to play with the other children. By comparison, Israel has begun to sound like a paranoid octogenarian, sitting on her porch brandishing a shotgun and threatening to shoot the next teenager that steals her apples. It’s a major shift in political attitudes, and one that is intuited by the world’s thinking-reading populations because of its orchestration by their leaders.
The new deal that the Americans are brokering with Iran over its nuclear power is nothing short of historic and it only semi-shocks me that as Pakistanis we don’t care about it more. The obvious answer why we don’t is because Iran has lots of oil and gas and is perfectly positioned to supply it to China and India – with our help, which would make the petulant Saudis very angry indeed (When it comes to Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia are like a pair of pampered, wildly insecure sisters).
I really hope Iran’s sanctions get lifted soon and its government works out a functional relationship with the West. This will be the best vaccine for the Salafi-Wahhabi scourge that currently afflicts all of us in the Muslim World, from Al-Shabab and ISIS to Lashkar-e-Taiba, and might just open up a real cultural and spiritual alternative to the nihilistic fundamentalism that has been the Arab world’s greatest gift to its miskeen brethren in the last thirty years.
I for one would like to travel to Iran more freely, to bask in its glorious gardens and squares and make subtle, meaningful contact with all its marvelous unibrows.
It would help if US customs officials felt the same way.
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