“So, What Did You Think About Iran?” by Nathan Gonzalez

~ Excerpt ~

We were sitting in Westwood having coffee, my friend Maryam and I, talking about my recent trip to her homeland of Iran. Maryam had moved to the States with her family several years prior. She was part of the ocean-trotting cadre of Iranian-

Americans who loved their adopted homeland but remained steadfastly and passionately connected to their past. But as an Iranian-American, placed in the middle of two nations that profess to hate their enemy but know very little of one another, she quickly changed the subject away from my monologue about Tehran’s traffic and Iranian hospitality.

“How did you answer the question?” said Maryam. “You know, the What do you think about Iran? question.”

I knew Maryam was not referring to the casual, “How was your trip?” She was talk- ing about the question, the one every non-Iranian who has ever visited the country has been asked. Maryam, who is married to an American professor of Near Eastern studies, has heard the question countless times from her countrymen as they come to terms with the mind-bending disjunction between the Iran they think exists, and the painful im- ages of hatred and inadequacy the Western media insists are real.

“Oh, that question,” I said.

For Iranians, Iran is everything, and what one thinks of their country matters a lot. So what Maryam was really trying to find out was, not what I thought of Iran per se, but how I navigated the minefield of conflicting emotions.

“If you say, ‘Iran was nice,’” Maryam went on, “Iranians will tell you of all the bad things you might have missed. ‘Did you not see the Hezbollahis? Don’t you know how they treat their own people?’ But if you say you didn’t like Iran, they’ll think, ‘Who the hell are you to talk about my country like that?’”

She was right. When I was on my book tour promoting Engaging Iran, which coun- seled against war with Iran, it was Iranian-Americans who were the most unwilling to accept anything that resembled dialogue between our country and the Islamic Republic of Iran. There is a special kind of resentment for the current government that goes well beyond its human rights abuses and aggressive foreign policy. This is because the current leaders are taking part in a long-running clash over what Iran’s national image should be: pre-Islamic greatness or Islamic piety. The former represents the Iran many in the diaspora embrace, and the latter is the Islamic political system they abhor.

The last monarchical dynasty of Iran was founded in 1925 by strongman Reza Shah, who took “Pahlavi” as his family name. The name came from the Middle Iranian script used by the Sasanians, the last ethnic Persian dynasty to rule prior to the advent of Islam. To many Iranians, especially Reza Shah and his followers, Iran was greatest before Arab invaders Islamized the country beginning in the seventh century AD. For Reza Shah, Islam represented a backwards system, which was in large part to blame for the lack of development in his country. In 1935, the king went so far as to ban the women’s headscarf, along with other forms of traditional dress.

Reza Shah’s son and successor, Mohammad Reza, was not anti-Islam per se, but the pageantry of his rule emphasized pre-Islamic greatness, often to the disfavor of the coun- try’s conservative majority. Slowly but surely, generations educated under Reza Shah and his son began adopting an outlook that assumed Iran was greatest when ancient Zoroastrianism was the state religion. Islam, to them, represented a foreign Arab culture. In the eyes of many middle- and upper-class Iranians, this makes the Islamic Republic of today the most illegitimate of all forms of government—a slap in the collective “Persian” face of their nation.

“We are not Arabs, we’re Indo-Europeans!”

Countless residents of California have heard this phrase from determined im- migrants who have established vibrant communities in Westwood, Irvine, the San Fernando Valley, and beyond. For many of these residents of “Tehrangeles,” the images of kings Cyrus and Darius are Iran itself, despite the fact that these national heroes lived over two millennia ago. But ask such an Iranian-American about Islam, and you might get a different response. “It’s a foreign concept”; “It’s Arab”; “We were doing fine before the Arabs came and gave us Islam.”

Even in Iran, I managed to upset more than one person when I had the gall to ask about Shia religious practices in the country. “That’s Arab,” said one secular friend from the city of Shiraz. Referring to two foundational figures in Shia Islam, he said, “Ali, Hussein, they were Arabs, not Iranians. We are Zoroastrians.” That was his way of saying that religion has no place in his country, and it struck me as odd being that we were having the conversation in the Islamic Republic. This curious tension between Islam and pre-Islamic “Persia,” these competing narratives, are alive today within the borders of Iran as much as they are in the suburbs of Los Angeles.

Today’s Iran, which in the Western media invites automatic associations with a turban-donning Ayatollah Khomeini; with images of American hostages being paraded by bearded radicals; this is the Iran that ultra secularists reject. It is the Iran that shat- tered into millions of frail pieces a picture of Western-leaning, Persian-derived greatness, which the last monarchy had worked so hard to build.

So the question that Iranian-Americans are asking is not, “What did you think about Iran?” The real question, underneath the layers of competing identities, is this one: “Which Iran did you see?” Did you see Cyrus or did you see Imam Hussein? Did you see the miniskirts of North Tehran in the 1970s, or did you see the woman covered from head to toe in a chador? Did you see the poverty and chaotic intersections, or did you see Iran’s technological ingenuity? 

Continue reading on page 52 of Love and Pomegranates

About the Writer

Nathan Gonzalez is part-time lecturer of international studies and political science at California State University, Long Beach, and founding publisher and executive editor at Nortia Press. He is author of two books on the Middle East, Engaging Iran (2007) and The Sunni-Shia Conflict (2009). He holds a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University and is currently finishing a doctorate in political science at UCLA. Visit him at: www.NathanGonzalez.com.