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Growing Up Iranian-American, From 9/11 To Trump

flickr/Marjolein Katsma

You learned early on that being Iranian means you’re always on the defensive.

Something is wrong at school.

It’s Tuesday morning, and you’re supposed to be in the middle of art class. Ginger, the art teacher and your close friend’s Claire’s mom, often runs late, but never like this. You’re still adjusting to fourth grade, but you’re looking forward to class with Ginger, who knows what she’s doing and disregards rules.

Claire is at school, so Ginger can’t be absent because her daughter is sick. In the words of Madeline’s Miss Clavel, something is not right.

The following series of events seems simultaneous. Ginger walks into the small room where your Montessori school’s Upper Elementary class keeps its math supplies and language material. The main teachers, Ms. Tethel and Mr. Josh, tell the entire class to sit in a circle on the floor. Someone pushes a TV on wheels inside.

You learn new words that day: The first is hijack.

Somebody hijacked two planes and crashed them into a tall building in New York City — another plane is aiming for the Pentagon, which until this day you only know as a shape.

The second is terrorist — the people who did this are terrorists.

Why will be impossible to grasp, but right now you’re concerned with the what. You don’t know much about war or attacks — years ago, when your dad tells you about Iraq, the enemy in a war, you picture lines of people shooting muskets, alternating like some twisted version of Red Rover. At Montessori school, you’ve only learned peace.

You aren’t sad yet, because you still don’t understand. What if someone calls from the airplane toilet, Akangbe, a sixth grader, jokes to sound clever in a situation the group doesn’t understand. You don’t say anything, but you know people can’t use electronics on a landing plane from all the times an attendant has told you to shut off your GameBoy. And crashing is like landing, right?

When your mom picks you and your sister up from school that day, which rarely happens, she says that Jodi, her boyfriend, and the soccer team are coming over. They need somewhere to react.

A bunch of blonde girls, teenagers, cry in your family room. They need something to eat, and you need a minute away from them. You walk to the snack drawer — next to the freezer, bottom drawer. There’s a bag of tortilla chips that’s stale, but they don’t seem to care.

You never paid much attention to Afghanistan before, but now you feel pressed, awkward. Afghanistan is right next to Iran. Does that make you complicit? There is going to be a war and people are sending anthrax around in envelopes. Even opening the mail can kill somebody now. You write “no” next to Taliban, terrorism, and war in your diary. If that’s in there with your most personal thoughts, people won’t think you’re lying, right? Don’t people know you want the world to be better?

Things change at school. It reminds you of the divide you felt last year during the election, one of the first times you realized people don’t get along. Is your dad going to fight in World War III? you wonder. Then you remind yourself that he is almost 40, safe because he’s too old. You draw words — elementary protest signs — opposing the war. Years later you learn about radicals and you want to become one. Maybe even for Iran.

High school is emotionally excruciating, but at least nobody seems to care about you being Iranian. It takes you years for you to realize it’s because you look just like your white American mother. You lucked out: People like your grandmother’s rice and call you exotic. Your friends never assume you’re Muslim (of course, as an arty kid, most of your friends are freshly declared atheists), or associate you with the threat of nuclear weapons. Instead, they thank you for bringing them headscarves back from Iran.

Barack Obama takes office, and over time the battles overseas and in your mind subside. Even in the summer of 2009, when the election is rigged and a quasi-rebellion hangs in the air, people side with the Iranian populace, especially after seeing a militiaman shoot Neda Agha-Soltan in the heart, the one death that overshadows Michael Jackson’s. Your worries subside a little, because it looks like Americans finally understand that Iranians are people.

You move to another city for college, opening up a new world — a world that, to your surprise, teaches Farsi. Obviously, you take it — you’re obligated. Maybe within a few years you’ll be less embarrassed, able to communicate with great aunts and uncles who never fully mastered English.

Introductory Persian is challenging, but manageable. There’s a good mix of students in your class: international affairs and political science majors, a handful of Iranians and halfies. You take every available class for your degree, and as you advance you feel further behind. Class sizes dwindle and your handicap sticks out more: your accent, your cruddy compositions you can barely read, your inability to roll your tongue or sound out unfamiliar letters.

At home, you felt Iranian. Your grandparents practically lived with you — for a few years they did live with you. Your father, the patriarch, decides everything. You eat rice and eggplant stew for dinner at least once a week. You dance with your hands at loud parties. But here, among real Iranians, you are different. You don’t look like them or speak like them. You realize you are not very Iranian at all. Something is wrong, and it’s you.

You are 24 on Election Day when you pull into a church parking lot to cast your vote for the country’s first potential female president. Today feels symbolic. The system of buildings connected to the church used to be your school. The swings and slide are still there in the front playground where the older kids spent recess. You smile at the porch outside the room where you learned about September 11th, but right now your mind’s set on the future.

You’re on a friend’s couch, eyes rapt on the television, cracking open a beer because you’re starting to worry. You tell yourself it can’t happen, but at the same time you’re not surprised about certain states. You know a state that won’t let people use the bathroom is going to vote red. Perhaps you see more evil in the world — by this point, you know damn well that not everyone is considered a person. And you’re right. Another red state, another beer. You seek comfort in addition, calculating the electoral vote. You try to think about the FiveThirtyEight projection that turns out to be horribly wrong. Michigan’s results come in and you know numbers can’t help anymore.

You only worry about yourself a little, because in the second debate he approached the “Iran issue” like a business deal. Iran has oil, saffron, caviar. Messing with Iran when all you care about is money is moronic. You’re fretting over everyone else you care about: those who really have something to lose. You can’t believe that voters would put so many people in danger to keep their sense of superiority and enjoy slashed taxes — never mind, you can.

“I’ll be okay, but I’m afraid for everyone else,” becomes your new motto.

You aren’t Muslim — hell, you can pass for one hundred percent white girl, or at least Jewish — but you are a dual citizen. Your existence is tied to a place news commentators think is bad. At this point, you don’t want to believe he’ll take charge. That denial won’t fade.

Your existence is tied to a place news commentators think is bad. Click To Tweet

And you’re angry with everyone who voted for him, everyone who thought they were more important than all those people who have something at stake — like your stepmother, whose child shares your Iranian blood. As a pacifist, you understand where she comes from to a degree, but you’re still angry, because that language didn’t spark a shred of hesitation or concern.

And you know they ignored him because they thought they had nothing at risk, even though you know they did.

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

January comes and everyone starts quoting Orwell. 1984 becomes a bestseller again, but you think the country’s become like Animal Farm. People who wanted to keep their power are about to lose it. You have to be more than white to have power these days — you have to be the one percent of the one percent. A hundredth.

It’s kind of funny, actually, because this “dystopia” people say America is becoming is based on real historical events, as all dystopia is. Government corruption is inevitable. People just don’t care unless, or until, it’s personal.

His name is inescapable. You can’t stand to use it, to acknowledge that the “freest country in the world” was that easy to con, so you call him The Government. The guy you used to make fun of in middle school is the President, and now there are thousands of rich white males who want to annihilate people you care about from this hypocritical conglomeration called democracy.

Less than a week before you’re supposed to leave the country, the government tries to enforce a travel ban. No Muslims. By this point, you know that “Muslim” just means brown, or white but not white enough. Iran is on that list of seven countries. The fear that haunted you a decade ago rushes back because he’s trying to start a war. Iran isn’t the same as it was 30 years ago, but you know most people here don’t know that. No, they don’t care to know. For the first time in your life, you are afraid to exist.

There’s a protest at the airport tomorrow. You have to go. You have to. You spend hours assembling an Iranian flag from nine pieces of construction paper, exacerbating the tendinitis in your elbow, to draw the four crescents to scale. The next morning, you become inspired to write “TRUMP IS THE NEW SHAH” on your masterpiece, but first you need a silver Sharpie. If you aren’t going to mince words, then people need to be able to see them clearly.

You talk to your dad about it. The government is horrible, you say, but seeing so many people come together gives you hope. Movements are afoot. “You didn’t grow up in a totalitarian government,” he responds. He doesn’t have to say anything else to assert that you don’t understand.

If you aren’t going to mince words, then people need to be able to see them clearly. Click To Tweet

Your parents don’t want you to drive to the airport — they don’t want you there at all. They’re worried about you getting stuck in traffic, detained, harassed, hurt. “People are crazy,” they say, and emotionally exhausted, you pass out. You don’t think Atlanta will become Tehran, but you also don’t want to argue.

You realize you’ve taken your luxuries for granted far too long. That others have dealt with far worse for far longer.

At work the next morning, your boss cracks a joke about a coworker not being able to come back from France. He’s unambiguously white — they all are.

“Sarra, you’re not a dual citizen, are you?” But you are, and you’re terrified. You’ll probably never get to see certain relatives again — your great aunt will die and you won’t even get to say goodbye. And you make sure to say it in a dry, distraught tone. It must have not worked, though, because those jokes keep coming back.

You’re still mad, three days later, at the airport. Of course, you actually have a reason to be scared. While your group works out a check-in mishap, you flip through family passports. First, you admire yours, and catch the place of birth: CHICAGO, ILLINOIS, USA. Then you thumb through your dad’s. It doesn’t bear a city, just IRAN. It might as well say THREAT. You start breaking down in TSA because your father’s passport bears a word that shouldn’t be heavy. He tells you not to cry, but you’re convinced the law will capsize in a few days and you won’t be able to come back, that he’ll get taken away. The pressure weighs you down like a wrecked car, compacting panic and pushing out tears.

You dad’s passport doesn’t bear a city, just IRAN. It might as well say THREAT. Click To Tweet

You learned early on that being Iranian means you’re always on the defensive. That people will avoid your family and struggle to understand that Middle Easterners share their humanity. Maybe it doesn’t even matter who’s in charge of either country. People learned to hate the country that both is and isn’t yours long before you were born; they’ve just been invited to openly embrace that prejudice once more.

At least, you think, the government can’t take your tears away. So you just keep crying.