19 Aug 2009 18:16
Iran and the UK have a long intertwined history -- but familiarity doesn't always breed contempt. Members of Prime Minister Mossadegh's family went to school in Britain; even Ali Kordan, Ahmadinejad's minister, apparently coveted an Oxford degree. By D. PARVAZ in London | 19 Aug 2009
As far as being a stranger in a strange land goes, being an Iranian in the U.K. -- well, London, specifically -- feels oddly comfortable. But why is that? I've lived in U.S. for a decade, and I haven't had much in the way of problems (just the usual post 9/11 hassles). In fact, while I miss Seattle, my home base there, and all of my friends, I can count the number of people I know in all of England on both hands and haven't been here long enough to recognize, let alone feel attached to anything at all.
So why do I feel so totally at ease here? Where's that sense of alienation I felt when I first moved to Tokyo for a year?
For one thing, the massive influx of immigrants from India, Pakistan and the Middle East means no one with olive skin or dark features stands out. In fact, owing probably in part to their, ah, how to put this delicately, colonial history, Brits have long embraced the look, sounds and tastes of the Semitic and Indo-European cultures. According to the 2001 Census, there were 42,377 Iranian-born Iranians living in Britain, and according to Migration Information Source (using numbers from the UK Home Office and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security), 8.640 Iranians moved here between 2001 and 2005. Consider that during the same period, 55,098 Iranians were admitted to the U.S. So the U.K.'s numbers don't seem too big, but factor in the landmass -- the U.S. is massive, and the U.K., well, not so much -- and you'll get an idea of how things work.
Here, in the U.K., kabobs, curries and falafels are part of the daily diet, not an exotic, trepidatious foray into "foreign food;" friends with names like Reza, Suraya and Fatima are common and I've yet to meet anyone who confuses Iraq with Iran.
Furthermore, Brits are accustomed to seeing Iranians do well, professionally (Christiane Amanpour), academically (Abbas Edalat), and, yes, even on reality TV. A finalist in the latest season of "Britain's Got Talent" was the impossibly adorable Welsh-Iranian Shaheen Jafargholi, and in June, Yasmina Siadatan won a job, cash and a bit of fame on "The Apprentice." The press seemed to like her, although they had some fun at the expense of her father, who lobbied to get the British courts to recognize his three (simultaneous) wives. Shudder.
But then, this place has always had that mystique about it. I remember being a teenager in Canada and talking to an Iranian girlfriend who upon hearing that Yasmin Parvaneh had married Duran Duran's Simon Le Bon, marveled that in England, Iranian women can be models and marry pop stars. We'd never seen that happen before.
This isn't to say there aren't any high-profile Iranian Americans. It's just that most Americans either don't know who they are (most are academics) or don't know they're Iranian.
Axis of evil references and CNN news stories aside, Iranians just aren't as visible in the U.S. We have what industry types would label a brand recognition problem in there, in a country with which we've had a relatively short and contentious political history.
Still, being an Iranian prior to Sept. 11 in the U.S. was, for the most part, pretty sweet. Aside from those who remembered the post-revolution hostage crisis and still held a grudge, most Americans responded to learning about my Iranian background with, "Oh. So, you speak Arabic?" or "I like that Salma Hayek. Isn't she half Iranian? Do you know her?" Pretty innocuous, right? The fact is we didn't really register with anyone. And by that, I mean some -- perhaps most -- Americans didn't even know where to place Iran.
While in graduate school at the University of Arizona in the mid-90s, a prof encouraged me to attend a minority students' job fair. Having never heard of such a thing, I asked another prof, one with a hand in organizing the event, about it. He told me that I couldn't attend the fair because I'm not a minority.
"You're not African American, you're not Native American, you're not Hispanic and you're not Asian American," he said.
Even though I wasn't anxious to attend the event, I thought I'd have some fun and asked him to tell me, please, in which continent Iran exists.
"It's not in Africa. It's not in Europe. So, that would leave.....Asia?" I asked. The poor man looked uncomfortable as he told me I didn't "look Asian," to which I responded with something like, "Ah, right. Never mind then," before letting him off the hook.
So, essentially, in the U.S., we blended right in, me and ilk -- light-skinned, swarthy, all the same -- until terrorists crashed three airplanes on a Tuesday morning on September and changed the world.
As Palestinian-American comedian Dean Obeidallah put it in one of his bits, "Before 9/11, I'm typical white guy, living a typical white-guy life. All my friends have names like Monica and Chandler and Joey and Ross. I go to bed September 10, white, wake up on September 11, I'm an Arab..." And so it went -- and still does -- for anyone vaguely Middle Eastern or Muslim "looking."
The issue of being confused with something or someone I'm not hasn't come up in London, but I don't think it's necessarily because all Brits are that much more culturally savvy than Americans (although one could argue that many are). It's something else.
This history between the two nations has been long and often bitter, dating back to the 1800s and dealing with the surrender of territory and the settlement of borders with Russia and India, respectively. Yes, the Brits had a role in all of that. Fast forward to 1921, when the British role in putting Reza Khan, a Brigadier in the Cossack brigade, in power, and ultimately to the throne. They then exiled him when, among other things, he didn't allow access to Iran's railroad lines during World War II. And then there was the fiasco that was Operation Ajax. And let's not forget that our youngest royal, Leila Pahlavi, died in London. True, she lived in the U.S., but she overdosed in her favorite, pricey Marble Arch hotel in 2001.
They say that familiarity breeds contempt, but sometimes, it's the other way around, and it's the history Iranians have with England that acts as a cultural dark matter in the relationship. And while to some, that relationship is filled with pain and humility, to successive generations of Iranians, it's at least a recognition of who we are and our past.
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau