The 50/50 Club: Author Saïd Sayrafiezadeh
by LEILA DARABI in New York
03 Mar 2010 19:15
In my experience, Americans' perceptions of Iranians tend to be driven by West Coast images of an educated and spoiled immigrant population who drive BMWs and insist on being called Persians. And the literature that has penetrated the English-language press has tended to come from female voices, mainly from women who were born in Iran and left during one stage of Islamic oppression or another.
My reality has never much matched this perception. For one thing, most of the Iranians I encountered growing up were men who left Iran long before the 1979 revolution. They didn't drive BMW's. If they drove anything at all, it was a yellow cab. Some had come to study engineering, others to read up on political science---hoping one day to return home to a Shah-free Iran and help build a better government. They stayed up late reading poetry aloud and talked a lot about Dr. Mossadegh.
For another thing, there was my other half---the non-Iranian half---often eclipsed by an ethnic name, an interest in Middle East politics and the fact that Persian food is so good it often needs to be discussed at length. That is the side Sayrafiezadeh honors best in his memoir: his relationship with his non-Iranian parent and overshadowed American heritage. At first glance, the book is about what it's like to have parents who are active in the Socialist Worker's Party, one of whom is Iranian with a very long last name. It is also about a boy's relationship with his estranged father. But more than anything, When Skateboards Will Be Free is a story about coming of age and learning to separate what you truly believe in from the stories your parents tell you when you are small.
The memoir is out in paperback later this month. Sayraifiezadeh has a short story in last week's New Yorker. He was also kind enough to answer a few questions for Tehran Bureau.
You describe a clique of anti-Shah Iranians in the Socialist Workers Party during the 1970s. Do you know what became of the others?
My father has taken a very dim view of many of his former comrades and subsequently doesn't talk about them much. I know that some were imprisoned by Khomeini, but other than that I have no idea. My father returned to Iran with a number of them after the Shah was deposed, and together they founded the Socialist Workers Party of Iran. As is common, though, in many left-wing organizations there was almost immediate dissension, and a faction emerged calling itself the Militant Wing of the Socialist Workers Party. Not long afterward the party split completely and the Revolutionary Workers Party was formed, of which my father became a leading member. This party broke apart as well, with my father going on to found the Workers Unity Party. All of this was within the space of two years. I'm not overstating it when I say that communist parties generally despise one another as much as they despise capitalism. The prevailing attitude is that if you don't think exactly how I think then you're a potential enemy, which in many ways is the story of my childhood.
How did you research your father's presidential campaign?
It wasn't easy. Some of my information came from old issues of the Socialist Workers Party newspaper, The Militant, which are all, remarkably, archived at the New York Public Library. I also discovered certain obscure publications, like an encyclopedia of international Trotskyism. But the most informative document was the leaflet that my father sent me when I was eleven years old announcing his candidacy for president. I describe this at some length in the book. My father and I had almost no contact during my childhood, but one day I received a leaflet in the mail with my father's photograph surrounded by Persian text. The only thing I could read were the words "for Saïd," which had been handwritten in English. The rest of it was a mystery. I took it to school anyway to present to my class as part of a current events assignment. This was during the hostage crisis and the last thing I should have been doing was publicizing that I was Iranian. I remember that I stood in front of the class while my teacher asked me questions about the leaflet. All I could answer was that it was about "someone" running for president of Iran. That was the only thing I knew until twenty-five years later when I had it translated.
Are you still in touch with your brother and sister? You mention they changed their names from Sayrafiezadeh -- did they pick less ethnic names?
My sister married an American and took his name, and my brother has shortened Sayrafiezadeh to Sayraf. So now he's Jacob Sayraf, or sometimes Jake Sayraf. He made the change when he was a teenager, prior to the Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis. So I don't think it was motivated by any anti-Iranian sentiment in the United States. The irony is that my brother and sister grew up with my father, yet I'm the one who's kept the name. It was my only connection to him as a child. Now we're the last two Sayrafiezadehs in the United States.
What impact has your own name had in shaping your identity?
It's probably one of the most defining characteristics of who I am. For one thing it immediately marks me as being foreign. It also obliterates the fact that I was raised by a Jewish American mother. I have to expend an awful lot of energy actively undoing the impact of my name. Understandably, people assume that I have at least some connection to Iran. The truth is that I don't. I have very little knowledge about the culture, the language, the history. I've never been to Iran. I've never even been inside a mosque. My father is the one who's Iranian, and he left me when I was nine months old. In many ways I'm similar to Barack Obama who also has a strange name but was raised by a white American mother. His background is far more complicated than his name would suggest. Furthermore, the fact that I was a child during the hostage crisis has caused me to equate being Iranian with being alienated. I can't imagine who I would be today if my name had been Sayraf, for instance. A name like that would have given me the OPTION to reveal that I'm Iranian. What a luxury that would have been during the hostage crisis. I suppose my Iranian identity is one of the driving forces for being a writer: I want to set the record straight about who I really am.
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