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Europe | The Identity Necklace: Being Iranian in Britain


09 Dec 2011 23:22Comments
Learning how to fine-tune the expression of cultural pride.

[ personal history ] My parents are Iranian. My father left Iran when he was 16 years old to study in the United Kingdom. My mother left when she was 18 to study in France. As fate would have it, they both returned to Iran during the turbulent years of the Revolution and fell in love. They envisaged a new life in Iran, a postrevolutionary bliss in which young hopes and desires would be manifested in a utopian society, only for the establishment to dash their hopes in an era of tyranny, oppression, and despair. And so they decided to flee their motherland and build a new life elsewhere, along with millions of other Iranians who represent one of the largest brain drains anywhere in the world. Having already established a life in the U.K., my father chose to return along with my mother to rebuild their lives in a stable and tolerant community. On the last day of 1987, my mother gave birth to me.

My childhood was no different from many others -- stable and loving upbringing, clever enough to complete my secondary education at a grammar school, played sports, had good friends. During the times when self-perception was less important to me than playing with my friends, I viewed myself as just another British child and assumed that the cultural diversity of my household was common. It just never occurred to me that my parents were different from British parents and my heritage so vastly different from theirs. I celebrated both the Gregorian New Year and the Iranian New Year. I ate fish and chips for lunch and then ghormeh sabzi, the traditional Persian spice-laden stew, for dinner. I spoke English to my friends at school and then Farsi to my parents at home. Why should it be different for anyone else?

Of course, it was up to others to identify me as foreign. I grew up in a city that boasts one of the whitest populations in the country, so it was inevitable that my self-perception would be questioned. At primary school, I brushed aside the odd comment about my difference as a misconception. Yet as I grew older and my understanding of the world around me deepened, I reached a point where I had to fundamentally redefine myself as a person. On the one hand, I could become a conformist and embrace the British identity, while acknowledging my heritage as secondary. On the other hand, I could embrace my heritage and, instead of cowering, proudly boast that I was Iranian. I saw little middle ground between the two alternatives. And so I chose the latter.

Myself: Redefined

I'm typical of a large community of second-generation children whose parents moved to the U.K. from distant lands. My standard response to "So, tell me about yourself!" is to explain that I am an Iranian who, due to circumstances outside of my control, has been brought up in a foreign land. I explain that my British upbringing is only one chapter of my life and does not define my identity. I explain that as much as I am thankful and appreciative of the British, I will always uphold my heritage. Then, expecting the usual backlash, I explain that no, I am not a terrorist and no, I am not planning the vengeful downfall of the U.K. I am merely expressing myself in the same manner that I would like to be viewed by others.

I spent a lot of time trying to affirm this expression of identity and heritage. I tried hanging the Iranian flag in my room, but to no avail, given the private circumstances. I wore an Iranian flag on the lapel of my school blazer, which also proved unsuccessful as I was viewed with suspicion. Then one day, my mother returned from Iran with a handful of small, golden necklaces that sparkled and glimmered like nothing I'd seen before. I cautiously asked her what they were, wary of sounding a little too excited about jewelry. She replied that on each necklace hung a faravahar -- the ancient Zoroastrian winged disk that has come to represent the Iranian nation, culture, and pride all at once. It was subtle, it was full of meaning, and it was an expression of nationality that went beyond religion...it was perfect! I grabbed one for myself and it has not left my neck since.

My aim in this essay is to reach a richer understanding of the concept of identity and explore the ways in which people express themselves, with a particular focus on nationality and acculturation. Today, the traditional constructs of identity, such as race, social class, and occupation, play a diminished role in the formation of identity. A wide variety of factors -- including immigration, globalization, and the belief in equality (Peñazola, 1994; Üstüner and Holt, 2007) -- have meant that simply being different is not enough; one must express that difference through consumption. Furthermore, our consumption behavior is no longer primarily determined by quality or function. Instead, we look to buy products or services that are symbolic in nature and reflect the identity we want to portray to others (Firat and Venkatesh, 1995). With those notions in mind, I hope to offer some worthwhile insight into my experiences as a British-born Iranian.

Nationality and acculturation

Jafari and Goulding (2008) propose that the concept of nationality is increasingly dependent on political dynamics and determined by two types of narratives, the natural narrative and the invented narrative. The former is constituted by a nation's history, literature, media, and popular culture, while the latter takes the form of imposed rituals, through which a state seeks to reinvent values and norms by repetition. They use the example of the Islamic Revolution to demonstrate their analogy.

From my own perspective, the point where I felt I had to redefine myself was a point where the two types of narratives overlapped. What was I to believe? In my mind, the British narrative, which I had experienced as natural for so many years, suddenly felt detached and artificial. It morphed into an invented narrative that I felt was being imposed on me. At the same time, my Iranian narrative felt incomplete because I was born and bred in a different country. My perception of nationality became very obscure; I could no longer identify myself as British or Iranian. Jafari and Goulding call this phenomenon the "torn self." (Jafari and Goulding use the "torn self" to describe the structural paradoxes that young Iranians face when they escape to the UK, namely the conflict between individualism in the West and conformism in Islamic traditions. I have interpreted the term slightly differently in my case.)

As I mentioned above, I saw little middle ground between the two choices. Peñaloza, in a study of Mexican immigrants in the United States, examined four methods of acculturation: assimilation, maintenance, resistance, and segregation. Assimilation, in which one wholly adopts a new identity at the expense of their heritage, was one option for me (and a common choice for many second-generation Brits I know). My alternative option was resistance, in which one prioritizes their heritage. The other two choices, maintenance (a balance between the two identities) and segregation (physically withdrawing from the new identity), were out of the question. The seeming impossibility of maintenance I attribute to the passion and dominance of the Iranian culture -- I was unable to balance the two identities as they are so imbalanced by nature. I also could not segregate myself from my British identity as it had already dominated so much of my life. So I chose to resist and embrace my heritage. Acculturation, of course, is not usually as rigid as assumed by Peñaloza's analysis. In reality, I do not consistently resist; I have a fluid identity that can adapt to the various situation I encounter, basically making life a little simpler. Oswald (1999) terms this approach "culture swapping"; Üstüner and Holt term it "hybrid identities."

How to manage resistance

Jafari and Goulding discuss the notion of being Iranian in the U.K. They studied a sample of affluent Iranian youth who had escaped to the country for various reasons, all of whom felt that they were cast in the roles of Muslim extremists and terrorist sympathizers. My own experiences confirm this. Once, I was approached by a large group of white, British men who felt it was necessary to share their views with me. They called me a "Paki" and explained that I and my religion were not welcome in their country (I am not religious at all). I replied, "Actually I'm not from Pakistan, I'm from Iran." Looking bemused and slightly taken aback, one of the men pondered for a moment and then replied, "Whatever mate! Go back to your country you fucking Turk." Obviously, my attempt to differentiate between Pakistan and Iran made absolutely no difference. What this incident, along with many other, has taught me, is that expressing national identity bluntly -- saying I am Iranian or wearing an Iranian flag on my lapel -- is not necessarily beneficial for my well-being. Instead, by wearing the faravahar necklace, I can use it as a way of disseminating my cultural values and establishing a dialogue with others, in order to create a positive image of my country and people. This more subtle approach makes it easier for people to respond to and question my nationality with curiosity rather than suspicion.

Developing the work of Peñaloza and others, Ahuvia (2005) attempts to categorize the reconciliation of identity conflicts into three solutions: demarcating, compromising, and synthesizing. My consumption of the necklace would fall under the category of a demarcating solution. He argues that this act of consumption is not just about expressing an identity to others, but also reflects the greater conflict that occurs within oneself. Furthermore, he argues, "it is often the products that consumers reject that say the most about the consumers' desired self." These rejected products are a manifestation of rejected identities. Essentially, my necklace symbolizes both who I am (or who I want to be) and, no less, who I am not (or who I do not want to be).

In conclusion

In sharing these thoughts, I acknowledge the limitations on my perspective imposed by my particular circumstances: I am well educated, I am not religious, I am financially secure, and I am well traveled. Mehta and Belk, as well as Jafari and Goulding, assert that acculturation varies significantly depending on such characteristics. In general, the construction of identity differs from person to person and depends on an infinite set of variables that cannot be fully rationalized. Another consideration is that my parents have played an important role in the development of my identity, and their views have influenced mine to an uncertain degree.

I have spent a long time trying to define my identity. The paradigm in which I lived for many years gradually faded and left me with a blank canvas to paint my new identity upon. As I have described, I chose to embrace my heritage and literally wear it on my neck. I made this decision because I wanted to be closer to my family, because of the attitudes of those around me, and because of a general interest in Iranian history and politics. In essence, one could call it an identity of convenience rather than obligation. And this convenience, this blank canvas, is the paradigm that I have learned to comprehend, in which reality is no longer singular but individually constructed, in which consumption is as much symbolic as functional and few social boundaries exist to restrict expression. Firat and Venkatesh name this paradigm "postmodernism." I call it my life.

Photos: Author's grandparents (above); Iranian pop diva Googoosh in London before the 1979 revolution (homepage).


Ahuvia, Aaron C. (2005). "Beyond the Extended Self: Loved Objects and Consumers' Identity Narratives," Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 32, no. 1, pp. 171-84.

Firat, A. Fuat, and Alladi Venkatesh (1995). "Liberatory Postmodernism and the Re-enchantment of Consumption," Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 239-67.

Jafari, Aliakbar, and Christina Goulding (2008). "'We Are Not Terrorists!' UK-Based Iranians, Consumption Practices and the 'Torn Self,'"' Consumption Markets & Culture, vol. 11, no. 2, pp. 73-91.

Mehta, Raj, and Russell W. Belk (1991). "Artifacts, Identity, and Transition: Favourite Possessions of Indians and Indian Immigrants to the United States," Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 17, no. 4, pp. 398-411.

Oswald, Laura R. (1999). "Culture Swapping: Consumption and the Ethnogenesis of Middle-Class Haitian Immigrants," Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 25, no. 4, pp. 303-18.

Peñazola, Lisa (1994). "Atravesando Frontera/Border Crossings: A Critical Ethnographic Exploration of the Consumer Acculturation of Mexican Immigrants," Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 21, no. 1, pp. 32-54.

Üstüner, Tuba, and Douglas B. Holt (2007). "Dominated Consumer Acculturation: The Social Construction of Poor Migrant Women's Consumer Identity Projects in a Turkish Squatter," Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 34, no. 1, pp. 41-56.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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