My Iranian Awakening
A visit to my father’s homeland left me feeling less American but more fully human.
By Geila Rajaee | Pictured: Geila’s great aunt | January 11, 2016
The first time I lied to someone about my ethnic identity, I was eight years old. The first Gulf War had started and I was starkly aware that some man named Hussein was doing really bad things to people in Iraq. I didn’t dare tell anyone that my dad’s name was Hossein and that he was born in Iran. Instead I pretended to be something else. I pretended to be anything else.
For lack of a better term, I look “ethnically ambiguous.” When someone asks me about my ethnic heritage now, I tend to begin with the “soft” version. I tell them I’m Persian. Because most people are unfamiliar with the location of modern-day Persia, it spares me an awkward political conversation about government conflicts.
I was born and raised in metro Detroit, and while my mother’s Irish-English ancestors have lived in North America for several generations, my father’s entire family still lives in Iran. And when your country of origin is embroiled in an international dispute with the country where much of your family resides, there aren’t many opportunities for extended family dinners.
The first time I lied to someone about my ethnic identity, I was eight years old.
When I was nine, Mamani, my grandmother, came to the United States for few months. My memories of her visit are filled with tickles and laughter. My siblings and I did not speak Farsi and she didn’t speak English, but I felt and knew her love even without a shared language. Other than that visit, I have been separated from my family in Iran. That has been both a burden and a gaping hole in my life—I know my grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins have love for me, and I, them, but I really don’t know them as people.
Political division does not care about families. The decades-old hostility between Iran and the United States has broken relationships since 1979. And in that time, rhetoric from both countries has been unpleasant, to
say the least—calling each other “the great Satan” or
the “axis of evil.” And the characterizations often go beyond the governments to influence how we see the people. After thirty-five years of division, how do we view Iranians? How do they view us?
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael asked when he first heard about Jesus (John 1:46). Before he was known as an individual, Jesus was judged by his place of origin. As an American with Middle Eastern roots, I deeply resonate with this. Loving your family and your ancestry while knowing just how poorly those you love are viewed can be a discouraging struggle.
Two years ago, in mid-February, my grandmother summoned me to the family home in Iran. Mamani’s health was declining and the family hoped that my father and I could be there for Nowruz, the Persian new year, in mid-March. The visit would be my first trip to a country that I have held in my heart but have been unable to know with any intimacy. It would also be my first time to meet the majority of my extended family—uncles, aunts, cousins, the whole tree and root system.
Aside from my first response—I can’t go now, I have responsibilities and an expired passport—any worries I had about traveling to Iran were fairly mundane. I was anxious about the language barrier and the potential for cultural missteps.
As I talked with friends about my trip, however, I could see different responses in their faces. Some expressed concern over my safety traveling as a female and asked how I would feel about covering my hair. Others wondered how wise it would be to travel as an American to a country with whom we’d had such a poor relationship for thirty-five years. And then there were those who worried about my safety traveling as a Christian. Fears about persecution and religious liberty threaded through multiple conversations in the days leading up to my trip. To be honest, the fears expressed by others shifted inward and made me wonder and worry—fear can be contagious. But my plans were made, and I was soon on my way to Iran to meet my family.
At times the differences between being in the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States were stark. When we left the plane, all of the women on my flight were advised that we were required to cover our heads in all public areas in the country. So I put a scarf around my head, covered my hair, and did so whenever I was in public. I wore my manteaux (a kind of trench coat) as well.
What struck me most, though, was the fact that the religious distinctives of the Islamic Republic of Iran didn’t hinder me from feeling involved in the life of the community. Yes, there are differences between Islam and Christianity, but those things did not override our common humanity.
It turned out that my time in Iran was marked by some of the most extensive generosity I have ever experienced. My family received me with open arms, but it wasn’t just my relatives who welcomed me. In every gathering, people were eager to talk to me—they asked me about movies and American pop culture or talked with me and practiced their English skills, bashfully asking if their pronunciation was decent. In turn, they were graceful with my clumsy attempts to speak Farsi—with some occasional giggles when I really butchered a word or phrase. When one young gentleman in Isfahan, one of the larger historical cities south of Tehran, realized that I was an English-speaking American and not, in fact, a Farsi speaker, he excitedly explained the seven elements of the “Haft-seen” (the “seven S’s”), which are displayed as part of the New Year festival.
One young woman at the historical home we toured in my father’s hometown of Kashan practiced her English with me while also teaching me about the architecture and history of the building. Another young gentleman overheard me talking in English with my cousin in Tehran while touring the Shah’s former (and obscenely lavish) palaces and asked me where I was from. “Los Angeles?” he asked. I laughed, reminded that some folks call it Tehrangeles because of its high concentration of Iranian Americans.
“No, north of there—a place called Seattle, but I have been to Los Angeles.” At this he seemed excited and then asked, “Do you like Iran?” I responded honestly, “Yes, I do. I like Iran.” He was skeptical, but I assured him, “Really. It’s beautiful.”
My father and I, along with my aunts, uncles, and cousins, received invitation after invitation to share meals or tea. After a large gathering, the food wasn’t left to spoil, but saved for a local Afghani refugee family, who came the next morning to pick it up. Alms are given daily to help support the poor. The culture of hospitality is rich and generous throughout the country, and I was reminded of Abraham receiving the three visitors in his home, saying, “Do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way” (Genesis 18:3-5).
There I was, a stranger myself in a foreign land, a Covenant minister surrounded by devoutly Muslim men and women who reminded me of the spirit of the gospel in their words and in their deeds. Each time I noticed someone quietly slipping away to pray, I felt moved to tears. And every day I experienced what it really looked like to welcome, love, and befriend a stranger, and it broke my heart open. The welcome I felt pushed hard against the stories that paint this country and its beautiful people in a negative light.
In the end, I felt like I belonged, like these people were my family even though these were the first days we had ever spent together—which was kind of crazy. I loved these beautiful people.
Then I came home.
Being in Iran was unlike anything I had anticipated. I expected to experience some measure of kindness and hospitality but not to the degree to which I received it. Coming home, things felt different; I felt different. I wanted to relate and interact with the world in a more Iranian way—the way I saw people care for and welcome each other there.
Yet my awareness of identity and “otherness” in American culture had been stirred up. I do not take lightly the privileges of being born in the United States. But those benefits also include additional burdens. The burden that being a person of color—even halfway so—in this country can stiffen the spine of a neighbor in fear, anxiety, or distrust before arms in friendship are extended. And even in this country, where we pride ourselves on tolerance, our fear of the “other” can sometimes lead to terrible acts of violence against perfect strangers. We too can be hostile in our own way.
I wish I could ignore some of the subtle (and less than subtle) hostilities I have experienced as a Middle Eastern American. I have listened to rhetoric about Muslims and Middle Easterners that can best be described as piercing or shameful—from people referring to us as “those monsters,” to language laced with worry about what “they” might do. Certainly we live in a fearful time, but fearmongering drives all of us to approach our neighbors with suspicion rather than with a holy embrace.
I came home from Iran with a different perspective. I witnessed a hospitality there that I would like to learn to extend here. I came home asking how I can prepare a place for those in my life who have no place, for those who do not “fit.” I came home asking, for whom shall I make a meal or share a cup of tea? And how will Christ teach me to make hostile spaces hospitable for others?
That is not to simplify the tensions in our world. But I am learning how I might be an instrument to loosen the taut strings of fear and how I might make space for my neighbor, my kin.