As the son of an Iranian father and a Jewish mother my sense of sorrow concerning the disaster of September 11 does not tend toward patriotism. In fact, I am repelled by it. I speak as a first-hand victim of American patriotism in 1979, the year 66 U.S. diplomats were taken hostage in Iran. The underbelly of American patriotism is where I resided for 444 days when I was ten-years-old and living in Pittsburgh, a city with virtually no discernible Middle Eastern community.
My father, who had abandoned me at birth, was living in Tehran in 1979 and the prospect of dropping bombs on Iran was a deeply personal reality for me. My connection to my father was tenuous at best, and I came to a very private reckoning during that time that his death was imminent and that the handful of memories that I had of him were the only ones I would ever have. The turmoil I was undergoing was in direct counterpoint to my countrymen who rejoiced noisily in the potency of American might, as American might was their might. To be sure, the underbelly of the flag is not a pretty place to be, it is solitary and dangerous, but it reveals a great truth about the exclusivity and violence of this country, and one who has experienced it does not soon forget it.
It was not, however, American patriotism that was ultimately my great antagonizer in 1979, but rather American innocence, which fuels and drives patriotism. Of all the religions of the United States it is this religion, the religion of innocence, that most afflicts the American psyche. It obscures a clear understanding of American past and American present, and it maintains as one of its central tenets that the guilty – and there must exist innocent’s opposite – resides on foreign soil and within foreign bodies. In 1979, despite having been born in the U.S. and having lived every moment of my ten years in America, I became a foreign body.
“Cause we could take our BB guns Blow your buns to the sun Just our Boy Scouts could wipe you out Some day soon, Khomeini You‚ll burn one flag too many Uncle Sam has got his pride You’re about to feel his clout” –Song from WDLW, Boston
The yellow ribbon of 1979 was not my yellow ribbon, it was my noose; the bumper sticker of a red, white and blue Mickey Mouse, middle-finger aloft, proclaiming, “Hey Iran,” was a middle-finger pointing toward me; my classmate’s T-shirt of Ayatollah Khomeini’s face in the center of a bull‚s eye, with the words “Fuck Iran,” was a bull‚s eye containing my face and my father‚s face; the caricaturing of Iranians‚ physical features, eyes too black, beard too thick, accent too pronounced, body odor too severe, was a caricaturing of my body and the body of someone my mother had once made love to. In my pubescent years I was taught by the country I hailed from that my body was filthy and deformed.
The difficulty for me at age ten was not so much if my father was to live or die, but how I was to preserve an unpolluted sense of him within myself. Everything I came in contact with in that period conspired to corrupt him and shame me from him. A choice was proffered: my father or my American identity. I chose my father and in so doing I found myself defending Iran; I defended Iran and in so doing I defended my father. Teachers ignored me, classmates taunted me, friends rescinded dinner invitations. I was countering what we, the population, had been taught in first-grade when we first learned about the gallant innocent American pioneers. By the time we had reached sixth-grade the doctrine was so deeply entrenched that there was virtually no way it could be effectively altered. Walter Cronkite was nightly corroborating what our history books said; my friends‚ parents were corroborating what Walter Cronkite said; the U.S. government was corroborating my friends‚ parents; and Johnny Carson was corroborating them all. To deign to suggest an alternative point of view was an heretical act, it was insulting the complete fabric of the country. I took to carrying a piece of sharpened metal in my pocket, determined to go for the eyes if there were ever cause. I was isolated, both outside of myself and within. It was the price I paid for defending a man who, as I was forced to admit to myself years later, had not once defended me.
What I did not know then was that none of this was about myself or Iranians. It was about to what great length Americans needed to venture in order to preserve their innocence. If Iranians were guilty, after all, there would be no need to dehumanize them, they could be depicted accurately, and in the simple accuracy of such a depiction would lie their sins for all the world to see. Since this was not the case, the American media, among other entities, found itself beholdened to endless calisthenics of reproducing under-exposed, black and white photographs of Iranian men; intellectual investigations into the psychology of Iranians; footage of American flags burning in the night; rapid-fire proclamations in a foreign tongue, leaving much to the frightened American imagination. America was not attempting to reveal Iran, but to confound it, which had the reverse effect: it revealed America, its racism and its xenophobia.
“I think we ought to round up all the Iranian students in this country, put them in one center and swap them for the Americans. I had no idea until this came up there are so many of them here.” –Ms. Ella Belky, shop clerk, The New York Times, Nov. 12, 1979
Ms. Belky is not making a mathematical error in suggesting that 60,000 Iranians are the equivalent of 50 Americans. The American slave, after all, was valued at five to one. Dehumanization is a necessity when a power is attempting to abscond with a nation‚s patrimony, which is exactly what the United States was achieving when it suddenly found itself on the other side of the gun, its shah being run out of the country and its diplomats being held hostage. An accurate rendering of American history in 1979 would have, at the very least, involved America in the hostage crisis, if not outright implicated it. If nothing more, Americans could not have gotten away with saying that the crisis began on November 4, 1979, but rather that it was another element in an ongoing crisis that had begun many years ago and included, but was certainly not limited to, the American involvement in 1953 in overthrowing Mohammad Mossadegh, the democratically-elected Prime Minister of Iran.
Americans were not privy to this history then, nor are they scarcely privy to it now. History instead has been replaced with an ingrained, all-encompassing sense of innocence which, by its nature, precludes historical investigation. It is an innocence that President Bush alluded to in his recent address of Congress. “Americans are asking, “Why do they hate us?” They hate what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” If this is a tendentious, simple-minded reading of American society and world events, it is designed to be one. Americans, despite their claims to the contrary, find solace in this depiction, and the American government, filled with dreams of world domination, is happy to oblige.
If something has changed in the twenty-two years since the hostage-crisis, I dont know what it is. The revilement of Afghanistan is that of Iran. The physical threat to Middle Easterners living in the United States is the physical threat that I lived under. And Americans, caught within their religion, that endless maze of interlocking, self-supporting elements, are still unable to extricate themselves from it because they do not know that they are trapped within it, descending further into self-congratulatory patriotism and jingoism. There is something sad and disheartening in the way the victims of the World Trade Center have been glorified. It is American life – not life itself – that is being exalted. The foreign life, as a direct consequence of such an equation, is reduced. American’s horror and grief are being manipulated to accept impending foreign slaughter. The American heart, in short, is being hardened to absorb a staggering death-toll that will result in untold riches for the lucky few. And somewhere in some American city there exists again a ten-year-old boy who finds himself in the middle of the tumult struggling to preserve a humane sense of who he is and where he comes from.