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April 5, 2007

Becoming American

http://www.jewishjournal.com/opinion/article/becoming_american_20070406

She comes up to me through the crowd -- designer clothes and Tahitian pearls and that I-know-I'm-gorgeous confidence that makes her impossible to look away from -- and hands me one of my own books. We're at a writers' conference in Long Beach. I'm scheduled to speak later in the day, and to sign books afterward, but she's offering me a pen already.

"To Nancy and Bob Miller," she instructs in a heavy Southern drawl.

Bob, I assume, is the gentleman standing next to her. He has a gray beard and round, wire rim glasses. He's wearing a navy blue jacket and white trousers, and you can just imagine the captain's hat that goes along with the outfit, whether or not there's a boat in the picture. I sign the book and give it back to her.

"You know," she says, "I've been trying to find you for some time."

I smile and say I'm flattered.

Then she says, "I think you and I are cousins."

I assume she means this symbolically -- that she believes we have a few things in common -- so I nod gravely and say something stupid like, "Is that so?"

"I don't mean it symbolically," she says, looking me in the eyes, dead serious. Next to her, Bob is nodding with all the measured wisdom of a ship's captain about to make a life-and-death decision for the entire crew. "I mean I think you and I are related by blood."

Now, I've been around the block enough times with my books to know that they sometimes evoke interesting reactions from readers. I've had strangers come up to me and recite entire pages from my novels, or say they believe they are a certain character in one of the books. I've had hate mail from Muslims who are convinced I've made up the entire history of Iranian Jews just to make them look bad, and from Jews who believe I write only to embarrass their family and to make sure no one will marry their daughter. But I've never had a Southern lady in a St. John suit claim she's my cousin.

"I figured it out as soon as I read about Solomon the Man," she says.

Solomon the Man was my great-grandfather. He was born in Esfahan, before airplanes were invented, and though he traveled widely and spawned many children -- some, possibly, out of wedlock -- I doubt very much he got as far as North Carolina.

"That's a bit unlikely," I venture, but Nancy Miller is unwavering.

Two months later, I'm in Pasadena, at another book event, and she finds me again.

"I don't think you took me seriously last time," she says reproachfully.

"Are you Iranian?" I ask Nancy, trying to put a stop to this.

"No."

"Were your parents Iranian?"

"My father was blue-blood North Carolinian. My mother might have been Jewish."

Does she know that Jewish and Iranian do not necessarily go hand in hand?

"My mother is dead," she says, "but I remember she talked about someone called Solomon when I was a child."

Does she know that, at least in some parts of the world, there is more than one "Solomon" in the general population?

A year goes by. I'm at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills for another book event. My mother is with me. When I see Nancy Miller strut toward me through the garden, I quickly turn to my mother and warn, "That lady's going to say she's my cousin; just smile and play along; don't engage and don't antagonize."

I pick up a pen and get busy signing books, hoping this will discourage Nancy from approaching. From the corner of my eye I see that my mother is smiling at Nancy Miller, looking every bit as eager to engage her as I had feared. Then she walks away.

She returns half an hour later with Nancy Miller. They've linked arms, and are laughing like a pair of 12-year-old schoolgirls. I hear the words, "Friday night," and shudder at the thought that my mother has invited Nancy Miller to her house for Shabbat dinner. Then they see me staring at them.

"Gina," my mother exclaims, proud and beaming, "I want you to meet our cousin Nancy. She and her husband are coming over for Shabbat dinner so I can introduce them to the rest of the family."

I wait till we're in the car, a safe distance away from the Four Seasons, before I ask. Nancy Miller's mother, I learn, was indeed an Iranian Jew, related to Solomon the Man in ways that my mother will neither deny, nor confirm. In Esfahan, where Nancy Miller's mother lived, she had worked for an American company and ended up marrying her boss. They had had a child -- Nancy. When she was 3 years old, her parents had moved from Iran to North Carolina. There, her Iranian Jewish mother had hidden her origins from her Southern Baptist neighbors, but she had sometimes spoken to her children about her Iranian family -- about a man, Solomon, who was a Tar player in the court of Zil-el-Sultan.

I'm stunned, and more than a bit embarrassed.

"How did you find all this out?" I ask my mother.

She shrugs. "Nancy told me. She said she's told you, too."

I'm thinking of the Southern accent, the country-club attitude, the ship-captain husband, trying to figure out how any of that fits in with a story about a family from the Jewish ghetto of Esfahan.

"She might have told me," I confess. "I didn't listen because it didn't make sense."

I'm thinking of what I hear so often, here in Los Angeles, from my American friends and neighbors, about Iranians not trying hard enough to "become" American, about how we speak too much Farsi, socialize with too many other Iranians. About how they -- the Americans -- can tell an Iranian from a mile away.

"She looked nothing like an Iranian," I say. l

Gina B. Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her new novel, "Caspian Rain," will be published this fall. Gina Nahai's column appears monthly in The Journal.

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