Yeah, I didn’t know it either. I only found out 10 years ago when a friend who lived in Iran came to L.A. for a visit. Just like I didn’t know, till I was in my mid-20s, that I’m not Iranian.
I found that out from a random caller to a Persian-language television program produced in Northridge. Like most others of its kind, the program was anti-regime. The host spent a good deal of time enumerating the crimes of the Islamic Republic, among them its stance toward Israel and the arrest and execution of anyone suspected of harboring Zionist sympathies.
A call came in from a viewer: “Why do you dwell on the regime’s treatment of Jews?” a man asked. “It’s not relevant. Those people are not Iranian.”
A strange thing to say about people who have lived on the land without interruption since 440 B.C., but the sentiment, though refuted by the host, was echoed by other callers. Strange, too, because all my life, I had thought and felt and taken pride in being Iranian.
Are we who we think we are, or what we’re perceived to be?
During the hostage crisis in 1979, when every ailment of Iranian society was blamed on the West and all the vestiges of American pop culture were banned and erased, Dirty Harry, of Clint Eastwood fame, outed himself as a God-fearing, mullah-loving, Iranian Muslim. He rode around at night on a motorbike at the head of a posse of other gun-slinging pasdars (Revolutionary Guards), all Made-in-America semi-automatic weapons and pistols and Marlboro Reds, and searched for Zionists and Americans badly in need of a dose of vigilante justice.
He dressed like Harry and combed his hair the same way, spoke with the same throaty voice, introduced himself to his victims as “Sarvaan (lieutenant) Dirty Harry,” and never missed the chance to encourage them to “make my day.”
Not that any of them dared point it out, but the irony in the man’s adopted identity was potent enough to use as a biological weapon, more so when you considered that the character’s creator, director and producer were all Jews. Still, to me his story was reminiscent of the 3,000-year-old Jew who believes he’s Iranian while millions around him know better.
Inevitably, it becomes more complicated: The Iranians who believe Jews are “foreigners” use religion as a benchmark. It doesn’t matter what your birthplace is or what language you dream in or what food you eat. If you’re not Shia, you can’t be Iranian. Then again, Iran — Persia — predates Shiism by 1,800 years. I probably have more in common with many Iranian Muslims than with your average third- and fourth-generation American, but my loyalty is to the United States. Does that make me American?
I’ve been thinking about this — how and why we identify as one thing versus another, how complex and fluid our selfhood has become as the world shrinks and boundaries fall — a great deal over the past couple of weeks. I’ve followed the all-too familiar verbal conflict between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel and anti-Hamas camps played out on new and old media and wondered again why so many second- and third-generation Muslims in this country seem to care more about the fate of Palestinians than that of Iraqi, Syrian, Libyan and other Arab and Muslim civilian populations. Is it because they identify more with Palestinians than with other Muslims? If so, what accounts for that identification?
I will tell you now that the question was — is — genuine. I don’t think every Muslim or Christian or even Jew who opposes the actions of the Israeli government is an anti-Semite. That, to me, is too facile.
I know anti-Semitism is alive and well and alarmingly on the rise. I know what the Hamas charter calls for, what the mullahs in Iran preach to elementary school children about Jews. But I also know that many of the people whose anger about the situation in Gaza was nearly palpable on social media are neither deranged nor anti-Semitic.
I am more moved by stories about the Holocaust than, say, the Armenian or Rwandan genocides; I think that’s because I’m a Jew and therefore identify more closely with the Jewish victims. What is it about the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that seems to evoke from Western-born and raised Muslims an outrage greater than that displayed about other large-scale tragedies in the Muslim world?
No sooner had I posted the question on Facebook than a few people wrote to say: It’s clear, Muslims don’t love each other so much as they hate Jews and Israel. A few others wrote, in private messages or on the wall, to accuse me of being divisive, anti-Muslim and generally devious.
It stings, you know, when you say one thing and people hear something else. It’s how they must feel, I thought — the Palestinian sympathizers who might have reasons other than anti-Semitism for this sympathy, who might actually trust my motives in posing the question, ponder their own and write a considered response only to be told by a stranger on Facebook that it’s all a lie, a socially acceptable form of racism or, at best, a product of their mistaken sense of self.
But they did answer.
A Palestinian-American writer said: “Quite honestly, I think we hear about it more. I don’t know s--- about Bosnia other than Hillary Clinton didn’t get threatened with sniper fire. Whereas my dad has made it a point to interrupt my life on a regular basis and talk to me about ... his growing up under the Jordanian occupation.”
An Iranian said, “It’s the same tragedy over and over.”
Another Iranian wrote: “I think the Palestinian cause does get a lot of Muslims going because they seem trapped in a piece of small territory, and their fate was imposed on them by the West.”
A Pakistani writer said: “[There is a] sense among the Muslims [in this country] that this government which they helped elect is allowing this massacre.”
There was more.
Right about now, I imagine, the “they’re all anti-Semites” camp will say I’m naive and thinking wishfully, that these are all excuses for helping Hamas and Hezbollah wipe Israel from the map. The “every Jew who doesn’t bash Israel is a racist killer” folk will say the people who took the time to answer were wasting their breath. Mostly, I think we’ll all agree that nothing in what was said is new or especially revealing.
But given the extent of the anger on both sides these past weeks, I’m glad for and heartened by this little conversation. If nothing else, it indicated to me that there are some on the other side of the debate who see me as I see myself — a Jew who believes in the rights of both the Israeli and Palestinian people to live in peace and dignity, who knows enough to realize she’s partial toward Israel and therefore not entirely objective, but who nevertheless is capable of posing an honest question and hearing a reasoned response — and who allowed me a genuine view of themselves.
Every person, I’ve learned, is many persons; every nation, many nations. It’s important that we remember this about ourselves and others. Far from the bombs and rockets, safe in our mosques and synagogues, we who have the luxury of fighting with tablets and smartphones might remind ourselves that, at any given time and in any one issue, what we see in another is not necessarily what they are or deem themselves to be.
Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007).
Her column appears monthly in the Journal.
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