Living in the United States as an American-Iranian

My mother is Iranian and my father is from the Midwest. I was born in Portland, Oregon and raised learning about my parent’s languages, cultural beliefs and customs. Additionally, because my grandfather, an immigrant who is largely monolingual in Farsi took care of me for years, my Iranian background feels very present for me though I have never been there. I am a bicultural American-Iranian, twenty-something who loves sports and played on team sports for years. My family and I have worked with community organizations to help those in need. I spend a lot of time taking care of my grandparents. We enjoy the outdoors and taking walks with my dog. In short, there is nothing unusual and extreme in my life. My parents and extended family are very clear that this country is our home and we belong here. However, when I turn to the news stories, movies or media, I cannot find me or people like me anywhere. To the extent that Iranian-Americans are presented at all in the media, they are the terrorists, the dark figures who are so against the western culture that they want to destroy it from within. The stereotypes of Iranian extremists saturating the media’s portrayal of Iranians drawn from political tensions over the past decades have created a negative image of Iranians and marginalized the significant contributions of Iranian-Americans in the United States.

More recently, The Shah’s of Sunset, a popular reality show on Bravo Cable, adds another unfavorable extreme theme to the image of young Iranian-Americans here, this time focusing on a group of young Iranian-Americans as crazed materialistic people with shallow values. In contrast to these two extremes, Iranian Americans overall are among some of the most educated groups in the US. They have had major accomplishments in the sciences, engineering, literature, entertainment and sports, but these achievements do not get nearly as much attention as they should. Instead we are still in an era where after any tragic bombing or attack on our cities or Europe, the first groups suspected are young Iranians. Popular media stubbornly continues to show Iranian-Americans in an unfavorable way. These negative images work to the disadvantage of young people like me searching for a positive place in our society here today. I find as I meet a new group of students or apply for a job, I am responding to questions such as do Iranians say they are Persians to hide they are Iranians? Did you watch the movie 300? Does your family feel awkward here during Christmas? Do you celebrate Thanksgiving like us?

In the US people often think that the tension between the US and Iran started around the hostage crisis of 1979. But actually the tensions started much earlier. Many historians look to the US overthrow of a democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 as the most important event causing the resentment of many generations of Iranians against the US. The CIA took part in a coup that imprisoned Mossadegh and brought back the Shah. Years later the return of Khomeini and student demonstrations in Iran resulted in the overthrow of the Shah’s regime and takeover of the US Embassy in 1979. What the media picked up immediately was the drama of the hostages on a daily basis, and the public demonstrations next to the Embassy in Tehran with burning US flags. Those images are the lasting images of those times. Little attention was paid to what were the reasons behind such apparent hatred. What the US media did not cover were the root causes of resentment toward the US among those students. In their mind, the US had by its meddling overthrew a popular democratically elected prime minster, who had successfully nationalized Iranian oil. This did not serve the West. Winning nationalization of the Iranian oil meant that the west could no longer export Iran’s natural resources with paltry sums in reimbursement to the Iranian government (Kinzer). For this success, the U.S. forced the only democratically elected prime minister in Iran out of power setting Iran back in its development of democracy at home.

Years later, as a result of the hostage crisis, the tension between Iran and US reached an all-time high and those of Iranian identity and non-immigrant visa could not renew their visas. Many Iranians had to present themselves at immigration offices. The discrimination that Iranians faced in the United States during this time made them want to blend into the US culture much more than they had before. (Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans: Iranian-Americans by Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, page 6). Years later with the events of 9/11, the tensions against Iran and Iranians grew again. “Even though Iranians did not have a part in the terrorist attacks on the United States, in his State of the Union address in January 2002, President George Bush labeled Iran, Iraq, and Korea as part of the “axis of evil” countries that were sponsoring terrorism and seeking weapons of mass destruction” (Id). Once again the borders were closed off to Iranians and the Iranians pulled together and shied away from attention to minimize problems. Iran to this day is blamed for the 9/11 – for example see the default judgment entered against Iran for billions of dollars in a case brought by the families of victims brought in a court in New York, though they dismissed the Saudi Arabian government (though most of the terrorists were Saudi nationals) (CBS NEWS 2011).

During the past three decades, there have been countless Iranian engineers, mathematicians (Maryam Mirzakhani won the Fields Medal in mathematics in 2014), reporter (Christin Amanpour), actors, sports figures (Agassi) who have had great achievements in their field in the U.S. There is little media coverage about their background as Iranians or Iranian-Americans. To the extent that they have an opportunity to talk about their background and heritage they seem to shy away from it themselves. As my first artifact, I watched an interview of Agassi with CNN Anderson Cooper in which he only very briefly mentions that his father was an immigrant from Iran though he speaks extensively about his father and how he raised him to be the number one tennis player in the world (CNN Interview 2010).

Agassi also wrote a book about his own life called OPEN. But even in the book, an autobiography, he refuses to talk much about half his heritage as an Iranian-American. He only mentions his dad’s birth place one time even though much of the way that he was raised may have had to do with his dad’s background and as an immigrant to this country (Agassi). As an athlete with an Iranian-American background I look with interest to any professional athlete of the same background and there are so few who talk about their background in the media. I am disappointed of the fact that the once a number one tennis player in the world would not acknowledge that he has a similar background to mine. The interview with Agassi was to sell his book and I assume that he did not think it was too good for selling his book if he emphasizes the fact that his dad was Iranian.
By contrast some actors and entertainers who are interested in showing their bicultural background are passed up and never given the opportunity for roles other than bad guys with bombs strapped around their body in movies or films. Precisely on this point, in a fairly recent presentation Maz Jobrani an Iranian-American comedian shared his story on TED TALK (a nonprofit dedicated to creating a global community). This TED TALK was my second artifact. Maz says that his hope is the standup comedy show he has created will break the stereotypes about Iranian-Americans and Muslims. He labeled his comedy show “Axis of Evil” a tongue-in-cheek reference to the phrase coined by President Bush in tying Iran with other countries that have been viewed as irresponsible and untrustworthy. Maz is trying to break that stereotype and explain that he and others like him have nothing  to do with what one or two people out of masses may do to leave a bad image. Maz, described the turmoil he feels every time there is a bombing and tragedy in the U.S.. He fears that each time the culprit may be Iranian or Middle Eastern and that the U.S will once again turn negatively towards Iranian or Middle Easterners and Muslims. Maz claims that he gets people’s attention by relating it straight to what they may have felt and create a place where they can laugh about it and reduce tensions (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RmXiItk49Gw).

What I found most intriguing and surprising is how much I enjoyed listening to Maz talking about how he felt in this country as an Iranian-American. It seemed a big weight was lifted off my shoulder just to know other people struggle going through the airport or, are worried that any terrorist activity that happens is tied to Iranians. I know from my own experiences how much we worry about these issues and problems that he talked about in such a funny way. I hope that he continues this work. I do not look as the stereotypical Iranian, so some of the stereotypes do not directly affect me, but my name is part Middle Eastern and I want to keep it and so I have to explain who I am and my background all the time to people who seem surprised and a little taken back by it all. I like the positive spin he put on his talk. The audience seemed to enjoy and nodded their heads in understanding.

The third artifact that I found in how Iranians are portrayed in the media, if at all, was the reality show called Shahs of Sunset first shown in March 2012. It was released and the show received much criticism even before it release from many Iranians, and particularly those in the Los Angeles because of its characters replace one stereotype of Iranians as savage fundamentalist with another as shallow materialistic people. Despite the criticism the show is soon to enter its fourth season. The reality show follows the lives of Six Iranian American friends grown up in Beverly Hills covering their everyday life in luxury. They use lines such as “we do not work in the buildings, we own them!” The actors talk about the only pay check they get is the one from their parents though they are in their 30s. They are drinking constantly and it seems their focus is one party after another. They are surrounded by gold and red furniture with expensive watches and piles of large jewelry around their necks and fingers. They seem obsessed with their cars, furnishing and fashionable clothes and nothing else. They are not modest in the way they dress or behave unlike any Persian-Americans that I have seen here. The actor’s claim that they are doing a favor for the Persian-Americans here breaking stereotypes of all Persian-Americans as potential terrorists. The actors claim that they are showing daily life and humanizing the Iranians.

The Critics of Shah’s of Sunset are worried that the show is more stereotypes and commercialism just like other trash reality shows, but this one is also bent to make it more exotic, more oriental in the same formula as early years of Hollywood’s infatuation with stereotypes of Arabs, here Iranians and the Middle East to sell its films to intrigue the audience (Prodanovic). On the other hand there are those who think there are some useful aspects to this reality show. An Iranian-American sociology professor, Neda Maghbouleh originally of Portland, Oregon now teaching in Canada wrote an article in Salon in which she took the position that even though the Shah’s of Sunset has many faults including its focus on material goods and shallowness of its six Iranian-American characters living in Los Angles, the show nonetheless has some merit in creating a better understanding of Iranian culture among American audience. She writes that she knows defending this show among Iranian intellectuals is a minority position, but what she thought was important were two points. The first is that show demonstrates the close fabric of Iranian family between generations as the elders regularly appear in the show and are included in events with the younger generation. The Iranians view their families’ connection and closeness as among the most important factors in their lives and this runs against stereotypes of Iranians in such films as Not without My Daughter. Second, the show presents interaction between both Muslim and Jewish Iranians and to many Americans the fact that there are other religions in Iran is surprising. But Iran has had a history of tolerance of other religions and particularly the Jewish faith (Maghbouleh).

In Shah’s of Sunset the participants believe that by showing the luxury life that they lead in Beverly Hills the mainstream America will be so impressed by their success that falsified negative images of Iranian as ”terrorists or hostage takers” will suddenly disappear. They seem to think that presenting themselves in tight glittery clothes is somehow classy and in stark contrast to fanatical religious conservatives. Many Iranians-Americans, including the Iranian mayor of Beverly Hills absolutely hated the show because they believe it is disgraceful, and another misrepresentation of Iranians. However, the participants in the show defend their action because they claim they are humanizing Iranian-Americans. The audience claims that the show is wrong in emphasizing luxury and material riches as what is Persian identity. In looking at this show and the interviews, I felt that they had actually robbed the Persian history and culture and gave Iranian-Americans little reality of the truth.

It appears though there are a significant number of Iranian-Americans living in the U.S. they or their children are shown more as merely stereotypical cartoon-like characters of what the average American may view as Middle Eastern. There have been years of tension between the two countries and both sides mistrust each others’ government. I am uncertain whether either extremes, Iranian-Americans as conservative religious fanatics or, shallow materialistic spoiled adults help erase negative stereotypes about the Iranian-Americans. My hope is that Iranian-Americans in the U.S. who are people like everyone else trying to help their families and communities will eventually be presented more accurately in the media. I do not see myself or people like me in the media. Until there is a more fair representation I think the media is hurting our connections instead of bringing us together.

Works Cited
Agassi, Andre. Open: An Autobiography. New York: A. Knopf, 2009. Print.
AP. “Judge: Iran, Taliban, Al Qaeda Liable for 9/11.” CBSNews. CBS Interactive, 23 Dec. 2011. Web. 08 Feb. 2015.
Did You Hear the One about the Iranian-American? Perf. Maz Jobrani. Ted Talks. YouTube, 19 Aug. 2010. Web. 08 Feb. 2015.
Kavanagh, Jim. “Andre Agassi’s Life Is an ‘Open’ Book.” Anderson Cooper 360 RSS. CNN, 4 Sept. 2010. Web. 2 Feb. 2015.
Kinzer, Stephen. All the Shah’s Men: The Hidden Story of the CIA’s Coup in Iran. New York: Wiley, 2003. Print.
Maghbouleh, Neda. ““Shahs of Sunset”: The Real Iranians of Los Angeles?” Saloncom RSS. Salon, 30 Nov. 2012. Web. 1 Feb. 2015.
“PAAIA Releases Report on Iranian American Immigration and Assimilation – PAAIA.” PAAIA Releases Report on Iranian American Immigration and Assimilation – PAAIA. PAAIA, 2014. Web. 17 Feb. 2015.
Prodanovic, Branka. Creating Exotic Beings: An Analysis of Shah’s of Sunset and (n.d.): n. pag. Trashculturejournal. WordPress, 2013. Web.

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3 thoughts on “Living in the United States as an American-Iranian

  1. Zach,
    First off, this is a very well-written essay with great sources! It’s sad to know that some people feel ashamed or embarrassed to identify that they are from Iran because of all the negative portrayals of the country and the people from there. In certain situations I have caught myself not wanting to say that I am from Lebanon because of some of the reactions I think I might receive. The Sha’s of Sunset is a show I am familiar with so I could see how it is a terrible disgrace to the American-Iranian culture and in no way displays a true representation of them. Even though there may be a small portion of this group, it is not fair to associate all American-Iranians as only caring about luxurious lifestyles and materialistic things. The same goes for other stereotypes of the culture, but it seems that the media often misrepresents minority groups for pure entertainment or because they truly want people to have skewed perceptions of groups that are considered “other” in American society.

  2. Hey Zach, I really enjoyed reading your essay. Adding the history of the tension between Iran and the US was really interesting, I felt like I learned new important information. You explain and analyze your sources really well. Your conclusion was also really strong, like you said, I think accurate portrayal is very important and will help bridge some of the tension.

  3. I am glad you chose to talk about your nationality and heritage for this essay. I also find that there are quite few representations of iranians in media, and if they are displayed they’re typically portrayed as an antagonist as well as an non-specific mashup of many middle eastern cultures and nations.
    I have seen “The Shah’s” … it’s pretty hilarious. I love that it follows the form of “Real Housewives” and other domestic reality shows. You’re definitely correct in that it stereotypes them with shallow, materialistic values. It’s interesting, because of the persians I know, almost all of them have had a good education, are extremely successful and earn good money. This, in turn, adds to the stereotype of materialism because they are able to afford nicer things. This is definitely not always the case, and definitely does not match the extreme wealth of “Shah’s.” I also didn’t know about the religious variance and tolerance within Iran, although with the Shah’s reign it seems that there has been extreme political action to deconstruct such tolerance, especially in terms of women’s rights.
    I appreciate you taking the time to outline the political history between Iran and the US – it sheds some light on our shady international “heroism.”
    I had no idea Christiane Amanpour was persian – I love her journalism!
    Also, I am sorry about your anxiety about going through the airport.
    Great paper!

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