I grew up in Los Angeles, California. While probably better known as the epicenter for the movie industry, it is also home to the largest concentration of Iranians outside of Tehran after the Revolution.
Torture and America
One such Iranian family was my family's closest friends as I grew up. Their children were the same age as my siblings and I and we essentially lived at each other's houses. To this day, I consider them as part of my extended family. The father, whom I will call Mr. N., had immigrated to the U.S. in the early '60s, seduced by the promise of Kennedy's Camelot (so much so that he nicknamed his son "John John," just like JFK) and the happy-go-lucky California lifestyle that he saw in Frankie and Annette movies and heard in Beach Boys songs while still in his native Tehran. He came to the U.S. to go to college and while there, met and married a pretty co-ed, settling down in a Los Angeles suburb to raise their kids. His story was the quintessential embodiment of the American Dream, a mantle he wore as proudly as he did his pride in his heritage.
All I knew about Iran came from this family, which was considerably more enriched than the average American who when asked about Iran can invoke black robed mullahs, American hostages and perhaps acknowledge the beauty of Persian carpets. Instead, I was treated to these exotically spiced dishes so foreign to my American palate. We would listen to the Iranian singer Googoosh playing from cassettes sent in care packages from relatives in Iran along with little nougat candies and spicy melon seeds. Mr. N would boast that civilization began with the Persian Empire and that he could trace back his noble family line twenty-five generations. Everything from modern mathematics to wine to domesticated chicken came from the Persian civilization, according to Mr. N. To my own mutt-like background that I could only trace back as far as my Irish great-grandmother, Iran seemed like an impossibly romantic and exotic place and I longed to be able to lay claim to such a rich heritage.
There was one brilliant invention of the ancient Persian Empire of which Mr. N never boasted: the Cyrus cylinder. I didn't learn of it until years later at university studying art history. The Cyrus cylinder — which predates the Magna Carta by more than a millennia — was the first universal mandate of human rights. From Wikipedia:
Passages in the text have been interpreted as expressing Cyrus' respect for humanity, and as promoting a form of religious tolerance and freedom. By this argument, Cyrus' generous policies, support for freedom of local religions, repression and tyranny did win him support from his subjects.Mr. N, despite his Iranian pride, was eager and happy to get his American citizenship. We threw a big red, white and blue-themed party to celebrate his citizenship and he delighted in besting us in knowledge of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. No one was a bigger believer in democracy than he, and he voted in EVERY election, happy to exercise his rights as a citizen. When I was an apathetic 18-year-old more concerned about my finals than any election, Mr. N was the man who chided me to get registered and to make my voice heard in this country.
I never thought about the origins of Mr. N's patriotism and democratic zeal. It was just a part of him. But after 9/11, my consciousness about the "otherness" of being Middle Eastern and Muslim in the U.S. came to the fore by watching this family navigate through treacherous waters. A mutual friend recommended to Mr. N that he anglicize his name in the days after 9/11, to neuter his ethnic background. Mr. N unilaterally refused to even consider it. And he has suffered for it on occasion in the intervening years. He was subjected to a humiliating strip search on both legs of a 36-hour turnaround trip to Las Vegas because he carried no luggage, although the airline officially denied it had anything to do with his Persian surname. At least he never showed up on the "No Fly List". He has had his house vandalized, and his family threatened. It is not easy to live in a post-9/11 U.S. when you are from the Middle East, even if you have been a citizen of this country for 30 years.
But still, you would never meet anyone who still bought into the notion of the "American Dream" more than Mr. N. Shortly after 9/11, I asked him why. And he said, "You do not understand what I left when I came to the U.S.." The seeds of leaving Iran were sown in Mr. N in the early 50s when Mohamed Mossadeq was removed from power, ironically enough — considering his choice to immigrate here — by U.S. and British forces. While the empowered Shah of Iran is credited with modernizing the country and bringing women more rights than they had in other Middle Eastern countries, he still brooked no criticism and Mr. N had knew of people who the Shah's police force, SAVAK, detained and tortured, along with other artists, thinkers and dissidents who dared to criticize the government.
According to Polish author Ryszard Kapuściński, SAVAK was responsible for
"Do you see," Mr. N asked me, "how it is impossible to live freely when anything you say can be used against you? How can you live happily where you can never know if someone you love will be spirited away and you might not know where they were or what happened to them or if you'll ever see them again? How can you live that dishonestly?" That Cyrus cylinder created 2,500 years ago acknowledging fundamental rights of all people had stopped applying to his country and he had to leave.
- Censorship of press, books and films.
- Interrogation and often torture of prisoners
- Surveillance of political opponents.
In his heart, Mr. N believed that our system of government would never allow that to happen here. He trusted with all his heart that people would never disappear into secret prisons to be tortured into "confessions." And then he heard about the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and people like Maher Arar, Khaled al-Masri, Bisher al-Rawi, Mohamed Farag Ahmad Bashmilah and Mohamed al-Qahtani.
"How can you live happily where you can never know if someone you love will be spirited away and you might not know where they were or what happened to them or if you'll ever see them again?"
The safeguards of democracy that brought Mr. N to the U.S. have been systematically dismantled in the years since 9/11. Good bye Habeas corpus, hello rendition and torture. We have become a country that "disappears" people, that tortures people, that does not give them the basic right to know the charges against them nor seek legal counsel. We have decided that the presumption of guilt, often for no other reason than the accident of their birth justifies dehumanizing them by labeling them "terrorists" and rationalizing torture of them because "they hate us for our freedoms" or "would do worse to us if given the chance."
As Mr. N said to me the last time we spoke, "We have become the country I sought to flee all those years ago."