Nicole Belle: What Comes Around Goes Around Again

By Nicole Belle, Crooks & Liars

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

  • Censorship of press, books and films.
  • Interrogation and often torture of prisoners
  • Surveillance of political opponents.

"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.

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."

Add a comment (9)
Read the Terms of Use

theunbeatablekid

I got a great quote about exactly this idea from one those bull horn street preachers in Philadelphia.

"America's become what she's running from."

He repeated it many times like some commercial jingle or a brand slogan. It's stuck with me to this day.

has_te

Chalmers Johnson tells us that the reaction to the Mossadeg disenfranchisement [I think Mohamed died shortly thereafter under 'circumstances'] can be seen deservedly? as Blowback>.

SAVAK is widely reputed to have been trained by Mossad...
makes sense, given what we know now.
Oil & Likud... Oil & Likud..
it just goes on.
Nice post.

HumanityToday...

You got it - if we looked for the good in people rather than being focused only on the potential bad, we'd experience a much better world! That's what we experienced on September 11th - it's too bad we lost that loving perspective so quickly thereafter.

Steve Consilvio

Without any disrespect to Mr. N., but he got the country he abandoned. The fearless who speak the truth, even if they are tortured, scorned, berated, etc., are needed in every country. And even if we can't be that person, we need to support that person. By fleeing the country Mr. N. left an opening for the violent and irrational to win control.

Separate from the Orwellian twist that he loves the same country that gave the stupid elements in his society more power, of course.

It is one thing for America to welcome the refugees of a natural disaster, it is another thing for America to welcome the refugees of the problems we created. Our hubris creates clones of hubris, which Mr. N clearly had a full serving of, with his self-satisfaction of Persian superiority. Americans think of America in the same way he thought of his history: without a critical eye.

Scott C.

I am constantly amazed at newscasts and politicians whose only sense of Iranian history is that it all started with the "hostage crisis" in 1979. Never a mention of our support for the brutal dictator, the Shah, or our help in deposing a democratically elected government to install his father. It has seemed to me that to be nominated into the "axis of evil", all a country has to do is rebel against a puppet of the US, particularly one that has resources we want to exploit.
On another note, I find it interesting that we have evidence that "Iranian terrorists" are supplying parts for roadside bombs, never mind that many miscellaneous parts would have been leftover from the 8-year Iran-Iraq war. But what piques my curiosity is that you never hear mention of where the explosives themselves came from...couldn't have been from the Iraqi munitions depots that we left unguarded during the rush to Baghdad, could it? Don't hear much about that aspect of things, but with literally tons of high explosives, one would expect thousands upon thousands of roadside bombs, unless of course they were looted for humanitarian purposes. Suppose it's all just coincidence. Just like the coincidence of unguarded Iraqi borders and all the other bungling done by this ignorant and short-sighted administration.

crismanassa

By not righteously opposing injustice history has shown people give their tacit approval to injustice. In America the struggle by the few with strength enough to oppose the tide against personal freedom continues, and will not end in our lifetimes, unless it is evil oppression that prevails. What world will we leave our children?

ELois Poole-Clayton

How is it, that patients, aren't allowed to voice their oppinion, because of their circumstances? How is it that administrators, are allowed to lie on patients family members, for the purpose of keeping their "pay-to-play", state jobs. Patients are abused on a daily basis, for the purpose of employees,(keeping their state jobs. psychiatrist, LCSW and security guards).
Action has seemed to cease, since the beginning of, not just my complaints, but, (rodneyyoder.com), complaints, as well. Chester Mental Health Center, has been sued, but the abuse still exist.
When is ACLU, going to take this matter serious and show us and other patients families, that you care about us too.
We're aware that you care, but we need you to show focus on issues that we have like attention is showed on other issues.
That's how serious these issues at CMHC, are!
Lie after lie, is being told on us!
Every time 6 months role around;(time for another bunch comes in for training, MORE LIES, are told on the patients who's been, (all of a sudden), transfers, has been put on the back burner!
I've learned that this organization, the C.A.A., is a "company", who seek investors to invest in stock, to keep prisoners and patients, in these manic facilities. Prisoners are RAILROADED, which causes, over crowdedness. There's even talk of closing several prison. (Does this mean that individuals will be released that should have been released long before now?), or does this warrant more problems with more overcrowdedness, giving the C.A.A., more revenue, (which is what those "investors", really want?, for that's what the bottom line will be!
I, along with other families, (I'm sure), are tired of these issues being buried and ,(to us), seem to be forgotten about.
Why aren't civil rights, human rights and pro bono lawyers, given more leadway, to help individuals receive justice?
Why don't I hear about ACLU, forming allegances to assist such individuals, for I know that you have to be aware of the fact of how overwhelming this problem is?

Brigitte

THESE ARE MY THOUGHTS AND FEELING ,THE ONLY, FAIR ,WARM HEARTED PERSON WE HAVE HAD,WAS MR JOHN F KENNEDY ,SINCE THEN WE HAVE TRUELY BEEN TORTURED OURSELVES ,LOOK AT ALL THE CHEATING AND LIEING ,STEALING THAT PEOPLE IN POWER ARE DOING AND IN IN THE NAME OF WHAT POWER ,AS IT IS NOW ,LOOK AT THE GAS PROBLEM ,THE PRICE OF FOOD ,THOSE IN POWER COULD NEVER EAT THE WAY WE HAVE BEEN FORCED TO EAT,OUR TIME IS NEAR AND WE WILL ALL BE CLEANSED .i NEVER CONSIDERED VOTING FOR BUSH ,HIS BROTHER OR THE FATHER ,BUT IT'S OK ,THEY ARE NOT HOMELESS ,HUNGRY ,YET,WITH OUT ANYTHING ,BUT WE ARE,GO FIGURE

charles

Thank you for this well writen and thought provoking work. The damage to human rights in the post 9/11 world will be the story of our time.

Sign Up for Breaking News