LOST IN TRANSLATION BY DORNA MOVASSEGHI
In addition to 23 of my 46 chromosomes, my mother, Sharareh, also provided me with my sense of Iranian identity. Much like the genes that evolved when shared with me, the cultural and ethnic facets bestowed upon my existence were not mere reflections. The experience of being an Iranian within the confines of the United States has been incredibly dynamic, and that very volatility, which was present four decades ago, shall persist. Discussing the beauties and burdens of childhood with my mother elucidated the paradox that less ignorance bred more ignorance.
My mother came to America when she was thirteen, in 1976. Her older sister Gity, and older brother Farshid, were the only kin she could lay claim to in the new, foreign territory of Ocala, Florida. All that existed was illuminated by the rays of the sun or by the screens of the television; for a country like Iran, when referenced, only yielded a furrowed brow amongst my mother’s new peers. Well, where is that? The Middle East. So you rode camels? Do you know what a TV is? The incessant questioning became seemingly bearable for her when contrasted with the actual academic portion of going to school.
In the midst of Ocala, a place where skin darker than the peach-colored crayon garnered a second look, teachers struggled—when they cared to—in aiding my mother. Her desk was crammed with the presence of two great, ominous dictionaries meant to translate from Farsi to English, and from English to Farsi. Mahdar, she would tell me, by the time I finished translating the first question on my biology test, half the time had gone by. ESL didn’t exist. Many of them couldn’t care less that Sha Na Na was behind. Sha Na Na—an American rock ‘n’ roll band from the 70s became my mother’s new name, as her classmates found difficulty in pronouncing Sharareh. Her own identity and education, slipping through the cracks.
Aside from my name being the punchline of some ‘Doorknob’ joke, I could not relate to the deeply alienating adventure, if you will, that my mother had undergone during her early teens. The world had not yet come to witness the pivotal moment in history—the Iranian Revolution and all that would be birthed from it. The year of 1979 came to harbor unfathomable difficulties for the Iranian-American community—which encompassed my sixteen-year-old mother—not to mention those who still resided back in Iran. Violence bled through the streets and anger clutched the souls of those who felt so wronged, so violated by Iran. Where the hell are our people?! What did you do to them?! The threats. The chasing. The beatings. It was then, Dorna, that they knew Iran when they heard it. They would say it before you did. The questions were no longer about camels.
I stared in the mirror at sixteen, flashing my braces-laden teeth, yearning for the day they would be removed. My angst rooted in something intangible, the feeling of being oh so misunderstood. Bodies were not littered in the streets of my country. It was not ripping itself into a newly perceived freedom. No. The news is not saturated and overwhelmed with the letters I-r-a-n. But at sixteen, my peers were raised by those who had lived through the times with my mother. The legacy of Iran had been tortured and mutilated, and now, somehow, associated with 9/11. Those who shrieked Give us our people back! were informing their children, They took our people. I did not need a dictionary to complete my exams, but rather one to define terrorist. It isn’t an Iranian. The ignorance my mother had encountered at thirteen metamorphosed to an almost surreal paradise.
The disparity between our stories at the age of nineteen is further characterized by an innate lack of opportunity, rather than the identification as an Iranian-American. Granted, however, that the absence of possibility could be wholly traced back to the revolution and the deterioration of amicable relations between the United States and Iran. Nevertheless, at nineteen, my mother had only been relieved of the symptoms of the Hostage Crisis a year, and the remnants of such ugly emotions had not stopped radiating. The discrimination she faced cannot be fairly compared to that which I continue to face. There is no consistency in the ethnically degrading remarks towards me, and the degree to which they are made is not nearly as belligerent. Make no mistake, the plight of the Iranian-American has not been resolved. Growing up in this country with that title will be a perpetual challenge, but as history is forged into the soil of the Earth each day, these challenges shall transmute for the coming generations. The world knows of Iran now, Ocala knows of it too, and yet the sheer ignorance pertaining to it endures, lingering on poisonous lips.