Nayeris family having a picnic in Iran in 1976
That was the key to being embraced by the population of our town, a community that openly took credit for the fact that we were still alive, but wanted to know nothing of our past. Month after month, my mother was asked to give her testimony in churches and womens groups, at schools and even at dinners. I remember sensing the moment when all conversation would stop and she would be asked to repeat our escape story. The problem, of course, was that they wanted our salvation story as a talisman, no more. No one ever asked what our house in Iran looked like, what fruits we grew in our yard, what books we read, what music we loved and what it felt like now not to understand any of the songs on the radio. No one asked if we missed our cousins or grandparents or best friends. No one asked what we did in summers or if we had any photos of the Caspian Sea. Men treat women horribly there, dont they? the women would ask. Somehow it didnt feel OK to tell them about my funny dad with his pockets full of sour cherries, or my grandpa who removed his false teeth when he told ghost stories.
Such memories, of course, would imply the unthinkable: that Iran was as beautiful, as fun, as energising and romantic, as Oklahoma or Montana or New York.
From then on, we sensed the ongoing expectation that we would shed our old skin, give up our former identities every quirk and desire that made us us and that we would imply at every opportunity that America was better, that we were so lucky, so humbled to be here. My mother continued giving testimonials in churches. She wore her cross with as much spirit as she had done in Islamic Iran. She baked American cakes and replaced the rosewater in her pastries with vanilla. I did much worse: over years, I let myself believe it. I lost my accent. I lost my hobbies and memories. I forgot my childhood songs.
In 1994, when I was 15, we became American citizens. I was relieved, overjoyed and genuinely grateful. We attended a citizenship ceremony on the football field of a local college campus. It was the Fourth of July and dozens of other new citizens would be sworn in with us. It was a bittersweet day, the stadium filled with cheering locals, a line of men, women and children winding around and around the field towards a microphone at the end zone, where each of us would be named and sworn in. I remember staring in wonder at the others in line: I didnt realise there were this many other brown and yellow people in Oklahoma. Yes, there were a handful of black people, a few Jews here or there. But this many Indians? This many Sri Lankans and Pakistanis and Chinese and Bangladeshis and Iranians and Afghans? Where had they been hiding? (Not that I had looked.)
Halfway through the ceremony, an Indian man, around 80 years old, was led to the microphone, where he introduced himself and swore allegiance to the United States. When he was finished, he raised his fists and thrashed the sky. I AM AMERICAN! he shouted into the microphone. FINALLY, I AM AMERICAN! The crowd erupted, joining his celebration. As he stepped away, he wobbled and collapsed from the effort, but someone caught him. He turned back and smiled to the crowd to show he was OK, that this fit of joy hadnt killed him, then walked away.
Thats my favourite day as an American, my first one, still unsurpassed. No one was putting on a face that day. No one felt obliged or humbled, imagining their truer home. That old man was heaving with love. The people in the stands were roaring with it. Its a complicated memory for me now. I refuse to deny the simple and vast beauty of it, though I know they cheered not the old man himself, but his spasm of gratitude, an avowal of transformation into someone new, into them.
Years passed. I became as American as a girl can be, moved far away, grew into my mind and body and surrounded myself with progressive, educated friends. The bad feelings disappeared. I started to love the western world and thought of myself a necessary part of it. I moved around with ease, safely flashing my American passport, smiling brightly when customs officers squinted at my place of birth. It didnt matter: I was no longer an asylum seeker. I had long ago been accepted. I had a stellar education. My confidence showed (and maybe it helped that I had caramel highlights in my hair). Again and again I was welcomed home at JFK with a polite nod or a smile.
Other immigrants have written about this moment: the welcome home at JFK, its power on the psyche after long flights. For me, as soon as those words leave the officers mouth, my confidence is replaced by a gush of gratitude. Thank you! I say breathlessly. Thank you for saying its my home. Thank you for letting me in again. In that instant before my passport is returned to me, Im the old man punching the air.
When I was 30, I had another citizenship ceremony. This one wasnt the sleepless obsession that the American one had been. It was simply that I had married a French citizen, he had applied on my behalf, and, having passed the language and culture tests by a whisker, I became a Frenchwoman of sorts. I travelled a lot in those days and so I decided to have my fingerprints taken (the last step in the paperwork) on a stopover in New York. The police officer whose job it was to oversee the process asked why a nice girl like me needed fingerprints. I told him, to which he replied: Couldnt you find an American man?
Though I hadnt given it much thought back then, I said: American men dont like me. He gave me a puzzled look, so I added, The American men I know never try to impress you or not me, at least. They think I should feel lucky to have them.
He gave a weary sigh. No man likes to work for it.
Some men work for it, I said, trying to sound defiant.
He laughed and bashed my fingers into the ink.
My second citizenship ceremony was held at the French embassy in Amsterdam (my then home) beside families from Lebanon, Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco and a number of sub-Saharan countries. The image that stays with me is of families singing the French national anthem, the Marseillaise. The awe in their faces as they sang that song, every word practised, moved me. Even the small children straightened their shoulders and sang from memory. I had made a stab at memorising the words, but mostly I read off a sheet. I was proud, but they were experiencing something else: a transformation, a rebirth. They were singing their way into a joyous new life. I took a moment to think of that old Indian man from years before, to do an imaginary fist-pump in his honour.
Ive been moving back and forth between New York and Europe pretty much my entire adult life. When I lived in Amsterdam, even highly educated people openly complained of too many Moroccans and Turks in certain neighbourhoods.
Geert Wilders, the head of the far-right Party for Freedom, had warned that the country would soon become Nether-Arabia.
In Amsterdam, I got to know Iranian refugees who didnt have my kind of luck with their asylum applications. One man in our community set himself on fire in Dam Square in 2011. He had lived in Amsterdam for a decade, following their rules, filling out their papers, learning their culture, his head always down. He did all that was asked of him and, in the end, he was driven to erase his own face, his skin.
Remembering Kambiz Roustayi, a man who only wanted a visa, his family and his own corner of the world, I want to lash out at every comfortable native who thinks that his kind dont do enough. You dont know what grateful is, I want to say. You havent seen a young man burn up from despair, or an old man faint on a football field from relief and joy, or a nine-year-old boy sing the entire Marseillaise from memory. You dont know how much life has already been spent settling into the cracks of your walls. Sometimes all thats left of value in an exiles life is his identity. Please stop asking people to rub out their face as tribute.
With the rise of nativist sentiment in Europe and America, Ive seen a troubling change in the way people make the case for refugees. Even those on the left talk about how immigrants make America great. They point to photographs of happy refugees turned good citizens, listing their contributions, as if that is the price of existing in the same country, on the same earth. Friends often use me as an example. They say in posts or conversations: Look at Dina. She lived as a refugee and look how much stuff shes done. As if thats proof that letting in refugees has a good, healthy return on investment.
But isnt glorifying the refugees who thrive according to western standards just another way to endorse this same gratitude politics? Isnt it akin to holding up the most acquiescent as examples of what a refugee should be, instead of offering each person the same options that are granted to the native-born citizen? Is the life of the happy mediocrity a privilege reserved for those who never stray from home?
This semester, Im teaching an American literature course at a private international school in London. My students have come with their families from all over the world and have empathy and insight, but for the most part, they have lived privileged lives. For the last semester, Ive forced them to read nothing but outsider fiction. Stories by immigrants and people of colour. Stories about poverty. Stories about being made to sit on the periphery. Most are loving it, but some are frustrated. Ive already learned the race stuff, one said, after our third story with a protagonist of colour. More than one parent advised me that
Bharati Mukherjeeand James Baldwin are not important when these kids have yet to read classic writers such as Harper Lee (because how could they develop their literary taste if they hadnt first grounded themselves in the point of view of the impossibly saintly white family?).
Even among empathetic, worldly students, Im finding a grain of this same kind of expectation: the refugee must make good. If, in one of our stories, an immigrant kills himself (Bernard Malamuds
The Refugee), they say that he wasted his opportunity, that another displaced person would have given anything for a shot at America. Theyre right about that, but does that mean that Malamuds refugee isnt entitled to his private tragedies? Is he not entitled to crave death? Must he first pay off his debt to his hosts and to the universe?
Despite a lifetime spent striving to fulfil my own potential, of trying to prove that the west is better for having known me, I cannot accept this way of thinking, this separation of the worthy exile from the unworthy. Civilised people dont ask for resumes when answering calls from the edge of a grave. It shouldnt matter what I did after I cleaned myself off and threw away the last of my asylum-seeking clothes. My accomplishments should belong only to me. There should be no question of earning my place, of showing that I was a good bet. My family and I were once humans in danger, and we knocked on the doors of every embassy we came across: the UK, America, Australia, Italy. America answered and so, decades later, I still feel a need to bow down to airport immigration officers simply for saying Welcome home.
I became as American as a girl can be. I started to love the western world and thought of myself a necessary part of it Dina Nayeri
But what America did was a basic human obligation. It is the obligation of every person born in a safer room to open the door when someone in danger knocks. It is your duty to answer us, even if we dont give you sugary success stories. Even if we remain a bunch of ordinary Iranians, sometimes bitter or confused. Even if the country gets overcrowded and you have to give up your luxuries, and we set up ugly little lives around the corner, marring your view. If we need a lot of help and local services, if your taxes rise and your street begins to look and feel strange and everything smells like turmeric and tamarind paste, and your favourite shop is replaced by a halal butcher, your schoolyard chatter becoming ching-chongese and phlegmy khs and ghs, and even if, after all that, we dont spend the rest of our days in grateful ecstasy, atoning for our need.
In 2015, I moved to England again, a place I no longer associated with the permanently numb tip of my little finger, or the strange half-sensation of typing the letter a on a keyboard. I became a mother in a London hospital. Now I have a little girl who already looks Iranian. The first major event of her life was Brexit. The second was Trumps election. At 5am on Brexit morning, as I was feeding her, the memory of my pinkie returned. We had just learned of the referendum results. On Facebook, every former immigrant I knew released a collective shudder all of them recalling their first days in England or America or Holland. They began sharing their stories. What I remembered was that boy who pushed my finger into the hinge of a door. That other boy who slammed the door shut. Theyre adults now. Most likely, theyve lived lives much like their parents, the ones who taught them to hate me in 1985. Most likely they believe the same things. England doesnt want us, I thought. It doesnt want my daughter. It doesnt want me.
Nowadays, I often look at the white line through my pinkie nail, and I think I finally understand why gratefulness matters so much. The people who clarified it for me were my students, with their fresh eyes and stunning expectations, their harsh, idealistic standards that every person should strive and prove their worth, their eagerness to make sense of the world. They saw right through to the heart of the uneasy native.
During our discussion of
Flannery OConnors A Displaced Person, the class began unpacking Mrs Shortleys hatred of Mr Guizac, the Polish refugee whose obvious talents on the farm would soon lead to her mediocre husbands dismissal as a farmhand. Shes seen the images from the Holocaust, the piles of bodies in Europe, said one student. So if one of those bodies in the pile can escape death and come to America and upend her life, then how much is she worth?
I was stunned silent (a rare thing for me). By the time I formulated my next question the conversation had moved on, and so I presented the question to my next class. Would anything be any different, then, if Mr Guizac had been grateful to Mrs Shortley for making room for him?
Around the table every head shook. No. Of course not. Nothing would change. Mrs Shortley wants to be above him, to be benevolent, to have control, said one insightful student. Once the guy starts doing better on his own, control goes, no matter how grateful he acts.
The refugee has to be less capable than the native, needier; he must stay in his place. Thats the only way gratitude will be accepted. Once he escapes control, he confirms his identity as the devil. All day I wondered, has this been true in my own experience? If so, then why all the reverence for the refugees who succeed against the odds, the heartwarming success stories? And thats precisely it one can go around in this circle forever, because it contains no internal logic. Youre not enough until youre too much. Youre lazy until youre a greedy interloper.
In many of the classes Ive taught, my quietest kids have been Middle Eastern. Im always surprised by this, since the literature I choose should resonate most with them, since Im an Iranian teacher, their ally, since the civilised world yearns for their voices now. Still, they bristle at headlines about the refugee crisis that I flash on the screen, hang their heads, and look relieved when the class is finished. Their silence makes me angry, but I understand why they dont want to commit to any point of view. Who knows what their universe looks like outside my classroom, what sentiments theyre expected to display in order to be on the inside.
Still, I want to show those kids whose very limbs apologise for the space they occupy, and my own daughter, who has yet to feel any shame or remorse, that a grateful face isnt the one they should assume at times like these. Instead they should tune their voices and polish their stories, because the world is duller without them even more so if they arrived as refugees. Because a persons life is never a bad investment, and so there are no creditors at the door, no debt to repay. Now theres just the rest of life, the stories left to create, all the messy, greedy, ordinary days that are theirs to squander.
Main photograph by Anna Leader
Dina Nayeris new novel, Refuge , will be published by Riverhead Books in July
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