A Tale of Crossroads
The 1960s and ’70s were the years of my coming of age and then young adulthood in Iran. In 1963, under pressure from the Kennedy administration, The Shah (the king and the ruler at the time) initiated reforms that fundamentally changed the social structure of the country, arguably the underlying cause of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Iran at the time was fundamentally a rural society; millions of landless peasants worked the land, and the mighty landlords held real power. Fearing that Iran might become the next China or Cuba, the goal of the reforms was to engage the country in a rapid modernization plan by undermining the feudal system. The oil money would be fueling the rapid transformation of the nation, integrating Iran into the consumer-based capitalist order.
Within a short decade, the land reform uprooted millions of illiterate peasants populating the urban centers often in ever-expanding shantytowns. At the same time, the break-neck pace of modernization, not only resulted in the formation of a new consumer middle-class, but also brought tens of thousands of Western professionals, military advisors, and venture capitalists to oversee and undertake the modernizing project. These Western professionals (referring to themselves as expats) settled in most upscale parts of the cities, occupied the most expensive houses and nearly never interacted with their host society or learned the native language. They shopped at their designated supermarkets; their children attended segregated schools and movie theaters, and were immune from the law of the land (even if they committed crime,) through what came to be known as the capitulation treaty signed by the Shah.
The fast and daily changes of my ancient but small city of Shiraz were both fascinating and hard to readily comprehend or traverse. On the one hand, we were now sitting next to classmates who lived in abject poverty, overcrowded dwellings of the shantytown, or the cheap cement houses popping up everywhere. They were Iranians and spoke the same language, but brought with them a host of values, lifestyles, and attitudes that were not only unfamiliar to us, but alienating. These newcomers were often disparaged, ridiculed and perceived as dangerous and pollutant. On the other hand, there were all those real foreigners with fair skin, light hair, and green or blue eyes. They did not speak our language, they looked down at us and kept away as if we carried some disease. Their servants were often the parents of those who sat next to us in the classroom.
Caught in this crossroads, which one of these groups were the immigrants? Those uprooted from their home who, unable to survive, had come to our town to look for opportunity? Or the second group, who referred to each other as expats, who won the best business contracts, received the highest salaries, lived a privileged life, and drove the prices higher for everyone? The reality was that both groups moved from one physical space (home) to another. Both groups motivated by economic opportunities settled in a new land with different impacts on the native population. For one group the concept of home would soon only exist in the landscape of their memories, while the other regarded their settlement as only temporary, even if their children were to be raised in their host country.
Life sometimes feels like an absurd joke! Who would have ever imagined that some forty years later I would be considered a toxic Muslim immigrant (no choice in there, even if you are born to atheist parents and are a red diaper baby) in the land of the expats of my youth writing these words? Things become even more absurd when you have taken the oath, sworn to their flag, climbed their social ladder, yet remain inherently and eternally the immigrant “other.” What comprises the core and essence of otherness? Those poor village boys that sat on the same bench in school with me, or those untouchable expats who even in a foreign land considered the native as “others” and themselves as “superior”?
Throughout history, people have packed and moved whenever Gods or people made their habitats inhabitable and their lives impossible. As people, we are happier with the familiar, with what we can rightly or wrongly call home. If we leave, it is merely when our homes have turned into rubble, or our masters have decided our way of life needs to be altered to further their profits often disguised under some vague notion of human progress. The current wave of displacement and immigration is neither new, unusual, nor the final exodus. The movement of people brings about the mixing of blood. Mixed-blood is genetically more fit, reproducing smarter offspring, that are socially accepting and more compassionate, and ultimately forging a more harmonious and happier life for all. The current rise of nationalism, protectionism, and tribalism is the continuation of the plundering, racist, and isolationist policies of those expats returning home having unleashed a force that hunts them today. The solution indeed cannot be more isolation and stigmatization of the others.
Shoja Azari is an Iranian filmmaker, film producer, and screenwriter living in New York