- I wrote this post in 2010. I was harshly criticised by my Iranian fellow citizens. I shall re-published it, verbatim, as an introduction to a series of posts in which, I shall try to dig further. Why have the Iranian diasporas failed to face and struggle with the ruthless Islamic Theocracy?
In 2019, the theocracy is shaken but still firmly in place. The Islamic Republic is irrigated with these bloods, our bloods. [Albertine Ahmadi, December 2019]
The Iranian Diasporas Dream
The Revolution has given the Iranians a very good excuse to take refuge in the West. Have you ever seen Iranians exile themselves to Bangladesh? [Hadi Khorsandi, Stand-up comedy, Geneva, 2007].
The dream for most young Iranians is to live in the West, to enjoy its freedom, straightforwardness, existing order, and hardly being confronted to daily corruption, to ossified traditionalism, complicated social relationships, and to the succeeding despots of Iran.
This dream is not born in the aftermath of the ruling of the Velayat-e faqih and its religious persecutions. It is all much older than that. The first writings go back to the late 19th century. As yet, there are not enough personal notes, detailed letters or any other documents in the public domain that would allow one to grasp what it is possible to research in social history.
In the first part of the 20th century, the Iranian who went to the West was born to a family of landowners having connections with personalities in Tehran, and/or with the Shah’s court. By the end of the 1960’s, things changed, more and more young people of the middle class and from provincial towns had the opportunity to study in the West; many never returned to Iran.
Later, the Islamic Revolution ‘democratised’ the escape route to the West. Since then, the ‘refugees’ have been breaking away from Pasdaran, Bassijis, Evin imprisonment or flogging, charged with crimes such as criticizing the mullahs, listening to Western music or wooing a lass.
The Iran of the Islamic Republic is destroying the present and the future of his youth, slyly, conscientiously and methodically.
The migrants from a given country often cluster in their land of exile; in a given town, one can perceive communities of Chinese, French, Indians, Australians, Germans, etc. More often than not, quite a few families live in the same neighbourhood with services specific to their own country: butcher, groceries, dry cleaners, etc. In some cities in the West, Chinese have their own area where one feels as if one is in China rather than in San Francisco or London.
No such thing for Iranians. Even if in an area of a megalopolis, for example Los Angeles, the presence of Iranians prevails, they prefer to live scattered in the general population of their country of adoption. An Iranian community, as it is perceived for other diasporas, is not palpable. Iranian communities are non-existent since the Iranian is wary of the Iranian that he does not know personally, and to whom he has not been introduced.
In fact, the Iranian diaspora is made up of individuals or families that avoid each other as much as possible. In a public meeting, the Iranian does his best to stay away from his own compatriots and if possible, even hide his origin. When the one-to-one encounter is unavoidable, the Iranian is non-committal and stiff. He becomes a cagey Janus who would spend his Ta’arofs lavishly.
Mistrust and Suspicion
In case of difficulty, Iranian would hesitate before asking for the help of his own compatriots; he would be despised for being in difficulty. He would receive empty promises, be bathed in Ta’arofs, and certainly no follow-up. Exceptions do exist, as for all rules: the Iranian happy to see new faces, and giving a hand if necessary.
On the other hand, the westerner would always be treated to the side of Janus that makes the Iranian a social and civilised being, full of kindness and consideration.
Iranians living discreetly all over the world are guesstimated at 5-6 million in the world, a conservative figure. To have near accurate data is impossible.
The national statistics of western countries are not reliable. 100% of demographic data are based on nationals, naturalised or unalloyed. An Iranian who obtains his French citizenship is considered as French in every way as another Frenchman would be. He travels on a French passport and is a Frenchman in a third country. National statistics have always avoided the survey of double or triple nationals. This phenomenon is not exclusive to Iranian diaspora, it is common to all diasporas. In the last few decades, as the number of weddings among different nationalities has soared, the national statistics do not mirror the true picture of a country’s composition.
Thus the Iranian diaspora cannot be distinguished from the natives in a western town: he does not live in a defined area, and since he avoids meeting his own fellow citizens, recreation and sport clubs or any other centres are non-existent. There is no core to attract them and if a place, something open to all to meet up, is set up, it does not last for long.
Hide and Deny
As a citizen in his land of exile, the Iranian goes to some lengths to hide his double nationality and avoid the subject. Some years back, I was amused to see a little ploy by an elderly couple from Iran in a voting station in the West. In the queue leading to the polling booth, the couple believed they had been spotted by a young man, also of Iranian origin.
The husband and the wife were making themselves as inconspicuous as possible, as if they were caught buying sex toys. In fact, they did not want the young man to know that they were naturalised and had come voting. Since then the government of the Islamic Republic has admitted the principle of double nationality for its nationals, this in the mid 1990’s. Today things have improved: the citizen of Iranian origin admits his double nationality in a whisper.
Paradoxically, Iranians love to set up associations, a western social tool served with an Iranian sauce, and in a peculiar way: more often than not the Iranian runs his association on his own, keeping very much to himself, true to his individualistic convictions. If in the status of the associations other names are mentioned, they are hardly active members, most of the time these names have a walk-on part.
An association à l’iranienne is by definition a one man/ one woman show if it has to last more than a few months.
Three-quarters of all associations are aimed at cultural activities. The last quarter is to defend human rights or collect money for the have-nots in Iran; a number of these associations assert their aim as establishing a dialogue among civilisation. All without exception, are apolitical and they proclaim it loud and clear. In other words, we discuss poets quite a few centuries old, old stones, orphans and destitutes. A debate on freedom and democracy? Too political. The structure of economy in Iran? Too political. An episode of Iranian history? Perhaps, better still if the speaker is a westerner. And the defence of human rights is limited to banalities and hollow sentences. The bloody oppression of the Islamic Republic is not denounced loud and clear. Discussions are very politically correct in view of the installed government.
A debate on the future of Iran, perhaps discussing the era after the rule of the ayatollahs, is simply taboo.
Apolitical Equals To Apathy
The favoured way of going about things not only by Iranian diaspora, but also by the highbrows in Iran, is to be apolitical.
Hark! something is ill-fitting here. This behaviour goes to show our personality of an obedient servant. We are dead rats, موش مرده. If each one of us is a political sneak, who is going to build democracy in Iran? Who is to defend our freedoms? The American administration? The British Establishment? Bureaucrats in Brussels? The Russian Duma? The Chinese communists?
Many in Iran bet on the Islamic Revolution, for an Islam of peace and justice. They lost. We only have ourselves to defend ourselves and our beliefs.
The Iranian in the West has a reflex of self-censorship when it comes to politics and the society of his country of origin. The self-censorship of the diaspora with his own fellow-citizens reveals a general paranoia and apathy. The Iranian always stays on his guard, watching out for the government spy who is following him everywhere and will denounce him (During the rule of Mohammad-Reza Shah Pahlavi, the situation was pretty similar).
It looks as if a political comment was about to be expressed, swiftly the thunderbolt of the ayatollahs would fall on the speaker: “Do be careful, you would not be able to go to Iran any more! As soon as you arrive in Tehran, you’ll be arrested!”
The internet came just when it was needed to create Iranian associations in a record time. Each Iranian, equipped with a PC and an internet connection is free to create an internet site for his own virtual association. This process saves time and dispenses with the bother of looking for members.
Unconnected and Invisible
Sometimes to have a real association, some Iranians gather together by personal affinities. Many are not welcome: non-Shiites, non-Persian, those from lower social classes or just people that some could not stand, خوشش نمیاد. All works out without aggression but arbitrarily and perfectly unconsciously.
To form an association, a few laborious sessions of chatter amongst friends are necessary in order to find an objective in the jumble of early good ideas. True enough, there is no shortage of ideas. A typical Iranian feature is to see things on a large scale however impractical for a start; another distinctive trait is to treat carefully the touchiness of most and avoid annoyance/ رنجاندن at all costs.
Consequently, to satisfy everybody, an objective awkward or impossible to achieve is unanimously adopted. Efficiency or a down to earth action are hardly ever part of the programme. In passim, to my understanding, no Iranian association really considers memberships of newcomers, active or passive, a possibility.
The time comes when tasks have to be attributed, that are to create an executive committee for the association. If the chairmanship is honorary and representative, many candidates queue up. If, on the contrary, it involves coordinating tasks and getting a faire share of them, most slip away. At the end, a chairperson is agreed upon and his/her talent to run a group is never discussed. The secretarial and treasury duties, implying paperwork (writing up memos, book-keeping and running errands) have no takers. Nevertheless, these jobs are shoved in no time to some volunteers. The typical profile of these volunteers is a good sort, enthusiastic and inexperienced. Since unalloyed Iranians hate to get their feet wet for pursuits of no or little prestige, the chosen ones for these jobs are mostly the hybrids born to mixed Irano-western parents: “Sweetheart, you know the laws of your country better than we do.”
Now it is time to write down the status (compulsory) of the association. A make-believe text with futile details and conflicting ideas is heaped up. Nothing is clearly set out; issues must be confusing enough to make life complicated for now and in the future. Money is no problem: a few thousand euros in donations are promised with lots of Ta’arofs and gratitude. Needless to say that the treasurer will not see the colour of it. He has to insist on having stamps and envelopes repaid.
Mismanagement: A Metaphor
Let’s imagine that we are in January. The main activity for the association in months to come is to organise a feast for the Iranian new year, the 21st of March. In the first sessions, a blithe enthusiasm overtakes the committee: the feast must be grand, the venue beautiful, the best chef in charge and the finest china supplied. However the responsibilities take a long time to be shared and taken up: the lax follow-up and lackadaisical planning, leave each to do what he is happy to do or to do nothing at all. Most often than not, the follow-up sessions do not even have a quorum.
By the 15th of march, just about a week before Nowruz, everything is sped up, members give orders unwilling to get involved themselves, two or three make tremendous efforts to save face and the situation. Some sulk because they have to make do with odd jobs that they consider unfulfilling.
At the end of the day, Nowruz is held in a church hall, with an apprentice cook, better at grilling sausages that preparing a sabzi-pelow, and the meal is eaten on paper plates.
After the feast, the committee meets to draw up the negative balance sheet. Resentments and criticism pile up, cavilling becomes a sport. Sessions become less frequent and one by one, the committee members throw in the towel. The association is finished and no one hears more from them.
For the last thirty or more years, I have stopped counting the number of short lived associations I have seen born and become extinct. If half a dozen Iranians in the West cannot set up a perennial association, how can we ever hope to realise a democratic society in Iran? The basic rules are to be learned within family, school and also by organising simple events such as Nowruz.
Democracy on a Golden Tray
We, Iranians of the diaspora, have freedom offered on a golden tray, but we are unable to have a constructive dialogue amongst ourselves. For us liberty and democracy came with our western nationalities, but we do not how to use them to build a country that is ours. Iran is collapsing under religious hypocrisy and cultural misery, and we go on glorifying our millennial culture, Hâfez, Ferdowsi and Khayyâm. Khayyâm, so wonderfully lucid would be the first to write elegant verses to tease us.
The Islamic Republic is irrigated with blood, it is not the time to be apolitical.
Pity the nation whose sages are dumb with years and whose strong men are yet in the cradle.
Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation.
[Khalil Gibran, The Gardens of the Prophet, 2000, London, Senat, p. 20 – 22]