Falling in love with Iran

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Guest editorial: Arianna Ghazi

Arianna is a full-time lawyer and part-time photographer in the New York City area. 

I am a first generation American of Iranian descent. When the Islamic Revolution began in 1979, my parents fled Iran; ultimately settling in Louisville, Kentucky, where my father had attended engineering school. Neither of my parents would return to Iran for over 30 years.

Although our home was located in America, my siblings and I grew up in what could be described as an Iranian household. Farsi was spoken in the home and my parents mostly socialized with other Iranians. We are not a religious family; however, Iranian principles and Iranian culture were instilled in us and this was evident upon crossing the threshold to the home. As in most immigrant families, there was the expectation that we study certain things, that we be certain people. We did not discuss happiness and making our dreams come true. The expectation was that we be successful and independent. The rest was just extra.

That said, we could not get away with ignoring our environment entirely and my parents also took great lengths to ensure we would fit in. They spoke Farsi to us but we were never encouraged to respond in Farsi because they were worried about us having accents at school. As a result, I am fluent in my comprehension but my speech is less than perfect. My father car ries himself as a strong man who could not care less about what others think but every now and then he would ask me a litany of questions regarding how others perceive me: “Do they think you’re religious? Where do they think you’re from? Do they treat you differently?” I was always surprised by this because although I grew up in Kentucky, my high school was relatively diverse and I never felt like I was different, at least not in a negative way.

I always wanted to visit Iran but the possibility never seemed to be on the table as my parents were disinterested in returning. They acted as if they were worried they would be held there for one reason or another; however, we had seen many family members and friends visit and return with no problems. It got to the point where they had resided in America for longer than they ever lived in Iran, a concept that was so strange to me given the fact that these people have Iran running through their veins. You can hear Iran in their heartbeats. Iran is intertwined in their DNA. They had adopted the philosophy that you can never go home again and they were sticking to it.

Finally, at age 29, my mother agreed to help me fill out the paperwork to obtain an Iranian passport. After over 30 years, she had visited Iran a few years prior when her father was passing away. Not until I had the itinerary in my hand could I believe we were going, and for 14 days! She arranged for us to stay with my uncle, who has an apartment in Tehran but lives in Europe, and I told them I wanted to be a tourist and see as much as possible. They did not seem thrilled by that idea and kept insisting it was difficult to travel to different cities in Iran. After several arguments, it was decided we could visit Tehran, Kashan, and Esfahan. The tone set by them was that this was my trip and they were simply being dragged along. I was too excited to care.

In the weeks leading up to the trip, I received mixed comments from those around me. Friends were largely excited for me. Colleagues asked things like, “where are you going on your next vacation, North Korea?” Family, even those who resided in Iran, weren’t sure why I would want to visit. Very few seemed to understand that although I had never been there, this was still something of a homecoming for me. It was a chance to fully experience where I came from, even if it was not the same Iran that raised my parents.

In March 2015, we landed in Tehran and my mother, my uncle and I experienced something magical in those two weeks. The trip became less about me and more about the human spirit and the meaning of home. We spent nights on my uncle’s balcony staring at the mountains as they reminisced about their childhood. I heard stories I had never heard before and they taught me about contemporary Iranian art and poetry. In one breath they would describe the country as a magical place; the people as the most romantic and intelligent in the world, and in the next they would remember to criticize it like defiant children. It was clear they had a love/hate relationship with Iran and maybe you would have to when the Iran you grew up in had disappeared forever. The powerlessness in preserving what it once was a feeling that remained.

My mother had told me before we arrived that the most noticeable thing to her when she first returned was that, unlike in America, everyone surrounding us was Iranian! I thought it was obvious at the time but understood her point once we were there and really took the time to observe the people, my people, leading normal lives. To me, Tehran was much like a Middle Eastern New York City, filled with fashionable, hard working people. They seemed to have made the most of the short stick they had been handed. Still, there was a sad undertone. We were there when it was announced that an outline agreement had been reached which would begin the lifting of sanctions on Iran. I was so happy to be there for a historic event and expected there to be happiness erupting in the streets; however, all I got was a few car horn honks. Perhaps these are people who have learned not to celebrate prematurely.

I spent the whole of the trip taking photos of everything in sight. We visited historic family homes in Kashan and I took selfies in mirrors used by my great grandmother and great great grandmother. I learned about Iranian architecture and photographed all of its intricacies. I made it my duty to capture the Iranian spirit through the lens; a spirit broken and forgotten by many.

Much to my surprise, this led to an outpouring of positive comments from those who had seen my photos on social media. They could not believe the beauty of Iran. Many stated they had no idea what Iran looked like and wanted to know how they could make a trip to Iran possible. This filled my heart with so much joy. I felt like I had made a small contribution towards chipping away at the negative perception the media has placed on Iran and I hope to continue to do so.

It never occurred to me that the trip could be so powerful. Growing up, I aspired to be an artist but practicality won out and I pursued a legal career in New York City. Spending two weeks focused on photography reawakened by creative side and provided me with the most beautiful inspiration of all: my culture. In the process of sharing my Iran with others, I was able to change a few minds and feel a sense of duty towards continuing to do so. Most notably, I watched a brother and sister spend two weeks in their homeland, longer than they had in decades; each day remembering what they loved about it, each day regaining a piece of themselves despite their best efforts to the contrary. I don’t believe this was just my trip after all.

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