I Thought My Dad Was Black

People always ask me what my hometown was like when my dad first moved there. To be honest, I don’t really know—I wasn’t born yet. But I often joke that Bardstown was made up of whites, blacks, and then my dad. That isn’t necessarily true, but you get the idea.

In fact, when my parents first moved to Bardstown, there was another Iranian living there. But, according to my mom, my dad really didn’t like him that much. Neither has told me why and I don’t know if I actually care. Since it’s not that important, I’m probably not going to ask, or perhaps I should.

Needless to say, by the time I was born there weren’t many people like my dad living in Bardstown. With the exception of two cross-country trips to California (we drove and that’s for another story), visits from relatives in Oklahoma City, and the occasional visit with my dad’s college buddies (remember Manu and the Persian Rat Pack), I wasn’t in regular contact with other Iranians.

I don’t remember exactly how old I was (yes, you’re picking up a pattern), but I was probably around four, as my memory tells me that my parents were divorced and I was in pre-school. That means it was at least 1986, and in this particular memory, my father was wearing a short sleeved shirt, which means it was probably when the weather was warmer.

I was deep in thought as my dad was driving me to my mother’s house. We were probably coming from the Montessori pre-school that I attended, but again I don’t remember that detail. On second thought, it could have all happened in 1987.

My mother lived—and still does—in the house my parents bought in 1978. When they divorced, my mother kept the house, while my father took the parcel of land across the road. He’s tinkered with remodeling and refurbishing a small cabin that sits on the property. In the last ten years, he’s made more progress than he did in the previous twenty. He’s made it livable, but just barely.

The house and the parcel of land with the cabin are a little more than five miles down Woodlawn Road, which branches off of Bloomfield Road, right in front of Nelson County High School. When my parents first moved out there you could count on one hand the amount of cars you’d pass on the road. That’s not even remotely the case today. Now, despite my mother’s house being at the apex of a blind curve that not only changes elevation, but also crosses a small creek, cars zip by at all times of the day. I’m surprised there haven’t been a lot of accidents, but screeching tires are a regular occurrence.

My dad and I had just left the two lane portion of Woodlawn Road and were heading down into the valley where my mother’s house sits. The road is just wide enough for two cars to pass, if and only if both drivers slow down and utilize the gravel shoulder.

We had just crested the first of two hills before heading around a small bend, crossing a small bridge and hitting the longest flat stretch in that part of the county that led to my mother’s house. In that moment I finally mustered up the courage to ask what I had been thinking. It could have been on my mind for a while. Or maybe it was more of an impulse, because as my memory has it, we had just passed a black family headed in the opposite direction and my father flashed a friendly wave—something everyone does on a country road.

“Daddy, are you black?” I asked timidly.

You see, in my four or five year old mind, my father couldn’t have been anything else. He obviously wasn’t white, he was too dark for that. And since I really had no other frame of reference and because so many black families were friendly with my father, I concluded that he—and by proxy me, because even at that young age, I understood that whatever my father was, I was too—was black.

“No,” my father responded, part concerned, part curious, and slightly perturbed.

This was a time in my father’s life when he was under a great deal of stress. The combined elements of a recent divorce and the job of a public school teacher had put him on edge. Luckily, my curiosity didn’t strike the wrong nerve.

“Are you sure?” I shot back, convinced my father was lying. The logic I had spun in my young mind was solid and impeccable.

“Yes, David. I am sure.” He said calmly, returning to dividing his focus between the road and something deeper and more philosophical than I could have ever imagined.

I don’t remember if there was any conversation the rest of the drive—it was less than a mile to my mother’s house from that point. Surely, I had gone back to doing whatever it was before I asked the question. Maybe I was playing with GI Joe’s, which according to my father, I would sneak into school or soccer practice in my front pocket. Or perhaps I was imagining how I could convince my father he was actually black. Or maybe, I started to question my impeccable logic: if he wasn’t white and he wasn’t black, then what the hell was he? What on earth am I? Wait, could that have been the genesis of my lifelong identity crisis?

I’ve never really talked to him about this moment and what it all meant. And I’d like to think he’d read this and call me to talk about it. But to be honest, my dad won’t be reading this unless I print it off and send it to him snail mail. (I’ve sent him the link to this blog twice and in the numerous conversations we’ve had since, he hasn’t commented. If he did, he’d probably call me an asshole or some other cuss word in the most loving tone anyone could ever use while uttering an expletive.)

All I am sure of is that he took my question well. He could have given me a lecture—like many Iranian parents, I’ve learned, are notorious for doing—about the greatness of being Iranian. Maybe it was the stress, maybe the question caught him off guard, or maybe it was something else altogether.

One explanation is at that time in the late 1980s, being Iranian wasn’t posh. So, maybe he feared that instilling in us an overbearing sense of pride in our Iranian-ness could have been dangerous. That’s partially why he didn’t teach us Farsi—emphasis on partially. But I think, more or less, it boiled down to the fact that to him he was human and nothing else mattered. He was indifferent to labels and even now when we have questions about identity, he balks at labeling himself Iranian.

“Does it make a difference?” I imagine him saying. It doesn’t. But it does.

Identity is important, but what I’ve learned is that we’re not limited to just one. And that’s what this is all about.

Can You Tutor Me in Spanish?

“Hey, Shams! Can you tutor me in Spanish,” one of my now fraternity brothers asked me during my pledge semester.

It was the spring of 2002. I had, against the wishes of my father, decided to follow in the footsteps of my maternal uncles and older cousins. They all had joined fraternities while studying at the University of Kentucky (UK).

The previous semester, my roommate, Greg, and I had made a pact that we’d join a fraternity together. Unfortunately, Greg, didn’t come back to school for the spring semester. I was left to join “Greek life” on my own.

I can’t honestly tell you what exactly about “Greek” life that I found so enticing, but for some crazy reason fraternity life appealed to me. Was it all the parties? Maybe. Was it the aura of confidence and machismo? Possibly. Or was it the often proclaimed idea of “brotherhood”? Perhaps. Regardless of what it was, I was going to join a fraternity.

For those of you that don’t know, you can’t just walk up to a frat house and ask to join. There’s a whole process that each potential new member must follow. The first step is Rush Week. That’s kind of the meet and greet of the fraternity world. Each frat tries to sell you on why they were better than the others. And each rushee tries to impress one or several fraternities. Each evening the fraternities have different events, cookouts, bowling, movie nights, mixers, etc. At the end of the week pledges that have made the cut will get invited to what some fraternities call a “smoker”–or in the case of my fraternity the “Mystic Supper.” This gives the rushees one more opportunity to impress in a more formal—I use that term loosely—setting. The next day is what is known as bid day. This is when brothers from each fraternity hand out invitations to the ones lucky enough to have met their fraternity’s criteria. It’s actually quite rigorous, but you know I can’t really get into it since I’m sworn to secrecy and all (I’m half joking, but seriously I can’t tell you).

Prior to Rush Week, I had already whittled my choices down to three fraternities: Alpha Tau Omega, Lambda Chi Alpha, and Alpha Sigma Phi. I had known people in each of those fraternities and the others on campus hadn’t really appealed to me. Going in the plan was to join Lambda Chi, my uncles were brothers at the UK chapter, so it seemed like the right choice.

I ended up choosing Alpha Sigma Phi. It’s a choice I don’t regret. To this day I still keep in touch with some of the brothers. There are even some living in the DC area. We meet up from time to time, share laughs, and retell stories from our time at Murray State.

“Well, if I could speak Spanish, then yeah, but I don’t, so no, I can’t,” I responded, half laughing, half confused about why he thought I’d be able to help him. “Who told you I could speak Spanish?”

“That’s what everyone thinks. You’re fluent in other languages, right?”

“Ummm, No. I speak English, that’s it.”

“So you don’t speak, like Italian or French, or whatever they speak in the Middle East.”

“No, unfortunately not. I’m just a regular American when it comes to that.”

“Oh, for some reason we all though you did.”

“Hahahaah, okay, man. I’ll take it as a compliment,” I said, ending the conversation.

I determined that being half-Iranian categorized me as being fluent in many languages. It probably made it easier for people to wrap their head around what I was. How on earth were they able to process the fact that I was an Iranian-American that grew up in rural Kentucky? ‘He must speak multiple languages,” I imagine them saying both to themselves and their friends.

To be fair, though, it probably helped that I was friends with many of the international students at Murray—mainly the Middle Eastern students. So, I guess they just assumed because my friends were Middle Eastern, that I had to be able to speak their languages too.

It became a running joke that I knew every Middle Eastern student on campus—I didn’t, but I knew quite a few. There were Turks, Arabs, Central Asians, but only four Iranians (including myself). Of the other three, one had grown up in Murray and the other two were on student visas and really didn’t hang out with other students. Needless to say, we didn’t form the 2000’s version of my father’s Murray State Iranian Rat Pack.

Once when I was sitting with my fraternity brothers in the cafeteria, one of my Bahraini friends comes strolling in. We’ll call him Mohammad—I think that’s actually his name, but time has led me to forget. One of my fraternity brother leans over and jokingly—and not expecting an answer–asks, “Hey Shams, do you know him? Where’s he from?”

“Yeah, he’s Bahraini. His name is Mohammad. We have econ together.”

The table erupts in laughter.

“You really do know all of them,” he responds with an emphasis on them.

I could have been offended, but at the same time I realized I did spend a great deal of time with my Middle Eastern friends. To be honest, I hung out with them because they were my only outlet to understanding a culture I had longed to be a part of—even though they weren’t Iranians. Many of them just accepted me as if I was one of them. They allowed me into a world where I felt, for the first time, not guilty of being Middle Eastern—I wasn’t the novelty, I was just like everyone else. We played soccer together, talked about culture, and what it was like living in America being Middle Eastern. I was thankful for that.

To this day, I’m still in contact with a few of them. Although most are back in their home countries, social media allows us to keep in touch—even if it’s every six months or so.

I thought my supposed persona as a multi-cultural polyglot had been squashed after that conversation during my pledge semester. It wasn’t.

A few years later, I started dating a girl who was friends with some of my younger fraternity brothers. As a joke, I had put various cities in the Middle East as places where I had lived and worked after/during college on my Facebook profile. Honestly, I can’t remember all of the cities, but I think one was Ardbil and another was Samarkand. And my voice mail was in German—a language I learned during undergrad, not because I’m some international man of mystery. Apparently, those things only fueled the origin-myth surrounding brother Shams.

After a few dates, she mentioned something about being thrown off by my accent when I called the first time. We had only interacted a few times before that, so I guess she had forgotten that I actually had a southern accent. Which, according to my Aunt and a handful of others, is now non-existent, although my current girlfriend would beg to differ.

“Well what did you expect? I grew up in Bardstown,” I said after she told me about being surprised.

“I mean, yeah, I remembered after I had heard your voice, but for some reason I had it in my head that your accent was different,” she said.

“What do you mean,” I said laughing.

“Well, ‘they’ said that your family were some sort of political refugees,” she responded timidly. “They” will remain undefined.

I couldn’t help, but laugh. The myth that had made my other fraternity brother think I was a polyglot, had morphed into a new myth that made younger members of my fraternity think my family came to the US as political refugees. We were somehow well connected in the upper echelons of the Middle Eastern political refugee circles—whatever that means. Basically, I wasn’t to be fucked with. Seriously, that’s what she said. I was apparently, “scary, well connected, and dangerous.” Again, whatever the fuck that means.

After she told me this, I wondered why she had decided to go on a date with me—and then subsequently go on more dates with me. She said something about being intriguing, but more so that after our first phone conversation she realized that their stories, the made up narratives about me, were just that…made up.

I’ll chalk all of this up to the fact that there aren’t many Iranians in Kentucky—or immigrants for that matter. In order to process my confusing, and often conflicting identities, they had to create their own myths to describe who/what I was. None of them were true, however, but all of them were rather comical and amusing.