Being American is About More Than Nationality

This piece first appeared in the Kentucky Standard Tuesday, February 7th 2017.

It was a Friday evening, and I had just finished a longer-than-planned shift at work. I was eager to make it home for dinner with my wife, who I don’t see as often as I would like. The screen on my iPhone was a mix of text notifications from my wife informing me about dinner and news updates regarding the current administration’s executive order banning immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim majority countries — including Iran, where my father was born and where several of my relatives still live. A quick scan of Facebook told me that rallies were hastily being organized at international airports across the country, lawyers were rushing to the aid of detained persons, and numerous organizations were speaking out against the executive order.

Overnight, things got worse. In the chaos, many legally allowed to enter the country had been detained or sent back to their countries of origin. For some, the executive order had been implemented mid-flight, leaving them unaware of what awaited. Others were not allowed to board flights to the United States. Families were ripped apart by the stroke of a pen.

As I fumbled around searching for coffee, sliding through my Facebook feed, reading the heart-wrenching stories shared by people across the country, I realized that my worst fears were starting to become reality. My own family would be affected by the measure. My family living in Iran wouldn’t be able to visit this summer or attend my wedding celebration. My cousin living in Dubai couldn’t make a planned trip to visit her father in California. One close friend, a French-Iranian, wouldn’t be able to come to the U.S. in the fall. Another had to tell his father, a U.S. green card holder visiting relatives in Iran, that he might not be able to return home to Buffalo, N.Y.

I wanted to viscerally lash out at Trump fans, especially friends and members of my family, but I realized that wouldn’t be productive. I had to make an emotional appeal to those I knew. I had to show them that the Muslim ban affected people they knew, people they loved. I had to show them that it wasn’t just about preventing terrorists from entering the country, that it also prevented people like my father from not just living a life of their choosing, but also from having a positive impact in whichever community they settled.

Those of us who are Muslim- or Iranian-American are afraid and if recent days are any indication, we have every right to be. The current administration has followed through with one of its main campaign promises. What’s the next shoe to drop, forcing Muslims to register, forcing us to wear special ID badges?

And now, the White House’s chief national security adviser has put Iran on notice, threatening to attack if it continues to be provocative in the Persian Gulf. As an American, this is a worrying and unnecessary escalation. As an Iranian-American, this is downright scary. I fear, as many of my friends do, that our security in this country may be in jeopardy, that our lives in America may no longer be viable, especially if the current trend continues.

While I agree that religious extremists constitute a threat, banning immigrants and refugees from these seven countries benefits only the extremists. It validates their propaganda that America cannot be trusted, that America is evil, that America is at war with Islam.

America has always sought to be the city on the hill — a ray of sunshine for those living dreary lives in the shadow of dictators. And that goal is what gave many across the globe, not just in the Middle East, the power to rise up, to oppose whatever authoritarian they faced. They knew, at least, America would give them protection, would provide them with the opportunity to start over if all were lost. For some, that no longer applies as the current administration has done irrevocable damage to America’s image abroad and in the process endangered the very thing they sought to protect — our national security.

Being American isn’t just a nationality; it’s also a state of being. It’s a mindset that tells us we are all entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, along with a healthy respect for the rule of law. There are Americans across the globe, living in distant lands, with names hard to pronounce, wearing clothing we don’t recognize, worshiping a god that may not be familiar to us. We should be supporting them whether or not they’re fleeing their countries. And this executive order violates that very idea. Our country, and the American ideology, will only be strengthened by opening our doors to those in need.

Dinner Decorum with My Father

For as long as I can remember, Thursday was pizza night at my dad’s house. On Fridays, our ritual was equal parts Viking, Persian, and American.

If there was not a home football or basketball game for our high school, regardless of the weather my dad would fire up the grill. Pork chops (which is where I developed my love of them and why I thought it was okay to out my dad as a closeted pork eater), steaks, chicken, you name it we grilled it.

Inside, on the stove top, we always had a pot of rice—polo not kateh for those of you Iranians keeping tabs. And there was usually a salad of sorts or some greens and radishes.

“In those days, my house was like Grand Central Station for the neighborhood kids,” my dad told me.

We would do our running around the neighborhood, but by dinner time we would all be back for whatever my dad was prepping on the grill.

Most of our friends were regulars, so they understood the decorum. Which wasn’t much more than ‘try a little of everything, AS IS, if not Mo Daddy will find a way to squeeze it on your plate.’

Newcomers would often violate corollary (asking for condiments with your food), we would try to stop them, but we would not be fast enough.

One such occasion came when I was in high school, one of my less experienced friends joined us. Grilled meats, rice (one bowl of plain rice, another bowl of rice with egg yolk), and salad. We had all spent much of the time after school playing basketball. Needless to say, we were famished.

The veterans and I had already scooped up our plates, piled them high with food, and were taking up our spots in front of the TV. Some were on the couch, some sat on the floor. All were busy scarfing down whatever was on our plates. Seconds were a must.

One of our friends, the rookie, was a little slower. As he walked the ten steps into the living room from the kitchen, he mumbled something about soy sauce and turns around to go back to the impromptu buffet line.

As he gets back into the kitchen we hear him start, “Hey Mo Daddy?”

“Yes, my handsome man,” responds my father.

We all know what is about to happen and are powerless to stop it.

“Do you have any soy sauce?”

‘Shit,’ we all look at each other, thinking the same thing, ‘he’s got no clue.’

“My handsome son, do you not like my rice?”

“No, I don’t eat rice without soy sauce.”

“My rice isn’t just any rice, you don’t need soy sauce. Try the rice without it, son.”

At this point, my dad has given my friend two opportunities to walk away without any repercussions.  He has failed to see the clear signs that the road is ending soon and he needs to respectfully exit. For our part, we are powerless to stop the impending train wreck.

“I need the soy sauce.”

“SON! Eat the rice as it is, there is no soy sauce. If you don’t like it, then you can put it back.”

You should realize that my dad was not sitting with us. He was in a nearby room, sitting and eating like a king, happy that his vassals were supplied with all they needed. His contentment was destroyed by the crime of asking for soy sauce with Persian rice. It was something you neither did, nor insisted upon. Decorum was breeched.

Cognizant he would not win, my friend ended up adding some more butter and salt. When he sat down, we all looked at him as if he had committed high treason. All we could do was shake our heads and hope he does not make the same mistake twice—or at least brings his own soy sauce, even then he would be courting disaster.

Get My Gun!

Around the time my brother was born, my parents bought a place in the country several miles outside Bardstown. My dad fell in the love with the plot nearby too, something had spoken to him there. This was a place he would find peace in moments of anxiety. After the divorce, he kept the nearby plot and still returns there—and as I type this he is likely there meditating, drinking coffee, ruminating of the meaning of life.

About a year after moving in, the Iranian Revolution took place. An event thousands of miles away would have a lasting impact on our family. And for a brief moment, in addition to the embassy seizure, it caused an energy crisis that shook America.

Lines at gas stations were long. People’s lives were tailored around when and where to get gasoline for their family vehicles. Instances of theft, siphoning from cars parked in driveways, people driving off without paying, were not uncommon.

One night, in the middle of the energy crisis, my older brother, who was still an infant, was having difficulty breathing. Often, when this occurred, one of my parents would sit outside with him to let him breath in the fresh country air. They would do this even in the winter.

It was my father’s turn.

As my dad was sitting on our large front porch, he heard something rustling in the garage across the road that sat about 50 yards away from our front door. Straining to see what the commotion was, and initially dismissing it as some varmint from the near-by woods, my father saw the shadows of two men moving about in the garage.

Now his senses were on full alert. He was holding his youngest (at the time, I came a few years later), my brother, and his wife and oldest child were inside.

“I was nervous,” he explained to me a few years ago. “I’m holding Jacob, your mother and Meena were inside. And these two were rustling around in our garage.”

They must have not noticed my dad on the porch. Although, to be fair, when the sun goes down, and there is no moon, the place is pitch black. Even if the security light is on near our barn, visibility is close to zero (my city slicker friends from DC who have followed me home during the holidays can attest to that).

Thinking on his feet and taking a larger gamble than he probably should have, my dad decided on one of the biggest bluffs of his life.

“JANE! GO GET MY GUN,” he yelled.

Then he stomped his feet as loud as he could have on our wooden porch.

Almost instantaneously, the two figures in the garage dropped whatever metal vessals they had with them for carrying the gas they were planning on siphoning from my parent’s cars. And before the containers hit the ground they were scurrying away, reversing their path to our garage.

The thing is my dad did not have a gun, nor has ever owned one. To this day, my mother does not allow guns in the house, not because of this story though. This ban, at one time, extended to water guns and any toy weapon that looked like a gun. But that’s for another story.

“I took a huge gamble. What if they had a weapon? What if they were wanting to do more than just steal our gasoline? Maybe I should have let them. I just reacted,” my father explained a few years ago.

The bottom line is people do funny things in the middle of a crisis. My dad bluffed his way to not having an empty tank when he tried to go to work the next morning. Those would be gas stealers just wanted to get away without having to pay to fill their tanks up—they probably could not afford to. It could have all gone differently for everyone. Thankfully, it did not.

The Italian Exchange Student

A running joke among Iranians is that we can pass for a lot of ethnic groups.

Unfortunately, I’m not enough of an anthropologist to make a definitive conclusion about how or why, but I don’t think I’m too far off in saying that it’s in part due to Iran’s location. During the Silk Road era, many tribes, nations, ethnic groups, conquerors, marauders, bandits, merchants, etc. crisscrossed the Iranian plateau. Their genes, as usually happens when, over several centuries, people interact and cross paths in the same locations, inevitably intermingled with those of the natives. And thus the present day plight of Iranians being able to blend in, without being noticed as Iranians, was born.

My brother, Jacob, was no exception. In fact, out of my two siblings and I, he looks the most Iranian–he even tattooed his name in Farsi on his arm. Once, right after the ink had settled, I told him they messed up his middle name–they hadn’t, but a little brother has to do what he has to do.

I looked up (and still do) to my brother, especially on the soccer field. Four years my senior, he had all the skills and presence I wanted to mirror. He was a true leader on the pitch.

His skills were so great that some kids from other schools couldn’t believe he was simply an American. He had to be from somewhere else.

“The only reason why Bardstown is any good is because they have that Italian exchange student,” one student from a neighboring county said.

“Umm…what,” the older sister of one of my brother’s friends said. She had been hanging out with some of her friends from that school.

“Yeah, that Italian kid. He dominates the games. That’s why they are good.”

“There aren’t any Italians on the team. I don’t know what you are talking about.”

“That guy, who plays midfield, darker skin, kind of curly black hair, dark eyes. He’s got to be Italian.”

“Are you talking about Jacob?”

“Yeah, I think that’s him, #19?”

“Yeah, you’re definitely talking about Jacob. He’s not an exchange student and he’s not Italian. He’s one of my brother’s friends, born and raised in Bardstown.”

“Well, he looks Italian!”


(I’ve probably gotten some of the details wrong, so if anyone is reading this knows the exact interaction, please let me know.)