Reza Aslan is tall, clean shaven, and wears a determined look on his face as he takes the stage with Fariba Hachtroudi, who is graceful in her movements and words. Leaving is not easy, especially when exile is forced upon. And it is exactly this departure, voluntary and involuntary, the past, present and future of the country of Iran that we inquire into, in this session.
We see Fariba Hachtroudi discuss her father and her childhood in Iran. Reza Aslan asks of loss, of losing out on the roots that Fariba’s family had in Iran which might be ebbing away presently. But in a gentle yet firm voice, we see Fariba declining the decadence of her family’s prominence in the country. She speaks of the schools that are built in her father’s name.
“Names like these belongs to the country”, she says. She compares her father to Gandhi and Nehru and insists that her father is like these Indian nationalists who continue to live in people’s hearts and therefore immortalize themselves. She also speaks of Tagore and how her father met him when he was young. She also feels that this kind of personality, whether they are there or not, whether their family is there or not, the people, as her father used to say, belong to the country.
Reza Aslan shares his experience of the revolution from when he was a kid. He admits to belong to a prosperous family and that his father was a “loud atheist with a pocket full of Mohammed jokes”. This allows the audience to dissolve into laughter and the mood lightens. His family immigrated to the United States of America in the hopes of returning when things got better but things never got better, and they never returned. He speaks of the United States of America of the 1980s and the alienation he experienced as it wasn’t the best time to be Iranian in America.
“I actually spent a good part of the 1980s pretending to be Mexican”, he jokes, when talking about how he dealt with the anti-Iranian approach of the Americans at that time. In University when he wanted to learn Persian, he was surprised to be surrounded by a class full of white people, and was taught by non-Iranian people.
The subject of dual identity comes into play as both these individuals balance the dual cultures they inherit and are exposed to. “There is something about old culture which you cannot forget about” Fariba’s voice trails away as the epiphany her words bring, dawns on everyone. We all are living dual identities in this globalized world, we adapt to the new while trying to hold on to the past.
“Do you think it’s difficult to be Iranian in France or Iranian in America?” Reza Aslan asks.
“It’s difficult to be Iranian anywhere. Believe me, especially Iran”, she chuckles before turning serious and saying, it is not easy to make it in France. She speaks of how her first publisher had printed “an Iranian who writes directly in French” on her debut novel’s cover and how ridiculous that was!
The accommodative nature of the countries of USA and France is discussed where Reza Aslan jokes that “assimilation” in France is equal to “be us”. He talks of how that is not the case in the USA, it is a nation that easily absorbs cultures. But that it sometimes becomes a liability because when you want to define your identity, and in times of societal stress the notion of who you are as Americans fractures, and you look for someone inside to define yourselves against and that is where the problems lies.
At a later stage, we see Fariba speaking of the ignorance among the Americans when it comes to knowing the cultural practices of the middle-eastern people, especially Iranian. Europe is much more aware, she believes.
The question-answer round commences soon and we see the audience firing up questions enthusiastically. In this period, we see the culmination of a theory on part of the authors, with support of empirical evidence. The Iranians had protested in 2009 against the government, only to be brutally repressed. This rebellion inspired oppressed citizens in other countries like Egypt to fight against their regimes.
As the discuss progresses, an interesting question that is raised from among the audience is why nobody talks about the situation of the Baha’i community in Iran, those who have no access to education. To this Reza Aslan responds by saying “they don’t have access to the constitution. They are not given any rights, and when I say no rights, I mean quite literally ‘No Rights’, that you could kill a Baha’i person and not go to jail for it.” He further adds “Its not that no one is talking about it, people do talk about it, but the problem is that because we’re so single mindedly focused on Iran’s nuclear program and on a quite deeply exaggerated fear of Iran’s nuclear program, it sort of sucks all the air out of the room and makes it impossible to talk about other important things.”
The authors also bring to light the most important question of ‘If the Iranian rebellion inspired Egyptians and it was successful in Egypt, why wasn’t it successful in Iran?’
The answer, Reza Aslan says, is the USA’s foreign policy and the unconsolidated support of the rebellion in Iran itself. 40% of the Iranian population lives below the poverty line and is completely dependent on the government, even for milk and bread. The government exerts complete control in all fields of an individual’s life. “A tyrant stays in power by isolating his people”, he says. The poor did not join the rebellion because they could not afford to disrupt the flow of basic amenities the government provided them with.
The authors believe that the only way to stop the Iranian government from massacring its citizens is by granting Iran membership in the World Trade Organization. Western countries, the authors believe, can exert power over Iran and force it to follow International Law if Iran is allowed entry into International Trade. Questions of economic-colonization were raised, but the authors countered it by saying that without economic development, there is no political development. There is no middle class in Iran. It becomes, therefore, difficult to advocate political reforms within the country without economic development.
We were convinced by the eloquence and passion in the words of Reza Aslan and Fariba Hachtroudi’s argument. This session inquired into what it means to be an Iranian in the world and in Iran itself. One of the most interesting sessions we have attended so far!