Jumping Over the Fire: Bay Area Iranians Carry On

A general's assassination has Bay Area Iranian Americans grappling with decades of trauma and xenophobia.

The Iran I know and the Iran I see in the news have been stubborn puzzle pieces that simply refuse to fit together. 

The Iran I know is reaching under a bed for my grandfather’s cane in Ahvaz at the age of four, one year before his death. The Iran I know is on the balcony of my mother’s childhood home in Shiraz, sleeping under the stars with cousins in 2002. The Iran I know is jumping over beach bonfires late into the night for Nowruz, the Persian New Year. 

The Iran I see in the news is one branded by the United States as part of an “axis of evil,” with a nuclear program and still dealing with the legacy of the 1979 hostage crisis. Just three days into 2020, Americans saw it as a country to fear after President Donald Trump ordered the killing of high-ranking Gen. Qassem Suleimani in Baghdad, Iraq. 

Suleimani, who worked with the United States to beat back ISIS while leading proxy wars in the Middle East, was no household name but immediately became “the world’s number one bad guy” as the world waited for Iran’s response and Trump’s subsequent move. World War III trended online along with a misinformed fear of a military service draft. Political podcast FiveThirtyEight guessed at what an Iranian terrorist attack on U.S. soil would do to the presidential election, and police departments encouraged residents to say something if they saw something. 

Caught between this decades-long chess game between the two countries are everyday Iranians, who find themselves crippled by economic sanctions at home, formally barred from visiting the United States under the Trump administration, and still robbed of a democratically-elected leader after a 1953 CIA coup that reverberates in the Middle East to this day. 

The impacts have also been felt by the Iranian diaspora in the United States. 

“I was shocked at how there’s still a U.S.-wide ignorance of how the United States and Iran got to where we are,” says Farnaz Fatemi, a Santa Cruz-based writer who was bullied as a child growing up in California during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, speaking about the reaction to Suleimani’s assassination. “Iran is such a special place to be inside and we would be in a different situation if more people had the privilege of seeing that country for what it is, not just who it’s run by.”

Meanwhile, reports have been circulating about Iranians and Iranian Americans — legal residents and native-born citizens — being detained at airports and having their religion, political leanings, and immigration motivations questioned. Iranian students with valid visas returning to the United States from winter break were deported, most notably at Boston Logan International Airport despite a judge’s orders to pause proceedings. 

Bella Ramazin-Nia in her Berkeley home of 40 years. (Photo by Sophia Valdes)

Suleimani’s assassination and the ensuing backlash have brought up memories for longtime Iranian American community members in the Bay Area and created new tensions for youth in the diaspora to navigate. It’s even left some questioning where they belong and how much greener the grass is over here, and had others turn to the arts for healing.

“What’s really bothering me these days is … we left Iran,” says Bella Ramazan-Nia, who unexpectedly moved to Berkeley amid the 1979 Revolution thinking she would return but has remained ever since. “The way America is going, sorry to say, it’s looking more like what I left behind.”

Civil rights under threat

Shirin Fahimi, an Iranian-born naturalized Canadian citizen of two years, had come to expect additional questioning from Customs and Border Protection when traveling to the United States under its travel ban of majority-Muslim countries like Iran. But as she was en route to San Francisco for a performance at the art gallery Southern Exposure in the Mission on Feb. 4, a different process unfolded. She tells SF Weekly that she was asked if she was Muslim, what her position on the Iranian government is, why she moved to Toronto, what she studied in college, and even about her grandparents.    

“The interrogation made me very depressed,” Fahimi says. “I felt very lonely, especially because they questioned my Canadian passport. Do I belong here?”

To this day, Fahimi — who now wants to avoid undue interrogation and hassling — gets conflicting information from security officials on both sides of the border about how to enter the U.S. with no problem, despite having Canadian citizenship. But hers is just one of dozens of reports to surface in the aftermath of the Suleimani assassination

Up to 200 people of Iranian descent were reportedly held by border agents at Washington’s border with Canada. Many faced similar questions similar to those posed to Fahimi about allegiances, political views, and religion. Customs and Border Protection denied the claims but an internal memo from the Seattle office first obtained by The Northern Light in Blaine, Washington directed officers to stringently vet people matching certain criteria largely with links to Palestinian territories, Lebanon or Iran, or anyone who has traveled to the latter two. 

Several Iranian nationals with valid student visas, obtained after a rigorous vetting process and even life savings spent on higher education in the United States, have also been questioned, deported, and even kept in holding cells often without family or friends having any indication of their whereabouts.

Civil rights groups tracking the issues — like Iranian Alliances Across Borders, the National Immigration Law Center, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the National Iranian American Council — have had a tough time determining just how pervasive the problem is but do know it spiked after the strike on Suleimani was publicized. While immigrant communities have faced heightened threats since the beginning of the Trump administration, Asian Law Caucus attorney Javeria Jamil says the calls with concerns or cases since Jan. 1, 2020 have surpassed all calls in the past year and a half of working on the issue. 

“[Asian, Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian] communities have been targeted pretty much by every administration and treated as national security threats since 9/11,” Jamil tells SF Weekly. “Under this administration, the assault on our communities has definitely increased tenfold.”

Foreign policy ripples beyond borders and immigration and into daily life. Until 2017, the San Francisco Police Department cooperated with the FBI under the Joint Terrorism Task Force, coordination agreement to prevent terrorist threats, according to a 2016 whitepaper that Mission Local obtained and revealed in November. It found that under that arrangement San Francisco police violated local laws barring information-gathering based on political and religious affiliation. A July Civil Grand Jury report recommended San Francisco re-join the agreement but the Police Commission has not formally relaunched those conversations. 

Notes of 9/11 racial profiling re-surfaced in the aftermath of Suleimani’s assassination as well. Law enforcement groups like the Los Angeles Police Department said they were monitoring developments despite no credible threats to the city, adding that it’s “committed to ensuring the safety of our vibrant and diverse community, and we ask every Angeleno to say something if you see something.” Southern California has the largest concentration of Iranians outside Iran itself.

Messages from political moments and policies involving race extend beyond law enforcement — the FBI reported in November that personal attacks motivated by bias or prejudice are at a 16-year high. That doesn’t include the 2015 Orange County stabbing of 22-year-old Iranian American Shayan Mazroei in Orange County despite a white supremacist gang member shouting racial epithets beforehand, a case tracked by Avalan Institute, a criminal and racial justice advocacy group based in Los Angeles.

“We don’t have to wait for it to get so bad that it’s in our face,” says Niaz Kasravi, the institute’s founder and director. “These continual, smaller acts of discrimination or language that’s rooted in racism that we might just want to brush off builds and bubbles to the surface when we have those moments of political tension. The more we can be engaged and open about our experiences and building those relationships with other communities who deal with these issues, the more prepared we are to face the fight when it’s at our doorstep.”

Kasravi has been working to bring Iranians into the fight for racial justice by reminding them of cases like Mazroei’s. She joins Asian Law Caucus, part of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and other groups in urging people to comprehensively brush up on their rights, documenting any affronts to those rights, and to notify an immigration lawyer before traveling abroad to enforce them in a timely manner. 

But Jamil says the larger key to unlocking the issue rests in the United States not seeing Middle Eastern and South Asian people through such a strong national security lens.

“There needs to be a rethinking of that lens itself because that lens is really problematic,” Jamil says. “Broadly speaking, I think there needs to be a culture and policy shift for any of this to change.”

Diaspora then and now 

While Iranians dealt with a spike in challenges to their civil rights, the impact trickled beyond border crossings and immigration. World War III began trending on Twitter within minutes of news that the United States killed Suleimani, largely filled with gallows humor of not wanting to be drafted into war. (Male citizens between 18-25 must register for selective service but the United States military has been all-volunteer since 1973.)  

Roya Ahmadi, a 17-year-old high school junior in Cupertino, spent the following week questioning whether she was justified in feeling troubled by the nature of the memes or if she just couldn’t take a joke. One that especially irked her had to do with women giving up their demands for equality so they wouldn’t be drafted while others were “clearly racist” and portrayed Iranians as villains, once again. In reality, Iranians would bear the brunt of war that tends not to occur on American soil. 

“From the beginning, it bothered me and I couldn’t completely recognize why,” says Ahmadi, who otherwise feels Cupertino is welcoming and open-minded. “I wish that people wanted to educate themselves more about politics and just recognize that it impacts, if not them, then probably people that they know. Instead of making a TikTok why don’t you sign a petition against war?”

Ahmadi understands humor can be a coping mechanism, like a classmate joking that they could evade homework if war broke out. But she didn’t find even its attempted purpose to be informative and that most of her peers didn’t seem to care to research more. Despite 176 people dying in the crossfire of Iran’s symbolic retaliatory strike, that part of the saga went unacknowledged on TikTok. 

Her fellow Iranian American classmate, Jordan Naddaf, has similar concerns about misinformation and has channeled that into co-founding the Foreign Policy Youth Collaborative, which puts together bipartisan information on international political issues for teens to discuss. 

More than 40 years after the hostage crisis, some feel Americans seem ignorant to their government’s history of intervention in countries like Iran. 

“Iran was just as much of a bad guy in pop culture as it is now,” says Fatemi, who has work included in the upcoming anthology My Shadow Is My Skin: Voices of the Iranian Diaspora. “I remember feeling shunned.”

Fatemi was born in California to Iranians who came as students in the 1950s and 1960s, establishing roots well before the 1979 Revolution. But when the hostage crisis erupted, she went from part of the pack in Southern California to an outsider. Several times a week during sixth and seventh grade, classmates would taunt Fatemi and her twin sister in some way for being Iranian during the hostage crisis. She was even shoved around and called “Iranian bitch” while her four best friends stopped talking to her.

Fatemi and her sister hid their traumatic experiences from the world, including one another, until they started writing about them when she attended the University of California Santa Cruz, where Fatemi would later teach writing. 

But this time, perspectives of the Iranian diaspora could be found in real time alongside World War III memes on social media. Like Fatemi, 22-year-old Danville native Donna Fotoohi doesn’t feel quite comfortable discussing Iran with those unfamiliar with it but noted that online spaces let the world in on anxiety and depression many were feeling while fearing the worst.

“When all this was happening it was clear that all of us were grieving,” says Fotoohi, who recently graduated from UC Berkeley. “It was kind of like a collective movement where all of us were feeling similar emotions and processing and we were doing that in public. More Iranians are speaking up and kind of saying what many I think have internalized or been afraid to say.” 

Iranian folk singers, Sanaz Mardkar, Mima Goodarz, and Azadeh Farpour, perform at “Let Her Sing,” held by Diaspora Arts Connection in November 2019 to commemorate silenced female singers. (Courtesy image)

Healing through community-building 

Just since November, Iran was gripped by mass protests against the government that killed at least 304 people, the U.S. assassinated a top official and created the threat of war, 179 people aboard a commercial flight perished during Iran’s retaliatory strike, flash floods hit southern provinces and killed three people, and now at least 77 Iranians have died from the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, the largest casualty count outside China as of press time. 

When you add in the revolution, hostage crisis, Iran-Iraq War, Western sanctions, likely 2009 election fraud and subsequent crackdown of the Green Movement, and the U.S. leaving a landmark nuclear deal, the people of Iran have been on a marathon of trauma over the past 41 years. 

Some in the diaspora are finding ways to heal through the arts. 

In San Francisco, that’s taken form in the 1996 establishment of Golden Thread Productions, the first American theater company dedicated to Middle Eastern stories, and Diaspora Arts Connection, which aims to showcase little-known artists in varying diasporas.

Nazy Kaviani, who came to the Bay Area in 1978 as a student, founded Diaspora Arts Connection in 2013 after years of being bothered by the lack of cultural happenings. She previously spent much of her time in human rights activism and thought hard about what she was leaving for the world. 

“It was really hard to be healthy when you’re day in and day out with that,” Kaviani says. “What did it for me was the arts. This became how I polished my soul, basically.”

The nonprofit holds dozens of events each year, culminating in the September showcasing of silenced female singers around the world in “Let Her Sing.” However, visa issues have cost the show thousands of dollars and kept out Niaz Nawab, an Iranian artist living in France, in 2019. 

But the impact on the audience, often clapping through tears, is easy for Kaviani to see. “It just has such a gripping touch,” she says. “Arts transcends cultures, borders, languages, and you can do so much.”

Torange Yeghiazarian, one of Golden Thread Productions’ founders, agrees. The theater company seeks to convey stories of an ethnically and religiously diverse Middle East, from dramas about displacement to comedies adapted from contemporary Iranian author Sadeq Hedayat or even ordinary stories about a modern-day, ordinary Iranian couple. That includes stories that directly challenge American stereotypes of the region of either violent men or oppressed women and refugees.   

“There’s still this perception of victim or villain,” Yeghiazarian says. “Anything with more nuance and complexity takes a little more effort.” 

Much of this work is supported by grants. Both Yeghiazarian and Kaviani urge people in the Iranian American community to support shows like theirs to keep bringing nuanced stories that shape America’s understanding of people impacted by their very government. 

For other artists, it’s simply about finding refuge in other voices with a similar background to feel seen, and to find a way to be heard in ways they weren’t before. 

“It’s kind of a loss that I continue to work on replacing,” Fatemi says. “The more that I connect with Iranian American writers and more I just know that I’m a blend of being Iranian and Southern California-raised girl … then I feel like there’s a lot more healing. It’s just going to be lifelong.”

Period of renewal 

For a brief period in the year, Iranians get to collectively shove decades of baggage to the back and celebrate Nowruz, the Persian New Year, timed to the precise moment of the spring equinox. In the weeks leading up to it, Iranians sprout greens from lentils and other seeds to include in the haft-seen table bringing good fortune and health. The last Tuesday before the equinox, they jump over a fire while shouting “Zardee maan az toh! Sorkhee toh az maan!” — “My yellow is yours, your red is mine” — for what’s called charshanbe suri in a chant from the country’s Zoroastrian roots.  

San Francisco State University’s Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies sets up a display for Nowruz in Persian during a conference commemorating 40 years of the diaspora. (Photo by Ida Mojadad)

It’s a ritual I’ve increasingly taken comfort in, to stay connected to the humanity of a group seen almost exclusively in an ugly political realm. The Bay Area now hosts a variety of different Nowruz celebrations, which reflects the roots members of the diaspora are putting down in the civic sphere. The Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, for instance, works to bring Iranians into the policymaking process, including electing them into office as seen in 2018 successes, and holds a forum at Stanford University while the National Iranian American Council also serves as a voice in politics often advocating peace. 

Locally, San Francisco State University launched a first-of-its-kind Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies in 2016 thanks to an endowment from Iranian American alma mater and local philanthropist Neda Nobari. The center’s director, Persis Karim, received grants last year to build an archive of Iranians in the Bay Area and produce a documentary, though it needs more funding. 

The growth of the community and Iranian American organizations is a stark contrast to Bella Ramazan-Nia’s memories of simply sitting in a living room and complaining when she arrived. While she feels there’s still a lot to be done, it’s a sign of a new generation equipped with a stronger voice as they mesh further in the melting pot. But for Ramazan-Nia, the questions of belonging still remain as her hope of returning to Iran is lost — something that has taught her to emphasize identifying on a human level, urging all Americans to see it that way.

“I don’t belong here, I don’t belong there,” Ramazan-Nia says. “It’s not a bad place to be.”

 

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