In this episode of the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast, Iranian-American novelists and memoirists Jasmin Darznik and Dina Nayeri talk to hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell about the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution. How has the country changed in four decades, and what is it like to write about the preceding and subsequent history?
To hear the full episode, subscribe to the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast through iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app (make sure to include the forward slashes when searching). You can also listen by streaming from the player below.
Readings for the episode:
The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother’s Hidden Life by Jasmin Darznik · Song of a Captive Bird by Jasmin Darznik · A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea by Dina Nayeri · Refuge by Dina Nayeri · The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You by Dina Nayeri · The ungrateful refugee: ‘We have no debt to repay’ by Dina Nayeri, April 4, 2017, The Guardian · Forugh Forrokhzad
Part I: Jasmin Darznik
Jasmin Darznik: I guess the riddle of history is where you start the story, and I’d say it’s not really possible to understand the revolution without knowing that there was a long history of Western imperialism—British, and then American, in Iran, which was driven, really, by an interest in Iranian oil, and the other thing is that there was a 1953 American-led coup that ousted Iran’s prime minister. He had taken the really daring act of nationalizing the country’s oil, and so with that coup, Iran’s oil, and a lot of Iranians would say its destiny, fell back into the hands of Western powers. But to bring us up to the present, under the Shah there was a massive movement to modernize the country, but there was also galling economic inequality, and that was exacerbated by cultural and religious tension.
Whitney Terrell: So, wait, just to summarize, there was a nationalizing socialist movement that the U.S. then destroyed, and put in somebody who’s pro-capitalist, and then some income inequality occurred—which sounds very familiar to me.
JD: Right. It’s a familiar story. But shockingly, even though this is not contentious—all the documents were released years ago—still, a lot of Americans don’t know this history, and the point of reference is always the Revolution, and I think, for Iranians, it feels like—wait, hang on a second, you can’t get the revolution without understanding at least part of what happened before it.
So anyway, bringing it up a little bit more toward 1979, the Shah was taken out, he was ousted, and in the place of the monarchy came this fundamentalist regime that we all know of now.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: And it gets even more complicated from there. The Iran hostage crisis, for example—which I think was probably my first consciousness of Iran, when college students took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and held 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days, from the end of ’79, to the beginning of ’81. And then I think that was a moment when a lot of Americans turned their eyes towards those headlines, that suspense dominating the news, that hostage crisis coupled with the fact that the Shah was backed by the United States. And a widely circulated rumor that Reagan had a secret deal to delay the return of the hostages until after the election.
If there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s the necessity of looking really critically at what we’ve been told by our governments and the media.
WT: His election against Jimmy Carter, when he was trying to beat Carter, right—
VVG: Right. And all of this is just a huge amount to keep track of. So for people who weren’t around when it happened—you know, I think I was born in the middle of the hostage crisis—this may be the first time they’re hearing all of this. And I was thinking, some of our listeners might even be most familiar with the hostage crisis from the movie
Argo, that Ben Affleck movie. But what did the world learn from the Revolution that we need to remember in order to prevent this sort of thing from happening?
JD: So you know I have to hesitate over the word learn, because I don’t think the world really learned much of anything, right, and I think that has a lot to do with who’s gotten to tell the story, and how the story’s been told. I can say, though, that it was through the hostage crisis that America in particular first encountered Islamic radicalism, and then the terror and the trauma that Americans experienced around the hostage crisis engendered a lot of animosity that has been enlisted to demonize Iranian people, and then more broadly, to justify military actions in the region, far beyond Iran. So if there’s a lesson I think that should be learned, that hasn’t, it’s the necessity of looking really critically at what we’ve been told by our governments, and also at what the media’s telling us.
WT: The hostage crisis started after the revolution had occurred, and the Shah was already deposed, right? What was the triggering event for that?
JD: Well, the revolution really started as a populist uprising. So there were many factions who were agitating against the shots regime. There were communists agitating against it, people who were in favor of Western-style democracies, people of all sorts of stripes, but it’s the Islamic faction that really quickly went to the fore and usurped the power and the leadership of that movement.
WT: I was just thinking it feels a little bit like the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which had a lot of idealistic elements, and was trying to get rid of an oppressive capitalist regime, but then got hijacked by the most extreme parts of the revolution.
JD: I think that was very much the case. I know, just anecdotally, people in the Bay Area where I grew up, had come to Berkeley to study, and they were very much enlivened by Marxist ideology, or communist principles. And they were living in America and went back to Iran because they wanted to participate in the Revolution. And they really saw this as the beginning, potentially, of a very, very different sort of country that would be would have been enlivened by those kind of attitudes and worldviews.
WT: What was it that caused the hostage crisis? Was there a triggering event there? I don’t know what caused it.
JD: You know, I have to say, I don’t know, to the extent I think you you’d like me to answer because I’m not an expert on this area, in a historical sense. I only know through my family, what those times were like, and, of course, what I’ve read since but I think that the hostage crisis was—in a sense, it was a media opportunity for this group of radicalized Islamic young men who had grown up with this sense of their country having been taken hostage by America. And it was a stunt, I think, in some ways. They didn’t know what they were doing. My understanding is that they didn’t envision this as taking 444 days—there was never this sort of plan. But they seized this moment, and it quickly became a real lightning rod. It really galvanized people either to their cause, or it really caused a lot of international—a sensation around their cause. And it took on a life of its own.
Ever since the 1980 Iranian hostage crisis, us Iranian-Americans were identified with what seemed like a very barbaric and horrific regime.
VVG: So a little bit of an announcement—there’s a new set of leaders in town, and this is what we look like, and this is what we stand for.
JD: This is what we stand for. And again, giving that history that I just touched on very briefly—a feeling like we’re in charge of our country now, you for so long have held our lives in your hands. And I mean, I’m very much imagining this, and I don’t think it was something that the greater majority of Iranians condoned or believed in. But I think those are the sentiments that they were manipulating when they took the hostages.
VVG: And you know, as you touched on earlier, 40 years ago, there was no Internet or social media. So American media and politicians had an overly large hand in shaping the narrative of the revolution that caused the hostage crisis. What did American media coverage of the revolution get wrong? Or right? What is it about that history that you would like people to be questioning more thoughtfully? And what was Iranian media coverage like?
JD: I was so young when we left Iran. We left right on the eve of the Revolution, so I don’t have any memory at all of what Iranian coverage was like, but knowing Iranians as I do, I’d say there would have been a great deal of skepticism about whatever was being told through the media. There’s just a really deep, long-running skepticism Iranians have towards their government, toward any government, really, so whatever was being told as—I don’t think it was a story that people put much credence in, in terms of what was happening.
The story that was being told over in America, I do remember that, quite vividly—I think Sugi and I might be about the same age—but I was a young child during the hostage crisis, and I remember coming home from school, and this is a story every Iranian-American will tell you, they remember coming home, and the news would be on, it wasn’t just in our house, it seemed like everybody was tuned into the news every night, and that number of days was broadcast, and this countdown, day-by-day, the countdown, which built ultimately to 444 days, and it was an enormous media spectacle, and that spectacle became the lens through which Americans saw us, us Iranian-Americans—even though many of us had come to flee the revolution, we were identified with what seemed like a very barbaric and horrific regime.
I think in America, we only have really cared about the history of Iran from 1979 or 1980.
I don’t think we’ve managed to get out from under that lens, as Iranian-Americans; I think, actually, the lens has only deepened its gaze on us, in the years since 9/11, and it has created this sense that feels very pressing right now, that as Muslims, we’re unassimilable aliens. I think you can trace the genesis of that feeling back to the media coverage of the hostage crisis in 1980.
WT: The other thing they got wrong is that it was all total crap. I remember it, too, I was born in ’67, and all of the stuff that we just discussed, about the Shah, about American involvement in Iran’s past—I don’t remember any of that being talked about. I knew none of those things. It was being presented, as I recall, as if—suddenly, this country’s done this terrible thing to us, and we didn’t do anything to deserve this. There was a huge disconnection from history, as I recall, in the way that that story was told, here.
JD: I think that’s absolutely true, and this is what I meant about, isn’t that the riddle of history, is where do you start the story. The story is very much impacted by where you start. I think in America, we only have really cared about the history of Iran from 1979 or 1980, and there’s been almost this—would I say willful? Maybe, in some cases—but certainly, an ability to really presume that there was no history beyond that point, of 1980, that we were innocent until that moment.
VVG: Such an American problem. If we can—
WT: Our podcast is trying to cure this problem!
JD: But you know, this goes a little bit maybe further than, you know, we’re able to contain in this interview, but, it has implications, also for literature, because, I think, many of the books that have been published about Iran, by Iranians here in America, have either gotten to the market, or have enjoyed a larger readership because they have focused on 1979 and beyond, and that preceding history, or any other story about Iran has been shunted off to the side, because that’s not a story that we necessarily wanted to hear.
Part II: Dina Nayeri
Whitney Terrell: The section of the book that came out in The Guardian came out in 2017. But today, with what President Trump’s been saying about Ilhan Omar, saying she should be grateful—that idea of critiquing gratefulness is part of what you’re doing in the book as well. I wondered if you could talk about that.
Dina Nayeri: I’m just distinguishing what gratitude is and what it should be from what it should not be. So I’m not critiquing it, I suppose, as a private emotion.
Every refugee and immigrant that enters this new life is full of private gratitude. It is held inside their heart, and it changes the way they interact with the world around them.
WT: The idea that immigrants are supposed to be grateful, right? That’s the idea that you’re critiquing.
DN: Yeah. So what I’m clarifying for people who just throw around this phrase, is that actually, every refugee and every immigrant that enters this new life is actually full of private gratitude. And they will live the rest of their life full of it. But the thing is that it’s not something to be postured for the benefit of the native-born. It is held inside someone’s heart, and it changes the way they interact with the world around them and the people closest to them, and that’s how it’s supposed to be—you can’t force someone to be grateful to you specifically. Just as you can’t force someone to love you, or appreciate you.
There is a widespread expectation for refugees to posture and to behave a certain way and to act as if they’re a certain class and category in comparison with the native-born. And I think that that’s wrong. And that forgets the accident of birth, and the fact that no native-born American or English or French person or Dutch deserves their place in those safe countries. They just happened to be born there. So when somebody is rescued by the governments of those countries and brought to live there, why should they have to feel grateful to the people who were already lucky enough to have been born to families in those countries? That makes absolutely no moral or ethical sense.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: If we’re going to spend so much of our public discourse on the notion that it’s a meritocracy—I mean, I think embedded in your critique of a kind of performative gratitude is also just a critique that I really agree with, about—what is the point of the nation-state, and what are borders anyway? So on the back of that notion, I just want to ask, if your family had attempted to emigrate to the U.S. today, the Muslim ban would have prevented you from doing so. So I’m just curious for your thoughts as you read the headlines, your view of that ban—the astonishingly bad Supreme Court decision upholding that executive order?
Now the entire idea of refuge, of the Statue of Liberty, of Christianity itself, has been called into question by people who just want to protect themselves from imagined dangers.
DN: I was so disappointed and so sad, because it goes against everything that I believe America to be, and that not just I believe—it goes against what America is. Remember that I came to America at a time when, when you know, people . . . While individually, they may not have rolled out the red carpet for immigrants, they believe that America had a duty to the rest of the world, and then all this prosperity, and all of this success of wealth meant that we had to give back, and also just the very notion of it as a Christian nation told people that they have to behave that way.
Now the entire idea of refuge, of the Statue of Liberty, of Christianity itself, has been called into question by people who just want to protect themselves from imagined dangers, and they’re just crouched against themselves and their family and thinking only of self-protection, it’s quite an ugly thing. That Supreme Court decision was disappointing for so many reasons, not only because Trump’s ban is so very obviously about Muslims, and because he has specifically said that it was about that, but because they essentially said that the motivation of a president doesn’t matter at all, right? All that matters is that he has the power to do this.
Well, this sounds a little bit scary for someone who comes from an authoritarian regime. Of course motivations matter, of course why he says he does it matters, if it goes against what America stands for. That’s a Supreme Court’s job to say no, no, actually, this isn’t part of your rights, to affect immigration policy in this way. But that’s not what they said and and that scares me.
With Cuban refugees, and refugees from Vietnam, you were getting reliably anti-communist voting blocs during the Cold War. Their gratitude was to be expressed in votes.
WT: Vox’s The Weeds Podcast had a really interesting conversation about the historical roots for why we think that refugees or people are coming here seeking asylum should be grateful. Why has the right supported refugees and asylum seekers in the past? And they were arguing that with Cuban refugees, and refugees from Vietnam, you were getting reliably anti-communist voting blocs during the Cold War. And so their gratitude was to be expressed in the way that they voted. And when you see the thing that their concerns are getting upset about with Ilhan Omar somebody’s like, Hey, I don’t lie. I am a refugee. I came here, but I did not agree. It was not part of the deal that I have to support Republican policies.
DN: I think a lot of the people who behave in such a way that makes refugees feel as if they’re being asked to posture gratitude, a lot of those people have a very small, closed-off idea of what America is. So they believe America to be their own specific set of values. So, Republicanism and Christianity and all those things are America to them. So, for example, when I, when we went to Oklahoma in, the early 90s, late 80s, the story was that the narrative that made them happy to have us in some way was that we were Christians who had escaped the Islamic Republic.
WT: Christianity is another thing that makes it easier for the right to support, right?
DN: What that meant is that we had to go around from church to church telling our story. The story had to include no beauties from Iran, no complexity, it was just about how Jesus saved us. My mom was heavily discouraged by our sponsors from accepting any public and social services that she was entitled to, they said, we are hard working Republicans, you’re not going to sign up for food stamps, or and you’re not going to sign up for any kind of benefits, because then you’d be the kind of immigrant that comes in and immediately signs up for help.
Well, you know what, refugees need help for a while, but that’s not what this story was about. And so immediately, my mom was put to work in a factory. The idea is, oh, if we save these people for a particular religious or political cause, be Christianity, Republicanism, then they will come in, and they will take up the mantle with us of that specific cause. And that equals America. Well, that doesn’t equal America. America is a lot of different religions. America is the freedom to choose.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai. This transcript has been edited and condensed by Damian Johannson and V.V. Ganeshananthan.