When I heard Ahmadinejad’s voice

Towards the end of winter break, I posted a status reflecting on how I felt as a person of color, as a person with conflicting identities, being Iranian and Jewish. I said how I felt most accepted for both my identities at Clark University. Now that I have officially graduated, I felt it would be appropriate to give a reflection on my experience as an Iranian-American Jew and how I came to identify myself as all three equally.

Growing up, I took my identity for granted. I saw myself as Iranian, but never saw myself as the elephant in the room, being the one kid with colored skin in nearly pure white Ashkenazi schools up until college. For example, when we learned about the history of white and black people in North America, I saw myself as one of the “white” people.

I also viewed my identity as an Iranian and the country of Iran and its politics as two separate things. In my mind, the Iran my parents talked about when they told me their childhood stories, and the Iran the media talked about were in two separate universes. However, this mentality came to an end in my junior year of high school when I started to become more active in political affairs.

With all the talk about politics in history class, I decided that I wanted to become more knowledgeable on current events. So I picked a YouTube video of then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad being interviewed and everything changed when I heard his voice. When I heard Ahmadinejad’s voice, the two Irans I saw in separate universes collided and became one in the same.

He was speaking Farsi. The mother tongue that was familiar to my ear. The sound that made me feel at home. The language I speak with my grandparents and sometimes my parents. But this time it was not a relative or close family friend I heard speaking my native tongue, it was the controversial figure Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that I had heard so many bad things about at school and on the media.

From that moment onward, I became more self-conscious of my Iranian identity and felt it conflicted with my American and Jewish identities. I often felt I did not belong in the American Ashkenazi community hearing them say great things about America and Israel, but bad things about Iran, three countries I love. It made me question who I really was. How I identified myself. Was I Iranian or was I an American Jew? Was I all three equally or was I all three in a certain order? These questions of identity raced through my mind after hearing Ahmadinejad’s voice.

I also began to feel more sensitive when the topic of the Islamic Republic of Iran came up in class discussions. I stayed quiet and kept to myself for the most part because I did not know how to express how I was feeling without sounding apologetic for the Iranian government. There were a couple of occasions when I did speak up and said maybe Ahmadinejad was not that bad and he is misunderstood. My classmates, and sometimes even my teachers, were outraged and asked me how I could say such things.

I said that maybe Ahmadinejad and the Islamic Republic are not that bad because I wanted it to be true. The Iran that I had heard bad things about and the Iran I thought of as my home were whole in my mind now. I wanted to be proud of my country. I wanted to have leaders that represented me and that I could be proud of.

There were several instances when I came home emotionally overwhelmed and could not stop thinking about what I had heard at school and how I could cope with it. Why are people saying bad things about my home? Why does it have to be this way? These were some of the questions I asked myself while walking home from school.

Now I don’t want my friends from high school to feel that they discriminated against me and should feel ashamed of themselves. I did not feel that there was a single student who was actually Iranophobic nor do I believe that any of my peers deliberately targeted me as an Iranian. I had a great high school experience and had a lot of great friends! Sometimes I even felt complimented for my identity, with some people calling me the “prince of Persia,” for instance. The four years of Gann Academy were some of the greatest years of my life. The point is that I felt there was a lack of mindfulness, a lack of awareness and most importantly a lack of sensitivity on issues of foreign identity. People spoke about Iran in front of me without considering that I might be sensitive about it. I was one of the only, if not the only Iranian at the school, and with such ignorance and neglect at the school I felt marginalized at times.

On the other hand, this was not at all the case at Clark University. As I mentioned in my Facebook status earlier in the year, Clark University was the one place I felt most accepted for both identities: Iranian and Jewish.

When attending Hillel Shabbat dinners at Clark, I never felt discriminated as an Iranian. Though most were concerned with the Iranian government’s intentions, I both the Hillel staff and Jewish students knew it was a sensitive issue for me and always spoke with the utmost respect and sensitivity.

I also finally got the chance to come across Iranian students like myself, speak Farsi with them, talk about Iran, relate to them and practice our culture together. I was so excited to go to a Nowruz celebration (Persian new year) at college my Freshmen year! I also felt well accepted by the international student body in general. As a first generation American, I felt I related with the international students at Clark, who make up about 30% of the student body at Clark. I loved participating in cultural events whether it be giving out Persian sweets at the food fair or dancing for Iran, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Morocco at GALA!

In short, regardless of who I was around at Clark, whether Hillel, international students or watching football with typical Americans I never felt discriminated for either of my identities at Clark. Why? Because I feel Clark University does a fantastic job in creating an environment with awareness and sensitivity towards people’s different backgrounds and identities.

Of course, this could simply be the fundamental difference between high school and college. In college people would be more and mature and there is more diversity, so that definitely could be a factor.

Again, the purpose of this is was not to insult my high school. I loved my time at Gann. Neither am I asking other people of color at Clark to feel the same way I do. Different people had different experiences. All I’m saying is that I think people should increase their awareness of peoples’ multiple, or foreign identities because it is a sensitive issue and that we should appreciate the relative tolerance there is at places like Clark University.

In the end, after hearing Ahmadinejad’s voice and going through my “identity” crisis in my last two years of high school and going to a great school like Clark, I define myself as an Iranian-American Jew. I consider all three of them to be an equally important part of my identity because I could not see myself without any of them. I could not see myself without having tea and speaking Farsi with my grandparents. I could not see myself without hanging out with my friends and watching football on Sundays. I could not see myself without Shabbat dinners with my friends every Friday night! I am Iranian. I am American. I am Jewish. And I am proud to be all three!

About the Author
Jonah Naghi is a double major in psychology and Middle East Studies at Clark University.
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