Am I an immigrant?

Roxanne Varzi

This year my son will turn eight, the age I was at the time of the Iranian Revolution, when my American mother brought me to the US, leaving my Iranian father in Tehran. When Donald Trump was elected president, my son asked if we would have to move to Tehran. My Iranian husband and I did what my parents did during the Revolution: we lied, saying that he had nothing to worry about.

For years after I moved to the States as a child, I hid in the shadows, scared to death every time Iran was in the news because it meant I would be bullied at school. Parents picked up their children in cars with bumper stickers that said ‘Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran’ (to the tune of ‘Barbara Ann’ by the Beach Boys). I hid my identity, to the degree that I could: I didn’t exactly fit into my Midwestern surroundings. People were always asking where I was from. ‘Here,’ I’d tell them. ‘Your parents?’ I’d think of the humiliation my father suffered at Detroit airport every time he flew to the States to visit us. We would wait and wait and wait at arrivals and he’d come out last, despite his green card, having had every inch of his possessions searched and, often, every piece of Persian writing photocopied.

My grandmother told me to take my Mayflower descendant certificate to school, but she never seemed to understand that I wanted to be accepted for who I was – and even if half of me was ‘Mayflower’ it wasn’t the half that really defined me. For the first eight years of my life I lived among Iranians, Americans and Europeans without a thought to politics. As an Iranian-American child in Tehran in the 1970s, I never felt alien the way I did in the US.

It wasn’t until I went to college in Washington DC that I came out of the shadows. I was sitting in my dorm lounge watching American families being evacuated from Iraq during the first Gulf War. The children leaving their Middle Eastern fathers behind at a Middle Eastern airport in the middle of the night reminded me of myself. The next day I began planning a teach-in. When the day came and I stood up in front of hundreds of people and spoke, the comment I heard most was: ‘I had no idea that you are Middle Eastern.’ It was time to recover the identity I had spent years trying to hide. I spent a year in Cairo, then a year in Tehran, before returning to the US for a PhD in Anthropology and Iranian Studies.

When 9/11 came I was writing my dissertation in New York. I had spent a decade in the city feeling at home in the world for the first time since I was eight. But that changed. I was told nasty things about ‘those Muslims’ while waiting in line for groceries or at the doctor’s. I was scared to fly, not just because of the possibility of a bomb going off but because travelling was hell with an American passport that says ‘place of birth: Iran.’ I was careful not to carry anything with Persian writing onto the plane; I didn’t speak Persian at airports.

I kept quiet while incidents that seemed innocuous to most continued. Last spring, women with hijabs were asked to leave a café I liked: one more place to boycott. Trump’s win in the Republican primaries was taken by many as a call to racism and hate.

But then something magical happened on the morning after the election: people began posting on Facebook and writing texts and emails declaring solidarity with Muslims for the first time since 9/11. Gloria Steinem promised that if any of us have to register as Muslim, we will all register as Muslims – making identity a political choice rather than something you are born into.

I have both an Iranian and an American birth certificate. Issued by the US embassy in Tehran, it states: ‘Birth of an American citizen abroad.’ I was baptised and raised Catholic in a community of Irish missionaries in Tehran, but by Islamic law I am Muslim because my father was Muslim. Am I an immigrant? My mother is American, born and raised in the US. Her mother’s ancestors came on the Mayflower and her grandfather came from Germany. We visited the States every summer in the 1970s. When we moved here after the Revolution we lived in her childhood home with my American grandmother. I grew up watching Sesame Street and Little House on the Prairie and eating Kentucky Fried Chicken. I am an American, an Iranian, an immigrant, a citizen, a Catholic-Muslim agnostic anthropologist.

My father waited years before applying, reluctantly, for American citizenship. He feared the day would come when he would have to choose, and in that choice something would be lost. He died before Trump announced his ‘Muslim ban’. I was at the LA Opera that night, listening to Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio staged on the infamous Orient Express that moved seamlessly from East to West. Meanwhile, just a few miles away at LAX an even more impassioned, angry drama was beginning to play out as protesters arrived to take the stage and to remind us that if we didn’t act then something would indeed be lost.


  • 22 February 2017 at 12:37pm
    manchegauche says:
    Excellent piece - thanks

  • 23 February 2017 at 8:14pm says:
    Take heart, Ms Varzi, the FBI says they have collected enough dirt to put him away for life.