Many years ago, I went to Farsi Saturday school with Zahra Noorbakhsh, the author of this column about the unique challenges of being a twenty-something Iranian-American. We wrote and performed plays together and tried to have as much fun as we could without getting ourselves called into the principal’s office. The Farsi school we went to taught a number of students whose families were visiting from Iran on graduate student visas and therefore planned to return. So, we learned from the same textbooks that were used in grade schools in Iran and at the end of each school year, we had the option to take the Iranian national exams which allowed kids returning to Iran to rejoin their original classmates instead of falling behind for the time they spent abroad. I still remember the second grade lesson about Palestinian freedom fighters in the Farsi class textbook (the one that would be the equivalent of an English class text here in the States). There was also a textbook for history and another for religion.
None of this seemed particularly unusual at the time and for this I am quite grateful. There is something about reading books that are intended for kids halfway around the world, especially Iranian textbooks that are filled with story-based lessons and poems, that provides a beautiful kind of cultural immersion. I often say that I could pretend that I grew up in Iran because of everything I gathered from those textbooks even though I have still never traveled there.
Experiencing the Iranian national curriculum firsthand gave me a much richer understanding of where many Iranians are coming from, especially the ones whose families are perhaps not as liberal, upwardly mobile or jetset as those I would meet and befriend in the States. While I may (and do) disagree, I can understand why someone might believe it is important to teach religion with literature class, why they may get uncomfortable around Israelis, and by the same logic why others may get uncomfortable around someone wearing a headscarf. I feel sympathy for the woman who approached my Indian-American friend at a restaurant bar in Mississippi with a pile of bacon and screamed “Hallelujah” to thank Jesus for keeping her group of friends safe once he gobbled up piece. Given what she’s read and heard, I bet she simply didn’t know any better.
Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the Moroccan-born French education minister, recently told Vogue and the French public of her support for banning headscarves in French classrooms that “If religion is allowed into schools, pupils will sometimes begin to question the teaching they receive.” I don’t advocate teaching religion in school but being exposed to different religions and ways of doing things is an entirely different matter. I cherish the exposure to another culture that I had in Farsi school and in the mosques my family attended, especially the opportunities it afforded me to interpret and learn from these experiences on my own terms. That immersion taught me how abnormal something that is so normal somewhere else can seem. How reasonable people given different norms and experiences can come to completely different and opposing conclusions. The applications of those experiences to understanding and managing conflict, especially in places like Islamabad, Baltimore, Paris, Ferguson are many. But those experiences have also made me a better negotiator, more diplomatic in the workplace and a more thoughtful friend. Vallaud-Belkacem is right that this exposure has taught me to question, but that ability to question — not to mention the right to do so — is certainly a value rather than a weakness. Believe it or not, Farsi school, juxtaposed as it was with my full-time American education, taught me to be more tolerant and understanding.
For all these upsides, maintaining a footing in multiple cultures is also hard. It’s difficult to be the only person arguing that there is another point of view to consider when everyone else is too content or tired to question themselves. And it is overwhelming to stand up for each of the different identities people expect us to represent, or that we can feel obligated to represent when no one else does.
The fallout to the Charlie Hebdo attacks a week after I returned from a lovely Christmas in an evidently increasingly tolerant France broke my heart to the point I could no longer sustain keeping a news website as my internet browser’s homepage. The vitriol, poorly reasoned arguments, and inaccuracies were too much to bear. As I kept reading them, the burden I felt to respond seemed to paralyze my ability to be a productive member of society in the ways I have long sought and trained to do, as an economist and in other capacities. To my mind allowing that would have contributed to the ultimate win for the terrorists, that of antagonizing me and others like me against the society that has helped us grow and been our home.
As network scientist, sociologist, and Chicago Booth School of Business professor Ron Burt once put it, being a node that bridges two different cliques, a person who can understand and operate under two different sets of social norms has its benefits for that person and its positive spillovers for society; however, he explained, operating by different social rules is also exactly what can define you as a sociopath (he was providing context for academics who do interdisciplinary work). Our world needs more honest voices to tell those stories and bridge those gaps so that the responsibility doesn’t fall on just a few people who can easily be blamed and called outcasts. It needs us to invite conversations about topics that might have been uncomfortable or that we may disagree with because, I’ve come see, that’s the only way to defuse the fear and ignorance that fosters hate.
As I remember it, Zahra was very well-behaved in Farsi school. I do believe I managed to get into more trouble than she did. Reading her column, however, I’m proud that she’s willing to endure some hot water, the equivalent of some time in the principal’s office, for sharing honest stories that needs to be told… And for what it’s worth, her family deserves accolades for supporting her.
Here’s Zahra’s new column, My Iranian Breakup.