Dirt and Diaspora

The impact of geopolitical developments on diasporic communities in America.

Your homeland, or just a nation state deemed relevant to your identity, has become the villain of cable news. Its conflicts and sociopolitical dynamics have become an obsession for millions of Americans who have few or no personal stakes in them. The discourse often veers from political criticism to ethnic and religious jibes. Your loyalty as an American is suspect unless you become a full-throated activist for or against the status quo. It has become impossible to engage with your heritage or faith without getting dragged into toxic political discourse.

This phenomenon applies to many diasporic groups in the United States, and is often exacerbated with spikes in geopolitical tensions. The experiences of Iranian American and Jewish American communities are evident examples. Regardless of whether a person has any connection to Iran or Israel at all, their ethnic and/or religious identities will often be conflated with the policies of foreign governments and entities. This is not only highly problematic but also dangerous.

Iranian Americans and Jewish Americans are not a monolith. It is laughable for controversial governments an ocean away to insist that they represent us or our values. We have various ethnic and religious backgrounds, including Jewish Iranians, and a broad range of views on any given topic. Although the majority of both of our diasporas are critical of the current political situation, very few Iranians or Jews in America want to resolve the painful circumstances overseas by imposing violence and poverty on innocent people. Many Jewish Americans fear speaking out about Israel because they may be banned from the country or interrogated upon entry. Iranian Americans have many reasons to fear publicly airing their thoughts and feelings, including political repercussions here in the United States, increased danger when traveling to Iran, and even increased threats to our loved ones across borders.

Of course, the situations of Iranian Americans and Jewish Americans are quite different. But there is hope that the similarities among both groups’ lived experiences might help to nudge both communities away from vitriol and toward a deeper sense of understanding.

OUT OF MANY KNOTS, DYES, AND FIBERS

Dirt is directly translated as “khāk” in Persian, which can also mean “territory.” However, it takes on a more abstract and poetic meaning as well. Iranians, whether in Iran or in the diaspora, feel a strong connection to the soil they live on or the soil they hail from. We feel a metaphysical bond with our khāk and I am certain that we are not alone in this feeling. It manifests in different ways in different diasporas and is often tied to historical and  geopolitical matters. How these relationships are to evolve, within our community and others, transnationally and in the hyper-globalized internet age, is open to anyone’s speculation, for better or worse.

Day-to-day, I wholesale Persian rugs for my family’s business, interacting with a diverse array of people whose lived experiences can teach us a lot about building healthier social bonds in America between diasporas. In the US, importing and exporting Persian rugs is currently illegal. This has been hurting Iranians in the industry and non-Iranians alike. Jason Nazmiyal, a New York-based Iranian-American rug dealer, told USA Today, “It’s becoming so difficult for us in the US and also it’s hard to see how the sanctions harm Iran’s government, as opposed to its people.” For some in America, the reality is that sanctions not only complicate the lives of our loved ones abroad, they even put strains on our livelihoods here. However, this level of mutually experienced pressure has created conditions that stimulate solidarity; there is no room for prejudice in our industry.

Thankfully, public animosity toward Iranian Americans is not currently at the fever pitch that it once was under the Trump administration, when the US inched toward war with Iran not once, but twice. In speaking to members of the diaspora living in the United States during the 1979 hostage crisis, their stories are traumatizing and induce anxieties around what the future may bring. Their businesses’ windows were smashed, they were spat on, and they experienced morbid violence in the streets. Many resorted to lying about their heritage, claiming to be Italian American, and taking full advantage of their ethnically ambiguous appearances. While the hostage experience was well before my own time, I have from a young age experienced instances of racialized violence in New Jersey’s post-9/11 social climate. In middle school, I was assaulted and battered numerous times while having slurs hurled at me. My Jewish friends have shared similar heart-wrenching stories. In the most bittersweet way, we are united by the trauma of being targeted for our roots.

By doing due diligence in our research and emphasizing compassion toward our countrymen, we can foster broader solidarity between different diaspora groups in America.

Today, the Iranian-American diaspora is targeted in far more sophisticated and nefarious ways. Thanks to sanctions on Iran, individuals of Iranian heritage living in the US face immense discrimination from institutions in both the private and public sectors. Banking and other financial services routinely and arbitrarily ban law-abiding Iranian Americans, explaining that “Iran” or “Persian” are trigger words, or worse–providing no explanation at all. Whether it be the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC), or private companies like Chase Bank, Venmo, Etsy, GoFundMe, and Paypal, the unjust and systematic targeting of Iranian Americans has become too common an issue. At times, it seems our sheer existence is deemed a sanctions violation.

On top of this, outsiders have tried to manipulate our community’s emotionally charged internal discussions for political ends. American political actors like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), and many others over the past years give a megaphone to fringe voices in the Iranian diaspora, including to the formerly US-designated terrorist group MEK. The MEK, a cult-like group with little or no support inside Iran, has in this way been allowed to falsely depict itself as the voice of the Iranian people.

In one case, the State Department funded a Twitter misinformation campaign to harass and threaten critics of the US regime-change policy, even going so far as doxing a female Iranian-American journalist in exile. Critics of hawkish foreign policy, especially Iranian American ones, are smeared as “apologists” or even foreign agents every single day.  Such assertions consistently play on xenophobia and racism by insinuating that those of certain heritages are somehow less American.

FOSTERING SOLIDARITY AMONG DISPARATE DIASPORAS

These are not just abstract debates. American foreign policy actively causes pain, suffering, and death for Iranians in Iran right now. But it is not endemic to the Iranian diaspora. Many Americans with loved ones in Israel are right to worry for their safety during flare-ups of violence, although to a different extent as compared to their Palestinian counterparts. Moreover, American Jewish identity is often conflated with Israeli identity, flattening the diversity of Jewish voices and perspectives.

Despite our differences, many Jewish Americans and Iranian Americans with loved ones in Israel, Iran, or both are similar in that we have fears and anxieties regarding the safety of those we hold dear living abroad. When escalations of violence occur in Israel-Palestine, Jewish Americans with loved ones in Israel are right to be worried. For many Iranian Americans, there are fears of Iran suffering the same terrible fate as Libya, Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan — a fate that involves large civilian death tolls, famines, refugee crises, a seemingly endless series of armed conflicts, and so much more misery. What validates this fear is the fact that many of the architects of America’s atrocious foreign policy blunders have long pushed similar narratives and policies toward the Middle East.

Though many, but not all of us, maintain connections to Iran or Israel, we are often more inclined to focus on our material conditions here in America. Like anyone else, our desires are to both survive and thrive, with food on our tables and roofs over our heads. We are both accused of dual loyalty and are relegated to seemingly perpetual foreigner status regardless of our citizenship. We have long dealt with the politicization of our identities, bitter intra-community fractures, and obsessive attention from the public that ranges from creepily “benevolent” to outright hostile.

By doing due diligence in our research and emphasizing compassion toward our countrymen, we can foster broader solidarity between different diaspora groups in America. The Jewish people have experienced some of the most grotesque horrors of the 20th century and many more prior. The anti-Semitism that their diaspora is subjected to is unique in countless ways. Iranian Americans still confront the ramifications of post-9/11 Islamophobia. Regardless of how one feels about the Iranian state, individuals of Iranian heritage continue to remain under an intense microscope.

Understanding the different forms that bigotry takes is not a competition, it is an intellectual and humanist inquiry. As we condemn anti-Semitism and anti-Palestinian sentiment, we extend our sense of love and camaraderie to our Iranian American countrymen as well – as well as to our Asian American and Muslim American neighbors, and to all the different intersections of identity. Solidarity is not about embracing rosy conceptions of a noble “melting pot” in which opportunity and the “American Dream” are knocking at everyone’s doors. Rather, it is about embracing a radical sense of empathy that tears down physical walls and figurative ones alike.

Amir Moghaddam is an Iranian American dual citizen and 4th generation seller of hand-knotted Persian and Oriental rugs based in Northern New Jersey.