One time as a child I pretended to be Italian because I was ashamed of being Iranian. To me, Iran was a place of turban-wearing, sinister-looking men in dated glasses chanting inflammatory slogans. A place where women like my mum and sister had to cover their hair in public. A place that had violence and despair. Why else had my parents moved us to Australia?
In year 5, we were asked to give presentations about our cultural heritage. This puzzled me because wasn’t everyone from England? What was the point? I didn’t want to speak about being Iranian. I was embarrassed. I didn’t even like speaking Persian and I dreaded going to Persian school on Saturdays.
I found it weird that we celebrated the New Year in March. My sister wore a head scarf and was teased about it to no end and to me, even the Iranian flag looked sinister. When my mum made kebabs for dinner, which became my lunch the next day, kids would say, “It looks like poo!” My dad would eat dates after every meal and again, at school, “They look like cockroaches!”
When we were tasked with the presentation at school, I began to construct a lie that I had Italian heritage. Like Italians, we have olive skin and dark features. But Italians have a cool vibe about them and they were not seen as terrorists or enemies of the free world.
My dad would eat dates after every meal and again, at school kids would say, “They look like cockroaches!”
George Costanza once said, “it’s not a lie, if you believe it”, and in this case I seemed to embrace that very simple concept. I thought the world is a big place and who knows? Maybe my ancestors were travelling with Marco Polo and just decided to stay in Iran on their way to China? Plus, two of my uncles looked exactly like the Nintendo characters Mario and Luigi (who were almost certainly Italian, and definitely not a bizarre Japanese creation with tenuous links to reality.)
My love of the Italian football team and the players’ likeness to fellow Iranians had me convinced one way or another. I proudly exclaimed to my teacher that I did in fact have Italian heritage. It was certified, and she believed me. But memory is a strange thing, I can’t remember if my actual presentation was a full blown telling of this lie or a mix of lie peppered over a cagey cryptic telling of my actual background.
I’ve changed so much since that time that I simply don’t remember. But I feel it’s beside the point. That summer, I travelled to Iran with my dad. On this trip, I shared my feelings with an uncle who was a history teacher. One night he asked me about life in Australia and I said: “I find it difficult to tell people I’m Iranian.”
One night he asked me about life in Australia and I said: “I find it difficult to tell people I’m Iranian.”
He looked at me with a puzzled expression. “What do you mean?”
“I’m embarrassed to say I’m Iranian.”
Seated in an arm chair, his eyes flicked to a piercing look of pride. “You shouldn’t be embarrassed. Do
you have any idea of our history?”
Between the media’s portrayal of Iran and my parents insistence to start a new life and move on, I’d
never really stopped to look at the country’s actual history. My uncle proceeded to tell me some of the
history of Iran that night. My eyes opened and history came to my rescue, sweeping across my
imagination and fundamentally changing how I perceived myself.
That trip I also found a book in my grandfather’s study on world history. In running away from my identity, I hadn’t learned that I came from a country that was home to one of the worlds oldest civilisations, dating back to the 4th millennium BC.
We had a long history of several great empires, significant achievements in governance, science, medicine, mathematics, art, philosophy and poetry.
The pride in my identity continued to surge through me, obliterating the shame into tiny fragments. Many Iranians carry this shame, but you wouldn’t see it at first. Some prefer the name Persia and Persian as a substitute for Iran and Iranian to avoid any awkwardness.
This is perfectly accurate, but I feel it speaks to a bigger problem about the Iranian psyche in this day and age. Iran and Iranian people have had some very bad PR for the past 40 years. That will pass one day, and hopefully future generations, when asked to do presentations about their heritage can simply share what their unique
culture has provided to humanity, just like anyone from any background.
Cyrus Bezyan is a filmmaker, comedian and writer. You can follow Cyrus on Twitter @cyrusbezyan.