There is no "us" and "them"—we're aliens when we can't identify with others.
I first came across the word “alien” in a non-stellar context when I had to sign a card identifying myself as one, soon after the Immigrants Act of 1962 was passed in the UK. Even though my family had been the only Persians living in Uganda, I had never felt like an alien growing up there. But the sense of being one came home to me forcefully in cozy Rutland. I walked into the local constabulary of the small market town thinking I was a fourteen year old human being; I left, duly registered, feeling as though I had just been dropped out of a flying saucer from outer space.
I first came across the word “alien” in a non-stellar context when I had to sign a card identifying myself as one, soon after the Immigrants Act of 1962 was passed in the UK.
Like many other adolescents, I wandered in elliptical orbit after that till marriage transformed me from one of “them” into one of “us,” and I graduated from being an Iranian student to becoming a UK-citizen-by-marriage. And my induction into this select club happened once again in Kampala, Uganda, the town of happy childhood, the place where my grandfather would be buried soon afterwards, his Jewish Iraqi bones enriching forever the blood-red soil of the high Kikaaya hill.
But Uganda was to haunt me some years later, as I stood in a queue at Pearson International Airport, waiting to pass through Canadian immigration. By then, although the passport had stuck, the marriage had not, and having entered the US on one visa, I was obliged to leave it to apply for another, as a divorcée. However, as bizarre as American logic seemed to me, even then, it was nothing compared to the Canadian sequel waiting for me on the other side of the border.
By a stroke of fate, my arrival in Toronto coincided with that of some two thousand Indians fleeing Uganda from Idi Amin. And given my links to that country, the immigration officer behind the desk, whose nametag clearly announced Polish ancestry, was understandably suspicious. So I was hauled to one side and subjected to a cross-examination. Who was I? Where was I coming from, and where did I really belong? Was I an illegal immigrant?
At that point I truly did not know. After three hours of interrogation my mind was beginning to wander. All I could register was that my little girl, a proud American citizen of three years old, was progressing quietly around the room, placing tiny palms, blackened by typewriter ribbon, all along the walls. I could have sworn she was writing Anglo-Saxon, inscribing syllable by syllable that old English poem about a solitary exile for me to read:
Swa ic modsefan, minne sceolde, oft earmcearig, eöle bidæled, freomægum feor feterum sælan
So I, often wretched and sorrowful, bereft of my homeland, far from noble kinsmen, have had to bind in fetters my inmost thoughts
It was not the last time I was to find myself alienated by an immigration officer. The accident of being born in Tehran, Iran, has invariably marked me out for special distinction all my life, and the fact that Baha’is like myself are considered religious aliens by the Iranian regime, only adds to the irony. But now, as I prepare for the launch in the US of my new book Us&Them, in the wake of the ban on the ban of the visa ban set in place by the recently elected American administration, I find myself almost looking forward to the experience.* Perhaps I’ll finally have the right answers to the questions asked; perhaps this novel will bring my wanderings to an end!
Us&Them is a familiar story to those who have tried to make a home elsewhere. It is a family drama about an old Iranian woman who is tossed back and forth between two daughters, one in Paris and the other in LA. It is also about how the act of leaving home makes us reassess who we were and what we have become. Although it is very Persian in some ways, the story also reflects the tensions and conflicts, the fears and follies of any migrant community. It is about wanderers all over the world.
The attitude towards immigrants in the West today is either that they are victims of tragic loss or that they are a threat to the status quo. They are either used to prove our inhumanity towards each other or justify our fears. Both reactions are understandable in the circumstances, given the wars and injustices, the acts of terror and cruelty we witness on every side, and both are also understandably extreme. But what this novel tries to explore is that there are also alternatives to the extremes. The wanderer does not have to be defined as an alien; immigration does not need to be either a threat or banishment. A diaspora community can also be enriching to all concerned. It can widen perspectives; it can help to overcome prejudice and transcend fear. It can perhaps prove that there is little difference between “us” and “them”.
The Iranian diaspora is a particular case; one of the most successful immigrant communities, it is comprised of about five million at the latest count. “We” have a chameleon like capacity to imitate “them”, moreover, and range from billionaires to paupers across the world. So, far from seeing the Iranian diaspora as a condition of permanent exile, this satire pokes gentle fun at some of “us” who left marble palaces to “them” after the Revolution. It also invites the possibility that the alienation we experience in a foreign culture might enable “us” to see how we may have been treating our own citizens in Iran as “them” too—just because they happened to be women, journalists, members of different minorities etc.
For who is this “us” anyway? And how can any of “them” be alien, if human? This novel turns tables on identity politics even as it deploys them. It mocks cultural branding so as to rise above it. One of the stereotypes often used to label the Iranian character is to point out how contradictory we are, how many inconsistencies we contain. But that characteristic does not just apply to Iranians. All human beings need security and stability, and at the same time long for freedom. We are all settlers and simultaneously nomads, bound to a loved land and breathing the air. Deep down in every one of us, there is an exile, a wanderer looking for that eternal home.
But she is not alien. She is our humanity, and she belongs to us all.
*This post was updated on February 10th following the February 9th decision from the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to reject the Trump administration's bid to reinstate his travel ban on seven Muslim-majority nations.