By Dina Nayeri
March 25, 2017
Five days ago in London, Iranians were celebrating Nowruz, teaching our English friends to say “Happy New Year” in Farsi. Two days later, a terrorist named Khalid Masood drove into a crowd of pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, killing two and injuring forty. Now, again, here we are on familiar ground: Someone has killed in the name of Islam.
As Khalid Masood (an Englishman born Adrian Elms) was crashing his car and brandishing his knife, I sat on a train passing under Westminster, headed home from the high school where I teach an American literature course. That day, my class had been discussing “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” Sherman Alexie’s semi-autobiographical novel about a boy on a Spokane reservation. In the book and in an interview, Mr. Alexie explores the consequences of leaving the tribe, of changing, of being the type of person who can live in the space between two cultures.
“The end game of tribalism is flying planes into buildings,” he says, and so, “I’ve tried to live in the in-between.” But is that possible, my students wondered? Aren’t we all part of tribes that define us? Doesn’t living in the in-between space make you incapable of fully engaging in the business of being human? Is it a cop out?
Yes, I wanted to say, but what’s wrong with copping out now and then? Some of us have no choice; being a chameleon is a survival tactic.
I’ve lived in the in-between since I can remember, holding opposing philosophies in my head at once, changing my clothes and diction and food and daily rituals depending on my needs. Ever since I surgically rid myself of my sharply hooked Iranian nose, I’ve been mistaken for every nationality. I’m proud of it. I can survive anywhere. Still, it’s exhausting always straddling, never committing to an identity. Some of my family members find it weak, even immoral, this willingness to become someone different in order to thrive in hostile surroundings. Mr. Alexie, though, speaks of being able to switch between his white and Indian selves midsentence. Of being “a spy in the house of ethnicity.” He describes it as a practice. Negative capability, Keats calls it.
All I know is that living as a chameleon has saved me from permanent sorrow when half the cities I’ve lived in have been attacked by people with my own skin and hair, with my religion of birth, with names that appear in my family. I have an eerie track record. I was born during the Iranian revolution, just as the war with Iraq began. The year after I left, the war ended and Khomeini died. Then in Oklahoma, the Murrah building was bombed. My first month in New York City was September 2001. I was vacationing near Nice when a truck plowed through packed pedestrian streets. I was riding under Westminster on Wednesday at 2:45 p.m. There’s no magic to this. We live in violent times and one is bound to cross paths with terror. But for me as an Iranian, each encounter is a reckoning with who I am, and what I can say.
And what can I say? My people aren’t the victims. We aren’t the perpetrators either, but we’re close enough that it’s best for us to retreat into the shadows for a time. Should the mother of the school shooter show her grief? It’s grotesque. I’ve heard so many Arab and Iranian friends whisper this same sentiment: “I swear sometimes I feel like I caused it, just by being around.”
Each time something like this happens, the ground shifts under those of us from the Middle East. We recede into the margins, and we wait breathless until someone with a face or name like ours takes responsibility. Those of us who can (like me) sheepishly sidle over to one of our other tribes, our chameleon skin quietly changing. The rest hang their heads and suffer the blows. That’s the most practical thing you learn from being an Iranian in the West — how to blend and fit, how to be a nomad among the many tribes you’ve inhabited, how to shield yourself when one of those tribes is causing so much of the world’s grief. Is it an abdication? Is it cowardly? At least it’s a safe way of living.
What do I say now, as an Iranian and an American? Do I condemn the terrorists but remain silent about the boot perpetually poised over the heads of every Arab and Iranian in the free world? Do I defend the Muslim community and ignore the passages in the Quran calling the devout to jihad? Do I point out that the Bible is hardly better? Do I embrace the complexity and proudly proclaim myself a member of many communities? Even as I’m tempted to inch away from the spectacle, I remember a simple observation from a student, delivered with a shrug as if this has always been the way of the world. “You may suddenly decide you’re part of all these groups, but the world has its own idea of who you are. They won’t let you just get on with that.”
Mr. Alexie’s protagonist says that, even though he’s a Spokane Indian, he now belongs to many other tribes. At the end of the novel, he names them one by one: the tribe of cartoonists, the tribe of funeral-goers, and the tribe of the poor.
Everyone should get to choose his or her own identity. Five days ago, I was part of the tribe of Iranians celebrating Nowruz. Today I am part of the tribe of frightened Londoners, tight-squeezing mothers, searching writers, stress-eaters. After each terrorist attack, Muslims and Middle Easterners around the world suffer a period of worry, fear, and anxiety. For a time, many give up their voices and relinquish that most native part of themselves, hoping the world will see them as a member of any other tribe. They stay home. They avoid airports. They comfort their friends, serve tea, and turn off the news. Maybe they stay off social media, or keep to themselves at parties. Maybe they walk away when someone taunts them on the street. It’s a humbling business to beg people to see you in so much dark. And there are the victims to think about, and their families, their heartbroken friends. It’s best to say nothing, to quietly stand beside — and hope to be invited into — the tribe of the stunned and the mournful.
Dina Nayeri’s novel “Refuge” will be published by Riverhead Books in July 2017.