Origins of this project
Updated: Nov 16, 2019
This project grew out of rejection.
In 2013, I sought out creative writing as an outlet for my pent-up energies, an antidote to my desk job. I didn’t have a specific goal in mind. My general aim was to explore ideas. Many people find themselves on the page – the pen a vehicle, the paper a road towards self-exploration.
Over time, my writing turned into personal narrative, which turned into memoir. As I wrote, my story kept coming back to questions relating to my Iranian identity – questions I’d thought I’d resolved long ago. I had anticipated that my writing would've been about my struggles to integrate into American life. I immigrated to Virginia with my family when I was in first grade, over thirty years ago. But as I explored my personal history, I saw that Americans embraced me and my family's culture; they were often curious to learn about my background, the meaning of my name, our holiday rituals, my home life with my parents. I was welcomed, not ostracized.
My struggle, rather, was with integrating into Iranian culture. A culture that my parents always told me I’m part of, but one that I never managed to fully embrace or identify with.
What does it mean to be Iranian? Is it sufficient to have ancestors with Iranian heritage? Do you have to like the culture? Celebrate Nowruz with a haft-sin? Do you have to be connected to the land? Speak Persian? “Look” Iranian?
I found in my writing that I doubted my own rooted-ness to Iran and Iranian identity. I found too that the more I wrote, the more I felt pressure to be an ambassador for "Iranian culture," which I know not much about.
In the fall of 2017, I attended an event at the NYU Iranian Studies Initiative, co-presented by Neda Maghbouleh and Manijeh Moradian on The Limits of Whiteness (a book by Maghbouleh). They discussed, with a standing-room only audience at the Kevorkian Center, questions of Iranian identity within historical context but also as defined by modern American categories of race and ethnicity. None of the categories fit; everyone in that room had a story, which they were eager to share. The organizers at NYU said it had been their most popular event.
I realized then that I’m not alone with these questions. So I ask you: what does it mean to be part of the Iranian diaspora? I want to hear your stories – can we collectively come to understand these questions about connection, group identity and belonging?
Through my writing, I've come to a couple of realizations. One is that identity is about group experience – without a group of people that share your experiences, you have no one with whom to identify. And those groups shift over a lifetime, by choice or by chance. And second, I realized that belonging can only transpire when you see yourself reflected in others.
Will you reflect with me?
By A.E. Filabi
Creator, Iranian Identity Project