IAAB Conference Panel 3: Faces of the Diaspora—The Dilemma of Perception and Representation

This panel was moderated by Shayda Naficy.

Journalist Kamin Mohammadi: The Intimate Outsider: The Challenges of Representing Modern Iran to Western Media and the Iranian Diaspora
A few years ago, Mohammadi received a phone call from a British journalist friend writing a paper about women in Iran for a large British paper. The paper that resulted left Mohammadi dismayed; obviously the paper hadn’t picked up the mistakes because the paper had no idea how Iran worked. Mohammadi had shied away from writing about Iran until this time. In her twenties, she got interested in her roots and visited, and fell in love with Iran. She wondered if seeing more realistic images of Iran would have encouraged her curiosity sooner.

Skewered images of Iran are not just put forth by Western media, but by Iranian diaspora media as well. Mohammadi felt a responsibility to change the image of Iran. She pulled away from her previous writing, which was uncontroversial travel writing, and started writing about the Iran she didn’t see represented in the West.

She realized she would never look at Iran through purely Western eyes, but also, by living in the West for many years, she was an outsider in Iran as well: an “intimate outsider.” This compelled her to write about Iran.

The people of Iran also compelled her to write: the awful war with Iraq, which is little documented in the West and also informs so much of what happens in Iran, and the tensions of daily life. Iran is having a debate about how to marry tradition and modernization. Mohammadi found a lot of eager people who wanted to speak to her about their lives. She felt it incumbent to bring stories she was hearing out of Iran and give the people she was speaking to a voice in the West. It’s incumbent on all hyphenated Iranians, to some extent, to bridge gaps.

There are risks in writing about Iran. Mohammadi struggles with censorship daily. She is not an Iranian journalist, dealing with Iran’s red lines. But she has an Iranian passport and can come and go as she pleases. But she struggles with self-censorship because the Islamic regime’s reach is far.

There is great media interest in Iran now; not just propaganda, but in filling in the gaps. However, it’s still quite hard to break the bias of editors in the West, who have such visceral perceptions about Iran and the Middle East and Islam. The presumption of editors is that Iran is a backwards country. But there’s an awful lot coming out of Iran (blogestan) and you just have to look for it.

Stories that she’s covered include drug addiction, HIV/AIDS, the continuing effects of the war with Iraq, and even the fashion for phone sex (!) in Iran.

Statistics are changing Iranian society, but they’re dry, and so Mohammadi looks for examples and includes herself to bring the statistics alive.

It’s vitally important for Iranian voices containing, as they do, nuance and complexity and love, to be heard.

Cinema/software professional Ahmad Kiarostami
Kiarostami notes that the Iranian community is very successful, but as a group we’re not so strong. He says: “There’s a word I want to use and I was told it’s not polite (the audience yells that he should say it)… well as a group, we suck.”

He started to think about this disconnection in the Iranian society here. The first disconnection is geographical. But it is a little more than usual geographical disconnection. Many people can’t return to Iran, some people don’t feel safe, some don’t have the time, some haven’t been there for a long time and there’s emotional content that’s too strong for them to handle. Some people say they’d love to go but don’t feel ready to face their homeland. And some people go there and just see family every night when they visit; they don’t go to see the real Iran. You can’t really do that in two weeks.

The second level is historical disconnect. This is something in our culture, the historical problem. In our textbooks in Iran, we don’t have much about Iranian history. In America, the only thing we have are several boring textbooks, some things for children, but there’s not much. Some people like to tell stories, but stories change and people just talk about what they want to remember. Inside Iran, stories change based on taste. For instance, names of streets and schools change with regimes and fashions.

Outside of Iran, people have more reasons to fabricate stories. They want to get respect. There’s historical naivete. Outside of Iran, our country was called “Persia” and in 1935, it was changed to Iran. People here still identify as Persians, though. Being Persian is more exotic. It reminds you of the cat, or the empire. “Iran” reminds you of the hostage crisis, or mullahs.

Another disconnect is informational. Mr. Naficy earlier today said that there are several tens of thousands Iranians in California; I personally know more than that. The point is that there are a lot of statistics and a lot are conflicting.

A big source of information is the blogosphere, which is a great thing in Iran, but it’s just limited to the upper and middle classes. But the nature of weblogs is not academic, and people just write whatever they want. Of course, there are good weblogs, but it’s not a reliable source of information.

The other disconnect is lingual. It’s difficult to keep language alive. And language within Iran is changing. Here Kiarostami lists a bunch of new Iranian lingo that gets a lot of laughs.

The fifth disconnect is cultural. The biggest reason is our own fault: the older generation isn’t building quickly enough for the next generation. The younger generation knows more about Christmas than Norooz.

The last disconnect is one of reality. Being far from Iran, some people are disconnected from the reality of Iran. Iranian satellite TV is full of conspiracy theories. One guy said that Iranian filmmakers were all in with the mullahs and he said they should become plumbers. One friend tried to change the culture in Iran by launching a website. Unfortunately these things are far from Iranian reality, but these are the voices of our community.

From every point of disconnection, there are countless avenues for reconnection.

Now there’s a screening of Kiarostami’s video he made for Kiosk’s song Eshgh-e Sorat. Click here to see it:

MIT Iranian Studies Group project manager Sara Sarkhili: What Defines Iranian-Americans: Perception of Iranians of the Iranian-American Community
The Iranian Studies Group at MIT (ISG) runs a lot of surveys about Iranians. Their survey regarding defining Iranian-Americans was performed online. There are several questions Sarkhili presents:

The first is: What factors determine how Iranians in the U.S. introduce themselves?
Sarkhili shows slides with various factors. For instance, West Coast, older Iranians identify as Persian. East Coast atheists identify as Iranian. Subsequent questions regarding Iranians’ perceptions about their own community are very interesting, drawing from various demographic criteria [I believe these slides will be on the IAAB website after the conference - will link soon if that's the case].

For Kamin Mohammadi: As you enter the Iran, do you ever have problems going in and out of the country?
I never have any problems.

In your interactions with Iranians in Iran, is there a need for Iranians in Iran to change the public perception of Iranians in the world?
Kiarostami: I just hang out with my aunt and uncle when I go to Iran, so I don’t really know.
Mohammadi: People in Iran ask me what the West thinks of them. They’re very concerned with their image here.

Editors in major papers in the West have their stereotypes; is there any initiative to get them together and take these editors to Iran, guided by journalists like you?
Mohammadi: Editors tend to sit in the office and send people out. Practically everyone at the BBC thinks they’re never going to be able to get a visa and get in, and if they can, think they’ll be manipulated.

Considering that sensational news sells, what do you think is the responsibility of the journalist to talk about positive things?
Mohammadi: I don’t think the realities of Iran are necessarily negative. Iran’s government has one of the most enlightened drug policies in the world, for instance. Having said that, I’m concerned about not emphasizing negative stereotypes. Of course, you write these things and they do get sensationalized, it’s not always in your hands, but I try as much as I can to bring out positive stories. Lots of editors think that Iran is medieval, so it’s good to bring out different aspects.
Kiarostami: The best way to do this is to show a real image, not just a good image. A real image connects with people. When we put the Kiosk video online, and got 100,000 hits in 10 days. The right thing to do is to show the real image, not a good or bad image, but reality.

When you go to Iran and talk to people, what is the perception of truth and honesty coming out of Western media as opposed to Iranian media?
Mohammadi: Most people consume all the news they can get. To a large extent, people in Iran are quite sophisticated in terms of their consumption of news. They’re used to negotiating their way through propaganda.
Kiarostami: I’m hesitant to talk about Iranian society; I only know about one portion of Iranians, about upper class Iranians living in Tehran.

What are the reasons for and implications of strong tie Iranians abroad feel to pre-Islamic Iran and why do they use the term “Persian” to self-identify?
Mohammadi: Some people perceive negative connotations with “Iran” and they feel “Persia” to be more acceptable. I don’t really know beyond that.

I’m very sensitive to Persian/Iranian. Persian culture isn’t just Iranian. There are people outside Iran who identify as Persian.

Can you speak to your experiences in building community and making connections/networking?
Sarkhili: I could see from my own experience that there were no problems between myself and second-generation Iranians. They had different perceptions of Iran, and so there was a bit of disconnect. But those who did travel to Iran, I feel that they are very aware of what’s going on in Iran and they understand it much better.
Kiarostami: I talk to people and there are certain topics I find totally disconnected: when I talk to people who want to bring back monarchy, for example. One thing that’s the opposite is art – there’s no disconnect there. No one is angry about music, for example, and we can talk about it. When we talk about literature, music, movies, it’s a good way to communicate, even if we disagree.
Mohammadi: It’s a different experience being a journalist inside versus outside Iran. I have enormous admiration for Iranian journalists and they negotiate tricky rules all the time. I’ve had nothing but fantastic experiences with them and I collaborate with many of them.

Regarding cultural disconnect, as a second-generation Iranian-American, I disagree in that as I get older, I find myself connecting more with Iran and being proactive… I do also find myself connecting with the traditions and cultures. I wonder if you noted the connections that we are making?
Kiarostami: First of all, these are just my observations; they’re not facts. The second generation looks for identity, but because they don’t have a real image of Iran, when they visit, their reactions are different. They get totally disappointed because they have this imaginary world in their minds. I hope that’s not the case with you but I’m curious to know what you’d feel if you visited Iran.

As a researcher and parent, I’m proud of this generation and how it’s speaking about itself. Regarding identity, one must make sure there is such a thing as identity and having an identity and being conscious and knowledgeable about it. In the U.S., you’ve got to struggle, have a sense of identity, and a sense of humor… so I’m glad you’re adding that. We are also expecting too much of this community – it’s very young and not at all liberated.
Kiarostami: Today someone said young is 18-25, and I’m 36!

What is the connection between Persopedia and Encyclopedia Iranica?
Kiarostami: Persopedia is a personal project of Iranian poetry. Stanford is working on an archival project and will use Persopedia for their project.

How did you get all those people to speak for the video?
Kiarostami: I just asked people. I told them I was making a “ke-lip” and they did it. The only problem I had was with one religious guy, so I basically told him he had to do it and that it was really important. There was also another guy, the guy with the salt, and I begged him and begged him.