Iranian-American Jew Talks About Immigration in New Book – Review


The Iranian-American-Jewish poet, journalist and author Roya Hakakian has written a work that will certainly join the pantheon of great immigration histories.

A Beginner’s Guide to America: For the Immigrant and the Curious is a real treat – funny, weird, full of in-depth insights into America and a literary gem on top of that.

Hakakian, born in Tehran in 1966 and fled the Islamic Republic in 1984 to finally settle in the United States, has a razor-sharp eye for the peculiarities of American life and culture.

As she notes in the introduction, her early socialization was shaped by the persecution she experienced because of her religion, gender, and beliefs. It is also a product of war and revolution in the theocratic state it has left behind.

But she quickly realizes, “America cares little about what you’ve done and only cares about what you will do while you are here.” And that is an important aspect of American life.

Tribute in light rays shine on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks in New York (Image: REUTERS / MIKE SEGAR)

Or, as former New York Mayor Ed Koch put it bluntly: “How am I?”

As a journalist reporting on Iranian Jews and Iran, Hakakian’s post-1979 juxtaposition of the clerical state with the United States offers no shortage of stark contrasts.

“If you come from a country where women have to wear the veil, you will be stunned to see women walking around without veils,” she writes.

It refers to the way in which autocracies like the Islamic Republic try to protect your “virtue” through the use of secret service agents. In contrast, the freedoms enshrined in the USA guarantee the right to be veilless or to wear a veil, a coexistence that is peculiar to the democratic way of life.

Hakakian cites the widespread use of seat belts and helmets for cyclists in the US as a reminder “where human life is not as cheap as you used to know it was”.

There is no “moral police”, she writes about parks in America, in contrast to the Guidance Patrol troops in Iran, who persecute women who do not wear a hijab. Moral police also exist in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia and other Muslim-majority nations.

The book is not just about immigrants from Iran, but is a kind of practical guide for immigrants from all nations.

It is extremely difficult to pick great anecdotes from Hakakian’s book because it is inundated with them. But let’s cite the use of the question “Where are you from?” this is often asked in America. Hakakian delves into this sentence with a razor-sharp scalpel and writes: “In order not to think of threatening Ayatollahs, you might not want to call yourself Iranian. It would be better to associate yourself with lush carpets and purring cats by calling yourself Persians instead. “

In her section on resumes, “Your Life on a Page,” Hakakian notes that the street wisdom and survival skills that helped you escape your autocratic homeland were “all the exploits you accomplished to escape danger and outwitting that seemed like great triumphs “the time, now do not warrant a mention.”

As I read the section on English as a Second Language, I felt like I was being transported into an American version of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and the difficulty Eliza Doolittle was having with pronunciation. Who has not yet learned a foreign language and had problems with articulation?

The challenges faced by speakers of Slavic languages, Spanish, Arabic and Farsi are appealingly presented in the book.

Immigrant dreams are a recurring theme. Many migrants, especially the younger generation, do not ask what a man or a woman is, but what a man or a woman can become in the United States. Hakakian also captures the goals of immigrants in the more disabled age group over 40.

Using the example of the doctor Vladimir, who was the head physician of a large hospital in Russia and now has to be content with manual labor, she explores the rough contours of immigration.

Her vivid illustrations of the dream world of new immigrants to America are reminiscent of TE Lawrence’s famous quote from Lawrence of Arabia: “All men dream: but not the same. Those who dream in the dusty depths of their minds at night wake up in the day and find it was vanity, but the daydreamers are dangerous men because they can carry out their dreams with open eyes to make this possible. “

In On Public Transportation, Getting Lost, Hakakian demonstrates an uncanny ability to draw hilarious parallels between the totalitarian Iranian regime and the United States. “No name of a leader or ayatollah follows the word ‘large’ here.”

She adds that “it is better to breathe on a mediocre and unpretentious elm than to walk under the banner of a Valiasr, the Shiite Messiah.”

The New York Times reported in 2009, amid protests against the fraudulent election victory of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that “once thousands of protesters shouted ‘Death to the dictator’ as they walked down Valiasr Street, the wide street that crosses the street Much of Tehran clashed with an equally large number of pro-government protesters chanting slogans against Israel, the United States and Great Britain. “

Hakakian neatly captures the contrast between the harmless names of American streets and Iranian avenues with theologically animated names.

At the same time, she notes that the existence of a Frederick Douglass Highway means “that America not only has few mistakes, but that it has the ability to correct itself and change course”. Your book is inspired by the spirit of the great American social and political philosopher Sidney Hook, that “in contrast to totalitarianism, democracy can meet the truth about itself and live with it”.

A Beginner’s Guide to America is in many ways a celebration of the country, a tribute, but without ignoring its shortcomings and flaws.

Hakakian dissects American consumer culture in a free spirited but not derogatory way, pointing out, for example, the enormous variety and abundance of grains presented to newcomers upon arrival.

“Tyrants urge their citizens to loosen their ties to the material world. They want them to be willing to sacrifice themselves for a higher cause, to be martyrs. Some even promise paradise with all sorts of heavenly perks, ”she writes.

Your passages on the US Lover Discourse and Attraction Developing could be a book in itself.

“Americans have created an industry to talk about the unspeakable,” she writes and presents a kind of compendium of the “Seven Deadly Sins, Immigrant Edition”.

Hakakian’s use of dialogue within dialogue further engages the reader in the struggles of new immigrants. In “Serendipity for Two Lost Immigrants” she captures the trials and tribulations of two newly arrived Jewish Iranians in sprawling New York City. In a further section of the dialogue she presents “A Car Trip with Two Apostate Parents and Their Very Young Children”, where she researches the Chinese Communist Party.

Her book is peppered with questions about things that Americans take for granted: “How do free people live?” And “What is a night without fear?”

The heavily repressive claims that immigrants have fled are places where “you were walking around on tiptoe on the edge of life like it was a terrifying beast not to be awakened,” notes Hakakian.

One of the book’s strengths is that Hakakian manages to overcome the common wisdom that good questions are better than good answers by excelling in both areas.

America’s inadequate and sometimes deeply deceptive diplomacy regarding totalitarian regimes appears in the book. The author’s section on the longevity of dictatorships could refer to China’s communist regime, North Korea, and the Islamic Republic of Iran, to name just three highly dangerous nations.

“What you don’t know is that a dictatorship has a half-life. When it is new, it is viewed as an evil that the world must rid itself of. But if it is not overthrown in time and persists, the next generation will likely see it as just another imperfect regime, ”writes Hakakian.

The book has the apt subtitle “For immigrants and the curious”. One can only hope that it will be translated into the languages ​​of the immigrants to America, from Arabic, Spanish and Russian to Persian.

With her spectacular new work, Hakakian has jumped into the past, lived in the present and jumped into the future. 

The author is a fellow of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

A beginner’s guide to America
By Roya Hakakian
218 pages; $ 27


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