I still remember the day I was born. I was warm, protected, no reason to fight my out. So I didn’t.
My dad took us to the hospital in Tehran. The doctors talked to my mom, then they looked at me. “No contractions,” a doctor said. “A week past due date,” said another.
I floated in liquid, sounds muffled around me. Everything tilted, I rolled to the other side. Everything moved again. It was suddenly around my neck.
They started cutting her open. No drugs. She screamed. They continued. She dug her nails into the doctor’s arm. He stopped sawing.
They gave her drugs and kept opening her up. Two giant hands grasped my five-pound body. They pulled me out of the sea. But I was still. No breath.
My mom was unconscious. They pulled me towards the light. Snip. Snip. They cut the bond that was killing me.
First breath. I am alive.
This happened on my birthday. December 6, 1977, Tehran, Iran. I was born to a mother who languished being pregnant but couldn’t take my nighttime wailing. I cried. A lot. My paternal grandmother, Sarvar, said I was hairy and ugly, which meant good fortune. Sarvar, or Nanu as we called her, married at 15, plucked from her home town of Yadz where they make delicious Iranian sweets, and was taken to live with my grandfather, Khosro, many years her senior, to Kerman, the southern city where he ran a business. They always say I look like her. Her name, Sarvar, would inspire my own, as it has the same spelling in Farsi as mine, just different vowels that aren’t written. My name, Sorur, means happiness, which feels more like a taunt when I’m down, and ever so fragile when I feel joyous. Sarvar, however, means master, something I feel more able to embody.
My maternal grandmother, a Polish-Jewish immigrant living in New York, had other interpretations of my birth. After she earned her doctorate in child psychiatry in Austria, studying under a Freud apostle, she made broad statements about those around her. For example, when I was six, she said my constant leg shaking was due to “sexual frustration.” She also explained that my frequent bouts of rage were to due to being strangled by the umbilical cord during my birth. I bore this unmerited punishment like a constant attack on my being, and therefore lashed out at any minimal sign of offence. And honestly, that’s how I’ve felt for a great portion of my life: tense, fists pumped, ready to defend myself to the death.
On an almost daily basis, I am asked to explain my origin story, to make sense of what others can’t quite grasp, to provide clarity on why it is that I am different from them. All I have to do is say my name. Sorur. I’ve had this name for 41 years. Except for 9 months when I was living Europe, and I went by my middle name, Sarah, to avoid having to say it three or four times upon meeting someone or telling them what it meant. But even then, my face and complexion bore witness to that something I had, that non-European touch that maybe could just be Italian or Brazilian, but I never lied, I always gave them what they wanted:
“My dad is Iranian, mother is American to Polish-Jewish parents, no I’m not Muslim, no not a Persian Jew, a Zoroastrian – yes a Zo-ro-as-trian. It’s an ancient religion. Not many left, all about fire and good words, good thoughts and good deeds. Don’t ask me more, I wasn’t raised religious. Yes, I am an interesting mix.”
I wonder sometimes if I should tell them about my birth. About my near death. About being choked by my lifeline to my mother, the cord that kept me alive in utero. About how because of that, I hate it when people touch my neck. About how I never played sports because balls coming towards me made my body curl into a fetal position. But they don’t actually want to know who I am, no, just what I am.
My life could have been very different. I could have been an American-Iranian, instead of an Iranian-American. I could have been raised bilingual in the traffic-ridden capital of Iran, perhaps attending an international school, wearing a chador every day to class and drinking a fizzy yogurt drink, dough, on my way home. I could have had a relationship with my namesake, maybe even learned the ancient language she still spoke, Dari. I could have attended incognito, illegal house parties, sipping home-brewed vodka and dancing to banned American music, hoping that the police didn’t raid us and cart us off to jail. I could have marched in the Green Movement protests and witnessed its peaceful participants gunned down or heard the chants of men and women on their rooftops every night crying, “Allahu Akbar!” (God is good). I could have lived a life free of explaining my name.
But, in 1978, a blink before the Iranian Revolution, which started as an overthrow of the Shah, and was eventually hijacked by religious extremists, my parents, my three-year-old sister and six month old me, flew to New York to visit my mother’s family. Many precious possessions left in our Tehran apartment expected our return, but we would never be reunited, and we therefore became immigrants, not exactly fleeing the new regime, but certainly not welcome in it.
My mom swears that I started speaking in full sentences when I was one. Whether I talked to myself through my porcelain dolls whose red mouths never moved, playing out scenarios that only a toddler sustain over and over, or I babbled to my mom and how it wasn’t fair that my sister, Foruz, got to have the bigger spoon of cookie dough to lick, my words were always in English. If my parents tried to speak to me in Farsi, my response was a unilateral negation: “In America we speak English.” Just a preschooler, and my shame (or patriotism) was full-blown. Where did I learn this? My peers were far too young to tease me about being different, my screen time was limited to Sesame Street and the Smurfs, and my social circle was limited to what my parents selected it to be. Somehow, I had gathered from the sideways glances from strangers as my parents spoke in Farsi at the grocery store, the well-meant comments about how tan us girls were, and the overhead discussions about the Iran Hostage Crisis, that being from somewhere else, especially from there, was not something to be proud about.
My origin story only begins with how and where I was born. By whom and how I was raised, well, that’s where it takes off.
My mother, originally named Myrina, but as a kid went by her second name, Anna, and then later went back to Myrina because it was original, and then finally stuck an “H” in front of Anna and became Hanna, marveled at the two exotic, thick-eye-browed, children she had born. She once told me that she often looked at us and said to herself, “How did these gorgeous brown-skinned girls come out of me?” Her bright red hair has long faded to an ashy brown, but she dyes it different variations of red, to keep from being too boring. It is impossible for her neon-white legs to tan; they just burn.
She loves to tell the story about when she went into a 7-11 and the guys working there were being rude and wouldn’t help her find something. She insisted that they help her, all the while they badmouthed her, in Farsi. After my mom paid, she smiled at the two young men, and in almost perfect Farsi, thanked them for all of their help. As a hazel-eyed native New Yorker, they had never suspected that she had lived eight years in Iran, and considered herself quite the Persian.
It’s March 21, 1985, in Long Island, New York. The lights in the window-lined room dim. The guests place their plates on the small tables distributed throughout the open space. My mom presses play on the eight-track and a wailing female voice sings in Farsi. Three of us children enter the room at the top of the stairs. Foruz, my sister, leads us down the stairs as we clang our metallic castanets. I have on a red, sheer, sequined veil, a silk paisley skirt and an anklet with bells. Jessica, my sister’s friend, is dressed similarly, but looks awkward as her tall white body clashes with the bright colors. I make sure I stomp my feet as we descend the stairs so that my bells are heard. My sister stops at the bottom and smiles seductively at the audience. Jessica and I wait for her cue to start the dance. My mom holds a video camera, grinning at the choreography she had rehearsed with us, and my dad sits on a plush chair smoking his Marlboro cigarette. We twist our wrists held high above our heads, just as our mom has shown us, just as she had learnt in belly-dancing classes in Iran before women dancing was prohibited. We shimmy in unison, leaning forward, and then backwards. Foruz leans back extra far and people clap. The song reaches its climax as the singer hits a high note, then we all fold onto the floor, my body embraced by my smiling sister. The music ends and applause follows. We bow.
My mom has spent the entire day cooking, with my dad occasionally popping his head in the kitchen to make sure she’s using enough olive oil. I hate Persian food. Except for zolubia, a deep-fried pastry made with honey and rose water. It’s Nowruz, Persian New Year, my mom’s most impressive party of the year, and this time, in addition to the banquet of traditional Persian food, the halft sin (a type of altar with objects that start with the letter “s”), and the children dancing, my mom has constructed a fortune-telling tent. She hung paisley tapestries from the ceiling and draped them over chairs to form a dome shape where a friend of hers sits inside and reads the lines on guests’ hands. I’m going to get divorced. Twice. My sister has a short life-line, but the clairvoyant says that could mean anything, really. Foruz is already so old anyway, ten! Double digits. It just wasn’t fair that I had to wait three more years to catch up. But by then she’d be 13! A teenager. Maybe she’ll die before then.
My mom rushes to greet latecomers at the door with a bottle of rose water and a mirror. She sprinkles their hands with the water and then instructs them to look in the mirror. “It’s a Zoroastrian tradition that brings you luck in the New Year, Nowruz,” she giddily explains. Most of the guests are Gucci toting non-practicing Jews who find these rituals quite charming. Then there’s the corner of Iranian men who sit on the floor and chain smoke strong cigarettes smuggled in from their homeland. Sirous, a college student from Iran who lives with us and basically takes care of me, is my only ally, but he is busy clearing dishes and acting bashful in front of the scantily clad female guests. My mom sends my sister and I over to mustached Iranians to offer them fruit. Tarof, is an essential Iranian custom: we offer, they say no, we offer again, they say no again, we offer a third time and they accept. An exhausting tradition for the host. Foruz pronounces a word in Farsi and they pinch her cheeks. They say funny things to me and laugh. I wish they would just speak English. My mom plucks me up from their smoke ring contest and takes me to the food table.
“What would you like to eat, pumpkin?” I shake my head. “You have to eat something. Now, we have khoresh botom jun, ghorme sabzi, tadik…”
I frown. “Don’t we have any hamburgers?”
My mom sighs and takes my plate from my hands. She puts mushy things that are brown and green on it and hands it to me. “Sorur, this is Persian New Year. You will eat Persian food tonight.” I fold my arms across my chest. “You have to eat something. You can’t have any zolubia unless you eat something.”
I move close to the plate that’s still in her hands. I look down at the stinky pile of guck. I lift up one grain of basmati rice, split it into two pieces and put one half in my mouth. “I ate something.” She puts the plate down and walks away from me.
I find Foruz and ask her if she’ll play Barbies with me. “No, we’re at a party. Besides I hate playing Barbies.” I’m bored. I sit on the steps and watch my mother glide across the room, her skirt swishing as her long legs take her to guest after guest offering tea from a samovar. She has on a wide belt that shows off her tiny waist, chunky “ethnic” necklaces that clang as she moves, and long, heavy earrings that pull her earlobes down in a way that makes you cringe. Everyone is happy when she comes over to them. They stop their conversations and wait to be delighted. I go upstairs to my room. I take out my most favorite Barbie. She has long, blond hair, blue eyes and seems younger than my other ones. I go into the bathroom. I take the toothpaste and squeeze it out all over her naked body. I take one last look at her and toss her in the trash. I’ll never be like her.
My mom could dress us up in costumes that were meant to represent our culture, but they would always be costumes, not our clothes, not our culture. My mom could regale her white friends with tales of life under the Shah’s Iran and how wonderfully hospitable the people were, but it would always be just a short time in her life, an exotic anthropological experiment that fueled her thesis on Zoroastrians. Hanna, my mother, could slip in palm readings into a Persian party, which was in fact an Indian practice, not an Iranian one, just because it seemed fun. She could buy foundation that matched the color of her skin in the drug store. She could see American movie stars play holocaust survivors who garnered empathy from gentile crowds. She could afford to flaunt her husband’s culture as it was not a reflection of where she came from, or of who she was. Hanna never had to explain her name at a party.
My father, Dariush, who bears the name of a famous Persian king, manages to occupy a tenuous space between king-like egoism and gentle kindness that makes everyone around him listen and smile. He often walks into a room talking, despite the people’s ongoing conversation with each other, tells a joke we’ve all heard before and don’t really get, but we all laugh anyway. I think he just likes the sound of certain words and expressions in English, so he finds ways to repeat them. Some of his favorites are “You’re a dork,” “Don’t take any wooden nickels,” and “What a bitch!”
Every year we travel to a warm place during February vacation. This year, 1986, we are going to Jamaica. My mom finally agreed to go somewhere less “cultural” and more relaxing.
Overpacked and sleepy from the early morning drive to the airport, we arrive at check-in. My sister and I drape our bodies over my dad’s stiff, brown leather suitcase, letting our braids hang upside-down. “Your nose is getting bigger,” I tell her.
“Not true, six sticks,” she says although she knows I’m right. My dad had invented that name, “six sticks” since I’m so twiggy. It doesn’t really make sense; I have two skinny legs, and two skinny arms, which equals four, not six! The suitcase starts to move and we laugh as my dad drags us along with it. We dismount, as he has to give it to a man who takes the bags. We wait a long time. People who were far behind us are checking in and going to the gate. I see my mom picking at her lip. Sometimes she picks off so much skin that it bleeds. The man who has our passports, three U.S. ones and my dad’s Iranian passport with his Green Card, is talking to my dad. My father’s hands are waving wildly as he speaks. I go up to my mom and whine that it’s taking too long. My sister stands next to my dad, looking directly at the man with our passports. Someone else comes over and talks with the man, then talks with my dad. My dad starts to shout. My mom stops picking her lip and shakes me off her skirt that I was clenching. My sister and I sit on the floor and do our chubby face game, squishing our cheeks with our hands and reciting, “My name is Chubby…” My mom talks to the men and points at us girls. Another man in a uniform with a gun comes over. My dad bangs his fist on the counter. My mom touches my dad’s arm but he flicks it away. The man with the gun stands close to my dad. My mom comes over to us girls, and my dad walks away with the men. They take his suitcase.
“Where are they taking dad?” my sister asks.
“They just have to check something, c’mon, let’s go sit over there.” We sit and wait. Our bags have already been checked in and it’s almost time to board the plane. My legs dangle over the ledge of the chair as I slump low in the seat. I start counting the hairs on my arm.
My dad comes out of a door with his suitcase, walks over to us and gives us each a hug and a kiss and tells us he forgot something at home and has to go back. “Don’t worry little monkeys, I’ll catch a later flight and see you in Jamaica.” My parents talk in whispers and then part. He waits while the three of us go to the gate and get on the plane.
Jamaica is hot and humid. My mom loves how her permed hair looks in this weather. Foruz and I’s hair just gets frizzy. It smells green here and the people are nice to us. When we get to the hotel, I empty out my suitcase, looking for my neon yellow and purple bikini. I go to the bathroom to change while my mom and sister change together in the bedroom. They laugh at me for this and say I have nothing to hide. Map in hand, giant straw hat on head, my mom leads us out to reception. We wait on the wicker chairs as she talks with the person who works there. Then we all go outside to find a shady spot for my mom to read in while Foruz and I bake in the sun building sandcastles.
The next day we go back to the airport and wait for my dad’s flight to arrive. It takes a while for him to come out; he’s the last passenger to exit. He carries his brown suitcase in both arms and shakes his head when he sees us. We hug him as he curses at no one, opening his suitcase to show my mom the gauges. He imitates a knife cutting through the lining.
“Who cut open your suitcase?” I ask.
“The airport police,” he says as he looks at my mom.
“But that’s not fair. They have to buy you a new one!” I say.
“Why would they do that, Daddy?” my sister asks.
“Cause they’re shits, sweetie, shitheads.”
We travel around the island; my mom couldn’t resist staying in a few non-touristy towns. She sings Harry Belafonte as a taxi driver takes us through Kingston. We get our hair braided with colorful plastic beads at the ends. Then we climb a waterfall that scares me and my dad has to carry me in his arms. On our last day my sister sees a wooden giraffe that she must have.
“It’s too big to take back,” my mom says.
“Giraffy,” my sister coos as she hugs it around its neck.
The vendor, who’s also the carver, says to my dad, “Okay, ten dollars, final offer.” My dad pinches my sister’s chubby cheek and hands the man fifteen dollars. “Give us the little turtle too.” I get the little turtle and my sister doesn’t let go of giraffy all the way to the hotel. I try to call my turtle “turtly” but it sounds stupid. When we pack to leave the island, my dad curses more as he puts duct tape over the tears in his suitcase. Foruz insists on carrying giraffy with her on the plane so it doesn’t get scared. My mom jokes that she’ll leave us girls in Jamaica since we’re as tanned as the locals. We board the plane weighed down by shell necklaces, sad to be going back home.
My dad never talked to us about racism. He never categorized the racial profiling that we all witnessed as racial. We were acutely aware that my dad’s nationality could cause people to feel fear, or that his heavy accent could raise eyebrows, but we lacked the context to understand it, and so that xenophobia, or even the small signs of our differences in skin tone, worked its way into our self-worth and we started to associate our brown-ness with shame.
We lived in Great Neck, Long Island for ten years. The kids had known me since Kindergarten, and no one struggled to pronounce my name, it was just another name like Samantha, Natalie or Sarah for them. So when our parents announced to my sister and I that we would be moving to rural Pennsylvania, visions of hillbillies sporting pitchforks, missing teeth and funny accents filled our minds. Surprisingly out of character, my mother offered to let us change our names in light of the new demographic. We could take on our Jewish middle names – my sister’s being “Sharon,” and mine, “Sarah” – which might help us fit in with the new crowd. While not changing our names legally, we could inform teachers and friends that we went by these names, and therefore spare them the discomfort of cumbersome consonant and vowel combinations they had never pronounced. Foruz, 13 and starting as a freshman, gladly became Sharon, while I just felt weird trying to react to someone else’s name.
It’s my first day of fifth grade at Dansville Elementary, Pennsylvania, where people were either “new money” wealthy from the Dupont company or “rough” working class, less educated, motorbike riding type. I scan the room, carefully assessing the seating options. Blonde. Pretty. Red lips smiling. And a seat free next to her. I nervously and with feigned confidence make my way to the empty place, toting my white jeans and blue shirt carefully picked out for this very important day.
“Can I sit here?” I ask the girl I am assuming is popular based on her looks.
“Sure,” she says and smiles at me.
Samantha takes me under her wing immediately and I am pleased with my friend selecting ability. She asks me if I want to sit with her friends at lunch and play with them at recess. Jackpot!
The teacher, a white haired woman, calls roll. I am the second kid to be called.
“So… ruh..um, Suh-ruh – ra?” I raise my hand at the sound of hesitation, knowing the teacher is trying to pronounce my name.
She smiles at me and asks how to say it correctly. Correctly? How my dad says it? My mom? My sister? My friends in New York? I don’t know how to say my name correctly. I just want her to move on to the next kid, a Brian or a Heather or something “American.” I think about telling her to call me Sarah.
“Suh-roar,” I mutter, choosing the way my friends always say it.
“Sah-rur-a? Interesting,” she replies, and before I can correct her, she continues, “Where are you from? That’s an unusual name.”
“New York,” I say quickly.
“I know you’re new here, but where are you from, really? Originally.”
“Iran,” pronouncing it ee-rawn as my dad says it.
“Oh, I-ran! How interesting!” pronouncing it the most awful way possible.
Just call the next kid, please. My face is flushed, and I hope Samantha doesn’t revoke her friendship.
While the class is working on a writing assignment, the teacher pulls me outside. “Were you embarrassed when I asked you where you were from?”
I nod yes.
“You have nothing to be ashamed of. My daughter-in-law is from a bad country too; she’s Russian. But that doesn’t make her a bad person.”
Recess. Samantha introduces me to her friends and from what I can gather, they are the popular girls. No designer jeans nor tennis bracelets (real diamond studded bracelets that were all the rage for batmitzah presents in Long Island), but good looks seem to be a universal way to spot the winners. Jamie and Alyssa are the leaders, Samantha is just one their pawns. I will try to win their favor, I think, as I swing back and forth on the swingset. As I slow down, I catch a few words of two girls from my new group talking.
“But what is she?” one asks.
“I don’t know. Maybe she’s black.”
“She must be. She’s gotta be something.”
When my swing stops and they see me looking at them, they stop abruptly and smile. Black? Really? I look at my arms. I only look a few shades browner than them. I would have to remember to stay out of the sun next summer.
I learned how to navigate the social hierarchy at Dansville. I avoided the three black kids. There was Jackie, a girl who was fully developed physically, tall and big breasted but mentally stunted, who showed up with hickies on her 10 year old neck and licked apples at lunch telling us how men liked it. The kids all said she had cooties, or as they referred to them – Jackie Germs. She would chase kids at recess, laughing naively at the game she didn’t realize she was playing. Then there were the twins, Christopher and Raymond, one of which had vomited in class and was therefore also cast as disgusting. One was smarter than the other, but both were in special education and just hung out with each other. If there were any other ethnic kids, I didn’t know about it. I was good at befriending the popular girls and even made it onto the ranking of girls’ hotness which some boys created. Apparently my 10 year old ass was noteworthy.
But a year later we were merged with the other elementary school kids into Middle School. I got to explain my name all over again, assure the kids that my dad was not a terrorist nor an arms dealer and that he wouldn’t kill them if they came over to our house. By this time my parents had split, but still occupied the same house, and my dad lived in the basement, so I wasn’t exactly eager to invite friends over anyway.
Let’s fast forward to high school. There were a few more minority kids – Tina and Reema whose parents were from India, Tina was semi-popular, Reema was too smart so was therefore a nerd, Ricky who was a black upperclassman who wore Bob Marley shirts and sold weed was considered cool, Jennifer was Hispanic but pretty, so she was in, and Amir, an Egyptian who drank Zimas (it was this clear, sweet, alcoholic beverage that came out in the early nineties) with a bottle cooler around it, was tolerated for comic effect. Then one day a new kid showed up. Samir. He was from an Iraqi family and while our countries spent the last decade at war, I hoped to make peace with him.
I had done the leg work for him. I had born the brunt of jokes aimed at me despite their mistaken stereotypes. When my middle school crush, Kyle, tore off a round circle from his strawberry fruit roll-up and stuck it on his forehead, standing up at lunch and asking the crowd who was he, I knew he was talking about me. He didn’t seem to hear me when I explained that I wasn’t Indian. But he just kept laughing and repeating, “Dot head! Dot head!” Everyone laughed even if they didn’t understand why. I mumbled under my breath that he should get the god damn right country; if he was gonna be an asshole, he should wrap a scarf around his head, at least it would be authentic. Sometimes he would get closer, and call me a turban head or sand-nigger – in fact sand-nigger is the appropriate slur for my people after all – so kudos to his evolution. I wonder how he felt when he made out with me two times – my first kiss – and rubbed his boner through his clothes against my sand-nigger pelvis? Did that make him a sand-nigger-lover?
By the time I got to high school and my popularity was secured, I started to turn that inward hate and shame into outward outrage. They were trying to choke me, to stifle me, to wrap that ignorant, hateful cord around my neck again, but I wasn’t going to be lynched anymore. I became a Saint Jude, the defender of lost causes – of the nerds, of the gays (in theory, no one dared to be out back then), of minorities, of the virgins (myself included) of anyone my friends liked to torment. So when Samir was greeted on his first day with the same jokes I had already heard, asking him where his machine gun was, I told them all to fuck off. I was going to stop this poor acne-ridden boy from getting flayed in the cafeteria even if it they called me a bitch, which they did anyway. Now, admittedly, I did dump his best friend in a cruel way – I ghosted him before cellphones even existed – but I certainly didn’t expect him to betray his greatest defender.
On the night of my 15th birthday, fast asleep, I am woken by a male voice on my answering machine. I look at my Casio alarm clock – it’s nearly midnight. I hit the play button and I hear: “You bitch, you slut, why don’t you get a real life you fucking whore.” I star-sixty-nine the number (it calls the last number that called you) and find Samir and his bitter best friend behind the taunt. The next day at school I tell my bully guy friends about their stunt and they offer to give him a beating. I turn them down but they stare at him with their blue eyes as I march over to his table at lunch and say, “Now that message, that was fucking terrorism.”
I wonder about my choice of words. Had he been a white kid, I surely wouldn’t have called his sexist attack terrorism. I don’t know if I just wrapped up my anger at his betrayal and misogynist language with an easy comeback that I knew would burn or if I was projecting my own self-loathing onto this kid to show him the power, that despite being a girl, I still had over him. I, despite being middle-eastern, could rally up the bullies and put him back in his place. We never spoke again.
By my junior year I got tired. I was done fighting. I just wanted to like my friends. So I switched schools and went to a Quaker boarding school where diversity was celebrated. Of course racism existed there, but it was subtler, and not outright encouraged. I floated a bit socially before settling into an all-white group of friends, habit I suppose. But in the beginning, a senior, Akash, tried to court me and while I was flattered, I just wasn’t into his cheesy poems and doting looks in calculus class. Akash was black, my first black friend, and he immediately tried to recruit me into the students of color union.
“What? Me? But I’m not black,” I said when he insisted.
“Obviously, but you sure as hell aren’t white.”
A person of color. I hadn’t ever thought of myself that way. I mean, I knew I was different, that I was lumped into the same category as other kids from immigrant parents, but not white? My dad always told us that Iranians were Caucasians, and that the word “Aryan” came from Iran. When my dad was eventually confronted with the term “person of color” and told he was one of them, he marveled at his new label. “Ha! A person of color! I guess I’m a person of color now.” While for him it was a joke, for me it started to seep into my self-identity. I didn’t join the club at school, it wasn’t my style, but I started to have a language, a discourse, to better describe my experiences.
Now I live in Spain and people furrow their brows when on occasion I explain that I am not white. They tell me I look Spanish or Italian. Sure, I can pass, but I don’t want to. Even in New York, where I lived after college, I had white boyfriends who shook their heads when I insisted I was a person of color. They acted like I was trying to claim an injustice that wasn’t mine. Sure, I’m not poor, I’m not black, I’m not facing institutional racism on a large scale, but I still feel that cord around my neck when I have to repeat my name for the fifth time. I don’t know why others struggle to recognize and accept that I’m not the same as them, or at least that I haven’t been treated the same as them, when they’re the ones who are constantly reminding me that I am different. “Ahhh, I knew you had something,” they say after they prod and pry to find out why my eyebrows are so thick, my nose pointed down and my skin olive brown. That something is being non-white.
My origin story is constantly changing. In Spain, while I am asked about my Iranian heritage, everyone still considers me American. In the U.S. I am Iranian (no one cares about the Polish side) and in Iran, an American. I am a native to no place. No place claims me to be its own. I am a constant immigrant, never quite at home. Belonging to this group that the world has invented, people of color, a group that recognizes me as one of them despite our differences, a group that outsiders want to deny me access to, is the only place that I can breathe freely and tell my story.
Sorur is an MFA student in Creative Writing and Literature at Bennington College, Vermont, who currently resides in Barcelona, Spain. With a background in film and education, Sorur is now pursuing a dream of writing her memoir.
Featured image: Photograph by Urban Prah on Unsplash.