Who am I, and What are You to Me: the ‘Iranian Diaspora’

Persepolis (2007), a French-Iranian animated drama based on Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novels, not only presented a moving coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of the Iranian Revolution, but it amplified a fractured sense of identity that shaped the Iranian diaspora. In fact, the film tears its way to the heart of the issue of nationhood, and how it defines a sense of individual identity.

“A diaspora is any group that has been dispersed outside its traditional homeland.”

History’s turntable

Satrapi’s work turns personal identity into a tangle of inscrutable notions that is forever linked to the flow of history. To understand the depth of the matter, we must first slither through the tunnel of time. The Iranian Revolution (1978-79) was an uprising that resulted in the overturn of the monarchy, which led to the establishment of an Islamic republic.

Ali Khamenei speech the Iranian revolution

The unrest brought about a Shi’ite theocratic regime, meaning a system of government in which priests rule in the name of God, and was swiftly followed by the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). During those years, the national borders were closed, and many Iranians were smuggled out of the country. In the wake of the war, the Western world conjured up an adverse image of new era Iran, and the mission of obtaining travel visas for any Western country became a Sisyphean task.

Motivated by the system of political oppression and the country’s technological stagnation, many Iranians managed to procure either illegal exit documents, or unauthorized entry papers. The most important fact to note is that the combination of the war, the iron-fisted regime and the isolation of Iran led to a kind of ‘forced’ disconnection from the rest of the world. And unlike the Jewish diaspora, the Iranian diaspora is quite recent.

Need to Belong

An example of Iranian diasporic culture is the popular reality show Befarmaeed Sham (2010 – ), translated as “please come to dinner”. Based on the original British cooking show Come Dine With Me (2005 – ), the show features diasporans as contestants in an amateur cooking competition.

The sentimental tether between an individual and their distant homeland is linked to our inherent need to belong. Our search for it is a reflection of our hunt for meaning, our stuggle with feelings of alienation and segregation, and finally the belief that our social and political opportunities are restricted in the hostland.

The hollowness of such an existence is reflected in Ramin Bahrani’s Man Push Cart (2005), a film about a Pakistani immigrant who survives by repeatedly pushing his coffee cart through New York to the place where he sells it.

Modern thoughts

The emotional aspect of a diasporic existence seems to be only heightened by our conception of modern society. Polish sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman pointed out that we live in an era of liquid modernity. It’s a view that highlights the nature of change within society, and it argues that transformation occurs more and more rapidly in the ‘modern’ world. Bauman said,

“to ‘be modern’ means to modernize – compulsively, obsessively; not so much ‘to be’, let alone to keep its identity intact, but forever ‘becoming’, avoiding completion, staying undefined”.

What that means, of course, is that we never truly develop bonds with the rest of the world, at least not permanent ones. The reason for that is our obligation to stay agile, to be able to untie these bonds when circumstances change. We’re always in a state of ‘post-something’ (‘postmodernism’, ‘postnationalism’, etc.), as Bauman asserted, and our malnourishment is made worse by the unsatisfying reliance on consumerism to fill an emotional void.

The link that is drawn between liquid modernity and national identity is a rather simple and bleak one. Namely, that “the population of every country is nowadays a collection of diasporas”.

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