The Dualities of Visiting Your Motherland by Amanda Etemad

The first time I went to Iran I was only sixteen, still in high school, traveling with a parent, and naive to so much of the world, but eager to learn more about my roots. Growing up as one of the only Iranian-Americans in my tiny, majority white suburb left me with many questions about where I came from. Now, at twenty-three, I come alone with much more knowledge of the politics of the region, and a deeper curiosity of the place my parents left in 1984. 

I made it to Istanbul after a ten hour flight from Newark, and sat in the airport for my ten hour layover waiting for my flight to Tabriz- the city my parents were raised in and some of my family still lives in. The flight attendant scans my boarding pass and then walks away to another machine. For a second I mentally panic because I’m holding up the line and I’m wondering what’s wrong with my ticket. My anxiety brain goes to the worst case scenario, but lo and behold he comes back with another boarding pass putting me in business class; today is my day to feel like the 1%.

As I’m sitting in my large comfortable chair with the most leg space I have ever had on a flight, I ponder just how privileged I am to be sitting in that position. With my iPhone 13 in hand, airpod pros, two doses of Pfizer in my system, and a passport as powerful as the US one, I am certainly the only American on this flight. I am a representation of everything the average person here in Iran will never have; this is the duality the diaspora lives in.

Brands like Apple are huge markers of wealth. While having an iPhone is the norm in the US, they cost almost double here since Apple cannot open franchises here due to sanctions. Whenever I tell anyone I have two doses of the Pfizer vaccine, they hold me in high regard. Pfizer is not even an option here anymore, since the government banned it. Most family members only have one vaccine dose and have to choose between Aztrazeneca, Sputnik, or Sinopharm. Young people under the age of 18 either have to take the risk of getting a vaccine that hasn’t been approved for their age yet or just remain unvaccinated for the time being as a 6th wave looms over Iran. 

Certainly a lot to come to terms with…constant thoughts of “why me and not them?”

To be traveling to a country that is under an economic and COVID crisis; it feels selfish. The conversion rate is in my favor, $1 = 27-28,000 tomans, at the cost of the daily lives of the majority of the Iranian population. The currency has depreciated so much that the official rial is not even what is used in daily transactions, you have to slash one zero off the end to convert it to tomans. Iran is so economically isolated from the world that I have to bring enough cash to last me the whole five weeks as I will have no way of accessing any of my bank accounts. 

A family member tells me the prices of normal grocery goods doubled in less than two weeks because of sanctions placed by the US. How do I sit here in conversation with them knowing that the country I was born and raised in is economically suffocating them? One family member tells me “The only country that can help us is the US, but it is important for them to help the Iranian people, not government elites.”

I am learning to listen to familial perspectives even if I don’t necessarily agree, because at the end of the day I am the visitor. I have the privilege and a powerful passport that allows me to go wherever I want at a moment’s notice without a visa for the most part; they do not have such a choice. I’m caught off guard by people telling me they like Trump. For them they thought his maximum pressure approach would be enough to collapse their authoritarian government. While Trump had some harsh words to Iran and equally harsh actions via sanctions, I try to explain to them that Trump does not actually care about the human rights of Iranian citizens. Attempting to explain the military industrial complex, and how Republicans would profit from a war with Iran in farsi was quite the task I was not prepared for. However, I also recognize that the diaspora’s discourse can so often be so far removed from the realities on the ground, and solely centered around the US’ actions, when the average Iranian has far more grievances than the US’ actions. 

On the other hand, I am confronted with the reasons my parents left in the first place. Before I got off the plane in Tabriz, I put my long coat and headscarf on. I am reminded that I am a second class citizen and have lost the simple right to decide how to express myself via clothes when I walk out the door due to the strict dress code and mandatory headscarf enforced by the government. The control I am feeling is the exact reason why my Mom left in the first place. She was kicked out of her university for not abiding by the newly installed dress code after the revolution of 1979. Her tall red boots, short skirts, and exposed hair were no longer acceptable. I get a similar feeling walking down the street where my Dad’s record shop used to be. I imagine him jamming out to the psychedelic rock of the 70s and 80s, until it came to an abrupt halt after the revolution when the government shut down his shop and threw him in jail for a few weeks. 

I recognize and become grateful for the sacrifices they made for me to not have to live under such conditions. 

Other small adjustments include no 5G data or the fast wifi speeds we readily have in the US; I’m lucky if my imessage of a photo takes less than 3 minutes to send. Want to open more than 5 tabs in your browser? That’s not going to happen. And then there’s the internet censorship: Want to watch Netflix, Youtube, or doomscroll on twitter? You have to have a VPN to even access these sites. While I am finding the joys in the simplicity, I recognize that I only feel that way because it is only temporary for me. 

I have been here for less than a week and have had more thoughts and reflections than I expected; I wake up in the middle of the night and open up my iPhone notes app every night. While I am excited to have more conversations with people, and reconnect with my roots, I am also learning how to cope with the sadness of knowing that people here live in a harsh reality. While it is only temporary for me, it is forever for the approximately 85 million citizens of Iran. For now, I am learning to find the beauty in the ordinary, such as getting to write this while looking out the window of my family’s seventh floor apartment that has a stunning view of the Eynali mountain, and just recognizing my ability to even be sitting here in the first place with the joys of reuniting with family after eight years. 

Amanda Etemad was raised in New Jersey to Iranian immigrants. After spending 4 years in DC for her degree in International Affairs with brief stints in London, Athens, and Almería, Spain, she hopes to bring a global perspective to her writing now that she has the time to channel her creative side. You can find her curating Spotify playlists based on oddly specific moods, writing book reviews @manderzebooks on Instagram, or working on a google maps list for her next travel adventure.

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