At 2 a.m. one night in September of 1985, I was a jet-lagged refugee on my brother's sofa in Parsippany, N.J., morosely clutching a remote. So grief-stricken was I over our departure from Iran that even television could not work its anodyne magic. What was I doing in the land of the despised Uncle Sam? I was a child of the 1979 revolution, with a teenager's disdain for hypocrisy. And the more I watched, the more hypocritical I seemed to myself...
As I kept channel surfing, I stumbled upon the face of a black man. He stood at a lectern in suit and tie, calm in front of a crowd of thousands. When the camera zoomed in to bring his close-up into focus, he seemed to look me right in the eye, as he said: "I have a dream . . ." These were the first four words I had understood all night. But even before the words, I'd felt his conviction. Was this elegant cadence really English, the language I so dreaded? The crowd emulated him. And as he spoke, they all, passionately, gracefully, uttered words of affirmation.
A most reluctant immigrant, I'd arrived in America confident that she could never win me over. Having just finished high school in post-revolutionary Iran, I thought myself impervious to her allures of infinite wealth, skyscrapers and shopping malls. My initial encounters hardly proved me wrong...
...Now this man at the lectern was making me reconsider the old leaders. Even at the most glorious moments of the Iranian revolution, long before the country took its dark turn, Ayatollah Khomeini had jarred me. His eyes were always cast down, or away. He had managed to fashion a Persian so irreverent that it was nearly unrecognizable against the language I knew through our great poets, Rumi and Hafez. The crowd around him sounded like a covey of pigeons, cooing. This was because, after their shouting frenzy abated, he spurred them to weeping.
Until that night, the only history I knew of America was a skewed tale of unchallenged dominance of the white race, first over Native Americans, then over the African slaves...
I lay still, watching, as my smug confidence dissipated before my eyes. Discovering the gaps in my knowledge had disarmed me: There was a man I knew nothing about, who was black as black could be, and had ultimately succeeded.
Today, in the distant corners where terror is raging, many teenagers hold views on America similar to those I once held. The enemy has an arsenal, but also a narrative. According to that narrative, the world's superpower represents only one race, and its history is a single tale of intolerance, arrogance, and domination. The war against this enemy is impossible to win without defeating that narrative. To tell American history in its entirety is to disprove the fabrications about who an American is. To tell the story of the Civil Rights Movement is to tell the story of how arrogance was made to give way to justice by none other than a man who advocated peace. Against the grim and infallible image that is painted of America, this will be a truer portrait: colorful and human.
For the immigrant, only the physical arrival is marked by a definitive moment when ships lower their anchors, and planes touchdown. The emotional arrival is incremental, and endless. Nearly 20 years later, Dr. Martin Luther King has come to mean to me all the things that he means to all Americans. But in retrospect, it was he who helped me reconcile with America. He proved to be yet another Plymouth Rock.
Monday, January 17, 2005
From Roya Hakakian, a former Iranian refugee and co-founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, in the OpinionJournal: