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For Persian New Year, A Real Post about Real Persians

March 21, 2017

• Lila Yomtoob

It happens all the time. People ask, "What are you?"

I have an American accent. I wear Western style clothing. It must be my thick eyebrows, "unique" nose, and dark curls that give it away.

I can say I'm Iranian American. I can say my family is from Iran and Iraq. Either way, people assume that I'm Muslim, unless I tell them that I am Jewish.

My favorite reaction is when I can see the cogs turning behind a person's eyes: How is it possible that she's Jewish? Do I know that that's possible? Have I heard of this combination before?

My least favorite reaction is the quick joke, "Wow, you must be full of inner conflict!" To which I always answer some form of a yes (because I am), and laugh it off.

Although Iran is a Muslim theocracy, there are many religions and ethnicities - and even a few languages spoken - within the country. I don't mind helping people understand that Iran is a diverse place, and I don't mind when people think I'm Muslim.

I grew up in a conservative Jewish home, and it wasn't until I was 12 that I made my first Muslim friend. All I had ever learned about Muslims was in regard to the fight over Palestinian and Israeli land. I didn't even know that there were Iranian Muslims! Michelle was Iranian, so I assumed she was Jewish. When I learned she was Muslim, my heart skipped a beat. Should I tell my parents? Is it "ok" for us to be friends? Needless to say, I was far from woke. But it was the 80s, I was 12, and I was indoctrinated.

I don't remember if it ever came up with my parents, but I do remember that Michelle's parents were the coolest parents I ever met, and I always had fun at their house. Michelle and I only went to school together for one year, but somehow forged a friendship that has lasted 30.

Over the years, political tensions between Muslims and Jews have grown worse, and yet every Muslim person I meet breaks any stereotype my young mind ever had. I am happy to live in a world where we can get to know each other, share ideas, and laugh together.

Moves like The Muslim Ban actually affect anyone from the seven countries that are singled out as a threat. Us brown people from "over there" have been officially labelled as all the same. But now Jews and Muslims have a reason to fight together, instead of against one another, and I can't tell you how relieved I am.

We all have so many stories in us. In this blog post alone, I see the setup for two films, maybe three. We need stories desperately right now, to continue to understand one another. If you can't make a film, write a story, or tell a friend. It is now our responsibility to share where we are from, and what made you. It brings us all closer together.

My recent short America 1979 is my first foray into telling stories around my ethnic background. I could not have expected the journey it took me on. I learned so much about myself and felt an intense validation around a story I was nervous to tell. I helped give voice to my community, and contributed an insider’s perspective about the Iranian American Diaspora to the world at large.

Just as important, is our willingness to receive stories. Seek out films that offer a different perspective. Films can provide a beautiful opportunity for connection and understanding. As much as we crave reflection of ourselves, take a chance on a film from another culture. You may be surprised to see yourself reflected in it anyway.

This blog post is dedicated to my grandmother Mosley who immigrated from Iraq to Iran to be with her true love Habib at age 15, and my parents Farideh and Abraham, who immigrated to The United States in the late 1950s to start a new adventure.

*****

Image #1: Still from the film America 1979 - The Shirazi family finds out that Regina’s being bullied at school because she’s Iranian. In 1979, the Iran Hostage Crisis turned melting pot immigrants into terrorists overnight, a fate that has repeated itself for Middle Eastern people in the United States since.

Image #2: Still from America 1979 - After a rough day at school, Regina finds comfort in a book. For most kids of color, their difference is pointed out to them sooner than necessary, and not always in the kindest way. America 1979 shows how kids can absorb hate at home and spread it at school.

*****
America 1979 is available for free viewing for a limited time in honor of Norooz (Persian New Year) and as a contribution to the resistance against our current political administration. It is a story of an Iranian American family grappling with discrimination and bullying. Even though this story takes place in 1979, it unfortunately it still rings true for Middle Eastern people in the United States. You can also view it at america1979.com/screener. Watch, enjoy, and share!

Join Seed&Spark in celebrating #100DaysOfDiversity!

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Lila Yomtoob

Lila Yomtoob is a writer, director and producer. Her recent narrative short, America 1979 is her first film about her Iranian American heritage. It was the official selection at over 20 festivals and markets, will be available on Comcast Streampix, and is distributed by Gravitas Ventures. You can learn more about her work at www.yomtoob.com and www.america1979.com

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