Before & After: Stories from New York
Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood Books, 2002

As the son of an Iranian father and a Jewish-American mother my sense of sorrow concerning the disaster of September 11th does not tend toward patriotism. In fact, I am repelled by it. I speak as a first-hand victim of American patriotism in 1979, the year 66 U.S. diplomats were taken hostage in Iran. The underbelly of American patriotism is where I resided for 444 days when I was ten-years-old and living in Pittsburgh, a city with virtually no discernible Middle Eastern community.

My father, who had abandoned me at birth, was living in Tehran in 1979 and the prospect of dropping bombs on Iran was a deeply personal reality for me. My connection to my father was tenuous at best, and I came to a very private reckoning during that time that his death was imminent and that the handful of memories that I had of him were the only ones I would ever have. The turmoil I was undergoing was in direct counterpoint to my countrymen who rejoiced noisily in the potency of American might, as American might was their might. To be sure, the underbelly of the flag is not a pretty place to be, it is solitary and dangerous, but it reveals a great truth about the exclusivity and violence of this country, and one who has experienced it does not soon forget it.

It was not, however, American patriotism that was ultimately my great antagonizer in 1979, but rather American innocence, which fuels and drives patriotism. Of all the religions of the United States it is this religion, the religion of innocence, that most afflicts the American psyche. It obscures a clear understanding of American past and American present, and it maintains as one of its central tenets that the guilty — and there must exist innocent's opposite — resides on foreign soil and within foreign bodies. In 1979, despite having been born in the U.S. and having lived every moment of my ten years in America, I became a foreign body.

The difficulty for me at age ten was not so much if my father was to live or die, but how I was to preserve an unpolluted sense of him within myself. Everything I came in contact with in that period conspired to corrupt him and shame me from him. A choice was proffered: my father or my American identity. I chose my father and in so doing I found myself defending Iran; I defended Iran and in so doing I defended my father. Teachers ignored me, classmates taunted me, friends rescinded dinner invitations. I was countering what we, the population, had been taught in first-grade when we first learned about the gallant innocent American pioneers. By the time we had reached sixth-grade the doctrine was so deeply entrenched that there was virtually no way it could be effectively altered. Walter Cronkite was nightly corroborating what our history books said; my friends‚ parents were corroborating what Walter Cronkite said; the U.S. government was corroborating my friends‚ parents; and Johnny Carson was corroborating them all. To deign to suggest an alternative point of view was an heretical act, it was insulting the complete fabric of the country. I took to carrying a piece of sharpened metal in my pocket, determined to go for the eyes if there were ever cause. I was isolated, both outside of myself and within. It was the price I paid for defending a man who, as I was forced to admit to myself years later, had not once defended me.

What I did not know then was that none of this was about myself or Iranians. It was about to what great length Americans needed to venture in order to preserve their innocence. If Iranians were guilty, after all, there would be no need to dehumanize them, they could be depicted accurately, and in the simple accuracy of such a depiction would lie their sins for all the world to see. Since this was not the case, the American media, among other entities, found itself beholdened to endless calisthenics of reproducing under-exposed, black and white photographs of Iranian men; intellectual investigations into the psychology of Iranians; footage of American flags burning in the night; rapid-fire proclamations in a foreign tongue, leaving much to the frightened American imagination. America was not attempting to reveal Iran, but to confound it, which had the reverse effect: it revealed America, its racism and its xenophobia.

©2002 Excerpted by permission of Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood Books.