In the summer of 1998, as Iran and the U.S. were preparing to play each other in the first round of the World Cup, I decided to examine my own Iranian roots a little more closely. This was not a simple matter. For starters, my father was Iranian and my mother was Jewish American, leaving me somewhere in between, in a kind of ethnic no man’s land. Then there was the messy business of my father abandoning me as a baby and my mother raising me without any knowledge of Iranian language, culture and history. The result: at age twenty-nine I found myself an American in every regard except for a certain thirteen-letter unprounceable last name. I was a composite of two halves that were irreconcilable strangers to one other.

None of this personal complexity was evident, however, in the lead up to the World Cup match. In fact, the pre-game was surprisingly cordial despite the history between the two countries. Iran hadn’t been to the World Cup since before the 1979 revolution and the U.S. was hobbling along with a short, pathetic history in the sport. The whole thing was being billed as a just-happy-to-be-here competition.

It also happened that in the months leading up to the World Cup relations between Iran and the U.S. were markedly improving. The recently-elected president Mohammed Khatami appeared on CNN delicately presenting his “felicitations to all the followers of Jesus Christ, to all human beings, and particularly to the American people.” Bill Clinton said that he sincerely hoped the two nations could find a way to end their long estrangement, and Madeline Albright found it in herself to thank the Iranian government for helping to bring peace to Afghanistan. Nineteen years of enmity was finally being laid to rest, said the New York Times.

That figure, nineteen years, was derived by counting forward from the day Iranian students stormed the American embassy in Tehran in 1979, and proceeded to hold fifty-two Americans hostage for four hundred and forty-four days. Another way to calculate the duration of Persian-American ill-will would be to start from the CIA’s overthrow of the democratically-elected prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 and the re-installation of the shah to his throne. That would make forty-five years of enmity to finally bury. But the people who mattered when it came to these things were saying let bygones be bygones.

I was disappointed by this happy turn of events. First of all, I happened to agree that 1979 was the genesis for enmity, because it was most certainly the genesis for my enmity. In 1979 I was a fatherless ten-year-old living in Pittsburgh, PA and being labeled by my sixth-grade classmates as a co-conspirator of those Iranian hostage takers. These classmates had great fun mispronouncing my name (first and last), speculating on whether my father had ever engaged in sexual intercourse with a camel, and describing my mother as having a dot on her forehead and terrible body odor. If given the chance at age ten I would have cashed in all of my Iranian heritage for the most middle of the road American identity and never looked back. But nineteen years later, what need did I have for reconciliation? I had become fully acclimated to my deep sense of exile and was looking forward to seeing Iran beat the shit out of the U.S.

©2005 Excerpted by permission of Harper Perennial.  

“Sayrafiezadeh’s essay on Iran is beautifully written, funny and touching.” 

                  —The Guardian


The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup, Harper Perennial, 2006