The word 'wog' is a uniquely English one, although today it is an apt description of my status as an American if not a good description of how I feel. The British used to apply the not-always derogatory term to Middle Easterners: Arabs, Turks, Persians and North Africans, and although the etymology is disputed, "westernized oriental gentleman" seems not only affectionately acceptable but also a true description of people like me. Well, perhaps not gentleman, but certainly man, and 'wom' doesn't sound as good. (Somehow women were never referred to as wogs, either because of their unimportance in Arab societies or their irrelevance in the English one.)
The first time I heard the word was when I first returned to England at the age of ten, after a childhood spent as a baby and toddler in England, then America and then Iran, India and North Africa. As the son of an Iranian diplomat, I had attended American schools in each country where being slightly different had no significance to a student body made up of not only expat Americans but also better-off locals and the offspring of diplomats from around the world, except of course, the British, who tended to leave their children at home, or rather, at boarding school. Arriving in England right before the start of a new school term, I was only vaguely aware of not being American, for I not only dressed and sounded like one, but I believe that I thought like one. (Having to recite the pledge of allegiance every morning before class may have had something to do with this confusion of identity.) Of course I knew we were Iranian: my mother did pray on a rug three times a day (after which she put away the chador and reverted to the latest Western fashions), but my whiskey drinking and Saville Row-tailored dad, despite his accent, seemed thoroughly Western and never discouraged my notion of American-ness. Being late to apply to a good public school (what they mystifyingly call private schools in England) my father enrolled my brother and I in what was considered to be one of the better grammar (no-fee) schools in London, St. Marylebone. Somehow, the headmaster took a liking to us and probably thought that the introduction of a couple of Iranian boys who sounded American might be good for the school. I suppose he didn't think much about whether it would be good for us, for he would have otherwise suggested the American School in St. John's Wood.
I showed up at school the first day not knowing what to expect, other than to see a lot of other boys dressed exactly as I was in a school blazer and grey trousers. I understood that the uniform was meant to remove any distinctions, class or otherwise, amongst the boys (it was still a boys' school then), but little did I realize that it would afford me no protection and little anonymity as a new boy, and a wog to boot. I remember joining the crowd in the yard just before the bell rang; a crowd that was busy kicking footballs and generally messing about, and I quickly retreated to a corner of the high brick walls that enclosed the school property. A group of three or four curious boys approached me, and this is what I remember of our exchange:
"Who do you support?"
"Excuse me, what do you mean?"
"Who do you fucking support? Are you a yank?
"No. I don't understand the question."
"What are you then?"
"A country in the Middle East."
"Listen, if anyone asks you who you support, you say Arsenal, got
I received a heavy shove to the chest that knocked me back against the wall. I had heard of Arsenal, the football (or soccer) team, by watching television, and now I understood: St. Marylebone was obviously an 'Arsenal' school. At lunch time, back in the same yard, I was approached by a different group of boys asking the same question:
"Who do you support?"
"Arsenal?" I said quietly, hoping to avoid another shove. I felt a fist in my stomach instead, and I doubled over.
"You fucking wog, you support Chelsea, got it?"
I felt another blow, this time to my head, and the boys were off. I was confused for a minute and then quickly decided that I wouldn't be a 'supporter' of anything from then on. (To this day, I really don't give a shit about any sports team, including the New York Yankees.) Now at school I was not only a wog, but a wog who didn't like soccer, which I'm glad to say confused the boys of St. Marylebone no end and resulted in my making no friends, but which may have prevented further physical altercations. A year later, when my brother and I transferred to St. Paul's, a well-known public school, I was greatly relieved that the snobbery that then still existed didn't allow for the sport of soccer at a school that felt it was an amusement for the lower classes. As such, if anyone liked the game they kept that fact to themselves, for this was years before it was chic to be blind to class distinctions. Also, the boys at St. Paul's (again, no girls), were slightly less prone to calling one a wog, unless one made them really, really angry which I managed to do on a few occasions. Of course, off the school grounds one was fair game, and I was often reminded of being a wog, either playfully by other schoolboys or on a few occasions while being struck about the head by hooligans (usually Chelsea or Arsenal fans.)
I stopped being aware of my wogness after high school in England. It was very simple really; I just moved back to the States where it wasn't a factor. I won't deny however, a wonderful sense of satisfaction in later years watching Englishmen, from hotel footmen to bankers, groveling at the feet of rich Arabs who, knowingly or not, rubbed their very wogness in their faces by wearing flowing robes and headdress when traveling about London in their chauffeur-driven Rolls'. Many of these groveling Englishmen were undoubtedly Chelsea and Arsenal fans. At any rate, I soon forgot about wogs and being one, and until the Islamic Revolution in Iran I felt somehow American even though I wasn't one and made no claim to be. (Americans often tended to make that assumption if one didn't have an accent, which made it even easier to forget one's wogness.)
Being Iranian, which had been viewed as terribly exotic but not incompatible with being American up until 1979, became uncomfortably démodé upon the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran. A number of Iranians became Persians, a sleight of words almost guaranteed to fool those outside academia, and many, many Iranians anglicized their given names to blend in more easily. I did neither, and I can't really say why other than my perhaps naïve faith in America as a society where one's roots were to be celebrated rather than disguised. (Also, since Persia was the British name of my country I never felt quite comfortable saying it, for it wasn't that Reza Shah had changed the name of the country but merely insisted that everyone call it by what it had always been known as to Iranians.) Somehow in my heart I knew that hostages would be released unharmed, mainly because I didn't think my countrymen were complete idiots, and Americans would quickly forget about "Eye-ran" and "Eye-rain-ians". Well, it took a bit longer than I thought, and my countrymen proved sillier than I had believed possible, but forget America did. And then it was a long period of relative calm and of just being American, unless your accent gave you away. U.S. Citizenship came to me in those years, and although INS inspectors were required to give one the chance to change one's name with a sweep of the pen, my refusal of the generous offer was met not with indignation but with a "good for you" by my immigration case officer. "You have a nice name", she said. "I'm glad you're keeping it." How American I felt! She made me completely forget that I was a wog.
When the planes hit the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, I knew it wasn't the work of another McVeigh. It had to be the work of professionals, and the only professionals I knew who could or would pull off something like this were Moslem. As George Bush has said, Moslems are a talented people. And Moslems were now going to pay. On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I sat in my apartment less than a mile away from the WTC, shocked like the rest of us but also realizing that I was about to become a wog again. Either you're with us or you're against us. I heard that in my head before George W. uttered the words. Walking down the deserted west side streets of Manhattan less than an hour after the second tower fell, I noticed not only the stunned faces of those out and about on the empty streets, but also the American flags that were already popping up and a slogan hurriedly scrawled on a pick-up truck: Get the Arabs.
This time I knew that America would not forget, or at least not quickly. It would be neither possible nor fair to expect anyone to forget 9/11 anytime soon. People were already suggesting, I'm sure to the amusement of quite a few African-Americans, that we Moslems were "the new niggers". I fully expected, in the months after 9/11, the reaction of America: the targeting of "swarthy" males as suspects, the occasional violence against Moslems or even people who look Moslem (that includes, unfortunately for them, Mexicans), the both overt and subtle racism against Arabs and Islam. It didn't surprise me that Howard Stern suggested we nuke an Arab country, any Arab country; it didn't surprise me much that Ann Coulter became a popular guest on television shows and advocated immediate invasion and conversion of Moslem lands; it didn't surprise me that normal political correctness in the mainstream media gave way to vilification of Moslems and mockery of Islam. And it didn't surprise me that a popular comedian such as Dennis Miller could refer to countries like mine on television as 'shit-holes'. But it surprised me a little that I felt very much a part of the group that was being vilified. Prior to 9/11, I had always (without thought) played the part of the "good wog", the wog who is westernized to the point of not realizing he's a wog anymore. But if it's 'us against them' then what am I? Now I began to feel a little shame for the abandoning of my own culture. But they, the ones who attacked us, hated me too, or at least people like me: the assimilated wogs who had become indistinguishable from the heathens they lived amongst. I had never felt the obligation of any particularly strong kinship with other Moslems, for culturally most Moslems are as different from each other as the British are from the French. Now, however, we were all lumped together as Moslems and 'Islamic' and I was one of them, unless I made a point of exaggerating my American-ness and downplaying or even denying my roots. Forget about visiting a mosque (not that I'd ever been to one in America), for who wants their name on a list, any list, at the FBI? Imagine for a moment if going to a church or a temple resulted in one's name being included in the 'potential terrorist' files at the FBI and the CIA. I had never felt this way before. Never in my life had I ever wanted to don robes or turbans or grow a beard, and I didn't want to now. But before, I knew that if I wanted to I could, and other than appearing eccentric, unassimilated, or being mistaken for a New York cabbie, it would be harmless or meaningless to the rest of society. Now it certainly wouldn't. Before, I had never given a thought about what political opinion I might give. Now I did. I was a wog, and either you're with us or against us. The slightest hint of Islam could send the wrong signal. And now, suddenly after all these years, I felt a kinship with other Moslems. Not the terrorists, but the other 999,999,981 Moslems who hadn't felt a burning desire to hook up with numerous virgins in paradise. (Okay, maybe there are more than nineteen people who want to blow up the U.S., but maybe there are more than a billion Moslems in the world.)
I hadn't felt this kind of kinship all my years growing up, not even when I was a wog in England. A popular bumper sticker post-9/11, and pretty faded these days, proclaims drivers of the cars to be "Proud to be an American". It really should say "Lucky to be an American", for I doubt very much that the drivers had much say in having been born here, and are not old enough to have participated in the drafting of the Constitution. Like those bumper stickers, there are still, four years after 9/11, people walking around with little American flags in their lapels. (George Bush and his cabinet never took them out.) What does it mean? That the wearer of the pin is an American? Can John Walker Lindh wear one? Or Jose Padilla? To the US administration all I can say is we know you're American, but if the pin means you're proud of America and the constitution, then why are you trying to subvert it? To everyone else parading around America with little flags on their breasts, we don't care if you're American. Isn't that the whole idea of America? At least I thought it was. Before 9/11, I had an enormous admiration for my country of choice (rather than birth) for I was rarely asked where I'm from, even with a name like mine. I remember once, shortly after my oath of citizenship, being asked where I'm from and my giving an indignant reply, to which the questioner said that he wasn't being judgmental; he just thought I was from California. California! Why? Because the "hippies used to name their kids all kinds of things". God, you gotta love Americans! Shortly after this exchange I was at a dinner party in London where the person sitting next to me asked me where I was from. Replying America, I was greeted with an oh-so-British smirk and the following: "nooooo, I mean from where before America?" I was tempted to say that I am a wog, through and through, but I knew she had already surmised that. I also wanted to explain what America was, but decided to be polite instead and answer her question. (Perhaps I should have said "California" and left it at that.) I realized then that outside of America and Iran, I would always be a wog. It didn't bother me much, for I've always had a return ticket to JFK when I've traveled anywhere, and the 'welcome home' greeting immigration inspectors mutter when they're stamping one's passport is more satisfying to a wog than they could ever know.
Either you're with us or against us. Things have changed in the last four years. America re-elected George Bush and 9/11 is fading, just a little. But I fear that America and Americans are getting used to an "us" and "them", a society where it does matter where you're from. I'm asked the question regularly, and sad to say, I'm getting used to it. Somehow it's not quite the country I thought it was four years ago, but I know that with a different president and administration, America can again be what it was to people like me. There can't be a Patriot Act, and there can't be a Donald Rumsfeld supporting his Undersecretary of Defense when he proclaims Islam to be Satanic. We can't have liars and cheats in the White House, people whose every other word is "terror" or "terrorist", and we can't scare Americans into thinking that American Moslems might be a fifth column in the so-called "war" on terrorism, or that a two-bit dictator like Saddam Hussein was actually threatening America. We can't walk wogs around on a leash at Abu Ghraib, and we can't keep people, children included, in a concentration camp in Guantanamo Bay because we think, just think, that maybe they want to blow up America. But this will all pass, and on July 4th, maybe, just maybe, I won't be an American wog, but just an American.