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Matteen Mokalla Headshot

My Life as an iRanian

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I have always viewed the 5th Avenue Apple store in New York City with a special reverence. Co-designed by the legendary Steve Jobs, the 24 hour techy market is surrounded day and night by Apple fans and tourists year round. It is so popular that just last year one internet researcher determined it to be the most photographed location in New York City. But with its design and its visitor numbers, I cannot help but see something beyond a store. In my mind, I see a high-tech retail Mecca, with its glass cube serving as its Kabbah. You see, this imagery comes naturally to me, because I am not just a regular fan of the Apple. I am an Iranian-American and I am, for lack of a better phrase, a former "iRanian."

I call myself a former "iRanian" with a heavy heart. I say it after the news broke last week that an Apple retail store employee in Georgia told an Iranian-American woman named Sahar Sabet that he would not sell her an iPad after hearing her speak to a relative in Persian. Having found out that Sabet and her relative were Iranian the Apple employee told Sabet that he would not sell her the Apple device since "our countries have bad relations." Sabet reportedly left in tears, but later had the courage to return to the store with a local television reporter who confirmed that her story was true.

Defenders of Apple have surmised in web forums that the actions of the Georgia based employee was the work of (ahem) one bad apple. Sadly, several civil rights organizations are now in the process of documenting similar incidents against Iranian-Americans at Apple stores in places as far apart as California and Virginia.

If there is any truth to Sabet's ordeal it is this: the US and Iran do have bad relations. As such, Iran is currently placed under sanctions that previously had only been applied to North Korea and Cuba. As a result just about every American made product is blocked from export to Iran.

Say what you will about the morality of these sanctions -- vital passenger plane parts are often included on the verboten list -- the problem remains that US sanction laws are vague. Making matters worse, the actions of American leaders no doubt have left Silicon Valley confused. Take for example the Obama Administration's work with Twitter. Back in the summer of 2009, the State Department convinced Twitter to keep running during Iran's internet fueled uprising, despite the company's scheduled maintenance downtime. Yet today, it is illegal to take to Iran the devices needed to use communications services like Twitter and Facebook.

According to Sabet's lawyer, at no point did she ever tell the clerk she was going to take an iPad to Iran with her. Yet, because of America's nebulous sanction laws, corporate lawyers constantly end up practicing "better safe than sorry" policies that encourage their employees to become vigilante customs agents. Sabet, it seems, was simply a victim of US foreign policy spillover.

For Iranian-Americans, this is nothing new. Back in 2003, fearful of running afoul of the law, the career website removed resumes from its service if the user had noted that they had received an education in Iran. It was thanks to the work of civil rights groups like the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) that later reversed its policy. Thankfully, Monster had the decency to meet with those civil rights groups. So far, Cupertino has declined to discuss the Georgia affair with groups like NIAC, the ACLU, and others.

Even though I love my MacBook and my iPhone I cannot help but feel a little sore for having bought them now. Apple today is the world's largest corporation in market capitalization, thanks to people like me. After all, I have bought countless Apple laptops, iPods, iPads, iPhones, and desktop computers over the years. Indeed, some of these items were gifts for my Iranian-American family members and friends.

I know for sure, that I do not want the Apple employees who have denied service to Iranian-Americans to be fired. The brilliant iEconomy series in the New York Times has already revealed working at the Apple store is the pits. All I want is for Apple to do as it preaches and to "Think Different."

I want the company that featured John Lennon, Gandhi, and Cesar Chavez in their advertising campaigns to apologize to Sahar Sabet and the other Iranian-Americans denied their right to buy Apple products. The apology should include a promise to retrain employees so that they do not violate anyone's civil rights. If that were to happen, I can assure you, I would proudly proclaim myself an "iRanian" again.

Still, as I write this piece I cannot help but remember how I took the original iPhone with me to Iran in the summer of 2008 (for the record, I also brought it back). It was during that trip that as I rode the Tehran subway that a man saw me playing with the phone and asked if he could check it out, not having seen one before. There was no WiFi underground and so the young man played with the photo app. With great curiosity he flicked back and forth between the photos on my miracle device. He pinched his fingers to zoom in on the phone's pictures and spread his fingers to zoom out. As the man handed the phone back he proclaimed to me in Persian, che aalee, "how sublime." In retrospect, I cannot help but think that those were my thoughts exactly after I bought the phone from my former Apple Mecca, the 5th Avenue store, on a random midnight.


Matteen Mokalla is an Iranian-American journalist that shares his time between New York City and the Middle East. His previous work has appeared in the Village Voice,, and Le Courier International.

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