In "Why Americans Hate Politics," E. J. Dionne argues that the reason why a high number of Democrats turned into neoconservatives during the seventies and height of Vietnam protests was because those who offered sharp criticism came across as not only against the war and its foreign policy at the time, but against America as a whole.
I think he is right. Since I am no exception from that principle and have dedicated myself to serving this country as best as I know how -- by making regular constructive criticisms of its policies, especially under the current administration -- on this Fourth of July, I want to tell you why I love America, which is the reason for my commitment to serve it to begin with. I want to do that not by writing a list, but by sharing a story I wrote a while ago about my first days in America following my move from Iran. Here it is.
Every person who has left his or her country has at least one story to remember and constantly reassure oneself that leaving was the right decision. For me, that story is about a summer night in 1999 in Tehran. Earlier that day, my girl of interest had called me and confirmed our rendezvous for that night. I was going to go to her house and we were then going to go to a park near her house. As it got darker, I put on my nice clothes and headed toward her house. I was filled with both excitement and fear.
After I met up with her, we carefully walked our way toward the park, picking the sidewalk that was less visible. This was a clandestine effort. As we arrived at the park, we continued walking faster until we found an isolated bench that was surrounded by trees. By then, it had gotten pretty dark and we thought no one could see us. It was perfect!
But half an hour through our conversation, what we were afraid of happened. We saw the shadows of two men appearing from between the trees and coming toward us. I literally stopped breathing, hoping the worst wasn't happening. But it was. The men belonged to Komiteh, Tehran's religious police. As they came closer, one of them called me up and asked me questions about my relationship with Melika. The other one interrogated Melika to see if our answers were consistent. Although we passed that test, we were both arrested for being on a date while not being married or engaged. This is how the only date I ever had in Iran went.
On that night, I was deeply convinced that I didn't want to live in a country that banned me from spending time with people I cared about the most. So after Melika's parents bribed the police and we were released, I went back home to my parents and made my plans clear to them: I was moving to the United States that very summer. That's why I moved to my new home - America - to live on my own at age sixteen.
My father and I arrived at the O'Hare Airport in an afternoon that summer. As we walked through a long hallway toward the U.S. customs, I looked at the tall Marlboro advertisements with pictures of cowboys and Victoria's Secret ads with large pictures of women who were revealing more than I was prepared to know. I tried to avoid looking at the scandalous pictures to avoid possible embarrassment until we entered the U.S. Customs reception room, a large and extremely clean room with a high ceiling, naturally lit and filled with lines of passengers waiting with their passports. Seeing the reception area, enormous police officers and custom agents with their weapons, huge advertisements and signs with words I could not understand, I remember how small and scared I felt. Even though I had been in America before, I still knew little about it. I could just see it looked like a much better place to live than where I came from. That's all I needed to know then, and for better or for worse, there I was.
My father's cousin, Narges Arvin, and her husband greeted us at O'Hare. They were a wonderful elderly couple with whom I was going to stay. Before the Iranian revolution of 1979, Narges was the Minister of Education in the province of Western Azerbaijan, and her husband, Ali, was a retired physician and military officer under the late Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. I was born three years after the revolution so I knew little about it. My school teachers told me that three years before my birth, the people got tired of having the foreigners make "important decisions" in the country's affairs and shah's way of suppressing people who disagreed with him. So the people decided to start a revolution and kick shah out of the country and end the Monarchy's twenty-five-hundred-year-old life. My teachers told me that I should be proud of the revolution. My parents and the Arvins disagreed.
My teachers only had nice things to say about the revolution. But my parents taught me that after 1979, religious factions in the country hijacked the revolution through terror and deception, and established a theocracy that placed Khomeini as its supreme leader. These religious radicals forced most high-level public officials, including the Arvins, out of their jobs and left them with little choice but to leave the country. Following their departure, most of their assets and properties were confiscated. The Arvins now ran a two-person travel agency from one of the two bedrooms of their small apartment in Chicago and barely made enough money to survive. They were certainly fortunate enough to be able to escape Iran just before the revolution - like most modern revolutions - began eating its own children. Nonetheless, I always thought it was very sad that they had spent most of their lives working hard and earning high-status posts just to lose everything they had and start from point zero. But I found myself even more fortunate to have the opportunity to escape at an earlier age. Throughout my life in Tehran, I came to believe my parents' story over my teachers'. But Throughout my first days in the United States, the story of the Arvins was a constant reminder that everything I was going through was worth it.
My father stayed in Chicago for a week. The Arvins took me and my dad to Lincoln Park High School - soon-to-be my school - to meet with my program coordinator. The high school was very different than the high school I have gone to in Iran for two years before coming to the United States. My previous school in Tehran was a private school made from a large residence of a pre-revolutionary public official, which the government had confiscated after 1979. It didn't look like a significant landmark. It also had no more than a hundred and fifty students. But Lincoln Park was much larger, older and more beautiful, and had seventeen hundred students. And on the inside, the classes had similar shapes and sizes. They didn't look like they were bedrooms converted into classrooms. It seemed as if they had actually intended the building to be a school when they built it. This was not always the case in Tehran.
Then there were the girls. I had gone to all-boys schools in Tehran for ten years. This was because boys' and girls' schools were separated after the theocracy came to power in Iran. But at Lincoln Park, girls and boys were mixed everywhere! They walked, talked, laughed, studied and played together... as if they were equal! That's because they were. And of course, there was no religious dress-code for girls. I already knew that even before I stepped outside of Iran for the first time. But seeing it reminded me of the freedom I was in America for.
One week after our arrival, we drove dad to the airport. I remember not saying a word while in the car, because I knew I was going to start crying if I did. I had lived with my parents all my life like all the other children. And now, my dad was about to leave me in this foreign place all by myself where I could not even speak the language well enough to ask for help. I was thrown off the boat not knowing how to swim. But that's what I had asked for. All of these thoughts were running through my head as I choked back the tears, watching my dad through the glass wall walking away. But as I turned around to go back towards Arvins' car, I saw a young couple holding hands and embracing each other without fear of being harassed. That was when I thought to myself, "I'll be alright."
Komiteh at work. This is where your tax money goes in Tehran. Photo from the NY Times