One of the most pleasantly surprising moments of my life took place in an innocuous fish and chip shop on Iffley Road. It was two terms into my first year at university, the Thursday evening hall option looked questionable, it wasn’t raining so the walk wasn’t too daunting: as good a time as any to see what East Oxford had to offer in terms of British cuisine. The chippy was run by a small, jovial man with a face-wide grin and an obvious interest in getting to know all his customers personally. He asked my friend what she studied. She said English. He asked if she wanted to be a novelist someday. She said yes. I stood dreading the inevitable moment when the spotlight would turn to me and – even before coming on to future career choices, which is an anxiety inducing topic in itself – I would have to go through the common but uncomfortable experience of introducing myself, by name.
Hesitancy over introductions is one small but persistent drawback to having a dual national identity. But there are some positives. Being Iranian has many ancient and noble connotations. Herodotus wrote that Persians prize three attributes above all others, and tailor their education accordingly: to ride well, shoot straight, and always speak the truth. The country has a rich cultural history, including carpets, cats, and kebabs. Marjane Satrapi, the graphic novelist who created Persepolis, is a treasure in her own right. But unfortunately, all this can be eclipsed by nomenclature-related problems.
For me, the words “What’s your name?” prompt a reaction of trepidation for such a frequent and basic question. The issue is fundamental: however you think it is pronounced, you’re probably wrong. It was chosen from a book of Persian names my grandma dug out at the birth of each grandchild. I was going to be called Minu – a far easier title to master – but Minu was the name of the cat in my mother’s French textbooks at school, and my grandma knew someone she hated called Minu, so it was vetoed on two counts.
Sometimes I wonder how many awkward introductions I would have been spared if the cat was called Claude, Louis, or Mathilde. My knowledge of the polite-but confused smile (a British trademark) would be far less intimate than it is now, and my aversion to introductions, hellos, and ﬁrst meetings would be much reduced.
When I tell people my name, the interaction always progresses in a similar way: either the subject is quickly changed, or they ask me to repeat it many times, often to no avail. My now-boyfriend thought I was called Charlotte for the first two weeks of our acquaintance. I wish I could say this was an uncommon occurrence but I want to uphold as much Persian virtue as I can. I have no talent for horse-riding and no access to a bow and arrow, so I will not tell a lie.
My actual name is spelt as phonetically as possible, but the accuracy of pronunciation is largely lost in the transliteration from one alphabet to another. My grandma told me it means ‘dew drop’ in Farsi, but Wikipedia tells me it means hail stone. Unless I’m feeling unduly combative, I tell people it means dew drop.
So back at the chip shop on Iffley Road, when the short friendly man behind the counter turns to me and asks my name, I experience all the familiar symptoms. The heart sinks, the smile fades into a pre-emptive apologetic expression, a sigh is suppressed. “Jaleh”, I say, and his face lights up. It’s a Persian name, he tells me. “I know! My dad is Iranian!”, I say, followed by the shameful disclaimer: “No, no, I don’t speak Farsi, I wish I did.” It transpires that the man at the fish and chip shop is Iranian, and I should call him Uncle Kaz. “Have a nice day Jaleh-joon, you take care now.” No-one has called me Jaleh-joon since my grandma died in March last year. I have gained an uncle. This has been an emotionally tumultuous evening. But I was born and raised in Britain, so I suppress my feelings, take my fish and chips, and leave in a state of quiet appreciation.
My father was born in Iran in 1959 and moved to England with his parents when he was three. He speaks Farsi, can cook Persian meals, has visited Iran twice as an adult, and is passionately and consistently optimistic about the country’s future, often disregarding the reality of fluctuating current affairs in favour of a broad-minded, idealistic outlook. I cannot speak Farsi and struggle to handle the ingredients for an omelette, let alone the myriad herbs required for his recipes – although I can manage tadeek, a kind of giant crispy rice cake that is an Iranian culinary staple. But I have never been to Iran and am frankly overwhelmed contemplating its politics. I ﬁnd it hard to be enthusiastic about a country with the highest number of state executions per capita, and where homosexuality can – and does – lead to capital punishment.
My situation, of having a strong emotional connection to another country without much first-hand experience of the national culture itself, is in no way an unusual one. As with anything concerning self-definition or self-perception, ‘national identity’ is a complex and mutable concept. In my lifetime at least, the phrase itself has never been more fraught and loaded than it is now. You would expect that globalisation and all its knock-on effects (more accessible travel, immediate worldwide news, products purchased online from any location) would cause people to feel less strongly affiliated with their cultural or geographical home. Once you realise how easy it is to sympathise with someone on the other side of the world, for example, or become interested in events that have no direct influence on your life, it follows that an awareness of the universal human condition would override any acute sense of belonging to a particular nation.
On the other hand, the rise of identity politics means that there are now so many sub-groups active in popular culture that it seems more obvious to place yourself in one of these wider communities (whether LGBTQ+, ethnic, or generational) than to assert your position as part of a nation state. After all, the act of strongly identifying with a nation comes with the weight of history’s mistakes: political blunders, unjustifiable wars, and state-sponsored discrimination. Yet, the opposite seems to be the case. As with the Scottish referendum, Brexit, and the conflict over the vote in Catalonia, issues of national identity have burst violently into mainstream discussion. It would be a mistake to generalise too confidently, but these separate callings for an increase in national ‘autonomy’ do seem to indicate a world in which the importance of one’s country is viewed as something to be passionate about, to defend, and to be treated with a degree of sanctity.
At a time when the parameters of our everyday experience are wider than they have ever been – our knowledge and awareness has now expanded to reach every corner of the world at any time of day – the security in our own self-perception has diminished. It is difficult to be sure of your place when you are aware of a world constantly in flux. The search for belonging, and the urge to place yourself in the context of a greater social group, is a basic human need. We feel comfortable when we know where we stand, both in personal relationships and on a worldwide scale – but it is now harder than ever before to make any kind of permanent assertion when a stream of different information, opinions, and perspectives are constantly available.
It also remains the case that ‘national identity’ can quickly become a difficult subject when considered in tandem with its divisive sister-concept: patriotism. Many feel that a love for your country is a natural reaction to the familiar customs, language, and behaviours of a certain place and people which, for whatever reason, you consider to be your own. Arguably, these feelings are stronger when you do not live in the nation with which you identify – I’m sure I wouldn’t think twice about being Iranian if I was brought up and still lived in Iran, just as I rarely consider my own British identity. Thus the two identities are in some ways symbiotic, where the sense of displacement is more important than each national link would be if it existed without the other.
Indeed, it is understandable that feelings of national identity surge in times of crisis, when a country is brought together over a common threat or a common good. In the Western world, the most obvious examples are the World Wars and 9/11. At times like these, national identity answers the need for a greater network of support, and provides a shared ideological framework from which people can draw certainty and strength. The difficulty lies where the love for one’s country grows from an assertion of difference. It is a delicate balance to be patriotic without denigrating the worth or richness of other nations and cultures.
So it is tempting to view the idea of ‘national identity’ as depending upon and encouraging an ‘us vs them’ mentality which – while creating a more secure space for the ‘us’ – inevitably emphasises the qualities that keep the ‘them’ distant, separate, and ‘other’. But this does not have to be the case. The ideal would be to love the familiar, while maintaining an appreciative interest in that which is unfamiliar or different.
So for me, national identity is divorced from these big connotations. Being half Iranian is instead about the small, the intimate, the familial. It is in the language-specific terms of endearment, the suffix ‘-joon’ at the end of a name or the word ‘joonam’, which mean something like ‘dear’ or ‘darling’. From personal experience, the Iranian character is defined by a penchant for gold jewellery, chandeliers, beige interiors, an interest in impeccable self-presentation, and a strong aversion to tact, especially concerning body weight. Having not seen my cousin for a year or so, my grandma exclaimed to his face, “What happened? You used to be so fat!”.
But there is a stage where the line between the general and the specific, the worldwide and the personal, becomes more blurred , a point at which, in my mind, the abstract concept of what is ‘ Iranian’ becomes completely embodied by the figure of my Chanel-clad five-foot grandma. Then, ‘Iranian’ is a series of mannerisms and affectations: among them, her habit of shouting “Yo Ali!” in the effort to get up from a chair, and her tendency to understand words far better when pronounced in an Iranian accent. By this rule, the ‘microwave’ is an unheard-of contraption, possibly from another planet, but the ‘macro-weave’ is a useful device for heating up pre-prepared food. Likewise, ‘Hammersmith’ is an indecipherable jumble, but ‘Hammer-e-smitheh’ is a well-known area in West London.
Before she died, my grandma used to spend half the year in an orchard near Isfahan, and from her last visit she brought me back an authentic mini rice cooker so I could make tadeek at university. The rice cooker is unappealing to look at – a squat, metal object that resembles a small spaceship, but for all its ugliness it can recreate the atmosphere of Sundays at home: it conjures up warmth, saffron, and a gathering of tiny women whose loudness is inversely proportional to their size. In my head these associations are Iranian trademarks, but they have more to do with feelings of belonging and acceptance than they do with any nation or culture. Identity is slippery, especially when you know a language but can’t speak it, or feel you are something but do not look it. Blue-eyed, light-skinned, English-speaking: I am glad I have my name, because from appearance alone, I would never have gained an Uncle Kaz.
© Jaleh Brazell 2017
This article first appeared in Cherwell as ‘Finding national identity at the corner shop‘, 17 October 2017.