It’s difficult to identify the exact moment when the shift occurred, but it must have been sometime after President Bush debuted the phrase “axis of evil” in his January 2002 State of the Union address, and sometime before Azar Nafisi’s memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, landed on the New York Times bestseller list two years later. From the mouths of politicians, broadcasters and members of book clubs across America, Iran no longer sounded like the past-tense conjugation of a verb for fast movement. “Eye-ran” had become “Ee-rawn.” This refinement of pronunciation, tentative at first, has grown exultant. Recently a correspondent for National Public Radio emphasized the long “a” so earnestly it sounded like “Ee-rone.”
What made this development possible was, first of all, the 1997 election of President Khatami, which opened an era of reform; newspapers reported that veils were slipping, young people were partying and the Internet was working its subversive magic. Around the same time, galleries in New York and Los Angeles showcased work by Iranian artists, and Iranian films became wildly trendy (since 1997, when Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry won the Palme d’Or, seven films from Iran have won prizes at Cannes). Through some alchemy of politics, optimism and the vagaries of pop culture, Iran chic was born.
Even when the reformist revolution did not arrive as hoped, the consecutive tragedies of 9/11 and the war in Iraq kept Iran in the spotlight. In 2003 Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian human rights lawyer, won the Nobel Peace Prize, and a few months later a massive earthquake struck the Iranian city of Bam. The very next month, Iran achieved the ultimate form of mainstream recognition in the United States: three Academy Award nominations (for House of Sand and Fog, a drama about an exiled Iranian family struggling in California). Meanwhile, Iran’s last empress, Farah Pahlavi, published her recollections in An Enduring Love. The Iranian-French illustrator Marjane Satrapi published a second volume of her comic book memoir, Persepolis, to great acclaim. Another memoir, Journey From the Land of No, by Iranian-Jewish emigré Roya Hakakian, received ample praise. And Nafisi’s book jumped from hand to hand; now at week sixty-two on the bestseller list, it shows no signs of slowing down.
To those of us who arrived in the United States from Iran during the 1979 revolution, just in time to unpack our bags, pour a cup of tea, turn on the television and find out that our countrymen had taken fifty-two Americans hostage, all of this recognition has felt a bit disorienting. My family had moved from Tehran a year before the hostage crisis, to a quiet mountain town in New Jersey that used to be a popular summer getaway for middle-class New Yorkers. Most neighbors were welcoming. It took a while before they made the connection between Eye-ran and the polite new family at 16 Country Lane, and in any case, my parents had the odd habit of answering “We’re European” to the question “Where are you from?” One day, in 1980, my father was chatting with a neighbor on our front lawn when the conversation turned to current events. “What do you say we just bomb the hell out of these assholes?” the man asked. Though my family had been in Iran for generations, we are Armenian, and so perhaps a bit more “European” in appearance; the neighbor had no idea he was talking about the city where my father’s mother and sister still lived. My father said nothing. (The unwitting fellow, who became a dear friend, returned later that day with two beers and an apology.)
My older sister’s peers were no less energized by the hostage crisis; in fourth grade they called her Ayatollah Toumani, a taunt whose political precocity might have been impressive had it not been so hateful. (One can only imagine how many immigrant children in America have lately endured nicknames like Osama or Saddam–or how many bear the inconvenience of actually having those names.)