Porochista Khakpour: My father and I are both refugees who have made US colleges our adopted homes
Editor’s Note: Porochista Khakpour is the author of the novels “Sons and Other Flammable Objects” and “The Last Illusion” and the forthcoming memoir, “Sick.” She has taught creative writing and literature at universities including Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University, Wesleyan University, and Bard College, where she is a currently visiting writer in residence. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
When news of Donald Trump’s executive order broke on Wednesday, I had just started a new semester of adjunct teaching at Columbia University. I was relieved to put my phone on silent, mentally shelve the news, and face a new classroom. I was back to walking with a cane – I’ve had late-stage Lyme disease for years – and I wondered which joke to lead with first: something that would disarm them about my illness, or something about how their professor might be in an internment camp before their finals. I did neither. I dreaded the end of class, when I’d have to look at my phone again – wondering which part of my identity would clash with what fresh news update: partially-disabled, chronically ill, Iranian, American, artist, academic, journalist, woman.
I’ve been teaching in America since 2003. It’s in my blood; my father has been an adjunct professor in America since the early 1980s – the second time he came to the US. The first time, he came as a student, a math and science wiz in Tehran who went to MIT on a full scholarship. And decades later I – also born in Iran just before the Revolution – am someone who, like my father, sees the academy as home. We are Iranian refugees, those somehow now-reviled immigrants, who have never once not worked in this country.
By Friday, a day I spent largely between browsers on my computer – rumor had it Donald Trump was maybe minutes, maybe seconds away, from signing a Muslim ban, around 4:30 – I was making syllabi (for two other classes I teach at Bard College). My father was doing the same thing, 3,000 miles away.
The rest of that night for me was a night not unlike many I’ve had since 9/11, which happened when I was 23 and living in the East Village as a freelance journalist. I spent it reading news articles, crying, and wondering: What is going to happen to this country, what will they do to my other country? You can be a refugee once, I’ve always thought, but how to be one twice?
The things I believe we have in common
Americans often hear of the stories of affluent Iranians of Los Angeles, but many of us don’t fit into that – I grew up with my father’s small adjunct income, with my brother and I sharing a tiny bedroom until I was 17. I now live in a small one-bedroom in Harlem on a salary not unlike his, barely livable adjunct wages plus freelance work here and there, plus modest book advances.
As a child, I accepted that we were different but I reminded myself that was the mission of America, “the land of immigrants,” a haven for those who had lost their homelands. (It took me many years to grasp the reality of the real Natives here, past fuzzy textbook platitudes.) By the age of 4, I had decided on my future: to become a writer. I wanted to write books because reading and writing were all we had when we fled from Iran to Turkey through Europe, and eventually to the US. My first memories are all of air raids, sirens, long bus rides, the anguish of my parents, the revolving temporary homes (from Swiss convent to Skid Row motel) – but also of books. Paper and pen and books my parents bought here and there for me were what replaced all the toys I had back home in Iran. We would be back, my parents assured me, but we never were. And I just got used to the paper and pen and books.
And they are still my life now. It’s the life I teach my students. It’s the life I participate in socially. I believe in stories, I believe in art, I believe in culture. I believe these are the things we have in common.
It took September 11 to teach me that many would find my identity an impossibility, that my Iranian and American sides represented incompatibility at best. On 9/11 I was not yet an American citizen, as I am now. I had a green card, and I was immediately worried about its expiration. It wasn’t until November 2001 that I became a US citizen (the result of my mother’s efforts starting many months before 9/11). My father still only has a green card.
Before 9/11, I had laughed at the terms “naturalized” and “resident alien.” But it wasn’t because I didn’t see the bigotry. I knew in my first few years of America in the 1980s that we were hated, every time someone asked me where I was from (this was the era of “Nuke Iran” bumper stickers, and I now own a button from that time period that features a different four-letter word before the country where I was born). But it took 9/11 to make me realize I was culturally Muslim and proud, and that in spite of no practice, I would forever be part of the story of Islamophobia.
I thought back on those experiences this week when hearing from and reading about those affected by Trump’s executive order. I’m still processing it all. In a few days, the semester will be fully under way and I will be back in my element, among students and colleagues. I’ve always felt safest on college campuses, where the promise of American freedom is most realized. As a child I was obsessed with the concept of freedom of expression, not to mention education’s potential as great equalizer – that I could exist alongside the richest kids, still have access to their opportunities, study with mentors who could help me reach those dreams. Just the potential was something. Was it a bubble? A dream? The history books were full of examples of those like me, immigrants who had fled religious persecution, or whose ancestors share that story – who had made their dreams really happen.
What bridges our hyphenated identities now?
I’ve been talking to many friends about what might happen next and this is the one thing I keep coming back to: I hope I don’t have to leave mid-semester. There are rumors that naturalized citizens may be targeted next. And the “Iran” birthplace on my passport has never not caused problems – I was detained and questioned relentlessly for many hours in Tel Aviv this past summer on a work trip, used to joke for hours with other brown people and the Irish in our “special lines” at Heathrow, and I have many more stories of international and domestic travel mishaps thanks to my name and country of origin. I’ve accepted that. But when I imagine being pried away from my life here, what guts me most is the idea of the end of my service here, of what has given meaning to my life. College campuses are the only homes my father and I have ever had; they are the places that bridge our hyphenated identities.
Some people would say my father and I are both successes, and they applaud us for achieving the American Dream. But when we have a president who boasts of reading no books, not using computers, who has a deep suspicion of media, who ran a fraudulent university, what hope is there for the life of the mind? Given that this kind of life is already undervalued economically in this country, that question is less theoretical than it sounds. We couldn’t afford to leave, in several senses of afford. And now add to it, that our actual lives might be rendered valueless by our own country’s government.
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On Election Day, my mother wrote me: “I know you are disappointed, frustrated and sad, as most of us are today. Today I felt exactly the same way that I felt 37 years ago when our country went through revolution and we had to leave the country that we loved and grew up in. We survived and started all over again here and today we have two wonderful, successful kids and a place called home again. That was a change for life, but this is not! This change is only for 4 years or maybe 8 years. So keep having hope, work hard and stay positive because this does not last forever.”
I think of how, after hours of trying to console my distraught college freshmen last semester, I landed on, We can do this. My family and I did it before, I said, and if it comes to that, you can do this too. But the problem is that I can’t tell them with certainty what the “this” is – it’s not clear at all what the new reality we’ll face looks like. Maybe one way to live, lately I’ve been thinking, is to remind myself there never really was.