Existing As An Other: A First-Generation Iranian-American On Why She Respected "Zero Dark Thirty"

"Zero Dark Thirty" is a movie about violence and torture and obsession, but I kind of wanted to get up and cheer. Being a first-generation Middle Eastern American is weird and complex and conflicting like that.
Publish date:
January 11, 2013
movies, issues, middle east, zero dark thirty, bin laden

As a person, and one who happens to be a movie reviewer, I feel like I’ve been waiting for "Zero Dark Thirty" for a long time -- too long.

I don’t just mean that it was released in New York City and Los Angeles in December 2012, nearly a month before finally widening its release on Jan. 11, 2013. Kathryn Bigelow’s latest film isn’t just entertainment for me; it’s catharsis. It’s a manifestation of the one moment in my life -- despite being born and spending my entire life in the United States -- when I’ve truly felt American: after learning of Osama bin Laden’s death.

Something about the triumph I experienced after hearing of another person’s execution seems tragic. But so it goes. And yes, "Zero Dark Thirty" is a movie about violence and torture and obsession, but I kind of wanted to get up and cheer. Being a first-generation Middle Eastern American is weird and complex and conflicting like that.

My full name, Roxana Zivar Hadadi, is made of three words you probably can’t correctly pronounce, let alone spell. My skin color is always darker than the foundation samples I rip out of women’s magazines. Much to the skepticism of countless friendly strangers, no, I don’t speak Spanish, and no, I’m not Hispanic. Yes, I am eating a pomegranate. Yes, I seeded it myself. Yes, I was raised Muslim, but no, I’m not an Arab, but yes, I am a U.S. citizen.

My parents are Iranian immigrants; I grew up in the privilege of Montgomery County, Md. and I’ve been an Other my whole life. Just ask the kids who called me a sand n----- from kindergarten to high school.

My parents are both ridiculously intelligent, and came here from Iran -- as all American Dream-seekers do -- for a better life. My mom was No. 1 in her class; she traveled to the U.S. to attend college on a full scholarship, earning a master’s degree in biology and eventually working toward a Ph.D.

My father, in the Iranian military during the time when Iran’s monarchy and the U.S. government were friends, participated in an army exchange program that brought him stateside; we have pictures of him beaming next to American service members in a graduation photo. He also earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from the Catholic University of America in D.C.

My parents met as students at CUA, fell in love, got married, and had my older brother in 1984, and then me in 1987. My brother is a doctor. I’m an entertainment writer. You can guess which one of us is the favorite. (It’s not me.)

My brother is pale, tall, bright-eyed, and a genius; as a baby, he was full-on white blond, Silva-from-Skyfall-style, and people back in the 80s would consistently report my parents to security, thinking they had kidnapped a white child.

I, however, would never be mistaken for anything but foreign. I’m dark-skinned and I have frizzy hair; my unibrow just won’t quit. When I was growing up, it was clear, so very palpable, that I was different. Everyone in my elementary school classes had someone who looked like them; I wasn’t part of any group. I got beat up a lot.

When my mom went to MCPS’s Board of Education in Rockville, Md., to figure out what race my parents should mark for my brother and me on school forms, the supervisor took out a huge book of all the countries in the world and their corresponding races, looked up Iran, and dictated that we were white.

Try telling the kids at school that.

I vehemently wanted to be anyone else. I wrote “Kimberly” on all my school papers in first grade, because, let’s be real, the pink Power Ranger was the best, and she got Tommy, who was clearly the hottest Ranger in the bunch. I saw "Titanic" and yearned to be Rose, rejecting societal expectations and forging her own path. Buffy Summers? She remains my idol.

But I didn’t look like those white girls and they didn’t look like me, and I wasn’t ashamed of my Iranian heritage, necessarily, just super aware of how it set me apart physically and how my classmates marked me as “not one of them.” My parents didn’t let my bleach my upper-lip hair or shave my legs until high school, and so that became ammunition for a variety of bullies.

Girls of my generation, all of whom grew up watching Disney movies, dreamed of one day being Belle, with the fancy yellow dress and the charmed life. I, however, felt more like Beast -- hairy and angry and misunderstood. Physically, I was already an Other. Emotionally, it was about to get a lot worse.

I was 13 years old on Sept. 11, 2001, a freshman at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., a member of the magnet arts program there. I was in Algebra II. I saw all the same images and footage we all did.

As class was canceled and we all spilled out into the courtyard, I needed a phone; I needed to call my father, who worked in D.C. -- I needed, like so many other people that day, to know my loved ones were safe. I remember asking a classmate, white and pretty and athletic and one of the most popular girls in our program, a girl people liked and lusted after, to borrow her cell phone to call my father.

“Why?” she asked. “Do you want to see if his plan worked?”

Because now my olive skin and my unshaved legs meant that my little father, who looks exactly like Gandhi, was a terrorist.

The next day, when my father and I went to buy a cake for my birthday, which is September 12, the bakery clerk asked if we wanted to write “Happy 9/11” on the pastry. It began to dawn on me that how I viewed myself as a physical Other was becoming a reified, universal thing. I was a zealot or a fundamentalist or a “suspicious” person on a flight.

One TSA agent wanted me to cut off my 14 gold bangles, presents and heirlooms from my parents and grandmother, to see what I was hiding under there. Because anything innocuous, on me, was suddenly a threat.

I’ve asked my father if he thinks Sept. 11 changed his life. He’s grateful to be in the U.S., not in Iran (my parents, like most expatriate Iranians, disagree with the religious hardliners’ politics and regime), so he’s hesitant to speak ill of his experiences.

My mother, who was a much-respected nurse at the time of the attacks, isn’t so silent; she’s vocal about how people at work changed their treatment of her, how the communal atmosphere became a divisive, abusive one practically overnight and has stayed that way since.

I’m not as patient as my father nor as defensive as my mother, but I was born here and I can judge other Americans -- and I will. We’re always told as children to talk about how we feel; I feel like a marginalized scapegoat in a militaristic system that far too easily allows entire groups of people to be treated like shit. And yet that military-industrial complex is part of me, too; it’s what made May 2, 2011, the day we captured and killed Osama bin Laden, the day I’ve felt the most American in my whole life. I even said “we” right there, because, yay, nationalism!

Bin Laden’s actions, his cruelty and idiocy, created the conditions for the emotional wreckage of my family. My parents have spent the majority of their adult lives in this country and yet they’ll never be accepted as Americans. I’ve spent my entire life in this country and I don’t know if I’ll be accepted, either. I don’t know if bin Laden’s death was enough to return our country to normalcy, but I’ve never felt normal. I have never, in my entire life, felt fully like one of you. But bin Laden’s death was a start.

So yes, "Zero Dark Thirty" (despite not being perfect, and actually, I think, inferior to other films about the United States’ complicated relationship with the Middle East, like "Syriana," "Body of Lies," "Paradise Now" or even Bigelow’s previous Oscar-winning film, "The Hurt Locker") helped fill some broken part of me.

Because maybe, with bin Laden’s death, we can finally move on from the racism and jingoism that’s particularly plagued this country since Sept. 11.

Maybe my parents and I can go out in public and speak Farsi and not get the side-eye. Maybe people won’t ask me where I’m from “originally” and then make a face when I answer Iran. Maybe things will get a little bit more inclusive, a little more accepting, a little less fucked up. Maybe.