On Becoming Iranian Part I

Bijan Roghanchi is a photographer and writer. He was born and raised in the United States by an American mother and an Iranian father. In June, 2011 he left for Iran to spend a year asking of himself what it means for him to be Iranian. His book, “Becoming Iranian” (due early this year), is the distillation of two and a half years in Iran and nearly 30,000 photographs. We asked him to write about his experiences and what compelled him to travel to Iran. This is part of one of Bijan’s incredible story of a journey of identity and an Iran unseen.

 

Most of what I remember is in images. I wonder if I became a photographer because I have a tendency to remember things that way, or if my stores of memory were slowly converted into simple visual elements over time.

My earliest memory is a series of three images, distinct scenes, narrated by one sentence. It takes place inside the house I grew up in, a duplex on Dunnell road in Maplewood, New Jersey. A creek ran through the backyard that swelled in heavy rain and once even overflowed all the way to the back porch. Across the street up a steep embankment ran the New Jersey Transit Morris and Essex line, east to Hoboken and west to Gladstone. A large white front porch with heavy paint chips popped off the blue shingles of the house

The first scene takes place in the living room, which was long and narrow and small, but didn’t seem that way in my child’s eye. The viewer looks in from the kitchen doorway. Large windows run the length of the left edge of the image and glow winter blue. My father’s aunt is sitting hunched over slightly in an armchair. She wears black, which wasn’t unusual. To her left are her two daughters and behind them other characters, too dark and blurry to make out. They recede into the background that ends at the front door. My father sits by himself on the opposite side of the image, motionless and solitary like Rodin’s Thinker, only his face is buried in his hands. His presence, alone on the far right of the frame outweighs all the other characters combined.

The second scene is more of a painting than a photograph. It is a portrait of my mother. Tungsten light from the overhead kitchen lamp illuminates her like a character from a Rembrandt painting. She’s sitting in a chair and the viewer looks up to her almost from the floor and I have to remind myself that I’m seeing all of this from a child’s perspective. In the image she doesn’t move or speak, but I can hear her voice. “Go kiss your father, he’s very sad.”

Finally from the same spot at the kitchen doorway where the first scene takes place is the last. Now my father is centered. He is still motionless, devoid even of breath while my brothers and I climb and crawl on him and wrap our arms up and over his shoulders.

“My childhood was punctuated by events like these, half experienced and half imagined.”

Very few elements of these images ever change in my memory. Each of the scenes run equally in length and always in the same order. Sometimes I see my father as he is now, an older man, heavyset and elongated by age, his hair thinning. But he’s always in the same place like a stone resting on the chair.

It was the day my grandfather died.

I never met him or even heard his voice on the crackling end of a transatlantic telephone line. I had only ever seen one image of him, a bushy eyed black and white portrait that lived on a windowsill until it disappeared one day.

My childhood was punctuated by events like these, half experienced and half imagined. My father was born and raised in Iran and over time the divide between my life in suburban America and his life on the east end of Tehran grew wider. When he spoke in Farsi with family I would pick out names and places and they became characters and scenes in my imagination. If one of them died I could experience their death, but I could only imagine them in life.

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Following the death of my grandfather my father couldn’t immediately travel to Iran to pay his respects. It was only a few years later that he became ineligible for the mandatory military service in Iran. Again I remember the event in images; two massive black suitcases filled with a strange assortment of goods, Tylenol, Hershey’s chocolate bars, vitamins, disposable razors and more, all in bulk sized packages. I remember the look on his face when he left and the same look when he came back. There was sadness on both ends, leaving his boys in one direction and leaving his childhood in the other.

“Before I could answer he cut me off saying “I thought you were American”.

The suitcases came back with him, refilled with a new assortment of souvenirs. There were outfits for my brothers and me, bracelets for my mom, smoked white fish from the Caspian Sea and thin strips of sour candy pressed from pomegranate paste. We realized the candies were wrapped in cellophane after we’d eaten half of them. My most prized possession from the lot was an Iranian national soccer jersey with the name Mahdavika screen printed across the shoulders.

I wore that jersey to school during the opening rounds of the 1998 World Cup. A teacher stopped me in the hallway between classes and asked why I wore it. Before I could answer he cut me off saying “I thought you were American.” Though I couldn’t verbalize it at the time I knew that if I had been wearing a UK, Italy or Ireland jersey nobody would have questioned my nationality.

Throughout adolescence I grew used to new teachers and substitutes mispronouncing my name. It didn’t bother me. I grew up with most of my friends since kindergarten and they could pronounce it just fine. The mispronunciation however, would often lead to questions like where are you from? Which invariably lead to more questions about Iran. My answers neither satisfied myself, or the questioner. I was from Maplewood, New Jersey, born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I had never been to Iran and couldn’t even speak Farsi, yet I was identified as Iranian-American.

During the first week of my sophomore year in high school two planes flew into the World Trade Center. The smoke of the collapsed towers was visible from my hometown. Whatever divide existed in me before 9/11 it was increased exponentially afterward. Within a year Iran was added to the Axis of Evil. By the time I graduated we were at war in Afghanistan and Iraq and a day didn’t go by without Iran in the headlines. And for all the articles and front page images nothing reconciled with the imagined place I dreamt up as a young boy.

“I had picked up the camera, my two way lens to look out at the world and into myself.”

The desire to travel to Iran wasn’t born from the experiences of my adolescence or early adulthood. That drive began in childhood. Iran was the place where my father was from and where my grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins still lived. Geopolitics took the back seat to culture and cuisine. My brothers and I grew up on Iranian food and the near mythical reputation of my grandmother’s cooking.

With time the nature of that trip did change. I had picked up the camera, my two-way lens to look out at the world and into myself. I’d traveled, lived and worked overseas. I finally had the tools I needed to explore my other half – the imagined side. And in march 2011, after an unsuccessful attempt 5 years earlier to get my Iranian national documents. I had my Shenasnameh (Iranian birth certificate) and passport.

Three and a half months later I was waiting in Newark’s Liberty International Airport to board my flight and begin a 27-hour journey via London and Frankfurt to Tehran. I planned on spending one year in Iran asking of myself and of the country what it meant for me to be Iranian. 864 days and 26,110 photographs later and I was ready to come home.

 

Follow up and find out more on Bijan’s story in Part II of ‘On Becoming Iranian.