Last month my school held a professional development day for all the staff and, much to our surprise, an elaborate breakfast was served. You mean I don’t have to eat my usual soggy oatmeal while frantically replying to 200 emails at 7 A.M.!? *gasp*
I stood in the school library facing the breakfast bar, gazing at the basket of fruits, the cinnamon rolls, the warm coffee steaming from cups, the assortment of cheeses and thought….This must be exactly what it’s like to be a tech guy!
Minus the tech.
Minus the guys. There are no men on our team of therapists. And I am the only non-white woman. That day, I filled up my breakfast plate and came to take a seat when an older colleague I hadn’t met before approached me.
My name is Reyhaneh. It’s derived from Arabic and is used in Persian poetry (like Rumi) to refer to fragrant flowers. Take off the last syllable and it also means a bunch of basil:
My name when printed, like most other Persian/Arabic names has the ability to make white people completely illiterate. Just one look at my name, and instead of sounding it out, or breaking it down by syllable — you know, the strategies you were taught in grade school-they freeze and go pale. Roll call was always awkward.
My name is also 100% forgettable.
I’m not surprised that “Sahara” popped up in this woman’s mind as she was struggling to remember the mysterious string of foreign syllables that I had uttered. She couldn’t remember the name, but surely she could remember Iran. Because when you say you’re from Iran you cease to exist as an individual. “Iran” is all anyone can focus on. It’s like hearing the word “free”. It really doesn’t matter what is free. Your brain is fully occupied now with that single word. Free!
To some, “Sahara”, may seem like an honest, totally random, mistake. But, if you take into account the law of association, that if you associate something with certain symbols over and over again — even when those symbols are false — your brain associates them as fact. Then it made complete sense why “Sahara” came to her mind.
The Middle East has been paired with negative images for so long….
She heard “Iran” and what immediately popped into her head was this:
She didn’t even hear me say “fragrant flower”. Her associations were already built and they fired away when she heard “Iran”. She’s from Iran…but what was her name? Gee, dangerous place. Something desert like, with an arid feel, but name-like. Probably, Sahara? Sounds Middle Eastern. Let’s go with that.
But when you hear “Iran” what should pop into your head is this:
That’s the real experience.
Catch yourself the next time a negative image appears in your mind about a group of people or country. Intercept it. Doubt it.
Instead of thinking: “WOW, I can’t BELIEVE it’s like that over there!*gasp*” Question it.
Think: “hmm…Is it really like that?”
Then you won’t be robbing an entire nation of all its beauty, and you’ll actually be amazed at how much beauty unravels around you.
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Always Not Quite is a graphic memoir written and illustrated by two sisters about their experiences as not-quite Iranians, not-quite Americans, and not-quite Muslims. If you like this piece, check out some others below: