He’s a gas station attendant. He’s a cashier at a seedy liquor store. He’s a terrorist. His shirt is wrinkled. He’s sweating. He’s sporting a light stubble, more likely a full beard. His skin appears oily and unclean. He never smiles.
These are the varying shades of Persian men I’ve most often seen depicted in American movies. Other than the color of their skin and their accents, they bear no resemblance whatsoever to any of the Persian men I know. But ask my grandmother about this disparity and she’ll note that while Persian actor Shaun Toub did indeed play a disgruntled Persian-immigrant shop owner, he did so in an Academy Award-winning film. My mother, too, will only focus on the positive, reminding me that acclaimed Persian actor Payman Maadi acted alongside Kristen Stewart in the 2014 film Camp X-Ray. When I point out that he portrayed a terrorist locked up at Guantanamo, she sighs with exasperation, as if to say, “So what? He was in a movie with Kristen Stewart!”
Last month, writing for Broadly, writer Leila Ettachfini probed a similar phenomenon. Speaking with her mother, aunt and grandmother — all Muslim, Arab immigrants — about their thoughts on cultural appropriation (specifically their feelings about white people adopting henna), she discovered that her protectiveness over her parent’s culture as a first-generation American came with greater vigilance than theirs:
“The women in my family, however, remain excited anytime a woman in a movie, ad or tabloid is pictured in henna. ‘Look, look at her hand! She’s wearing henna!’ my mother, aunts and grandma never fail to point out, as if she is giving us a personal nod, a silent compliment. I roll my eyes. In the past, I have tried to explain to them why it pisses me off, and while they are receptive, they still perceive signs of our culture permeating America to be a positive thing.”
To that end, I can understand — even if I can’t fully appreciate — the vindication and sense of pride felt by my aunts and uncles when the “us” in this scenario welcomes one of “them” as their own. It explains why they’re always quick to point out the various “Persian” spices on the menu at an upscale restaurant serving modern cuisine. “Look, it has turmeric, and the ice cream is the flavor of saffron,” they’ll note at a place serving delicious, albeit bastardized, Middle Eastern food.
For them, inclusion in any form is good. They don’t take into consideration the insidiousness of cultural appropriation. Their understanding is innocent and free from nuance.
I see it differently. I’m uncomfortable when I see a Persian man or woman depicted in a way that might perpetuate negative stereotypes. In this political climate, one that demonizes their country and its people, it’s dangerous to be so careless about these representations. And although I’m glad to see my parents’ culture — specifically their cuisine — permeate the mainstream, it shouldn’t have to be done on American terms. Doing so is theft.
In a controversial piece for The New York Times, Bari Weiss argues that cultural appropriation is “the most natural process in a melting-pot country like ours.” She adds, “The accusation of ‘cultural appropriation’ is overwhelmingly being used as an objection to syncretism — the mixing of different thoughts, religions, cultures and ethnicities that often ends up creating entirely new ones.”
While I won’t deny the value in mixing thoughts, religions and cultures, what Weiss fails to understand is that this “most natural process” isn’t one that’s mutually conferred upon. Persian-American citizens and restaurants have been using “exotic” spices for years while living in this country, but it’s not until a white chef experiments by adding tarragon to their omelette or sprinkles sumac on French fries that the flavors are lauded for their creativity.
When I ask my dad how this one-sided cultural introduction makes him feel, he tells me that he takes pride in the fact that Americans are finally catching up with the richness in our food and our culture. “Before, people would come into a Persian restaurant and look at our stews and say, ‘That green stuff, I’m not having that green stuff,’” he explains. “But now, ever since the juice craze, people realize the nutritional value these spices and herbs have to offer. Now, that ‘green stuff’ has a name.”
I can see his point — that some understanding and acceptance of his culture is better than total ignorance. But it’s still hard for me to swallow.