In reflective moments I’ve asked myself how I, a woman of African American heritage married to an Iranian, could have found a home for myself in Iran—I mean, where the points of connection were. Just how did their world intersect with mine? Did my being black impact my perceptions of them, my experiences with them? And did it impact their perceptions of and experiences with me?
I really have no fast or sure answers . . . just memories, inklings that opened windows inside my mind and are still evolving. Times Mahmoud surprised me in conversations by bringing up figures from the civil rights movement in America: Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall--names he’d apparently learned on television or in a classroom when he was a student back in Iran. As I gradually picked up Iranian history, I learned of a people beset by dominating forces from both without and within. It seems that Mahmoud somehow identified with the black American’s struggle for equality, or recognition … or even an answer to that occasional wondering: like when certain persons look at you, do they first see you or just a category?
It shouldn’t have surprised me when several years later I found a portrait of Dr. King and Malcolm X framed squarely on the wall of my parents-in-law’s household. It was a striking picture of them smiling together—two men who hadn’t always seen eye to eye, but because of the goal they shared for racial and social justice, they solidly built a bridge across their differences.
Yet while in Iran I was frequently touched by things people saw as our similarities. Many would say I had facial features similar to the Shirazi women in southern Iran. Others would place their hands next to mine and point out our skin tones as almost identical. In my last trip over in early May, a niece whose skin is much fairer than mine ran up to the roof to get “bronzed-up” like me. And in a painting that my niece Rokhsareh shared–not with me, but on Facebook—I saw her clear admiration for the people of my heritage.
Last but not least were my own observations–things about Iran that linked back to “home.” The free-flowing laughter over practically anything. The gestures that came with a good, raucous story. The jubilant spirit of carefree dancing. And the endless stream of aunts, uncles, and cousins, like when I was a young one at family gatherings. While Cleveland Ohio's warm smells were of grits, eggs, and bacon and Iran's were of sizzling kebab and rice, it was all being part of a big loving family that created a space for "home" in both worlds.
Dr. Leslie Ahmadi discovered her intercultural calling in her parents’ home at age four--where between the jazz, the spirituals, and the rock ‘n roll music, she heard folk songs in languages from around the world. Thirty years later she had a doctorate in foreign language and culture education--and her folk song guitar never far away.