Sometime in the 1970s, my father shook hands with Indira Gandhi, and she told him and a whole cohort of restless young men like him that their services were needed for the greater good of Asian solidarity. Then she loaded them all onto a plane.
I don’t bother anymore to ascertain the truth of this story. I know the basic facts–men were indeed loaded onto a plane. Most of them held things like stethoscopes, manuals, Farsi dictionaries, and hopes for adventure and prosperity. It was time to get to work, opening clinics, seeing patients, building houses, bringing good Indian medicine to resource-deprived, underrepresented tiny kingdoms. Somewhere along the route to prosperity, more than a few of those men were dropped in the rural peripheries of Iranian Kurdistan, where my mother lived.
Those are the facts. The embellishments of memory that come along for the ride, like stickers affixed to battered luggage, make the facts a good story.
Everyone and their favorite pundit seems to know about Kurdistan these days, thanks to the usual dubious reasons–war, internecine conflict, the media freaking out about Middle Eastern women going outside and being armed revolutionaries. Still, the part of Kurdistan that falls within Iran’s borders remains an afterthought in a conventional international focus on the conflict areas of Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. It’s the little separatist engine that couldn’t.
However, in the 1970s, the Kurdish region of Iran was the place to be. For some people, for a little while. In Kurdistan, they found majestic mountains, verdant farmlands, towering snowdrifts, indigenous style icons. Places and people to fall in with.
I’m not sure what the locals like my mother thought of these well-intentioned interlopers. Maybe she, smart and studious enough to be a better doctor than all those Indian men combined, wondered why the Shah was funneling money into deals with Indira Gandhi instead of into his peripheral subjects’ education.
Kurdistan: where bored Indian professionals go to make a living under economic exchange schemes. Where Filipino nurses join them. Where extreme scarcity ferments an accidental multiculturalism. Where diasporas form.
Then, eventually, some end up in America, still chasing that prosperity. Still partial to mountain ranges.
This is, supposedly, what compelling immigrant stories are made of. A strong symptom of the American fever dream is the compulsion to tell stories. Some secondary ailments hit immigrants pretty hard, usually manifesting as a nagging voice that tells them it is fulfilling, perhaps healing, to become an American human through narrative. We contribute to the varied fabric of America by pouring our guts out in orderly fashion to be woven in with the rest of the national entrails. Now you belong here.
I’m not sure I know anymore what narratives are supposed to do for a first-generation child like myself–should they give me a sense of history? Continuity? Selfhood? Roots. That thing, that sense of coming from somewhere. Everyone needs some of those.
South Asianness has come naturally to me, more or less, as a cultural zone to inhabit. The things we call our own specific variety of South Asian culture have, for one thing, more means of travel, more people to carry them. Somehow my parents found an Indo-Pakistani community everywhere they settled in America, no matter how rural or obscure. Satellite TV services sold you whole Subcontinent channel megapacks. Far-flung uncles mailed you VHS tapes of the Sa Re Ga Ma episodes they recorded for posterity.
Kurdish community? Not so much. They’re out there, somewhere, right? Kurdsat TV has to get broadcast to someone, after all. Maybe the folks weren’t looking hard enough for them?
More cultural mobility equals more cultural staying power. But, that mobility is also, crucially, attributable to patriarchy and the many forms of dominance enabled by gender privilege. Women have always been voyagers, migrants, refugees, settlers. But they are too often prevented from telling stories of sojourns and odysseys on their own terms. They are more often compelled to become the quiet supporting cast of the narratives of men, on scales large and small, individual and world-historical, personal and political.
Kurdistan: she gets the world’s political fascination and green fields, but not much of the story when all’s said and done. Like a woman chafing at the binds around her life, whose will to freedom always seems to butt up against the whims of one autocrat or another.
Somewhere along the way I realized half my roots were parasitic, the other half infected with a disease called repression. Poor Kurdistan, always getting the short end of the stick or the long end of a gun. Not getting to pass on that folkwear, that language, that struggle against subsumption, not even through a single family. Is this why I cannot trust my own history?
One of the challenges of being a mixed-up product of two linked Asian worlds is that the somewheres don’t always coexist peaceably. No, this is not a sad story of being too X for Y or being caught between A and B. It’s a meditation on the endpoints of a story. I can narrate a series of events that make a life and result in the emergence of my own, but it wouldn’t explain the emergence of myself. The truth is that some narratives kill others. That family stories replicate the politics of the worlds in which they are assembled.
The facts do not create a narrative; the facts do nothing more than relate a process of erasure. I know the story and it tells a half-truth. If family history is built upon half-sunken foundations, is it wise to live inside it?
Instead of facts, I choose to salvage sentiments as compensation. I like to pretend that whatever tepid activist impulses I have, whatever orientation towards justice, comes from an inherited collective memory of a struggle for self-determination. It’s a cute feeling, hopelessly, naively romantic. When my hair glows in the summer sun with the red strands I share with maternal great-grandmothers, I think, “There are those roots coming up!” I make things up, to remember the truth.