Bitta Mostofi

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Voices in the Wilderness

Bitta MostofiI’ve been working with Voices in the Wilderness (VOW) for two years. I volunteered as a student. Then I began talking to the Iraq Peace Team, I’ve been working with them since September of 2002.

I went to Iraq during November and December of 2002. During the war there were from 30 to 50 of us there at any one time.

During the invasion lots of people were kicked out. Through the fall of Baghdad, VOW maintained about twelve people, they’re still there now.

From there I went to Iran. I couldn’t return directly to the US.

My parents came to the US in ’72 to finish their education. My brother was born here, but my parents always intended to return. My father worked as a dentist in the army under the shah. They went back in ’78. My father joined the faculty at the University of Tehran and established a private practice.

He supported the revolution against the shah in ’79. When the shah was overthrown there was a power struggle. No one knew who would be in the government, what kind of a regime there would be.

In Iraq I was completely embraced. People would speak whatever Farsi they knew, tell me “you are our sister.”

My father left Iran then and I was born a few months later in the US. Our family were secular Muslims. We began to make a life here. My brother and I have maintained dual citizenship, we both hold Iranian passports. Because of that we have been able to go back and forth and maintain contact with our family.

My family was nervous about my going to Iraq. They were our enemy through eight years of war. But I have always been involved in peace activism. I could never identify with Iranian nationalism.

In Iraq I was completely embraced. People would speak whatever Farsi they knew, tell me “you are our sister.” From there I went to Iran. The first words out of my cousin’s mouth were, “what in the world were you thinking, going to Iraq?”

It was good to be with my family because after that they looked at Iraq in such a different way. At first people didn’t want to hear about the impact of the sanctions. As they heard more about what I had seen there, they became more sympathetic. They also expressed a lot of fear of attacks on Iran, either simultaneous or following the US invasion of Iraq.

My family had no trust in the regime or the outcome. Some would embrace US intervention in Iran because of the regime. Others said, we’ve worked for so long to avoid violence. We’re making change, we can’t sacrifice our sons and daughters.

I returned to the States at the end of January [2003] and began speaking. I hit the ground running. Since then I’ve been speaking and doing interviews. I’m beginning to be known all over Chicagoland.

It’s sparked a lot of discussion in the Iranian community that my parents are part of. The community has many divisions. My parents’ circle is people who left before and during the revolution, mostly wealthy, educated professionals. Some of them voted for Bush. Because of me, many have begun to put a face on Iraq that they didn’t see before.

Various people have thanked me for what I’m doing. They’ve said I’m a role model for all children from Iran. I’ve challenged them to draw the connections — to realize that Iran will be next. They are beginning to pay attention to alternative media.

I’ve challenged people to draw the connections — to realize that Iran will be next.

Others would never discuss the issue because they don’t agree… My parents caution me not to talk about politics. I talk when I am approached — and I learn interesting things about people. One older friend began to talk to me; I think he was dismissing me because he is older. He was arguing that religion is the root of all evil, the cause of people being persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, and forced to recant on national TV. Like people who were communists, who fought for revolution and felt betrayed.

Some people donated medicine for me to take. I was waking up the past for people who have just tried to live their lives. I never saw discussions of politics like recently.

Iranians often identify as white, not as Middle Easterners. Now they are beginning to identify more with other Muslims, other Middle Easterners. They are feeling the same persecution — the stares, the comments, the fears when traveling …

It doesn’t matter that they are wealthy or that they don’t identify with the regime [in Iran] … the situation has stripped away the protections of money.

Bitta MostofiMy mother was recently in Marshall Fields, there was a woman in front of her at the cash register. My mother didn’t understand what was going on. The woman turned around and said, “stop trying to look at my credit card,” covering up her card. My mother said, “you think I’m a terrorist,” and the customer asked the cashier to call the manager. My mother thought it was so stupid, the way things like that can divide the country …

My parents have been very supportive of me. My mother worries about the danger to her — she is afraid to go to protests, it’s really sad. In the Iranian community people had to register; my uncle was very worried, he has four children here in school…

Since I’ve been back I’ve been speaking at universities, religious groups, churches, community centers, libraries. Sometimes I’ve advertised that I will be speaking about Iran as well, and Iranians have turned out. They are glad to hear the connections being made. I’ve spoken locally around the region, and also in South Dakota, Austin, Washington, New York.

In Iran there has been a huge influx of Afghan refugees. We never talk about the impact of war on neighboring countries, the economic pressures. People in Iran do not want refugees to come in with Iraq war. They are not allowed in.

I’ve been very fortunate, I haven’t met with much antagonism. The hardest is when I am speaking in high schools. I always ask, how many of you have friends or family members who are fighting? It’s always over half. If they’re lucky there’s 10 minutes of discussion about it in the classroom.

I am waking up the past for people who have just tried to live their lives.

Most audiences are very receptive. People are searching for hope, for reasons to keep working for peace. Hearing comments from people who are active gives people encouragement.

Some of my best experiences have been with children. Children respond to the pain suffered by Iraqi children. They ask things like, “why do people think it’s ok to go and hurt other people’s children?” It’s so important for youth to be getting educated about this…

What I’ve seen makes me want to learn about people’s experiences in the aftermath of other wars – Native Americans, or the Palestinian experience of occupation. In South Dakota, there were some Native Americans in the audience, who were drawing connections with the experiences of Native American communities. Other people in the audience there were from Sudan, Iran, Turkey …

Ali Abunimah, a community leader here in Chicago, has said, we don’t want to frighten people more, we need to listen to what communities are saying. It’s the same as Voices in the Wilderness, which has stressed listening to the Iraqi people, not the government.

We need to engage communities and listen to what they are thinking and feeling. We can’t tell people what to do without doing that.

The fear of persecution is definitely in the back of my mind, because I’ve put myself out there. I’m vulnerable because I’m an activist, because I’m a Middle Easterner. I’m also worried that I will make my parents more vulnerable because I’ve been so outspoken.

They have never asked me to step back, but I think that my mother is afraid. I was born and raised here, I identify as American as much as Iranian — but at the end of the day, does that really matter?

We need to engage communities and listen to what they are thinking and feeling.

There is a letter circulating among Iranians, regarding visits from the FBI – because people give donations to humanitarian organizations, groups that are not even on the terror lists. They have been naturalized US citizens for more than 15 years, but still the FBI visits to ask them why. I’ve heard many of these stories.

In California, the Iranian community were almost entirely supporters of the shah, very wealthy people. After 9/11, 100,000 Iranians demonstrated in solidarity with the US. People call LA “Tehrangeles,” there are billboards there in Persian.

The community protested detention when faced with special registration. It was an awakening to them to realize they were no different. Iranians have assimilated, they identify as white. Now they are finding out that more is involved than leaving your nationality behind. You still have an accent, cultural roots, Persian names…

Since I was little I’ve always been proud of my culture. As I child, I always took cookies to school for the Persian New Year, so I could talk about our holiday observances.

As I grew older, it was important to me to maintain my relationship to Farsi and to my family, who are scattered around the world, in Germany, Canada, the US, and Iran. I’ve gained so much more than I’ve lost …

I don’t want to lose, misrepresent, or misplace my identity. It’s not about nationalism. Having a foot in both places helps me break down barriers … I can never put up walls because I’m always in two places.