Growing up, my parents would always take my sister and me — along with our entire extended family and their friends — to the park on the 13th day of spring. I will never forget the feeling of building anticipation with every stop we made to pick up more people as we got closer and closer to our destination. After we reached the parking lot and the adults had unpacked the cars, we would make our way closer to the park. With each step I could hear the music more clearly, catch the smell of kabobs grilling, and see more and more Iranian-Americans like me celebrating the last day of Persian New Year.
This holiday is dedicated to being with family, friends and strangers alike and wishing each other good health, prosperity and happiness in the new year, and it was the most prominent reminder of my culture as a child. Memories of meeting new people and offering everyone pastries, fruits and everything else that we had with us countless times, dancing as the DJ blared Googoosh over the speakers, and being with family and friends formed my definition of what it meant to be Iranian.
However, other people do not see my culture in this way. Instead, they reduce it to the politics that they see in the news. Such is evident by Sen. Lindsey Graham’s recent actions. Graham joked that it would be “terrible” if he took a DNA test and the results said that he was Iranian. As insulting and wrong as a comment like this is, it is not particularly surprising. Iranians have faced plenty of offensive comments like this over the years. This hateful rhetoric is fueled by the political discourse, stereotyping and xenophobia that have been perpetuated over the years, all of which are results of being misinformed.
What people fail to understand is that the political climate of a nation does not define its people or their culture. When one is uninterested in exploring other cultures, it is natural to misjudge a nation based solely on what that person has chosen to see in the media. Some choose to see only the issues between the Iranian and American governments. But people are not characterized by their government, especially in a country with so much political unrest.
An entire demographic of people cannot be generalized to fit a certain mold based on a government that many of them do not even live under. The United States is home to 500,000 to 1 million Iranians. Many of them have become prominent figures in our society, like Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, 2014 Fields Medal recipient Maryam Mirzhakhani, journalist Christiane Amanpour, NASA scientist Firouz Michael Naderi and comedian Maz Jobrani. Yet, this entire group of people that has been observed as one of the most noteworthy has continuously been stereotyped and degraded because people are letting politics determine how they view an entire nationality.
What truly characterizes people is the things they value, the traditions they uphold, the way they treat other people, the lives they lead and the culture they embrace. Iranian culture is far from the headlines that people choose to focus on. In stark contrast, we are a culture that emphasizes the art of tarof, or offering and insisting to prioritize the needs and desires of others over your own. We value treating people, even if we have only just met them, with the same generosity and consideration that we would to our family and closest friends. Ingrained in this culture is the importance of treating people with respect, valuing time spent with each other and celebrating life.
These convictions were also brought to the forefront by the late Anthony Bourdain who visited Iran in 2014. In the baring episode of “Parts Unknown,” Bourdain explored the discrepancies between expectations of Iran based on what we see in the news and what the country is really like. Bourdain noted, “I was really knocked sideways by how well we were treated in Iran and how delicious the food was and how hospitable ordinary people were to us.”
When one’s exposure to cultures different from their own is limited to the politics and government issues we see on the news, their understanding of different people and places is misconstrued. Politics do not define an entire culture and should not impact how we view a large group of people. Instead, we should take the time to learn about different cultures and appreciate them because they are what make life so rich.
Graham is one of many people who fail to do this. As a leader in a nation so diverse, it is incredibly irresponsible to insult an entire people’s nationality. No matter what the politics are, they do not define people. If Graham would take the time to observe the Iranian culture and its people, he would find that it is based on the importance of hospitality, kindness, art, celebration and, perhaps most importantly, food. What is so terrible about that?