A Fearful Duality: American and Iranian

Tara Bahrampour is the author of "To See and See Again: A Life in Iran and America" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999).

Iran’s civil liberties tug of war has been going on since the early days of the Islamic Republic, and despite improvements after the election of a reformist president five years ago, banning an entertainer from performing in public is not unusual.

So when I read that Mohamad Khordadian--described as Iran’s best-known male dancer--had been convicted of promoting corruption among young people and forbidden to leave Iran for 10 years or give dance classes for the rest of his life, I barely gave it a thought. And then I learned that Khordadian, an L.A. resident, had traveled to Iran on a U.S. passport. And that the charges of his “corruption” of young people were based on his activities in the U.S., where he has lived for the last two decades.

A surprising element of this story was that he was traveling on his U.S. passport. That’s unusual for Iranian Americans. Most of us are considered Iranian by the Iranian government and are required to travel accordingly.

This is our dance: We leave the U.S. or Europe or wherever as Americans; we make the necessary flight transfers as Americans until the boarding call for the last leg of the journey. Then, the blue passport with the gold-embossed eagle disappears into the money belt and the maroon passport with the gold-embossed “Allah” comes out. We land in Iran. If we are women, we will have pulled scarves and coats over our jeans and T-shirts before disembarking and showing our passports to the authorities.

Often, those of us with dual citizenship arrive with no stamps in our Iranian passports other than the last exit visa from Iran. “Where have you been these three years since you flew out,” they might ask, “hovering in the air this whole time?” But they don’t ask. And we don’t offer. They seem to accept our duality.

Once we’re in, our American passports stay tucked in drawers in our relatives’ homes while we roam the streets, Iranians in Iran, free from the watchful eye often cast upon American visitors, but subject to the laws of a country that has no diplomatic relations with the United States. And yet there is that secret, precious paper in the drawer; that document, coveted by so many throughout the Third World, that will open the door on our return to the outside world.

The only thing I ever actually used my U.S. passport for in Iran was to gain entry into the British Embassy, which has an English-language library that the few Americans living there can use. I arrived to see an unmoving line of Iranians who had been standing on the sidewalk since dawn, waiting to apply for British visas. I sailed to the front of the line and into the office. Sure, I was Iranian, but I was something else too.

But what would happen if I got into trouble there? Consider the nature of Khordadian’s crime: He taught young people in the U.S. to dance. How many Iranian Americans living in the U.S. could fall into a similar criminal category? What of the Iranian-born art teacher who uses nude models in his classes at an American university? Granted, Khordadian is well-known in Iran, and his problem arose when videotapes and satellite broadcasts of his classes found their way there. Still, if Khordadian can get in trouble for his activities in California, then could all of us be in danger for behaving like Americans in America?

And if we got stuck? In the absence of an American presence, the Swiss Embassy handles U.S. interests in Iran, and that idea, vague as it sounds, has reassured scores of us that we would have some recourse. We imagine we would be considered U.S. citizens trapped in Iran, with all that implies. My passport, if not a “get out of jail free” card, was like the gift from the giant Simorgh bird of Persian mythology--a feather I could burn when I needed the eagle to swoop in and rescue me.

In reality, there is not much the U.S. can do for its millions of dual citizens when they are in their second country, especially if that country has no diplomatic relations with the U.S. “He’s in Iran. He’s subject to Iranian law,” said Edward Dickens, a consular advisor at the State Department. “If Iranian law is weird, it’s too bad.”

Khordadian’s situation is not unusual, he added. “It happens in China, in Saudi Arabia; it happens all over the world. Especially in places where sometimes these dual nationals disagree with the politics of the country.”

Coming back to the U.S. from Iran, I have never been questioned at the airport. Unlike many whose accents and features give them away, I look and sound more like my Californian-born mother than my Middle Eastern father. So I’m not worried about the U.S. side.

But on my next visit to Iran, I will not sail in quite so perkily. Whatever eventually comes of Khordadian’s case, I and others like me will arrive carrying a new prick of fear: that it is easier to get lost in this world than we knew, that simply being American is not necessarily enough to save us.