I often make light of growing up as an Iranian immigrant in America during the hostage crisis. I’m from a very Red State part of a Blue State, if that makes sense. But I had no color-coded context for it as a kid. All I knew back then was that it was kind of uncomfortable being anything other than white and Irish- or Italian-American where I was from. I lived in a town where neighbors allegedly pooled money to buy a house before they would let a black family buy it. Luckily, I’ve heard it has become a lot more diverse in the past 30+ years since I’ve lived there.
As a child, I never analyzed it. I just wished I could be like everyone else. I wished my parents didn’t have accents and my mom cooked Ziti for dinner instead of the herb heavy stews my clothing always reeked of. I remember begging my friend Anthony to ask his mom why his clothes always smelled so fresh. I still remember the answer. Cheer. His mother used Cheer. I wanted to smell like Cheer instead of Khoreshte Gormeh-Sabzi.
In my TEDx talk, I joked about being called Ayatollah Atoosa when I was a kid and having super hairy legs because I wasn’t permitted by my mom, for cultural reasons, to shave them. And oh, how I wanted my kinky curls to look feathered like the coolest, most beautiful girls at school. I can laugh about it all today because I ended up growing up to be kind of attractive, successful and tbh…super Americanized.
In fact, when I was on the front page of the New York Times Business section, the editors chose to do a little visual storyline of how my long, flowing jet black hair had changed from wild to sleek as I shifted from one magazine (CosmoGIRL!) to another (Seventeen).
To be showcased in front of an international audience in this way when the girls back home in Iran had to hide their hair and femininity or risk being jailed or given lashes meant nothing to me at the time. I was so busy trying to fit in. Trying to earn my specialness…my worthiness. So thrilled to finally smell like Michael Kors (at the time) instead of my mother’s stew.
Today, looking at it from a place of maturity, stability and safety, it hits different. I see the incredible privilege I’ve enjoyed and continue to enjoy living in America.
Listen, I never advocate for falling down news wormholes or doom scrolling because I don’t think it’s good for anyone’s mental health. And I am not suggesting that now. But I encourage you to follow at least one social media account that solidly posts about what’s happening in Iran. Some good options are @from___iran, @1500tasvir, @ranarahimpour_bbc, @YasharAli, @samanism, @collectiveforblackiranians And please share. The Islamic Republic shuts down internet access during turbulent times to control the information that gets out of the country and we can use our social media to show solidarity as the Iranians fight for what we enjoy with ease. The American news media is grossly falling short here. But thanks to the democratization of media, we can amplify their voices during these internet blackouts
The younger generation, especially, are fighting so hard to break out of the tyranny they were born into...and my family and I narrowly escaped when we moved to America. We cannot see ourselves as advocates for women if we’re not advocating for the women of Iran who have been held captive by their religious leaders for so long. And frankly, this isn’t just about the women of Iran. This is about freedom of all expression in Iran including the freedom to love who you want, to wear what you want and to say what you want.
And speaking of freedom of speech, I’m going to pivot.
While I was identified as Iranian for the first part of my life, at exactly the half point, I became Atoosa RUBENSTEIN and from then on, people identified me as Jewish, although I am not actually Jewish. I really enjoyed learning about the Jewish culture but one of the things I did not enjoy is how often I would encounter anti-semitism.
I remember stopping for dinner at a TGI Fridays with my husband and our child while we were on a road trip. When they called our last name for a table, a group of teenage boys threw a coin in front of us and waited to see if we would pick it up. I blocked out what they shouted but they made their point abundantly clear.
And antisemitism doesn’t only happen in low-brow Red State areas. It just looks different.
We once spent the summer in Locust Valley while we were in between apartments in the city. Locust Valley is a very wealthy community in Long Island known for its exclusive “waspy” country clubs like Piping Rock. Part of the privilege of having been an Editor-in-Chief is that I kind of assume I’m welcome anywhere. 😬 I know what that sounds like, but I’m just being honest and sharing something people wouldn’t ordinarily share because of how douchey it sounds. I don’t enter any situation assuming I will be anything but warmly welcomed and usually, I manifest that.
And this time was no different.
On my first walk to explore the neighborhood, I was browsing in a cute shop when a group of very stylish women walked in and totally swarmed me. They were so excited to have a cool Birkin-bag-carrying newbie in town. They immediately started peppering me with questions. They loved that I was a former editor. They loved the Persian thing! (Like many very wealthy people, they were big fans of the glamorous former Empress of Iran, Farah Pahlavi.) They were talking about having a little gathering at one of their homes so I can meet the other women they were tight with.
And then this happened….
They took out their phones to get my number.
I spelled my first name for them.
And then I spelled my last name. R-U-B-E-N-S-T-E-I-N.
There was an immediate pause.
The temperature changed.
It’s like I could hear them all hitting an eject button in their heads.
Their warm smiles suddenly froze into fake ones as they said their goodbyes and peaced out. I suspect they didn’t hit save on my number as I never heard from my new besties again.
I don’t need to analyze this for you. It was a scene out of a bad Netflix series.
It was real.
Antisemitism is real.
If you’re a person of color reading this, none of this is new to you and sadly you may encounter this on a daily basis instead of it being the exception. In all cases, it sucks.
You may know I’m a huge fan of Kanye West’s music and I’m not a fan of cancel culture in general. But without his ex-wife dragging him off the global stage when he’s having an episode, he is unleashing his mental illness widely and will inspire other mentally ill people to target Jews. The media must stop giving a platform to mentally ill people to simply gain ratings. I don’t know if Kanye is actually antisemitic. I don’t think it matters. Giving him any platform right now is putting people in harm’s way. He is sick. He needs to be shut down.
My message to the media:
In this strange disconnected social media universe, we must not forget our humanity. We owe it to Kanye West and his family to impose silence upon him now if no one in his life has the power to do it. We owe it to Jewish people not to print hate speech just because it’s click bait. We owe it to the Iranian people to cheer for this long overdue uprising and quest for basic human rights.
Why the fuck is this not obvious?
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This song has become an anthem of the current uprising (English, below) ❤️🤍💚:
The song title, “Baraye” translates to “Because of:”
For dancing in the alleys
For the fear when kissing
For my sister, your sister, our sisters
For changing rusted minds
For the shame of poverty
For the regret of living an ordinary life
For the dumpster-diving children and their wishes
For this dictatorial economy
For this polluted air
For Valiasr and its worn-out trees
For Pirooz and the possibility of his extinction
For the innocent banned stray dogs
For the unstoppable tears
For the scene of repeating this moment
For the smiling faces
For students and their future
For this forced heaven
For the imprisoned elite students
For the Afghan kids
For all these “for”s that are beyond repetition
For all of these meaningless slogans
For the collapse of fake buildings
For the feeling of peace
For the sun after these long nights
For anxiety and sleeping pills
For men, homeland, prosperity
For the girl who wished to be a boy
For women, life, freedom